Should there be university departments and courses, and should there be researchers and academic journals, devoted to conspiracy theories? I don’t mean this in the way you might immediately think. It’s almost certainly worth studying the phenomenon of conspiracy theories and even the psychologies and sociological factors that produce and perpetuate them. This isn’t a question about the study of conspiracy theories and their theorists; instead, it asks if we should devote high-status academic resources to developing the conspiracy theories themselves.
Questions like this are really about what we think counts as a valid academic pursuit and what doesn’t, along with how we should decide that. The fact that the most plausible reading of my opening question would be that surely I meant the study of conspiracy theories, not studying them as though they were serious academic pursuits, tells us something important about our assumptions about what constitutes valid academic inquiry and the status conferred by being recognized as such. This isn’t such a simple question, however obvious its answer may seem. Many conspiracy theories are intricate, complex, theoretically consistent, and fit at least some portion of the available data in a plausibly recognizable sense. It is these factors that lead people to subscribe to them.
One might appeal to academic freedom to make a case that conspiracy theories and their theorists should have a home in the academy. People should be free to pursue any crazy question, hypothesis or theory that they want, and hardly any place on Earth is better than a university for that purpose. This doesn’t seem satisfactory, however—and likely isn’t—because the question strikes at something more specific and fundamental than a mere matter of open-ended intellectual pursuit. The question at hand asks what pursuits qualify for being granted the full prestige of the imprimatur of the university and all that it means and stands for.
To explore the matter, we might ask ourselves how we would feel about a hypothetical university department called Truth Studies?
Truth Studies would pursue questions about the ways the Illuminati, in conjunction with the US government and other nefarious globalist powers, directly conspired to effect the September 11th attacks on New York City. It would be very interested in determining the real truth about Barack Obama’s birth status and any role that a global conspiracy might have played in covering that up. It could devote an entire subfield to the denial of the moon landing and still another arm to researching the ways in which world governments implant mind-control chemicals in vaccines—thus sometimes causing autism—which are reinforced and activated by chemicals deposited throughout Earth’s atmosphere by jetliners. It could have an entire geophysical wing devoted to Flat Earth Science and the chemical composition of the global ice wall.
Not only that, a philosophical inquiry into truth epistemology would insist that disagreement with the conclusions of Truth Studies implied being complicit in the conspiracies or a shill for their agents. And, if you disagree that these should be university pursuits, it becomes incumbent upon you to explain why you are against the study of truth, which is what Truth Studies clearly exists to study.
Most would agree, faced with this, that the question isn’t one of academic freedom. Should people be allowed to pursue these questions and ideas to their hearts’ content? I don’t see why not. Should they be allowed to publish their nonsense? Again, I can’t see why that speech should be restricted—misleading and dangerous as it might be. But should it happen in the university? Should the academy endorse and promote Truth Studies? Should you be able to get a PhD in moon-landing denial? Should there be academic journals that are taken seriously within the scholarly canon devoted to chemtrails and the notion that the Earth really is flat? Should we grant such pursuits that level of status? Should we allow university departments to exist to teach them to students—who came to university to gain an education?
I think the clear answer to all of these questions is no, and the reason is that we assume something about universities at a definitional level: they are generally understood to be entities devoted to the production and development of knowledge. The central questions then become why these should be excluded from serious academic inquiry, and how that can be achieved.
The answer to the first seems obvious, given what we understand universities to be. It’s nonsense. Conspiracy theories aren’t true. We shouldn’t teach what (very probably) isn’t true as though it were true. Supposing we agree on this point, this observation only moves the question back a step. How do we know Truth Studies investigates nonsense? How can we justify that these ideas shouldn’t be explored in a scholarly way in departments within the humanities that insist upon exploring ideas theoretically and bolstering them with unscientific and nonstandard ways of knowing?
The second question—how can we go about excluding something like Truth Studies from the university—seems harder, but its answer sheds light on the philosophical quagmire presented by the first, which asks how we might justify doing so. Better yet, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Jonathan Rauch’s outline of liberal science in his landmark book Kindly Inquisitors provides some guidelines by which we might be able to decide.
