Can Any Theory of Knowledge Save Us From Conspiracy Theories?

by Joseph Shieber

“Did you hear what Hunter did to buy that laptop in the first place?!?”

I had my piece for 3QD all prepared at the beginning of the past week, but a phone call on Monday derailed my plans.

Early Monday morning, I received an email from the Philosophy Department administrative assistant saying that someone had left their name and phone number on the Philosophy Department’s answering machine with the request that I call them. I was curious, so I did.

I reached their voicemail, left my name and number, and they soon called back. They told me that they were concerned for a close family relative who had fallen down a QAnon rabbit-hole. Why were they calling me? Because their close family relative was appealing to my Great Courses lectures on epistemology in support of their views. The caller wanted to know, did my lectures in fact endorse QAnon?

Reader, let me begin by stressing at the outset that my lectures do NOT endorse QAnon.

With that out of the way, let me introduce some fake names for my caller and their family member – let’s make the caller “Avery” and the family member “Harper”. (I’m withholding as many details as I can to protect the caller’s privacy and in that spirit I’ve chosen gender neutral names.)

I began by telling Avery that it’s very common for conspiracy theorists of all stripes to latch onto – and misread – the work of experts. I continued by stressing that Harper’s appeal to my Great Courses lectures for support is clearly a misreading. 

Although in those lectures I survey all of the major theories of knowledge and justification, I don’t hide my sympathy for the theory known as reliabilism. Roughly, reliabilism says that a belief is justified just in case it is the product of a truth-reliable belief-forming process – that is, a process that reliably produces true beliefs. Visual perception in standard lighting conditions by a healthy observer – again, speaking roughly – would count as a truth-reliable process. The ravings of an anonymous huckster on 4chan, by contrast, most certainly would not.

I continued by telling Avery that I devote the entirety of one of my lectures to discussing the ways in which believing on the basis of responsible journalism – I use the example of the New Yorker, with its own notoriously rigorous in-house fact-checking – could count as a truth-reliable process. In general, I emphasized that the focus on facts and truth are a through-line for my lectures, and so it was obvious to me that Harper’s appeal to them could be nothing other than a misreading.

Despite the fact that Harper’s use of my lectures to justify their allegiance to QAnon is unsupported by the lectures themselves, Avery’s phone call reminded me just how easy it is to misunderstand epistemology – and to twist epistemological reflection to bizarre ends.

Indeed, when I got off of the phone with Avery, my first thought was about a paper by a philosopher, Mark Kaplan. In that 1991 paper, “Epistemology on Holiday,” Kaplan raises the specter of what he calls the “nightmare scenario” conjured up by academic epistemology:

… imagine that you are sitting in a doctor’s crowded waiting room. The novel you have brought to read while you wait has just become interesting when the man sitting three seats to your left rises, points to you, and declares, in a voice loud enough for all to hear, “This person is a traitor to our country!” Needless to say, you are taken aback. “What, if anything, justifies your belief that I am a traitor?” you ask the man. Your accuser is calm. He explains that, although he recognizes that in accusing you of treason he has made the sort of claim that may well require justification, he cannot at present produce the justification for you. Nonetheless, he continues, he is confident that he is indeed justified in his belief that you are a traitor … (Kaplan, p. 135)

It is striking that Kaplan wrote this passage in 1991, decades before the rise of QAnon, Russiagate, election conspiracies, or any of the other current manifestations of craziness that currently plague us. It should, though, be obvious why I immediately thought of Kaplan’s paper upon hanging up the phone with Avery! 

Indeed, one of the epistemologies that Kaplan singles out as falling prey to the dangers of the “nightmare scenario” is the sort of reliabilist theory that I favor. Kaplan suggests that if the accuser in the “nightmare scenario” is conversant with reliabilism, then

… he will find your demand [for grounds to justify his belief] rather quaint. You can expect him to explain to you that the notion that one needs to be able to provide grounds for one’s beliefs in order to have justified beliefs has long been discredited. What makes a belief justified – what makes his belief in your treachery justified – is the fact that it is a product of a reliable true-belief-forming process. … since it is the reliability of the process producing a belief which renders the belief justified, and since one’s being able to meet legitimate methodological challenges to a belief is neither necessary nor sufficient for its being produced by a reliable process, one is free to dismiss any such challenges; to the question of whether one’s belief is justified, one’s ability to meet such challenges is irrelevant. (Kaplan, pp. 146-147)

Kaplan sees the danger posed by reliabilism – and other academic epistemological theories – as stemming from the way that such theories divorce themselves from our day-to-day concerns. In this, Kaplan echoes the criticisms of epistemology leveled by non-philosophers.

