What I Saw At the Conspiracy Theory Conference

When tribes collide


A sign greets the scholars on the opening evening.
Jesse Walker

"I get the feeling that a lot of philosophers can poke a hole in anything," Ted Goertzel complained, his voice radiating prickly impatience. The site was the University of Miami, where nearly 50 scholars from institutions across Europe and America had gathered to discuss conspiracy theories in a room named for Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Goertzel, a retired Rutgers sociologist, was addressing a panel of philosophers who had indeed just spent an hour poking holes in popular notions about conspiratorial beliefs. One had presented a paper with the cheeky title "Why Do We Believe Conspiracy Theories Exist?"

Goertzel wasn't buying it. "I think the reason we think conspiracy theories exist is because they exist," he declared.

It was neither the first nor the last contentious moment of the conference, which took place on the university's Coral Gables campus from March 12 to 14. The event had been organized by Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, a pair of political scientists who did a commendable job of looking past their own field to invite people from different disciplines. And when I say "different disciplines," I don't merely mean "people who study different things." I mean "people with entirely different tool kits for understanding the universe."

The result was a friendly but frequently combative gathering of tribes, each of which had to suss out the other gangs' languages and worldviews. Here's a rundown of the rival clans:

The social psychologists. For this group, the study of conspiracy theories is mostly a matter of conducting experiments. The psychologists have developed several questionnaires that are supposed to show how prone a subject is to different sorts of thinking, including conspiracism. In a typical study, volunteers might answer those questions, read an article (or be "exposed to" the article, as the experimenters like to put it), and then give their responses to the story. Then the researchers start looking for correlations.

In one paper presented at the Miami conference, a team from the University of Bamberg in Germany had participants construct narratives to explain an event, then asked them how plausible the resulting stories were. Interestingly, the investigators found no correlation between the people who preferred the conspiratorial stories and the people identified as conspiracy-minded by the questionnaires. This result produced some consternation in the question-and-answer period.

The philosophers. This tribe bubbled over with frustration at the psychologists' approach, and the feeling was frequently mutual. Any time the psychologists focused on the sources of "conspiracy ideation"—that is, the mental formation of conspiracy beliefs—while skipping past the question of whether those beliefs were true, one or two philosophers might pipe up to ask why they weren't treating the conspiracists' ideas as ideas. Between sessions, the philosophers were sometimes heard grumbling that the psychologists and social scientists were demonizing conspiracy believers; the psychologists and social scientists, meanwhile, were prone to complaining that the philosophers were better at raising questions than at devising a research program.

One philosopher, Lee Basham of South Texas College, presented a paper that took direct aim at the psychologists, questioning some of the assumptions underlying their studies and suggesting that the scientists suffered from a condition he called "conspiracy theory phobia." Another speaker, Jack Bratich of Rutgers—he's actually a cultural-studies guy who chairs his school's journalism program, but he was at home on the philosophy panel—asked whether "conspiracy theory" is a useful category at all. (This was the "Why Do We Believe Conspiracy Theories Exist?" paper.) It may not make sense, Bratich argued, to lump together everything from plausible claims about political crimes to weird tales of the supernatural.

The political scientists. Like the psychologists, the political scientists like to gather and quantify data. Also like the psychologists, some of them have a habit of discussing conspiracy theories as though they're basically irrational. When this earned some pushback from the philosophers guild, one of the poli-sci profs protested that they weren't singling out conspiracy believers for this treatment: They regard all kinds of political behaviors as irrational, from partisanship on down.

While political scientists aren't averse to psych-style lab experiments, they often cast a much larger net for their numbers, drawing on opinion surveys and similar sources. Uscinski and Parent excavated a particularly big pile of data in their 2014 book American Conspiracy Theories. They and their research assistants conducted an intensive study of more than 100,000 letters to the editor in The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune from 1890 to 2010, counting and classifying every conspiratorial claim they found. It is the most ambitious effort I've seen to determine when conspiracy thinking has gotten more or less common in the U.S., and the results cut against the conventional wisdom. The duo found two major spikes in conspiracy-themed letters: one in the 1890s, when public attention turned to corporate trusts, and one in the 1950s, when Cold War tensions were high. They spotted some smaller swells as well, responding to events such as Watergate. But in general, they think American paranoia has been fairly stable over time, showing if anything a gradual decline.

The historians. When pundits discuss conspiracy theories, the scholar they're most likely to invoke is the late Richard Hofstadter, a historian whose 1964 essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" still casts a shadow over the field. But in history and American studies, the people who write about conspiracy fears tend to see Hofstadter's views as old hat. When the conference heard from Peter Knight, author of the seminal book Conspiracy Culture, he recalled that in the '90s his circle's "defining mission" had been to overturn the Hofstadterian tradition, with its tendency to pathologize conspiracy believers and to be alarmed at manifestations of public distrust. Listening to the interdisciplinary crowd, he felt on the one hand pleased that the field had grown so large, on the other hand alarmed at how little his group's efforts seemed to have influenced the work being done elsewhere.

