From Pizzagate to Jeffrey Epstein, conspiracies seem to be more prominent than ever in American political discourse. What was once confined to the pages of supermarket tabloids is now all over our media landscape. Unlike the 9/11 truthers or those who questioned the moon landing, these conspiracies are designed solely to delegitimize a political opponent — rather than in service of finding the truth. As you might imagine, this is problematic for democracy.
Democracy scholars Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum call it “conspiracy without the theory” and unpack the concept in their book A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy. Russell is the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics at Dartmouth. Nancy is the Senator Joseph Clark Research Professor of Ethics in Politics at Harvard.
As you’ll hear, the new conspiricism is a symptom of a larger epistemic polarization that’s happening throughout the U.S. When people no longer agree on a shared set of facts, conspiracies run wild and knowledge-producing institutions like the government, universities, and the media are trusted less than ever.
This is not one of our optimistic episodes, but it’s one worth listening to.
A look at the science of conspiracy theories from The University of Chicago’s Big Brains podcast
[5:30] What is the new conspiracism and how does it differ from what we’ve seen in the past?
Nancy: In the past we’ve had conspiracy theory. That is an explanation that works the way any explanation works which is in terms of evidence and dots and patterns that often try to make the unbelievable believable and the unconceivable conceivable. What we have now is conspiracy without the theory. That is the two things have become decoupled. And we have claims of a conspiracy that come without the dots, without the patterns, without the evidence, without the argument.
[6:23] When did you begin to see this pattern emerge?
Russell: As scholars of parties, we-we kind of take an interest in conspiracism and conspiratorial thinking. Parties were-were thought of as conspiracies before the idea of a legitimate opposite took hold. That’s how parties were-were conceived.
We began to notice that um, that today’s conspiracism involves are assertion, like a one-word accusation like rigged, onstead of an effort to carefully explain the world as it is. It’s more of an effort to impose um, a kind of unreality and idiosyncratic understanding of the world on others, rather than to describe the world as it is.
[10:24] What’s the goal of the new conspiracism?
Russell: Often, the goal is certainly not to equip us to really understand our world so that we can navigate our way, you know, control you might say our fate more successfully. Classic conspiracism starts with something in the world that many people have hard time understanding, like the September 11 attacks. If you look at Pizzagate on the other hand, what is that trying to explain? It doesn’t take a world that’s hard to explain and make it more understandable. It takes a world that’s shared, that’s transparent and makes it one that is very disorienting, confusing, and disempowering.
Nancy: The validation of these claims has nothing to do with argument or evidence or dots or patterns. It has to do with the number of followers. And that, I think that explains part of the importance of social media for this kind of conspiracism. It’s obvious that it increases the scope of it and the speed of the spread of these things. But these Tweets and Facebook likes and so on actually allow you to measure that a lot of people are saying this.
[14:46] What is epistemic polarization and how does it relate to conspiracy?
Russell: Epistemic polarization bears on whether we think something really happened, or didn’t really happen. It gets at the basic factual question of how many people were there on the Washington mall on that particular day of the inauguration? And once we can’t even agree on the most elemental aspects of our shared reality, it starts to become really hard not just to compromise, it becomes really hard even to disagree intelligibly with each other.
[19:13] Is there an opportunity for things to go in a different direction?
Russell: One of things that Nancy and I think is really crucial is that people who really care about politics understand that this, this force the new conspiracism which might seem to help their cause really ends up destroying it. We’re hopeful that if we can reveal how, how universally destructive this is, people will understand that t’s not friendly to any cause, and that partisan officials will be more courageous in standing up to it.
[22:20] What role does the media play in spreading conspiracy?
Nancy: I think that what’s important about social media for this kind of conspiracism is, is just the numbers of people who like and retweet and tweet, because it’s what gives, it’s a form of political participation that gives them gratification and it gives validation to these crazy claims.
I will say that there are some studies that show that it’s not just social media, that we shouldn’t put all of our emphasis on it and trying to explain what happens. That Fox News for example has enormous audiences, and enormous audiences of people who aren’t necessarily paranoid and conspiracist or even going along with this stuff. And insofar as this is the news they get, or insofar as this is the discussion or the news that goes on in local, you know channels, where most people still get their news, through these things. It’s, dangerous and unstoppable so long as these privately-owned corporations that find that their profits go up when they do this.
[28:05] Can common sense serve as a counter to the new conspiracism?
Russell: If I say, looking back to the dawn of democracy, and Thomas Payne in his essay is that, you know modern democracy was founded on this conviction that the, that they might say, you don’t want to use the word common sense, the epistemic capacities of ordinary citizens are sufficient for, for them to understand the world in a way that equips them to make good decisions. We believe that this basic capacity is, we, we share the faith that is widely distributed across the entire population, and, and that it can prevail. And so we really do want to call on people to use their common sense in responding to things that seem too fabulous to be true. They just very well might be untrue.