The Miami Conference
“It’s hard to question a category and measure with it at the same time” – it was in these terms that my colleague Alfred attempted to explain one of the many rifts running through a recent conference on conspiracy theories. Since the 1980s conspiracy theories have been discovered as a topic worthy of serious academic attention. In fact, various academic disciplines seem to have made this discovery independently of each other. After some inquisitive practitioner of a particular discipline has alighted upon the topic and has aroused a wider interest among colleagues, a discussion unfolds, a conference is convened and then a collected volume ordains the topic of conspiracy theories as a bona fide field of research within this discipline. This, in any case, seems to have been standard operating procedure within academia. In other words, it was not the case that some psychologists were reading what historians had written about conspiracy theories in the past and said to themselves: “it would be interesting to work out what makes conspiracy theorists tick by looking at human subjects in the present.” Or, to envisage another counter-factual, there was not some group of political scientists who were attuned to certain strands of anthropological research and in the light of this began to ask how dynamics of identity formation and demonization of the “other” played out in their own field. The discussions which have taken place have been largely in-house discussions.
Thus, Joe Parent and Joe Uscinksi, the authors of the recently published but already landmark study American Conspiracy Theory, were to be commended in convoking an interdisciplinary conference and getting representatives of the different disciplines in the same room. This room was the Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson room, and in view of the time of year and the recent winter, all participants were first and foremost grateful to the ‘Joes’ for the fact that this room was at the University of Miami in Miami, the city, and not at Miami University in Ohio. The room was filled with round tables, each accommodating ten or so participants, in an arrangement that seemed more reminiscent of a bar mitzvah or a wedding rather than an academic conference. This sense of a social or family event was, however, perhaps appropriate, for as many of us know from personal experience, the cordial smiles at such event often mask deeper feuds between embittered in-laws or estranged branches of the family. After having done an exemplary job at organizing the event, the ‘Joes’ stepped back to observe how things would play out. Would it remain civil?
An affirmative answer was not to be taken for granted because even though there was a sense that the various branches of this scholarly family (or tribes as Jesse Walker has alternatively named them in his blog on the conference) were talking about the same thing, they were also often talking past each other. Thus, to pick up on my colleague Alfred’s comment, the political scientists seemed to most comfortable when it came to “measuring” with the category of conspiracy theory. For those such as myself, schooled in other traditions of building bridges to empirical reality, the methods which teased out habitual propensities in political behaviour while cleverly attempting to offset the effects of bias within the results, adduced a sense of respect; the means by which Adam Berinsky (MIT), for example, arrived at evidence seeming to suggest that ‘birthers’ really do believe Obama to be a foreigner were nothing if not sophisticated. As a further example, Eric Oliver (University of Chicago) argued that Americans had not marched in lock-step over the line separating pre-modern magical thinking from post-Enlightenment rationality. His research drew upon empirical studies which he and his colleagues had conducted in uncovering a whole spectrum of degrees to which modern Americans allied themselves to pre-modern notions of invisible agency. Thus, the non-political-scientists were witness to highly refined ways of probing contemporary social and political realities. But as sophisticated as such methods might be and as productive as the resulting research was, I can imagine that much of this research seemed naïve to the camp of philosophers, for more often than not it circumvented the arduous task of questioning the presumptions underscoring our appraisal of the object in question.
In fact, Alfred’s remark pointed to a fundamental disagreement about what should be the object of inquiry: are conspiracy theories the social phenomenon we should be observing or should we rather be observing how society constructs and then treats conspiracy theories? Matthew Dentith (University of Auckland) numbered among the philosophers arguing that, before we forge ahead with empirical work, we need to re-evaluate the standard usage of the term ‘conspiracy theory’ (an argument he has made in his recently published book). Thus, two options presented themselves: we can zone in on the conspiracy theories themselves or we can step back to interrogate the wider phenomenon of modern society’s need to create and then denigrate what it labels as conspiracy theories. If the political scientists stood for the former option and the philosophers (at least some of those present at the conference) argued for the latter, the cultural theorists, the historians, the anthropologists and the psychologists fell somewhere in between: some within these camps were happy to work with the ‘conspiracy theory’ label, others focused on how this label itself had been employed.
The less partisan conference attendees were thus witness to the curious logic behind such exchanges: differences in opinion generate discussion but if the differences are too large than discussion breaks down – or fragments into the aforementioned in-house discussions. Beneath the civility, it was possible to sense how the discussion hung in the balance: would it be propelled forward or would it founder on the divides that opened up when it came, for example, to the question of how legitimate conspiracy theories are as a way of representing the world (if for the moment we are to acquiesce in the use of the label)? Some such as Ted Goertzel (Rutgers University) were unapologetic about the marginalization of conspiracy theorists: the margins of society are exactly where we want those enthralled to this mode thinking. Yet how marginalized are they? At one point in the discussion Peter Knight (University of Manchester) suggested that there was a need to put on our ethnographic hats and to go out and collect first-hand experience through encounters with the conspiracy theorists. Yet whether they represent such an identifiable, circumscribable social group might be open to question. Just as we are all somewhere on the autistic spectrum, it might also be worth considering to what degree we all find our place somewhere on the conspiracy theory spectrum. Indeed, to gather some first-hand experience with conspiracy theorizing – or with degrees of conspiracy theorizing – it was most likely not necessary to leave the Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson room in which the conference took place.
Of course such questions about the legitimacy of conspiracy theories are closely connected to questions about their normative status. If from the philosopher’s corners there had been attempts to rehabilitate the reputation of conspiracy theories, one could hear almost audible groans from this direction when the social psychologist Karen Douglas (University of Kent) took to the rostrum for a final keynote lecture devoted the social harm of conspiracy theories. Yet are conspiracy theories always harmful? How do things look outside the narrow American-European context? What is the status of conspiracy theories in other societies? Given the location and the institutional affiliation of most participants at the conference, it was no surprise that the focus fell mostly on America. It would be unfair to say that the non-American, and non-Western case studies represented mere tokenism but we are a long, long way from the systematic comparative work which needs to be undertaken.
Of course, it might be feared that an extension of inquiry to these contexts will involve yet a further dilution of the object of interest. After all, conspiracy theories are something more specific than generalized forms of suspicion which can be found in all cultures. Yet despite the sense of uncertainty in the endeavour to get a grip on the phenomenon, the conference offered more than one occasion that re-assured us of the reality of what we were studying. Thus, the marine chemist Jay Cullen (University of Victoria) took time to report on the stubbornly wayward and often invidious reactions which greeted his well-meaning attempts to inform the public on the (largely non-existent) dangers of radioactive contamination from the Fukuschima Dai-ichi disaster. Maybe there is a more felicitous designation than conspiracy theory or conspiracy theorist, maybe we could push for greater differentiation in the terminology which would at least acknowledge a need to separate the legitimate from the illegitimate, the harmful from the beneficial. But when Jay reported on the entrenched suspicions which unfailingly re-cast his efforts at public outreach as the acts of a shill or a stooge, it was obvious that we need some kind of terminology to label such aberrant behaviour, be it “conspiracy theory” or “abuse of conspiracy theory.”