At any rate, the historians are committed to empirical investigation but stand outside the sciences, giving their tribe a distinct perspective. In Miami, their representatives ranged from Kathryn Olmsted of the University of California–Davis, whose paper showed how political consultants deliberately stoked conspiracy fears in California's 1934 gubernatorial election, to Asbjørn Dyrendal of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, who explored the role of conspiracy stories in the New Age movement and its precursors. Rolf Fredheim and Andrew McKenzie-McHarg, both based at Cambridge, talked about a study they'd undertaken of how the word "conspiracy" has been used in British parliamentary debates over the past two centuries, with a particular focus on when people have been called conspiracy theorists to ridicule their views. This practice turns out to be much older than you might think, though there was a period in the 1950s when it became common to speak earnestly of "Communist conspiracies," "Tory conspiracies," and so on without fear of mockery.

The outliers. Several sociologists came to Miami too, but they didn't seem to form a tribe; instead they sounded individually like psychologists, political scientists, or philosophers, depending on the nature of their research. Other attendees didn't fit easily into any of the categories. One was James Tracy, a communications professor at Florida Atlantic University, who attracted some notoriety last year when he expressed doubts about "whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place—at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation's news media have described." (When he presented his conference paper, which looked at the implications of modern systems of surveillance for Karl Popper's critique of conspiracy theories, Tracy began by saying he was "not sure if I was invited as a colleague or a specimen.") Another outlier was Jay Cullen, a marine chemist at the University of Victoria, who came because his efforts to tamp down public fears after the Fukushima nuclear disaster had prompted a group of green conspiracists to villify him. He shared his story and asked for advice on how scientists in his position ought to proceed.

The conference's sole anthropologist, Nayanika Mathur of Cambridge, spoke on the history panel, but her work was focused much more on the present than the past. Mathur's paper reflected her fieldwork in the Indian Himalayas, where the locals frequently found themselves at odds with the state when it came to explaining bear attacks, big cat attacks, and the decline in the population of the musk deer. The authorities blame climate change for all three problems, while the mountain people prefer to point at other culprits. Some of the latter stories defy credibility, as when Mathur was informed that bears are angry about environmental destruction and taking it out on human beings. But the locals also offer some plausible explanations, noting for example the role played by poaching in the decimation of the deer—a practice abetted by corrupt officials, who thus have an incentive to dismiss the issue. I don't have the space to summarize all of an especially rich and interesting study, but the upshot is that the government found it rhetorically useful to disparage the locals' accounts as "conspiracy theories," even when the same officials conceded privately that there might be some holes in their own story.

And then there was me, the one speaker who wasn't affiliated with a university. I had been invited because I recently wrote a book about the long history of American conspiracy theories. Not being an academic, I wasn't really a part of any tribe, though I felt closest to the historians. (Full tribal disclosure: I also wrote an article for Slate last year that criticized the social psychologists' approach.) My talk resembled Bratich's in several ways, inasmuch as we both complained about the sketchy boundaries of the phrase "conspiracy theory." But while he asked whether there was any value to so broad a term, I called for opening the category up further, saying the study of conspiracy beliefs should also include mainstream stories about cults, gangs, terrorists, and the like.

When dozens of people gather to discuss conspiracy theories but can't even agree on how to define them, you're bound to see some clashes. An especially tart exchange came on the last day of the meeting, after Ted Goertzel praised the "pejorative use" of the phrase "conspiracy theory," calling it "one of our accomplishments." James Tracy, the Sandy Hook skeptic, piped up to complain that the term was being used to dismiss people making legitimate inquiries.

"Like who?" said Goertzel.

"Like me," Tracy replied.

But there were also times when the tribes managed to engage with one another, tentatively figuring out ways to draw on other forms of knowledge. The meeting's final panel ended with a talk by Preston Bost, an amiable cognitive psychologist from Wabash College. Without giving up his appreciation for his discipline's tools, Bost's paper questioned a lot of assumptions that had been popular within his field. He suggested that conspiracy thinking might be a product more of a person's circumstances than his individual traits, that psychologists should pay closer attention to the differences between individual conspiracy theories, that there may be more than one sort of conspiracy ideation, and that conspiracy beliefs might have positive as well as negative consequences. Standing before the room, he spoke enthusiastically about the new ideas and approaches he had been hearing from the other scholars.

There must have been something infectious in Bost's enthusiasm. In the ensuing Q&A, philosopher Basham started singing the praises of another paper presented on the panel. The study was an experiment by a social psychologist. Indeed, it was an experiment by Michael Wood, one of the psychologists Basham had singled out for criticism in a presentation the day before.

In Wood's study, volunteers were asked to evaluate a list of conspiratorial claims, some of them dubious and some of them examples of actual historical conspiracies. In half the questionnaires, the items began with the phrase "How likely is the idea that…" In the other half, they began with "How likely is the conspiracy theory that…" The aim was to see whether the phrase "conspiracy theory," used so often as a pejorative, actually made people less likely to accept the claims. Turns out it didn't.

Basham loved it, declaring that the results matched his classroom experiences perfectly. Calling an idea a conspiracy theory may be an effective way to discredit it among elites and academics, Basham suggested, but his students in McAllen, Texas, weren't scared by it. They just had a fundamentally different worldview.

They were, in fact, an entirely different tribe.