Dr Rachel Fraser

Epistemic FOMO

A review of Conspiracy Theories by Quassim Cassam (Polity Press, 2019) and A Lot of People are Saying by Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum (Princeton University Press, 2020)

Modern epistemology begins with a conspiracy theory. ‘I shall suppose’, writes Descartes, ‘that some malicious, powerful, cunning demon has done all he can to deceive me [...] I shall think that the sky, the air, the earth, colours, shapes, sounds and all external things are merely dreams that the demon has contrived as traps for my judgment.’ Descartes’ project is to discover whether we can know that this conspiracy theory is false; he concludes that we can, but only because we can know that God exists. The atheists among us cannot be so sanguine.
            Contemporary life confronts us with conspiracy theories of a different flavour: their evil demons are the deep state, the medical establishment, and George Soros. They receive very different treatments in two recent books. The first, Conspiracy Theories, is written by the philosopher Quassim Cassam, who made his name with work on Kant; the second, A Lot of People are Saying is by the political scientists Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum, best known for their work on partisanship.
            Cassam’s book comes in four parts: he wants to understand what conspiracy theories are, why people believe them, why this is bad, and how to stop it. His tone is head-masterly: ‘reading serious books’, he remarks, without irony, ‘is a minority pastime’. As with most headmasters, the patrician mask occasionally slips: conspiracy theorists are ‘jerks’, ‘frothing at the mouth’, ‘ranting’, they have ‘strange obsessions and a habit of jumping to conclusions on the basis of flimsy or non-existent evidence’. His go-to examples of conspiracy theories have a vintage feel: they revolve around the assassination of JFK, Princess Diana’s death, and the collapse of the Twin Towers.
            Muirhead and Rosenblum are more alert to the textures of contemporary conspiracism, to what they call ‘conspiracy without the theory’. The ‘new conspiracism’ has much in common with the classic conspiratorial mindset: both assume ‘things are not as they seem: there are malignant forces at work beneath the surface’. Both have an eschatological temper: ‘right now is the critical saving moment’.  But they differ in intellectual character. Where old school conspiracy theorists simulated research, their contemporary descendants just...say stuff.  ‘The election was rigged’, asserts Trump. When asked to justify the claim, its proponents pivot immediately to hearsay: ‘a lot of people are saying it’. Where old-school conspiracists amassed what looked a lot like evidence; the new school’s calling cards are repetition and weaponized equivocation. They start out with a bare assertion: ‘Obama was not born in America’. When asked for evidence, they pivot: ‘I’m not saying it’s definitely true. All I’m saying is that we can’t rule it out. It needs to be looked into.’ This is smart manoeuvring: if you don’t even pretend to have evidence, there’s nothing for your opponent to debunk. Muirhead and Rosenblum’s sharp analysis leaves Cassam’s playbook for arguing with conspiracy theorists — undermining the theory’s intellectual foundations — looking quaint at best.

Qanon nutter splinter group, 2019. (Photograph Marc Nozell).

