Conspiracy theory as character flaw

NatureBrainPhilosophy professor Quassim Cassam has a piece in Aeon arguing that conspiracy theorists should be understood in terms of the intellectual vices. It is a dead-end, he says, to try to understand the reasons someone gives for believing a conspiracy theory. Consider someone called Oliver who believes that 9/11 was an inside job:

Usually, when philosophers try to explain why someone believes things (weird or otherwise), they focus on that person’s reasons rather than their character traits. On this view, the way to explain why Oliver believes that 9/11 was an inside job is to identify his reasons for believing this, and the person who is in the best position to tell you his reasons is Oliver. When you explain Oliver’s belief by giving his reasons, you are giving a ‘rationalising explanation’ of his belief.

The problem with this is that rationalising explanations take you only so far. If you ask Oliver why he believes 9/11 was an inside job he will, of course, be only too pleased to give you his reasons: it had to be an inside job, he insists, because aircraft impacts couldn’t have brought down the towers. He is wrong about that, but at any rate that’s his story and he is sticking to it. What he has done, in effect, is to explain one of his questionable beliefs by reference to another no less questionable belief.

So the problem is not their beliefs as such, but why the person came to have the whole set of (misguided) beliefs in the first place. The way to understand conspiracists is in terms of their intellectual character, Cassam argues, the vices and virtues that guide as us as thinking beings.

A problem with this account is that – looking at the current evidence – character flaws don’t seem that strong a predictor of conspiracist beliefs. The contrast is with the factors that have demonstrable influence on people’s unusual beliefs. For example, we know that social influence and common cognitive biases have a large, and measurable, effect on what we believe. The evidence isn’t so good on how intellectual character traits such as closed/open-mindedness, skepticism/gullibility are constituted and might affect conspiracist beliefs. That could be because the personality/character trait approach is inherently limited, or just that there is more work to do. One thing is certain, whatever the intellectual vices are that lead to conspiracy theory beliefs, they are not uncommon. One study suggested that 50% of the public endorse at least one conspiracy theory.

Link : Bad Thinkers by Quassim Cassam

Paper on personality and conspiracy theories: Unanswered questions: A preliminary investigation of personality and individual difference predictors of 9/11 conspiracist beliefs

Paper on widespread endorsement of conspiracy theories: Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion

Previously on That’s what they want you to believe

And a side note, this view that the problem with conspiracy theorists isn’t the beliefs helps explain why throwing facts at them doesn’t help, better to highlight the fallacies in how they are thinking.

15 thoughts on “Conspiracy theory as character flaw”

  1. When you (the arthor)gives an opinion on 9/11 as in the towers could be brought down by aircraft. That speaks to the bias nature of this article. “He was wrong about that” because he has a character flaw.I believe portraying yourself to be an intellectual that can pigeon hole a so called “vice” is no argument at all.

    1. Well said Tammila. The architects and engineers for 911 truth all have “character flaws” constituted of their qualifications, training, and experience.

      And if you don’t agree with me, you have a character flaw…. so there…

  2. A conspiracy theory is a description of the underlying cause of events that fundamentally differs from the accepted narrative.
    Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward would be considered conspiracy theorists until their proof of Watergate became the accepted narrative.
    I find it hard to differentiate conspiracy theorists from scientists who take positions significantly outside the accepted norm. Early proponents of the multiverse were ridiculed, but are now widely celebrated in the field of physics.
    The advancement of knowledge has depended on people taking a position contrary to the establishment view. Many people on the right side of history were probably lucky to be there. Many on the wrong side were unlucky to back the wrong horse.
    Studying conspiracy theorists requires a large dollop of hindsight. Any discipline which requires hindsight I find hard to respect.

  3. I think that you could make progress on this by defining conspiracy theory with respect to character, rather than with respect to the facts. As has been pointed out (and see Vaughan’s 2010 post to which I link), some conspiracy theories turn out to be true.

