The three philosophers Pete Mandik, David Coady, and Charles Pigden have all written papers that provide differing views regarding how society should deal with conspiracy theories. In his essay “Shit Happens”, Mandik promotes the idea that they should never be accepted. In Coady’s essay, simply entitled “Conspiracy Theories”, the author counters that they are worth investigating but not too assiduously. Lastly, Pigden argues, in his essay “Conspiracy Theories and the Conventional Wisdom”, that conspiracy theories cannot be rejected out of hand; rather they must all be rejected or accepted based on context and evidence. Pigden’s point of view is the most appealing because it finds its foundation in historical precedent and in the Socratic Method, the thought process which governs epistemological investigation.
Mandik introduces his paper by referencing Hume’s work “Of Miracles”. He explains that “Hume argued famously that we should lend no credence to reports of miracles and the lack of credibility attaching to such reports is due to their being reports of miracles” . With this central idea against conspiracy theories laid out, Mandik then presents the two dilemmas with which epistemologists must juggle when dealing with these theories, namely “that the more we lend credence to conspiracy theories [...] the more we are pushed to a kind of skepticism about any of our institutions [and] that the less we lend credence to the core idea that agents are able to control events, the more we are pushed to a kind of absurdism whereby historical events may happen due to causes, but not for any reason” . In other words, we can choose to believe that powerful agents are in control of events -and consequently believe in conspiracy theories but doubt all of society’s institutions- or we can believe that agents are not in control, and that therefore events simply happen without reason –the absurdist point of view. Mandik asserts that in the choice between doubting everything and simply accepting the absurdist notion that things happen because they happen, “we are not worse off choosing the latter” . Essentially this equates to saying that conspiracies, like miracles, should not be taken as valid explanations the world; it is better to simply say that shit happens.
Coady begins his paper by explaining why conspiracy theories have such a bad reputation. He states that people’s typical idea of them are “theories which are clearly irrational [or] theories involving conspirators who are virtually omnipotent or omniscient [or] involving alleged conspiracies that have been going on for so long or which involve so many people, that it is implausible to suppose they could remain undetected [or] involving conspirators who seem to have no motive to conspire” . Coady himself, unlike Mandik, subscribes to the belief that conspiracy theories are not intrinsically irrational. He explains that in their criticism of conspiracy theories, authors have attempted to “apply epistemic standards which may be appropriate in the natural sciences, but which are not appropriate when the object of investigation can be presumed to take an interest in the investigation's outcome” . This means that, unlike in the natural sciences, the object of investigation in the case of conspiracies does not want to be found. Assuming the conspirators are powerful, it will therefore be hard to come by evidence of the existence of the conspiracy. Indeed most of the readily available evidence will point to the fact that the conspiracy doesn’t exist at all; this is the nature of conspiracy theorizing. Coady therefore encourages investigation but urges caution: it is easy to continually ignore evidence that something doesn’t exist, but it is much harder to sort out which conspiracies really don’t exist and those which exist despite the contrary evidence.
Pigden, similarly to Coady, begins his paper by immediately rejecting the conventional wisdom “that we have an epistemic duty not to believe conspiracy theories” . He states that “the belief-forming strategy of not believing conspiracy theories would be a political disaster and the epistemic equivalent of self-mutilation” . Pigden is firmly against the idea of automatically not believing a theory simply because of its very nature. Instead he argues “that we are rationally entitled to believe in conspiracy theories if that is what the evidence suggests” . Like Coady, he elaborates that conspiracy theories are only flawed when they suffer from a weakness. However he is much less reserved than Coady when it comes to the extent to which an investigation should be conducted. Pigden discredits any premature “assumption that conspiracy theories are much more likely to be false than their non-conspiratorial rivals” , whereas when Coady urges investigative caution it is implied that he believes that the possibility of falseness is high. Pigden then elaborates that without conspiracy theories much of history, including most political crimes, would have no explanation. While Mandik prefers an absurdist lack of causative explanation to continual doubt, Pigden states that a historical and political world rendered unintelligible and random by an exclusion of conspiracy theories would be epistemologically intolerable. Essentially, he sees conspiracy theories as just another form of explanation, without which society would be stuck watching events like 9/11 unfold with no understanding of the planning behind them.
Of these three epistemological points of view however, only Pigden’s can be considered valid since it is the only one that has a solid foundation in historical precedent and that conforms to an approach analogous to the Scientific method, that of the Socratic Method. This approach is the one that has always governed the field of epistemological inquiry precisely because it is the most effective and because it yields satisfactory, rational explanations of events. Contrarily, though Mandik has a point when he states that a belief in conspiracies brings about a deleterious, all encompassing doubt, his acceptance of the absurdist philosophy constitutes a rejection of any form of critical thought about actions having reasons behind them in favor of a faith that events occur for no particular reason. His argument also flies in the face of events proven to be the result of conspiracies. Coady’s point of view is slightly better: he attempts to distance himself from the conventional wisdom by allowing for critical thought and investigation. Though he also has a valid point when he states that investigating conspiracies may descend into a serial denial of evidence, his belief that investigation should not be allowed to progress beyond a certain vague point does not allow for conclusions that could be deemed absurd by a majority of people.
Perhaps the best way to illustrate the superiority of Pigden’s argument is through the use of an actual conspiracy theory, for example: the idea, after the Watergate break-in, that the president and his aides had been using “dirty tricks” against political opponents. Mandik would have argued that it is preferable to ignore this theory altogether and instead accept that such events simply occur without any particular reason. Coady would have permitted some investigation, however if this investigation were to have suggested a seemingly untenable plan involving numerous people, including the president, conspiring to plant bugs in the offices of political opponents and then cover their tracks, he would probably have responded that the theory was bogus. He would have asserted that the conspiracy theorists had evidently become so obsessed with their theory that they had begun making too many unbelievable assumptions to keep it afloat. Only Pigden would have allowed the investigation of the conspiracy theory to come to the correct conclusion that many people in the Nixon administration, including Nixon himself, planned the use of “dirty tricks” and then tried to cover their tracks. Before the Watergate scandal the idea that an American president would commit such crimes was utterly unbelievable. Nonetheless the scandal did occur, demonstrating that conspiracy theories cannot be discounted even when they sound ridiculous to a vast majority of people.
In conclusion, of the three philosophers Pete Mandik, David Coady, and Charles Pigden, Pigden’s point of view concerning conspiracy theories is the most appealing. While Mandik and Coady’s approaches suppress investigation, Pigden allows for it without reserve and accepts that it could lead to any conclusion, provided that it is based on empirical evidence. This approach not only conforms to the established practice of the Socratic Method, but also allows for the most satisfactory explanation of historical events.