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Like Black Holes in the Sky: The Warped Epistemology of Conspiracy Theories

Boudry, Maarten (2020) Like Black Holes in the Sky: The Warped Epistemology of Conspiracy Theories. [Preprint]

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What, if anything, is wrong with conspiracy theories (CTs)? A conspiracy refers to a group of people acting in secret to achieve some nefarious goal. But given that the pages of history are full of such plots, why are CTs regarded with suspicion? Just like with the traditional demarcation problem (between science and pseudoscience), philosophers disagree about where to draw the line between legitimate hypotheses about conspiracies and unfounded ‘conspiracy theories’. Some believe that there is no such demarcation line to be drawn, that each CT should be evaluated on its own merits, and that the bad reputation of CTs is wholly undeserved. In this paper, I intend to rescue the intuition that there is indeed something prima facie suspicious about CTs. First, I demarcate legitimate theorizing about real-life conspiracies from “mere conspiracy theories” (in the pejorative sense). Along the way, my analysis will clarify some epistemological issues surrounding falsifiability, asymmetries between causes and effects, and hypotheses involving intentional agents. Because of their extreme resilience to external criticism and counterevidence, I argue, CTs are the epistemological equivalent of a ‘black hole’, in which unwary truth-seekers are drawn, never to escape again. But this strong attraction of CTs comes at a steep price: their theoretical parameters are essentially arbitrary, making them vulnerable to internal disruption. In essence, because it is so easy to construct a novel CT, it is equally easy to construct many (rival) ones about the same historical event. And that is what justifies our suspicion of CTs.

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Item Type: Preprint
Keywords: conspiracy theories; epistemology; demarcation problem; falsifiability
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Mathematics > Epistemology
Depositing User: Maarten Maarten Boudry
Date Deposited: 15 Aug 2020 03:25
Last Modified: 15 Aug 2020 03:25
Item ID: 17698
Subjects: Specific Sciences > Mathematics > Epistemology
Date: June 2020

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