Conspiracy theories offer interesting case studies for any theory of knowledge, with its curious mix of skepticism gone awry with a tightly sealed refusal of anything that contradicts its narrative.
A group of researchers in Australia studied conspiracy theories form a psychological point of view, and managed to analyse the repercussions of the first paper on a follow up study. They comment both papers and the backlash on a blog post worth reading.
Jut as a sampler, I’d like to highlight their criteria for identifying conspiratory thinking, which are very handy in this era of internet-propagated paranoia:
- Nefarious Intent: Assuming that the presumed conspirators have nefarious intentions. For example, if person X assumes that blogger Y colluded with the New York Times to publish a paper damaging to X, then X presumes nefarious intent on the part of Y.
- Persecuted Victim: Self-identifying as the victim of an organised persecution.
- Nihilistic Skepticism: Refusing to believe anything that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory. Note that “conspiracy theory” here is a fairly broad term and need not involve a global conspiracy (e.g., that NASA faked the moon landing) but can refer to small-scale events and hypotheses.
- Nothing occurs by Accident: Weaving any small random event into the conspiracy narrative.
- Something Must be Wrong: Switching liberally between different, even contradictory conspiracy theories that have in common only the presumption that there is something wrong in the official account by the alleged conspirators. Thus, people may simultaneously believe that Princess Diana faked her own death and that she was assassinated by MI5.
- Self-Sealing reasoning: Interpreting any evidence against the conspiracy as evidence for the conspiracy. For example, when climate scientists are exonerated of any wrong-doing 9 times over by different investigations, this is reinterpreted to imply that the climate-change conspiracy involves not just the world’s climate scientists but also the investigating bodies and associated governments.