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On the Vices and Virtues of Conspiracy Theories

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Conspiracy theories are often regarded as vices, both at the individual level as cognitive failings, and at the collective level as pathologies of public reason. One of the major individual vices identified by psychologists is the “confirmation bias”, the tendency of people to seek arguments in support of things they already believe and to discount or reject arguments and information that undermine their existing beliefs. Closely associated with this is one of the major collective pathologies, namely group polarisation, in which like minded people seek each other out and then unwittingly create for themselves an information environment which skews in support of their prejudices and creates group pressures that radicalise belief. In this paper I will argue that these individual and collective vices can have positive collective effects. I will draw on contemporary social science in developing this argument, but its outline will be familiar from J. S. Mill’s account of the benefits of argumentative diversity. In short, there may be a collective benefit to having groups of people who, partly due to their obsessive attachment to unconventional and socially disapproved theories, are motivated to closely scrutinize official narratives in a way that most of us are not. I will conclude by considering what this means for current research on conspiracy theories.

This talk is part of the Queens' Arts Seminar series.

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