            Both books claim that conspiracy theories must be seen as political artefacts, rather than mere epistemological puzzles. But their political diagnoses differ in mood and sophistication. For Cassam, ‘conspiracy theories are first and foremost forms of political propaganda. They are political gambits whose real function is to promote a political agenda.’ This political function is, Cassam claims, a key part of what distinguishes Conspiracy Theories (capital ‘C’, capital ‘T’) proper from garden variety theories that just happen to be about conspiracies. To believe that Guy Fawkes tried to blow up the houses of parliament, or that Al-Qaeda operatives brought down the Twin Towers does not a conspiracy theorist make.
            Cassam rightly stresses that a theory may function as propaganda regardless of whether its proponents believe it. But once this is made overt, it becomes hard to see the functional difference between the true claim that Al-Qaeda brought down the Twin Towers (not a conspiracy theory) and the bogus claim that it was an inside job (conspiracy theory). Both claims have been used to further political agendas, and the former with rather more success than the latter (see: Afghanistan). What prevents the former from being propaganda, then? It can’t be its truth: true claims often act as propaganda — all lives, after all, do matter. Cassam attempts a fix: Conspiracy Theories proper differ from theories about conspiracies not in having a political function per se but in being ‘essentially’ political; unlike mere theories about conspiracies, a Conspiracy Theory’s political purpose is its raison d’être. This is either deliberate obfuscation or peak liberal naiveté: no decent understanding of even the most truthful of post-9/11 rhetoric could cast it as anything other than ‘essentially political’.
            The political scientists do politics better. Muirhead and Rosenblum see new conspiracist rhetoric as having two core functions, both centred on delegitimizing the institutions that ‘make democratic government and politics possible’: knowledge-production and political parties. The first thought is the stuff of stock political commentary, made almost irresistible by Michael Gove’s infamous remark that ‘the British people have had enough of experts’. Gove’s affected epistemic populism has been a boon for reactionary technocrats eager to pathologise an ignorant public and impose elite gatekeeping on social media. Muirhead and Rosenblum are more ambivalent. They are clear that ‘specialized knowledge is essential to democracy’, but equally clear that it challenges democracy by raising ‘the spectre of rule by experts’. They quote Albert Einstein with approval: ‘Into the village square we must carry the facts of atomic energy’.
            The new conspiraicism’s attitude to expertise is more corrosive than its forebears’. Old-fashioned conspiracy narratives ran counter to ‘common-sense’ but those counter-narratives had enough stability and depth for belief in those counter-narratives to simulate real knowledge, and so pay it the tepid tribute always paid by imitation.  The new conspiracism aims at jumble and disorientation rather than stability: it does not seek to mimic knowledge and pays it no tribute. Its aim is not to contest which opinions should be counted as knowledge, or who has it, but something far more radical: to abolish knowledge as an epistemic ideal.
            Muirhead and Rosenblum’s second thought — that conspiracism targets political parties — is less familiar than their first. That political parties are essential to democracy might sound improbable. America’s ‘Founding Fathers’ were famously hostile to partisanship, and late nineteenth-century Progressivism cast parties as ‘perverters of the democratic spirit’. Today ‘pragmatic’ political actors routinely decry parties as ‘needless sources of gridlock, obstacles to getting things done’; their slogans are ‘just fix it’ or ‘how about just being realistic and solving the problem’.
            Muirhead and Rosenblum are not starry-eyed ingenues: they know that political parties are often power-hungry factionalists. Nonetheless, parties play a crucial democratic role, for they embed the ideology of legitimate opposition within the frenzy of political struggle; thus, in our political context, to attack the institution of the political party is to attack the possibility of legitimate opposition to the ruler. Without political parties, Muirhead and Rosenblum argue, democracy takes on a radically anti-pluralist form: ‘The one homogenous “true” people stand behind their leader without the party as an intermediary institution.’ Parties are thus, for all their flaws, the unlikely guarantors of political pluralism: by mediating between a populace and government they ‘translate the pluralism of society into organised political conflict’. Without an institution to affect this translation, political conflict becomes illegible except as sedition. The decoupling of treason from political conflict is foundational to democratic politics; and parties act as a wedge, cleaving the two apart. They make it possible to oppose a regime without being made a traitor. Contemporary conspiracism tries to undo this decoupling — ‘Lock her up’, it says.


