Introducing this week’s guest feature - Imagining Conspiracies: science under suspicion

Cynical language may be a staple of democratic debate, but the depth of distrust emerging in our democracies is alarming to many, and particularly alarming in the realm of science. This week’s guest theme inspired by the Cambridge conference taking place on Suspect science: climate change, epidemics, and questions of conspiracy, launches our new discussion hub on conspiracy and democracy - Imagining Conspiracies.

Alfred Moore
10 September 2015
Imagining conspiracies

Our guest editor this week is Alfred Moore, a research fellow at the Centre for Research in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Cambridge University, where he works on the multi-disciplinary project Conspiracy and Democracy. Alfred specializes in political theory, democratic governance, and the politics of science and technology.

In introducing some of the cutting edge debates on Imagined Conspiracies to openDemocracy readers over the next few days, we hope to stimulate a broader and more critical reflection on how this theme will impact on the future of democracy.

Alfred introduces his theme of the week and his authors:

"Many serious people are worried about conspiracy theories. And, it would seem, for good reason. They represent an extreme form of distrust in government. They can undermine public policies by motivating non-compliance among target populations. They are thought by some to be epistemic vices, or the product of a ‘crippled epistemology’. They are associated with violent extremism. They appear increasingly prominent in democratic discourse. Indeed, they seem an exaggerated parody of the democratically valuable distrust of power, turning productive distrust into corrosive cynicism.

People are especially worried by conspiracy theories about science. There are at least two reasons for this. One is that the topics are often close to the bone. Conspiracy fears about the science of climate change or vaccines bear on problems that affect us all, either directly or through decisions about the policies and programmes of governments and other agencies. It’s one thing to speculate idly about Princess Diana’s death. It’s another thing to speculate about whether vaccines are actually part of a secret sterilization programme, or cover for a security operation (though that one has a grain of truth to it: see here, and here), or whether their side-effects have been suppressed by their manufacturers. Because if you’re right, it’s a genuine scandal. And if you’re wrong, and immunisation rates drop, some people will needlessly die. 

So people studying conspiracy theories have started to give particular attention to conspiracy theories about science. Psychologists Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton have recently argued that climate change conspiracy theories are especially dangerous. And Stephan Lewandowsky and colleagues report a robust relationship between conspiracism and climate denial. Writers like Michael Specter have associated conspiracy theory with science ‘denialism,’ which holds that “change is dangerous; authorities are not to be trusted; the present ‘posture’ of the scientific community has to be one of collusion and conspiracy” (Specter 2009, 20).

This line of research into the ‘problem’ of conspiracy theory has itself met with criticism. But here I only want to draw attention to the way fears of conspiracy (and of conspiracy theory) seem heightened when they bear on science. The consequences of conspiracy theories seem more serious when they concern climate change and epidemics than when they are about moon landings.

The second reason why conspiracy theories may seem somehow worse when they are directed against science is that often we expect science to be the antidote to politics. Science is supposed to be the realm of hard facts, not one of competing opinions.

In her 1967 New Yorker essay Truth and Politics, Hannah Arendt set out to defend the idea that the whole sphere of political life is “limited by those things that men cannot change at will” (259). But she came to recognise that, in fact, political life was limited by no such thing. Facts could be denied. History could be rewritten. Monuments could be destroyed. Scientists could be silenced. Arendt had in mind historical truths, such as "the fact of Germany's support of Hitler or of France's collapse before the German armies in 1940 or of Vatican policies during the Second World War” (232). But her anxiety foreshadows widespread concerns today about the fate of scientific truth in a democratic society.

When critics of climate science are described as just “one side in the debate,” many anxious observers would recognise Arendt’s fear that “to the extent to which unwelcome factual truths are tolerated in free countries they are often, consciously or unconsciously, transformed into opinions” (232). Factual truth, Arendt thought, was vital to the realm of opinion. But while factual truths assert themselves in a way that seems to brook no discussion, they are at the same time fragile and vulnerable in the bear pit of democratic politics.

While the promise of science may be to cut through politics, it seems the fate of science is to be drawn into politics. Factual claims can be powerful allies or dangerous foes, and this is one reason why disputing the facts is such a common strategy in political debate. But there are good reasons for being suspicious of the power of facts to close down debate. And good reasons, too, to be suspicious of people and institutions empowered politically on grounds of their epistemic authority. What is more, factual claims are rarely the self-evident verities of popular imagination. They are carefully and provisionally constructed, they are fallible and revisable, and they are often settled in a complex interplay between consensus and dissent.

We might think of anxieties about conspiracy theories about science, then, as an expression of deep anxiety about the politicisation of science. Conspiracy talk, in which people invoke conspiracy, accuse others of being conspiracy theorists, or deny that they are conspiracy theorists, is conducted in a political register. It is always alert to the possibility of deception. It asks always about motives and interests, sometimes overt, sometimes hidden. It asks about hidden solidarities, connivances, collusion and complicity. And it is acutely sensitive to fears of being suckered. Such cynical language may be a staple of democratic debate, but the depth of distrust is alarming to many, and particularly alarming in the realm of science. 

