University of Cambridge > > Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term > Useful Idiots: On the Democratic Virtues of Conspiracy Theories

Useful Idiots: On the Democratic Virtues of Conspiracy Theories

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Conspiracy theories are often regarded as individual cognitive failings and collective pathologies of public reason. In this paper I will argue for the democratic benefits of conspiracy theories. There are two main groups of ways in which conspiracy theories can contribute to democratic goods. One is epistemic, and it has to do with the collective benefits of having some one-eyed partisans who focus obsessively on criticising the arguments of their opponents, resist consensus even when it would be reasonable to accept it, and who may bring valuable information to light in the course of pursuing unpromising lines of inquiry. The second is political, and it has to do with demanding communicative accountability, influencing the behaviour of power holders, and revealing second-order reasons for trusting (or distrusting) authorities. The upshot of these arguments is that the presence of stubborn minority opinions of the sort often represented by conspiracy theorists can create conditions for greater trustworthiness and more informed judgment of public authorities. What these arguments have in common is that none of them depend on the conspiracy theorists being right, and they are all conditional on the marginality of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories, I conclude, are like salt in the soup of public discourse – good in small doses. The benefits evaporate to the extent that conspiracy theories come to be held by majorities, and conspiracy theories become most dangerous when they are in the minds of the powerful.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term series.

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