Conspiracy Theories and Stylized Facts

This is an interesting response to Cass Sunstein’s (Obama’s propaganda tzar) Peer reviewed article on conspiracy theories and people who dare to question their governments;

ABSTRACT: In an article published in the Journal of Political Philosophy, Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule argue that the government and its allies ought to actively undermine groups that espouse conspiracy theories deemed “demonstrably false.” They propose infiltrating such groups in order to “cure” conspiracy theorists by treating their “crippled epistemology” with “cognitive diversity.” They base their proposal on an analysis of the “causes” of such conspiracy theories, which emphasizes informational and reputational cascades. Some may regard their proposal as outrageous and anti-democratic. I agree. However, in this article I merely argue that their argument is flawed in at least the following ways: (1) their account of the popularity of conspiracy theories is implausible, and (2) their proposal relies on misleading “stylized facts,” including a caricature of those who doubt official narratives and a deceptive depiction of the relevant history.

[NOTE: I have included extended excerpts below, believing this to be within the scope of fair use.]


Informational Cascades 

[NOTE: Using Sunstein’s own words, with only slight change, I show how the “informational cascades” that he posits as an explanation for the popularity of conspiracy theories actually does a better job of explaining the popularity of dubious official stories.]

To see how informational cascades work, imagine a group of people who are trying to assign responsibility for some loss of life. Assume that the group members are announcing their views in sequence. Each member attends, reasonably enough, to the judgments of others. Andrews is the first to speak. He suggests that the event was caused [just how the government said it was] by a conspiracy of powerful people. Barnes now knows Andrews’s judgment; she should certainly go along with Andrew’s account if she agrees independently with him. But if her independent judgment is otherwise, she would—if she trusts Andrews no more and no less than she trusts herself—be indifferent about what to do, and she might simply flip a coin.

Now turn to a third person, Charleton. Suppose that both Andrews and Barnes have endorsed the [official story] conspiracy theory, but that Charleton’s own view, based on limited information, suggests that they are probably wrong. In that event, Charleton might well ignore what he knows and follow Andrews and Barnes. It is likely, after all, that both Andrews and Barnes had evidence for their conclusion, and unless Charleton thinks that his own information is better than theirs, he should follow their lead. If he does, Charleton is in a cascade. Of course Charleton will resist if he has sufficient grounds to think that Andrews and Barnes are being foolish. But if he lacks those grounds, he is likely to go along with them. This may happen even if Andrews initially speculated in a way that does not fit the facts. That initial speculation, in this example, can start a process by which a number of people are led to participate in a cascade, accepting [an official story] a conspiracy theory whose factual foundations are fragile. (2009, 213-214)

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3 thoughts on “Conspiracy Theories and Stylized Facts

  1. Interesting read. Thanks.

    Here’s my entry for an ‘informational cascade’:

    Fox news announcing Osama Bin Laden by name as lead suspect approximately 45 seconds after the second tower was hit. And generally speaking, the whole mainstream media discussing OBL with ‘experts’ all afternoon/ evening to the entire world with a sense of authority.

    In case you’re interested here’s a very well made series about conspiracy theories which discusses Sunstein in some detail (video below)

    It’s in 9 (short) parts and is quite slow paced, but there are some very well made points and examples throughout. Worth watching even if you think you already know all there is to know about CT’s.

    And it’s a good series to show people who still think CT’s = paranoid wacky nonsense.

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