How to tell the difference between a conspiracy theory and a theory about a conspiracy

Photo by Saketh Garuda on Unsplash

Part 4/5: The worldview and the epistemology behind conspiratorial thinking

1) what kind of worldview is behind a given theory?

2) what kind of epistemology is behind a given theory?

The different worldviews behind conspiracy theories and theories about conspiracies

The epistemology behind a theory about a conspiracy

  • Factual truths (“Tatsachenwahrheiten”) are based on empirical data which directly refers to an objective reality (e.g. historical accounts, observations, measurements, descriptions). The coherence of factual truth-claims with that objective reality depends on the quality and integrity of the respective data points which can potentially be subject to manipulation or error. To increase the level of confidence, the integrity, accuracy and comprehensiveness of data needs to be audited.
  • Rational/scientific truths (“Vernunftwahrheiten”) refer to well established scientific, mathematical and/or philosophical premises, including logically coherent interpretations of facts and data points and premises about causality and relationships. Rational/scientific findings are intersubjective and preliminary in nature, as their validity is constantly subject to potential falsification and critique by other rational agents. Strong theories correspond with well-established rational/scientific truth-claims.
  • Subjective truths (“Meinungen”) refer to statements about personal values, moral judgements, political preferences, worldview assumptions, religious faith and unconscious speculation, for example. Subjective truth-claims are subjective because their validity is dependent on one’s own self-confirmation, based on the strength of one’s feelings and intuitions about them. From a subjective viewpoint, high levels of confidence can be justified with regard to the authenticity of political opinions, religious beliefs and personal feelings, for example. However, the epistemic justifiability of a high level of confidence in a theory about our physical or social reality ultimately depends on its objective strength. Therefore, a person’s faith in a weak theory can be interpreted as a subjective truth, until a strengthening evidence base gradually transforms this private belief into an intersubjective, rational/scientific truth.

The epistemology behind conspiracy theories

  1. Factual and rational/scientific truths are confused with subjective truths, leading to an underappreciation of their explanatory value. By reducing facts and findings to mere opinions, it appears as if the propagation of factual/rational/scientific falsehoods would be a completely private matter, falling under the protection of free speech regardless of any negative consequences.
  2. Opinions and speculation are confused with factual/rational/scientific truths, which overappretiates their empirical validity. It is typical that correlation is confused with causation, for example. Even the most absurd conjectures are possibly taken as granted, regardless of the actual strength of their evidence base. Some conspiracy theorists, as Stephan Lewandowsky points out, even go as far as to declare the absence of evidence as evidence in itself in order to support their allegations.
  3. A comparison between non-rational and nihilistic epistemologies underlying conspiracy theories as opposed to the rational (scientific) epistemology underlying a theory about a conspiracy is provided below.

It’s an epistemic trap!

How to tell the difference between a conspiracy theory and a theory about a conspiracy

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