In its simplest essence, Rauch outlines that knowledge production can occur only when two conditions are met. First, no one possesses special authority. This isn’t the same as saying expertise doesn’t exist. Rather, it is the insistence that for an inquiry to have a chance of producing knowledge, it cannot proceed from any manifestation of it’s true because I said so. Experts must be able to be checked and double-checked, criticized, and overturned when reason and evidence warrant. Second, no one possesses the final say. At no point is it possible to say that any question of knowledge is absolutely and finally settled. Put otherwise, anything tantamount to, God said it; I believe it; that settles it, isn’t enough. Anyone is welcome to believe that, but, to expect to convince others, a better argument and hopefully some solid evidence are necessary. For Rauch, skepticism and empiricism define a process that forms the necessary foundations of knowledge production in every possible regime of thought.
This provides a guideline by which university bureaucracies can determine what deserves to be considered within their purview: is it contravening one or both of these principles? If it is, then it probably doesn’t deserve the privilege of being seriously entertained within the university. So if Truth Studies wants to assert that any disagreement or challenge to its claims is proof of complicity, as it would, it can only do so by denying the authority to criticize it to all who have a mind to do so. This is in violation of the rule against special authority. In that way, it admits that it doesn’t deserve to be taken seriously by any university, and every university has a right to fence it out. Notice that if this provision were dropped, Truth Studies would be admissible, supposing it could first pass the withering test of skepticism that we have every reason to believe it couldn’t possibly pass.
Truth Studies might seem like an far-fetched example, but we’re doing roughly the same thing with the set of fields that my collaborators and I have called Grievance Studies, but which is roughly known as Social Justice scholarship. The issue here isn’t whether or not social justice is a legitimate pursuit. Assuming the common parlance understanding of that term, it almost undoubtedly is. This is a matter of whether there should exist influential academic departments that proceed to study social justice through a theoretical approach that seems barely tethered to reality and that is better described as conspiratorial than rigorously academic. If this assessment of Grievance Studies is correct—and there’s much reason to accept that it is— then you can probably see that the problem with what we call Grievance Studies parallels the problem of Truth Studies, with one major difference: Grievance Studies are already deeply entrenched in the academy.
In fact, Grievance Studies fails both Rauchian principles of knowledge production. It asserts special authority in two ways. The first is through what some have called the subjective turn, which is to say that it denies the validity of objectivity essentially in total and insists that certain types of subjective lived experience constitute a valid means of ascertaining generalizable knowledge. Specifically, Grievance Studies proceeds upon the assumption that one’s identity confers special authority through the position that identity is theoretically described to occupy in society. And, of course, not all lived experience counts. Drawing on the Hegelian idea of the master and slave, only the lived experience of the oppressed living in an oppressive society confers special authority. In precisely this way, it also claims final say: the word of those who have lived oppression cannot be questioned or overruled, and their proclaimed truths are therefore considered final.
Grievance Studies also fails the prohibition upon special authority in the more common way, which it shares with a hypothetical Truth Studies devoted to conspiracy theories. This is because Grievance Studies depends intrinsically upon conspiracy theories to maintain itself. Not only do people occupying privileged identities possess poorer access to lived truth, Grievance Studies has rigged its internal epistemology in such a way that disagreement is impossible. Much of the work in Grievance Studies over the last forty years has been developing a perfectly Kafkaesque self-fulfilling prophesy under which any disagreement can be interpreted as proof of complicity.
Among many contenders for the title, the most stunning example might be Robin DiAngelo’s concept of white fragility, which insists that people with white privilege lack the racial stamina to fully examine and grapple with their own intrinsic racism. Under this doctrine, to remain silent, disagree, complain or go away when confronted with anything that might highlight one’s alleged racism are all taken to be proofs of one’s racism because all are symptoms of white fragility. That is, if you think the theory naming your white fragility is wrong, it’s only because your white fragility is showing, which is taken as confirmation of the theory. Other similar concepts deserve honorable mention here: more generally notions of internalized misogyny and seeking neoliberal or patriarchal reward, and, more specifically, Barbara Applebaum’s “white talk,” Alison Bailey’s “privilege-preserving epistemic pushback” and “shadow text” and José Medina’s “active ignorance” all spring immediately to mind.