As I began reading about conspiracy theories, I started to ask my friends whether they believed any. Most said ‘no’, (though with frequent exceptions for the claim that Jeffrey Epstein was murdered). ‘Do you know anyone who believes conspiracy theories then?’, I would ask. Again, the answers were mostly ‘no’, and when the answer was ‘yes’, it was generally because of someone they went to school with, or their parents. These answers pattern with answers to a different question: ‘Do you know anyone who voted for Brexit?’ (My answer: yes, my Dad, though he doesn’t believe any conspiracy theories). Like Brexit voters, conspiracy theorists don’t tend to move in my social circles; as with Brexit voters, those in my social circle often think conspiracy theorists stupid. In his chapter on why people believe conspiracy theories, Cassam doesn’t quite come out and say this. But it’s heavily implied.
            Cassam considers a range of explanations for belief in conspiracy theories. Perhaps cognitive biases — stable tendencies to cognise in ways that look irrational — are to blame. Cassam canvases three in particular: intentionality bias, which disposes us against taking events to be mere accidents, confirmation bias, which disposes us to ignore evidence against our own views, and proportionality bias, which makes us think ‘big’ events need to have ‘big’ causes. This story fits well with some conspiracy theories, like those about JFK’s assassination — it’s too signficant to be the work of just one guy! — and the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 — it can’t have just happened! They have less to say about something like pizzagate, the viral 2016 theory connecting an obscure Washington D.C. pizzeria with Hilary Clinton and a child sex ring. But Cassam is sceptical of bias-centred accounts of belief in conspiracy theories for a different reason: ‘cognitive biases are universal — they affect all of us — but belief in conspiracy theories is not’. It’s not clear that Cassam’s bias universalism is shared by cognitive scientists: there is plenty of research into how susceptibility to bias varies between individuals (age, for example, appears to be a risk factor).
            Cassam’s preferred explanation of conspiratorial belief sits uneasily alongside his professed universalism. He appeals to a ‘conspiracist mindset’: a mindset that ‘predisposes you to believe in conspiracy theories’. This mindset, in turn, is explained in terms of ideology: people accept conspiracy theories that are in line with their antecedent political outlook. (Centrists, he is keen to point out, believe fewer conspiracy theories than those on the far left and right; perhaps centrists have no ideology.) The packaging (‘ideology’) suggests an intellectual lineage which is more Althusser than Tversky and Kahneman but the actual content of the view has cognitive science written all over it. Empirically engaged political scientists have long grappled with the implications of what they call politically motivated cognition — it turns out, for example, that liberals are better at maths problems when their solutions support gun control and worse when they speak against it. Cassam’s appeal to ideology looks an awful lot like an appeal to politically motivated cognition, which in turn looks an awful lot like a cognitive bias. But suppose that this explanation is correct, and biases are, as Cassam suggests, universal. Then if you don’t accept a conspiracy theory, chances are it’s not because you are, as Cassam suggests, a paragon of intellectual virtue. It’s because your own political ideology paints political authority as benevolent.
            Cassam makes much of the finding that belief in one conspiracy theory is a good predictor for belief in others. So strong is this tendency, Cassam reports, that:

people who subscribe to a bunch of conspiracy theories are not only more likely to subscribe to other unrelated conspiracy theories, they are also prepared to sign up to contradictory theories. People who believe Princess Diana is still alive (and hence faked her own death) are significantly more likely to believe that she was murdered (and is hence dead) by enemies of her boyfriend’s father, Mohommad al-Fayed. The more people believed that Osama bin Laden was already dead when American special forces raided his compound [...] the more likely they believed he was still alive.

This sounds like a damning indictment of the conspiratorial mindset. For a philosopher in particular, pointing out that someone has contradictory beliefs is a slam-dunk; decisive proof of hopeless irrationality. (Bring in the technocrats!) The trouble is, it’s far from clear that Cassam has good evidence for these claims.
            He appeals to a 2012 paper in Social Psychological and Personality Science. 137 undergraduate students were asked to rank statements about the death of Princess Diana (‘Rogue ‘‘cells’’ in the British secret service killed Diana’, ‘Diana faked her own death’, and so on) on a seven point scale from 1 (‘strongly disagree’) to 7 (‘strongly agree’). Cassam does not discuss the paper in any detail, though he does occasionally repeat its bellicose phrasing almost verbatim. Given Cassam’s claim, I expected the paper to present data showing that some students responded with at least a ‘5’ (‘somewhat agree’) to at least two incompatible theories.
            It doesn’t. The paper does not present the experiment’s raw data, so one has to do a bit of reading between the lines. What the paper does show — on my careful but decidedly non-specialist reading — is that giving an above average score to one conspiracy theory about Diana’s death correlates with giving an above average score to other conspiracy theories about her death, even when those conspiracy theories are incompatible. Maybe you think, ‘well, that sounds bad!’. It shouldn’t. The average score for many of the conspiratorial claims was below 3 (‘somewhat disagree’). So a participant could give an above average score to those theories just by scoring them at ‘3’ or ‘4’, that is by saying that they ‘somewhat disagreed’ with the theory, or that they had no opinion either way. For all the paper actually tells us, we can’t rule out that its most exciting find was that that some undergraduates somewhat disagree both with the claim that Diana faked her own death and with the claim that the secret service killed her. This, of course, is not a good basis for asserting that conspiracy theorists are so hot for intrigue that they are blind to contradiction. Apparently, then, conspiracy theorists are not the only ones willing to make grand pronouncements on the basis of ‘flimsy or non-existent evidence’.  
            Both Cassam and Muirhead and Rosenblum close their books by sketching strategies for countering conspiracism; both suggest remedies which mix the epistemic and the political. Cassam offers a three-part solution. First, we must use ‘arguments and evidence’ to rebut conspiracy theories. Second, we must educate our children: by equipping them with ‘critical thinking skills and intellectual virtues’ we can inoculate them against conspiracism. Third, we must unmask the propagandistic nature of conspiracy theories. By pointing out, say, a theory’s anti-Semitic associations we can ‘shame or embarrass people into not flirting with them’. These strategies, even in tandem, might not work against fully signed-up conspiracy theorists, Cassam admits, but they might prevent the conspiracy-curious from becoming more extreme. The recommendations make for revealing reading: although Cassam insists that he conceives of conspiracy theories in political terms, his proposed antidote is two parts epistemology and one part politics. He insists on seeing intellectual virtue as the recipe for anti-conspiracism, despite his own diagnosis suggesting that ideology rather than evidence is anti-conspiracism’s true engine. But given the thin and vindictive vision of politics of offer — a politics whose horizons are shame and embarrassment — we should perhaps be grateful for the epistemology.

