Saturday, March 05, 2011

Challenging Conspiracy Theory Thinking

For more than a year, now, I've been toying with the idea of writing something that compares ways of knowing the world that ground materialist, radical left politics with those that are the basis of what I can only term "conspiracy theories." (There might be a better way to label the latter -- a way that communicates some of the problems with that way of trying to understand and act in the world but that is not quite so likely to trigger automatic defensiveness -- but I'm not sure what that would be, so I'll go with "conspiracy theories" for now.) I think the two are fundamentally very different, but there are points of similarity, and certain vantages from which they appear to be much more similar than they actually are. Of great concern to me is that this apparent similarity is more likely to befuddle an observer who isn't already familiar with either and doesn't have the time or energy to examine them extensively, especially when proponents of the former do a poor job of explaining and exemplifying their difference from the latter. Another significant concern is the way in which a small minority of individuals with a solid grounding in the former can sometimes slip into the latter, either plunging in or just dipping in a toe from time to time. I think that in order for those of us firmly placed in the former camp to do a better job of making clear to outside observers the differences between the two approaches to knowledge production, we must develop a clearer idea ourselves of what those differences are.

This, however, isn't that post -- I just don't have time at the moment. Rather, it is a pointer to an article from New Internationalist called "Challenging the politics of paranoia." It deals with some of the things that I think are important, though not in quite the same way I would, at least in part because I think it is grounded in a politics that is, at heart, less fundamentally critical of current social relations than they deserve. Nonetheless, it does some useful stuff.

For instances, it talks about some of the features of conspiratorial knowledge production:

Conspiracy theories are usually hallmarked by their reliance on ambiguous, hotly disputed ‘facts’, their use of vague and blurry ‘anomalies’ that allegedly reveal the shocking truth, and, usually, the lack of a coherent, logical, internal narrative. They focus exclusively on those facts that appear to support the claim, and studiously ignore large quantities of well-substantiated and expert contrary evidence. They thrive in areas of factual ambiguity, and derive their strength from a feeble appeal to our ‘it just might be true’ suspicions.

The article argues that a common tactic in conspiracy theory knowledge production is to cast doubt on mainstream or authoritative sources of knowledge in ways that specifically favour the conclusions the conspiracy theorist has already reached and, more subtly but more importantly, in ways that pay little attention to how institutions that produce that knowledge actually work. The article concedes that certain areas of mainstream knowledge production are indeed politically messed up, though I don't think it is adequately critical. However, that doesn't negate its observation that conspiracy theorists don't tend to be terribly concerned with the actual details of how mainstream knowledge production is messed up. For instance, the cluster of relations and practices that get called "science" have all kinds of political problems with them and with the ways in which the knowledge thus produced gets taken up by various other institutions. Those problems are a product of the institutions in question, and the problems can be understood by understanding how the relations and practices that comprise and contain the institutions operate. They work in certain ways and not others, and it is possible to develop grounded accounts of this that allow us to understand the mistakes and harms they've contributed to in the past and predict the kinds of problems that they will be complicit in down the road. Yet many of the ways in which the trope of politically corrupted science gets deployed in conspiracy theory thinking is completely unconnected to how science actually happens and depends on demonstrably wrong or highly unlikely assumptions about how those institutions are operating -- as the article says, "Scientists [or, more accurately, institutions of scientific knowledge production] simply don’t behave like that." (I would add that the article is also insufficiently critical of how knowledge production by activists with more materially grounded orientations can happen, too, but that doesn't negate the points it makes about knowledge production in conspiracy theory modes.)

The article goes on to argue that this matters because "conspiracy theorists often occupy...similar ideological territory to mainstream campaigners." I know what it means here, though I think it makes the point with less nuance than it deserves. What is missing from this article, though, and what I want at some point to put together in a rough sort of way, is that even when the ideological territory is similar (which is only sometimes true, and only when seen from certain positions), the epistemological territory is vastly different.

Still, the apparent similarities matter. It is important for those of us coming from a materially grounded radical perspective to do more than just ignore conspiracy theory thinking:

If this was just an amusing internet freakshow, perhaps it could be ignored. And of course, it’s worth remembering that the internet has a strange ‘amplifying’ effect on the wildest of religious, supernatural or political ideas. But activists, or potential ones at least, are being sidetracked into protesting against imaginary, fictional injustices.

And, I would add, it can lead to genuine passion against real and important injustices being directed in ways that are at best not very useful and in some instances can be actively detrimental. Among other dead ends, it can lead people to think,

if only, if only we could prove that the establishment was involved in a malignant conspiracy of such intense moral repugnance that everyone would find it utterly repulsive. Then the status quo would fall overnight, leading to real, profound and rapid social change. Hence the popularity of the ‘waking up the brainwashed masses’ theme within conspiracy thinking: ‘sheeple’ is the patronizing term that’s most often used. What a glittering apple, dangling just beyond our reach!

To paraphrase one of the concluding sentences of the article, if this is how you (mis)understand social change, then what obligation does it put upon you except to try and create more people who believe the same things? Mounting material challenges to dominant institutions -- the heart of materially grounded radical social change -- gets seen as either not important at all, or as peripheral to the 'real' work.

Anyway. The article isn't perfect, it doesn't cover everything I would like to cover, and it talks about some things in ways that I'm not entirely comfortable with. But it is worth reading. And I will take the time to think through some of the other issues I've raised when I have a chance.


Todd said...

Try this place:

Highly recommended (and Chip Berlet is the best of the lot IMHO).

Scott said...

Yes, I quite like Berlet, though it has been awhile since I've read any of his stuff. Thanks for the link!

Scott said...

Hmmm...someone left a comment on this post a few days ago suggesting some relevant resources, but now the comment has disappeared. Sorry if it's because I wasn't able to reply fast enough, and thanks for the suggestions about resources! Unfortunately, the writing that I have been thinking about doing on this topic is even farther onto the back burner than when I wrote this post, but it is still an interest and I will write more about it eventually I'm sure.