Conspiracy Theories

Quassim Cassam
Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 2019. 136 pp., paper, 12.95

An obsessive interest in conspiracy theories may or may not be a sign of a certain mental instability, but a wholesale belief in them seems to be a pretty good indication. And yet in this interesting and informative book, Quassim Cassam indicates that the role of conspiracy theories is deeper, and their adherents more knowing, than we hapless self-styled rationalists have been led to believe.

 “A Conspiracy Theorist,” Cassam writes, “with a capital C and a capital T, is a person who is ‘into’ Conspiracy Theories, that is, unusually fascinated by them and more willing than most to believe them. We are all conspiracy theorists—we all believe that people sometimes get together in secret to do bad things—but we aren’t all Conspiracy Theorists.”

It is often frustrating to argue with diehards of any stripe, but Conspiracy Theorists are particularly prone to turn your most rational arguments against you. If you suggest that throughout history, the sinister forces seem to have been far too inept to keep any big secret at all, Conspiracy Theorists will turn around and darkly mutter, “That’s what they want you to think.”

 Cassam observes that Conspiracy Theorists aren’t so much ignorant as all too knowing. They may not have the time, patience, or—dare I say it?—the intellect to master, say, forensic anthropology, but they know a fellow who knows a fellow named Bob, who allegedly “was there.” Hey, besides, experts are overrated. (I think this has something to do with some instinctive American aversion for those deemed “elitists”—people who happen to have credentials.)

Capital-letter Conspiracy Theorists are no longer merely querulous editorial-page dotards with a dull ax to grind, or zany kooks obsessed with flogging a dead bête noire, nor even lonesome codgers holed up in a basement murmuring imprecations against highfalutin whippersnappers and their newfangled notions. Cassam argues that Conspiracy Theorists are far more insidious. They are often committed to undermining scientific consensus thinking, so that ultimately they throw rationality itself under the bus, along with prudence and morality.

Therefore Conspiracy Theorists see themselves as daring mavericks and wild free spirits, unafraid to combat the misapprehensions of blind “sheeple.” But they’re actually spreading ideologically motivated falsehoods. Cassam seems to think he can’t stress this point enough, and maybe he’s right. It’s one of the best takeaways from this slender volume.

Conspiracy Theories, the author notes, are “implausible by design.” They are not rooted in fact but are merely speculative, which is to say “already disproved.” Your standard-grade conspiracy theories might simply be the result of wishful thinking (Elvis lives!); on a more elevated plane, they might constitute a type of fabulism: modern-day versions of ancient myths designed by hierophants to explain how things came to be.

But Cassam is a philosopher by trade, and offers up a far more intricate explanation. The success of Conspiracy Theories is that they “tell stories that people want to hear.” This points to a question: why do people want to hear them? Cassam addresses scientific explanations. Some psychologists posit that conspiracy thinking may stem from built-in cognitive biases in the way we think and might also be explained in terms of personality. Cassam refutes these generalizations but concedes that there is such a thing as a “conspiracy mindset” and asserts that conspiracism is “an ideology rather than a personality trait.” Not all extremists are conspiracists, he concludes, but “conspiracism is integral to [such] ideologies” among both the successful and the marginalized.

Cassam also mentions, more than once, that Conspiracy Theorists only listen to experts who are themselves Conspiracy Theorists, because they exist in a “self-sealing” bubble of “crippled epistemology.” If they are against some recent development, they tend to mutter darkly about government conspiracies and the “deep state.” But if they’re in favor of some quack theory, then a single study, later debunked, stating that kiddie vaccines cause autism is good enough for them.

Cassam goes on to argue that conspiracy apologists, who often are in it for the money, might be labeled “Conspiracy Entrepreneurs.” He doesn’t go so far as to call them enablers, but apparently that is exactly what they are.

Conspiracy Theories, then, are far from harmless. Such wrongheaded thinking can be pernicious, and ultimately downright destructive. Cassam runs down a list: antivaxxers; anticredentialism in general; “the death of expertise”; Brexit; anti-Semitism on both the left and the right. Therefore Conspiracy Theories promote symbols and beliefs that have consequences unforeseen by moderates. Furthermore, they “diminish the credibility of legitimate criticisms and are also a “distraction from big-picture social issues.”

In his final chapter, the author recommends the best way to respond to Conspiracy Theorists: through careful, well-documented factual rebuttals; education of the young in the crucial skills of critical thinking and morality; and outing the usually amoral hardcore conspiracists as merely camouflaged propagandists.

Cassam concedes that the committed may be beyond convincing, and instead recommends reaching out to those who are still on the fence: the susceptible but not yet thoroughly indoctrinated. It’s not enough to say to them, “That’s ridiculous” or “You’re crazy”—you have to engage with the conspiracy narrative and refute it with facts and logic. No easy task. But this valuable book shows the way.

Francis DiMenno

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