Hollande et Hollandais d’après nature ... Ouvrage illustré by Durand, Hippolyte, 1893. A depiction of René Descartes (Courtesy British Library).

            Both Conspiracy Theories and A Lot of People are Saying are scornful of the ‘romantic’ conception of conspiracy theorists, which, as Muirhead and Rosenblum put it, casts conspiracy theorists as critical thinkers and ‘conspiracism as a sceptical disposition’. But there are uncanny similarities between those who insist that we ‘can’t rule out’ that the election was rigged and an undergraduate seized and shaken by Descartes’ observation that the sky, the air, and the earth might all be dreams contrived by a demon.
            Classic Cartesian scepticism mingles two distinct impulses which are often collapsed together. To understand contemporary conspiracism, they must be pulled apart. The first feature of Cartesianism is the most familiar and obvious: a kind of disciplined paranoia, a refusal to allow that the evidence really guarantees what it appears to show. Yes, says the Cartesian sceptic, it seems to me that I have hands, but things could seem so to a handless being too. Yes, says the conspiracy theorist, the birth certificate appears to show that Obama was born in Hawaii, but things could seem so even if he wasn’t. And so on.
            The second Cartesian impulse is harder to spot. ‘Some years ago’, the Meditations begin, ‘I was struck by how many false things I had believed’. Descartes’ solution is to ‘demolish’ his opinions: he will strip back his beliefs to only those of which he is certain. When he demolishes his opinions, he strips himself of all his false beliefs, yes, but he risks losing out on true opinions too.
            Let’s make this vivid. Suppose you get to choose what sorts of beliefs you wake up with tomorrow.  Option one is sparse: you will have no false beliefs, but no true beliefs either. Option two is abundant: you will have 100 false beliefs, but 101 true ones. This is a hard choice. But, if forced, I’d pick the abundant option: I’d rather have some true beliefs than none, even if the price of true belief is falsehood. (If my drinking water were contaminated with lead, I’d rather believe this than not, even at the cost of also believing in ghosts.) The spirit of the Meditations is quite different: Descartes’ horror of false belief weighs more heavily than the promise of true ones; for the Cartesian, avoiding false beliefs is the most important goal. Put differently, Descartes favours an extremely risk-averse epistemology, where false beliefs are the risk to be avoided. This risk aversion is the second component of Cartesian scepticism.
            Contemporary conspiracism is a coupling of Cartesian paranoia with a very unCartesian passional structure: epistemic fear of missing out, or FOMO. The contemporary conspiracist has a horror not of false belief — about that they are relatively relaxed — but of missing out on true ones. The prospect of falsely believing the royal family killed Princess Diana is unconcerning. What vexes the conspiracist is the prospect of failing to believe that the royals killed Diana if such a claim turns out to be true.
            Is epistemic fear of missing out more irrational than Cartesian risk aversion? Or am I irrational for preferring the abundant option to the sparse? William James argued that these preferences lie beyond the reach of rational evaluation; they are instead only expressions of our ‘passional life’. If I have a taste for truth that Descartes lacks, and he a horror of falsehood that fails to move me, this is no more a question of rationality than the fact that you prefer vanilla to chocolate ice-cream, and I do not.
            If James is right that epistemic risk aversion is a matter of taste rather than of rational compulsion, then it is not obviously irrational to believe that the royals killed Diana on extremely scant evidence. If someone’s worse fear is missing out on true beliefs, then urging them only to believe claims for which they have good evidence is pointless. Sure, if you only believe things for which you have good evidence, you are less likely to have false beliefs. But you will also miss out on a lot of true ones. In other words: for someone with a conspirator’s attitude to epistemic risk, believing in line with the evidence would itself be irrational, just as it would be irrational to order vanilla ice-cream if what you really want is chocolate. Those who think conspiracy theorists are too credulous think conspiracy theorists overestimate the strength of evidence for their theories. But this need not be so: they might correctly assess that their evidence is weak but take it that even weak evidence makes belief a bet worth taking.
