Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously. Matthew R.X. Dentith, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018. ISBN: 9781786608284. 251 pp. Softcover, $34.95.
On June 6, 2016, the newspaper Le Monde published a collective opinion piece criticizing the French government for not being effective in combating “conspiracy theories.” The piece conveyed the impression that any narrative touching upon a conspiracy qualified as fallacious disinformation (Bronner et al. 2016). Against such an attitude, Matthew R.X. Dentith prescribes rigorous logico-epistemological scrutiny: in its light, conspiracy theories turn out to be not so irrational after all, and we discover that the very reference to “conspiracy theories” as a monolithic subset of narratives is misleading. This, in a few words, is the spirit that breathes through the pages of Taking Conspiracy Theories Seriously, a collection of essays on conspiracy theory theory (i.e., the theory of conspiracy theory) written by the editor and eight other contributors from the fields of philosophy, psychology, and sociology.
The first section, with essays by Dentith along with Patrick Stokes and Lee Basham, offers fine-grained discussions of generalism vs. particularism, i.e., the idea that conspiracy theories are a (fallacious) class of theories vs. the idea that each narrative should be judged on its own merits. The second section, consisting of essays by Ginna Husting, Kurtis Hagen, Martin Orr, Marius Hans Raab, David Coady, Charles Pidgen, as well as by the contributors to the first section, is a series of reactions to the aforementioned Le Monde piece (whose authors declined the offer to contribute to the volume; see p. xi).
This is a book that anyone with an interest in understanding conspiracy theories should study attentively. I especially recommend it to researchers and university instructors who may be deeply immersed in the study of a specific conspiracy theory (or a cluster thereof, for they seem to come in intertwined batches); reading Dentith’s volume is an effective way to gain perspective. I find it also healthy and honest that the editor leaves equal room for contrasting viewpoints and that the discussion, besides logic and epistemology, frequently touches upon the ethical concerns in dealing with conspiracy theories: some authors point out, for instance, that certain conspiracy theories should not be given visibility (e.g., “Jewish conspiracy”) while other authors observe that the “blanket dismissal” of any claim about conspiracies may dangerously blind people to actual conspiracies and turn into an anti-democratic practice.
Prospective readers without a solid background in philosophy should be warned, however, that most philosophical essays in this volume require an effort at following subtle reasoning; their authors resort to philosophical jargon that may read as opaque and repetitive. (Personally, after a youthful fling with analytical philosophy, I am no longer a fan of such language. I understand that some expressions can hardly be replaced in terms of succinctness, and I recognize the function of these expressions as identity-markers, but I cannot help feeling dizzy after being exposed, for instance, to repeated occurrences of prima facie—and without italics! An example of how far jargon is pushed: Touching upon Hannah Arendt, one contributor writes on page 119, “Her conceptualisation of agonistic political action is not inhospitable to Foucauldian inflections”; I am confident there are easier ways to express the same idea). On a similarly stylistic note, I can remark that this collection contains a fair deal of repetition and overlap among the essays, so one may end up wondering whether the editor and the authors could have done a better job at polishing and amalgamating the contributions.
Finally, let me offer a brief and modest reflection about conspiracy theory theory. I do regard Dentith’s volume as a completely warranted and healthy offset to the appeal on behalf of the Le Monde authors, which seems to have been hasty and sloppily formulated at best or obscurantist and cynical at worst (one may well wonder which behavior is worse for a scholar and a public intellectual!). More generally, I regard this collection as a useful “Socratic warning” for all those who may feel the temptation, or run the risk, to pejoratively and prematurely label a narrative as “conspiracist” and dismiss it as such. That being said, there is perhaps a third phenomenon in between superficial pathologizing or dismissal of conspiracy theories and fine-grained, abstract analytical understanding of conspiracy theories as represented in this collection. I am referring to the use of conspiracy theory by authors of general-public articles who crystallize and express in accessible form the results of scholarly investigation into specific conspiracy narratives that ended up being debunked. I am one of them (at least, I try to be). Although I have admittedly fallen for at least one of the conspiracy theory theories proven wrong in this collection, I feel compelled to add that, while writing for the general public, scrupulous authors (or authors striving for scrupulousness, at least) hardly use conspiracy theory as a dismissive and derogatory label while trying to induce their readers into generalized dismissals. To be sure, conspiracy theory is, together with conspiracism or conspiracist culture (and their equivalents in other languages), an immediately recognizable expression among “skeptical” readers. It is used as a general label, and it does carry negative undertones, yet in such literature it is used as a short form for “a narrative that has already been proven wrong on various counts by skeptic writers or investigators, with the reasons why it is wrong explained in fairly good detail for the general public.” In other words, conspiracy theory is, more often than not, a short form for “debunked narrative whose debunking has been performed after adopting a case-by-case approach using tools provided by different experts.”
In this sense, the problems of conspiracy theory pathologization and of generalism, while remaining serious, may be slightly less serious than one may judge at first sight. The “communities of inquiry” of diverse experts across disciplines taking conspiracy theories seriously that Dentith discusses in the book’s final essay may already be more of a reality than the essay suggests.
- Bronner, Gérald, Véronique Campion-Vincent, Sylvain Delouvée, et al. 2016. Luttons efficacement contre les théories du complot. Le Monde (June 6): 29.