Suspect Science

It is to address this broad set of problems that we are holding a conference later this week on “Suspect Science: Climate Change, Epidemics, and Questions of Conspiracy.” The conference is part of a broader research project on Conspiracy and Democracy at the University of Cambridge. The Conspiracy and Democracy project draws on history, political theory, internet science and anthropology. And it asks a wide range of critical questions ranging from the role played by conspiracies and fears of conspiracy in the history of democracies over the last two centuries to the effect of the internet on the transformation of political discourse in our own time.

What sorts of things have been imagined to be conspiracies? How have political elites encountered conspiracies among the people? Why has there been a shift in the twentieth century to people increasingly seeing conspiracies rooted in democratic government itself? How are fears of conspiracy linked to broader patterns of suspicion and distrust? Our aim in the conference is to focus these questions (and more) on the particular case of conspiracy talk about science. 

We want, on the one hand, to deepen our understanding of what it means to believe in a conspiracy theory. What is the nature of this sort of belief? Is it, as some psychologists argue, a stable ‘construct’ that manifests itself in belief in many different and even contradictory conspiracy theories? In layman’s terms, are there just some people who are more prone to buying conspiracy narratives? And is one of them really born every minute?

At the same time, we want to ask what people really mean when they say (perhaps on a survey) that they ‘believe’ in this or that conspiracy theory? Is this a belief in the sense of positive assent to a proposition about the world? Are they convinced of its literal truth? Do they believe conspiracy theories in the way I believe I’m sitting on a chair typing an introductory essay to a series of articles on conspiracy theory? Or are they just entertaining an idea, or putting forward a hypothesis? Or perhaps the positive belief is less important to them than the initial moment of doubt in an official narrative?

On the other hand, we also want to broaden our understanding by bringing into the picture a wide range of geographical and historical studies. We will have papers on cases ranging from the history of the reception of polio vaccine in Cold war Europe to the case of polio vaccination in present day Pakistan. We will hear about the role of Soviet secret services in propagating rumours of the intentional creation of HIV-AIDS, and see how it (the rumour, that is) spread around the world and lives on in mutated forms today.

Our conference opens with a panel on climate change, exploring why and what sorts of conspiracy talk and theories climate change has brought in its wake. We will then have a panel in which a wide range of speakers from different disciplines join forces to think more deeply – through their specific methods and particular case studies – about what it means to imagine conspiracies. And finally, our third panel will discuss conspiracies and conspiracy theories about medicine, disease and epidemics.

Introducing this week's key perspectives:

Over the course of this week we will be introducing a few of these perspectives to openDemocracy readers. We begin with David Runciman’s reflections on why climate change seems so prone to conspiracy thinking. Then Nayanika Mathur will provide a short ethnographic example of the complete rejection of certain climate change theories proposed by the Indian state in the Himalaya. While Runciman surveys how climate change constitutes a rich site for particularly virulent conspiracy theorizing, Mathur’s work shows how the rejection of climate change as an explanatory factor leads the state to make charges of conspiracy theorizing by its own citizens.

On Tuesday, Joseph Uscinski focuses on the partisan perception of climate science in the USA today. His research suggests that what most people think about climate change depends heavily on the cues they are taking from their political elites. The fact that more democrats accept the scientific consensus and more republicans reject it is not because either group have patiently assessed the evidence. It’s because that’s what their elites tell them.

On Wednesday, Lukas Engelmann recounted the conspiratorial fears raging through San Francisco at the time of the third global plague pandemic in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, telling the story through the popular suspicions directed at federal quarantine officer J. J. Kinyoun and the new science of bacteriology. 

In ‘The Russians Love their Children too?’, Dora Vargha looks at a case in which uncertainty about a new form of polio vaccine came together with the deep geopolitical suspicions of the early Cold War to make a compound of conspiratorial suspicion. 

Yesterday, Harriet Washington addressed the role of race in suspicion of medical authorities. She shared with us the long series of historical episodes in which African Americans suffered a double injustice: not only abused, but also dismissed, both at the time and in dominant historical narratives. In doing this, she directly challenges the tendency to portray those who suspect organised medical wrongdoing (and who belong to marginalised social groups) as cognitively dysfunctional ‘conspiracy theorists.’

This Friday, David Hickman gives us a glimpse of the ‘weaponizing’ of conspiracy theory in the case of polio vaccine fears in Pakistan, and its surprising role in the development of Pakistan’s democratic aspirations.

And as this week’s guest editor, I bring our feature to a temporary close with this argument: although conspiracy narratives in the debate on climate change come from many directions and have many differences, they share an implicit ‘linear’ model of the role of science in politics and fixate on a misleading conception of scientific consensus. What might need to change to move us beyond the limitations and obscurities of the ‘linear’ model?

There are many ways of imagining conspiracies, and the ways in which people imagine conspiracies can tell us a great deal about their political anxieties. We hope that this guest week will stimulate critical reflection on conspiracy talk in the politics of science, and that over the next period the ‘Imagining Conspiracies’ hub will encourage broader reflection on the various ways of thinking about conspiracies and how they bear on current debates about the past and the future of democracy."

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