For example, in an essay responding to Dave Chalmers’s newest book, Reality+, Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs complains:

The “How do we know life is real and not just a dream or a hallucination or a kind of sophisticated video game?” question is a longstanding preoccupation of philosophy. Variations on this kind of puzzle have baffled and entranced epistemologists from Plato to Descartes to the present day. I confess they have never held any fascination for me. I have actual work to do on ideas and problems that affect human beings, and wondering whether all of life is actually a dream in the mind of a sleeping butterfly, or the external world is a mere illusion and I am actually a brain in a jar, has long struck me as something of a waste of time. When I took my first philosophy class as an undergraduate, and we were asked to prove that our hands existed, I realized that philosophers would never be my people and resolved that I would stay well clear of their department for the rest of my university years.

In a footnote, Robinson appends a few rhetorical questions to this criticism: “Has philosophy ever really done us any good? Can the act of philosophizing even be morally justified? Has the ‘trolley problem’ ever actually improved anyone’s real-world moral decision-making?”

The fundamental criticism, in other words, is that philosophical reflection is idle, that such ruminations make no difference to any aspect of life or the world that actually matters.

Robinson is not alone in raising this worry for epistemologists. I’ve often heard complaints similar to Robinson’s. Surely, when you have “actual work to do on ideas and problems that affect human beings, … wondering whether all of life is actually a dream” might strike you as a waste of time.

Indeed, when I read Robinson’s reminiscence that, when he took his “first philosophy class as an undergraduate, and we were asked to prove that our hands existed, [he] realized that philosophers would never be [his] people,” I again thought of Kaplan’s “Epistemology on Holiday.” In fact, Kaplan opens that essay – prior to introducing the “nightmare scenario” – like this:

Some years ago, an acquaintance complained to me about her first-and only-philosophy course. Her instructor had devoted a substantial portion of the course to the question of what – if anything – justified his students’ belief that there was a lectern at the front of the classroom. To my acquaintance, the entire exercise had seemed a sham. It was obvious to her that there was a lectern in the front of the room and it seemed, as far as she could tell, that it was equally obvious to everyone else in the classroom, the instructor included. And it seemed to her intellectually dishonest of the instructor, and those students whose interest he had managed to engage, to pretend to throw into question the propriety of a belief when, in fact, the truth of that belief was entirely evident to them.

Kaplan goes on to endorse his acquaintance’s – and, by extension, Robinson’s – denunciation of epistemology as it is traditionally practiced, but argues that this indictment of epistemology only applies to the search for “a theory of justification deprived of any role in methodology or the conduct of inquiry and criticism, … a theory that divorces epistemology from the very practices that furnish it with its only source of intuitive constraint. It is epistemology on holiday.” Kaplan concludes by endorsing programs like Descartes’s Rules for the Direction of the Mind, early 20th century logical empiricism, or late 20th century – and early 21st century! – Bayesian epistemology and philosophy of science as epistemologies that avoid the sorts of criticism levied by his frustrated acquaintance.

The problem with Kaplan’s (and Robinson’s) indictment of epistemology is that there is NO foolproof program — or down-home, practical strategy, for that matter — capable of freeing us from Kaplan’s “nightmare scenario.” Indeed, all three of the models that Kaplan holds up as examples of epistemology done right are themselves based on the sorts of theoretical foundations that Kaplan indicts as epistemology done wrong. 

Famously, Descartes was a proponent of epistemological foundationalism. He is, indeed, one of the most influential sources of the use of radical skepticism – more akin to contemporary scenarios involving the “brain in a vat” than to Kaplan’s phantom lectern – to motivate epistemological investigation, at the outset of his Meditations on First Philosophy. Less famously, perhaps, Bayesian epistemology and philosophy of science are forms of epistemological coherentism. The logical empiricists were not homogenous when it came to their theoretical allegiances; while most of them were epistemological foundationalists, a few were coherentists.

More significantly, not even the sort of applied, practically oriented focus on “legitimate methodological challenges” that Kaplan favors would be proof against a determined conspiracy theorist like the accuser in the “nightmare scenario.” As studies have repeatedly shown, high cognitive ability is not always an adequate defense against misinformation. Some studies have suggested that belief in fake news is in fact sometimes correlated with greater political knowledge. Indeed, even bayesians can be anti-vaxxers, depending on how they assign prior probabilities and how they weight the evidence that they use to update those priors.

I didn’t say all of this to Avery, but these facts were in the back of my mind during our conversation. They were the reason why I spent much of my time on the phone consoling Avery about Harper’s descent into conspiracist nonsense, rather than being able to offer much hope that Harper will soon emerge from the web of false beliefs in which they’re trapped.

Unfortunately, we now find ourselves in a world in which Kaplan’s “nightmare scenario” is now reality, with well-paid television personalities and prominent political figures playing the role of the accuser. I wish I could offer hope for us, but I’m afraid the best I can offer is consolation.

Image Credit: Pieter Cornelisz, Mordechai Overhears the Conspiracy from the Story of Esther, c. 1525 (Art Institute of Chicago,