            The real problem with epistemic-FOMO is not that it is irrational per se, but that it is ill-suited to the needs of a democratic citizen. Democracy requires that its citizens operate with some sense of a shared reality. But the tendency of those more afraid of missing out on truth than believing falsely is almost invariably towards a kind of kaleidoscopic fragmentation; it pulls one away from a stable, settled vision. But this is anathema to the democratic temperament: for a reality to be shared, and hence the lynchpin of collective deliberation, it must have some stability and coherence. But crucially, these pulls towards stability and coherence are exerted not by any timeless rules of thought, but by a form of life into which we have been thrown by history. We live in circumstances that are not of our choosing. The task of democratic politics is to make those of us thrown into this form of life feel its contingency as a gift, rather than as a burden.
            If I am right to read conspiracism as a symptom of passional calibration, the fight against conspiracy theories must aim for a reform of feeling. Muirhead and Rosenblum seem to agree: citizens’ attachment to democracy must be strengthened. Their recipe has two parts. They begin by detailing the ways in which elite political actors, over the last decade, have become complicit in conspiracism. For example, in 2015, some Texans came to believe that the US Army was plotting an invasion of the state. The governor at the time, Greg Abott, did nothing to dispel panic; rather, he tasked the Texas State Guard with monitoring the situation. They contrast this complicity with what they call ‘speaking truth to conspiracy’. Their exemplar is John McCain who, at a rally during the 2008 Presidential race, responded to an attendee’s insistence that Obama could not be trusted because he was an Arab by saying — despite boos from his own supporters — ‘No, ma’am: no, ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues’. The reply is somewhat bewildering — can’t Arabs be decent family men? — but brave and heartening nonetheless, and its spirit dovetails well with the book’s broader analysis of partisans as the guarantors of pluralism.
            But speaking truth to conspiracy is only part of the solution: for Muirhead and Rosenblum, the idea that accurate description without political action might be enough to defang conspiracism is a fantasy. Conspiracism aims to delegitimize the core institutions of democracy; its opponents, they say, must do more than talk: they must act to legitimize these institutions, and they must do so by ‘enacting democracy’.
            It turns out though, that enacting democracy involves mostly talking: it involves ‘a literal articulation of how each step of the process of legislating, prosecuting, regulating or investigating adheres to fair processes. Enacting democracy involves attesting to the value of these practices.’ This is all very well so long as you buy the idea that our nations’ basic institutions do ‘adhere to fair processes’, and that the problem is one of communication — ‘articulation’ — rather than the processes themselves. But this is complacent. Often, the problem with an institution — the police, the benefits system — is not that its inner workings are just but obscure to those trying to navigate. Often the problem is that the institution itself is biased, arbitrary, and moralising. Muirhead and Rosenblum are right that fighting conspiracy theories requires a passional reconfiguration: we need to care about democracy, even to love it, and we need our institutions to cultivate those passions. But if enacting democracy is to achieve this reconfiguration, it must mean more than telling people what is already there. It will often involve changing which facts are there to be told.