    So, to clarify, the more interesting case is not conspiracy-theories-as-counter-normative-accounts but conspiracy-theories-as-supported-by-intellectual-vices. Which i think is consonant with Cassam’s account, but also opens up the possibility that many people (including you and me) have pre-normative beliefs that could be reckoned conspiracy theories!

  4. the bad rap “conspiracy theories” have gotten is a bit worrying, just because people will completely deny any information which could be label as such just for the sake of ego protection.

    conspiracies exist and conspiracy theories have to be built on incomplete information and assumptions.

    Conspiracies happen in a 10 people office.. just imaging what happens when couple of billionaires and government officials come together..

    it’s as dangerous to be consumed by the hype as it is to be blinded by prejudice and fear of ridicule.

  5. So how do we apply this analysis to Martha Mitchell’s conspiracy theories?

    By taking away her liberty when authority figures tell us that her allegations are conspiracy theories, and by freeing her when authority figures tell us that her allegations are now facts.

    Does this tell us something about psychiatry as a tool to enforce hegemonic power?

  6. Is there a difference between conspiracy theorists and religious people? Don’t most of us believe in an interpretation of the world that is attractive to us? Once we have found that satisfying version, it is very difficult to accept any counterevidence…

  7. I’m no pschologist, that’s why I come here to be honest. I do know a thing or two about words and meanings though.

    Chomsky touches on this when he talks about the dictionary definition of ‘terrorist’ compared to the ‘technical’ meaning (i.e. ‘not OUR side’).

    There are in fact, two entirely distinct meanings of the phrase ‘conspiracy theory’.

    The first derives from the dictionary definitions of the two words. i.e. an explanation of an event, or sequence thereof (a theory), that involves two or more people meeting in secret to plot the commission of a crime (a conspiracy).

    The second meaning (the ‘technical’ meaning)is more akin to something from ‘wildly heterodox’ to ‘obviously crazy’. It is generally pejorative in nature. It is very often used by state propagandists to discredit critics.

    The ‘official 9/11’ account is, by the first definition, a ‘conspiracy theory’. Bin Laden et al plotting the commission of a crime.

    I am sure Oliver would argue the same for his interpretation; that it also falls under the first definition. Only the actors change; in this case shadowy administration officials.

    From the (only) example given by Cassam (the fact that airplanes CAN bring down buildings) would be to ignore, for example, Building 7 from what I have read (following the most cursory of searches) of the ‘9/11 truther’ claims.

    It is noteworthy that the author of the article linked to (Cassam) provides no rubric of how to determine which definition is applicable, although we can reasonably be certain they view ‘Oliver’ as falling under the second definition.

    Until this is made clear, which usage we are referring to and why this determination is justified, I think this conversation may be somewhat…futile?

    I may well have missed something though…

    1. I don’t think you missed anything, Nathan. I think you divined the irregularities in the article very accurately, and you were cogent in the delivery of your interpretation.

  8. I think the real problem is that most people subscribe to a type of naive realism when it comes to their feeling of certainty. It could then be a personality thing where the conspiracist doesn’t like dealing with uncertainty, or the conspiracy somehow appears more certain than the official narrative (i.e. need for closure).

  9. Yes, they are character flaws, mainly in that one is not trying to get “in” on the system of deception around which civilization is built.

  10. (for mod, merge into previous)

    The basic premise behind the objection to conspiracy theories is that they are wrong. However, on average people deceive, some deceptions are greater than others. I would argue for a hidden jealously in the psyche and a unwillingness to believe that they “lost the game” and then retreating into conspiracy theory – basically complaining.

  11. Cassam is nothing more than a propagandist posing as a rational academic. The term “conspiracy theory” is a thought terminating cliché used to quell cognitive dissonance or justify fallacious reasoning. Think about it. Conspiracies exist. Why can’t you theorize about them? Because powerful interests don’t want their crimes investigated.

    The term “conspiracy theorist” was originally a neutral term (before 1963) that was made pejorative by the CIA after skeptics rightfully began asking questions about the extremely suspicious JFK assassination (after 1963). Now such skeptics are automatically seen as crazy imbeciles by people that can’t think critically (crazy imbeciles).

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