Therefore, even without appealing to the central result that our Grievance Studies Affair arguably produced—that the work produced in these fields is an exercise in sophistry because one can begin with any theoretically acceptable conclusion and then argue one’s way to it—they also fail both Rauchian principles of liberal science. Thus, as with Truth Studies, and for all the same reasons, they have no legitimate claim to a home in the university or upon the status, opportunity and privilege such a home confers.
Of course, I still haven’t answered the question of how this can be accomplished, or I’ve only answered half of it. I have, I think, provided an outline for how we might keep something like Truth Studies out of the university. It’s simple, really. It fails the basic principles of liberal science—so, because it doesn’t meet the minimum criteria, we wouldn’t admit something that impoverished in rigor. This doesn’t help us much with Grievance Studies, however, because the fields in its sway are already firmly established in the academy. This implies a different, harder question. What do we do about this?
Some models, like those famously applied recently in Hungary, suggest that bold government action, such as banning the fields of study from the university, is a good solution. I don’t think it is. Not only should we all be very wary of the idea of any government or bureaucratic entity deciding definitively what constitutes knowledge and what doesn’t; that approach is inimical to the very liberal science that we should be fighting to preserve and enshrine within the university. Even if you don’t recognize this concern, there’s always the old and vital liberal standby to fall back upon: what we are allowed to consider knowledge shouldn’t depend upon which group is in office. Soviet science, featuring Lysenko’s false biology, was, perhaps, one of the most spectacular failures of the violation of this principle in history, and its lesson shouldn’t be forgotten.
This means we need reform. And, yes, we should reform them: the studies of topics like gender, women, race and sexuality are important and valuable interdisciplinary studies that can draw upon both the humanities and science, to do rigorous work that provides important information for solving difficult problems. What’s going on in these fields now simply fails the noble mission they set out for themselves, by failing to live up to the basic principles we should expect of any rigorous approach to studying anything. The question of how we reform an existing corrupt set of academic fields, even though they often fail both principles of liberal science, is more difficult than how we prevent their acceptance in the first place.
Despite my wariness of giving so much say to administrators, because universities are by necessity administrated, I recognize that at some point, bureaucrats, at least at the level of the university, may have to step in and set guidelines for what constitutes a minimally rigorous approach to studying those topics currently dominated and corrupted by Grievance Studies. But these decisions don’t need to be and shouldn’t be made by fiat. If university administrations merely safeguard, enforce, and encourage playing by the rules of the liberal science game, the decisions will likely be able to make themselves.
If, for example, they instituted the principle that any discipline that wishes to publish, apply or teach from an academic book or paper with sociological conclusions must at least carry sociological rigor, much of the Grievance Studies problem would dry up almost as quickly as the reputations of the journals publishing papers failing this principle would fall. A similar principle—which we might call Feynman’s razor—might insist that if one’s theory disagrees with firmly empirical science, that theory isn’t ready to be called legitimate and should not be taught as though it were. As nearly the entirety of constructivist studies of gender and sexuality flatly ignores biology everywhere it contradicts their theories, this would constitute a significant problem for them in validating their work. If their results are to be treated for what they are—the opinions of certain philosophers whose epistemological foundations are considered poor—then the problem could be sorted out by the academic process itself within a single generation.
The questions of why we don’t teach outright conspiracy theories in our universities—and of why we shouldn’t—are deep and profound ones. Ultimately, they hinge entirely upon what we believe universities to be. If they are to be bastions of knowledge production that the world can turn to in the trust that they can answer difficult questions and inform advances in culture, society and policy, they must adhere to the fundamental principles of Rauchian liberal science above all else. If not, Alex Jones might as well be given an endowed chair.