Conspiracy Theory Interlude

Note: This is the seventh blog post in a multi-part series on conspiracy theories

Is there a fruitful way of studying conspiracy theories, one that is not ad hoc or that doesn’t pre-judge conspiracy believers as somehow mentally defective? Thus far, I have summarized the ideas of Ross Douthat and Franz Neumann in my last few blog posts and have found their approaches to conspiracy theories wanting. In brief, I disagree with Douthat’s Quixotic attempt to subject conspiracy theories to rational analysis, and I equally dislike the ad hominem nature of Neumann’s psychological focus as well. But my critiques of Douthat and Neumann pose a deeper theoretical dilemma: if conspiracy theories are generally impossible to falsify, how can we possibly refrain from offering psychological diagnoses of conspiracy theorists?

I have given this deep conspiracy-theory dilemma a lot of thought. Instead of subjecting conspiracy to rational methods (Douthat’s Razor) or describing conspiracy believers as deranged, irrational, or mentally ill (Neumann’s Trap), I see several possible ways of avoiding the fallacies into which Douthat, Neumann, and so many others have fallen victim to. Specifically, we could apply Richard Dawkins’ original “meme’s-eye” view of cultural evolution to conspiracy theories, or in the alternative, we could frame conspiracy theories as a form of Foucauldian “discourse” or as a Wittgensteinian “language-game”–a separate linguistic domain, as pervasive and ineradicable like religion, but with its own logic and rules. I will follow these intriguing approaches, and see where they take us, in my next few blog posts …

Image credit: Zohar Lazar (The New Yorker)

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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