Bella Gerens
January 16, 2010

Thanks to the author of the Bleeding Heart Show, I have got my hands on a copy of Sunstein’s white paper entitled Conspiracy Theories (2008). I’d like to draw your attention to some interesting features.

Cass Sunstein.

According to the introduction of the paper, polls suggest that roughly one-third of Americans subscribe to a ‘conspiracy theory’ about the September 11th attacks in NYC, whether it be that the government knew about it in advance, conspired in it themselves, or covered up Israeli involvement. In most illuminating fashion, the paper then states:

When civil rights and civil liberties are absent, people lack multiple information sources, and they are more likely to accept conspiracy theories.

And in the footnote:

we assume that low civil liberties tend to produce terrorism, a hypothesis that is supported by the mechanisms we adduce.

These are both impeccable reasons for ensuring that the government does absolutely nothing to curtail domestic civil liberties. Unfortunately, the US and the UK have adopted the opposite strategy. Do I begin to hope that Cass Sunstein will be able to sway the Obama administration away from the apparently disastrous policy of restricting civil liberties in response to terrorism?

Carrying on, we find a definition of conspiracy theories for the purposes of the paper:

We bracket the most difficult questions here and suggest more intuitively that a conspiracy theory can generally be counted as such if it is an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role. This account seems to capture the essence of the most prominent and influential conspiracy theories.

Hmm. Except that sometimes powerful people do plot and plan whilst concealing their role in events. In fact, this sort of behaviour by powerful people is not at all rare; we have special government departments for doing just that abroad. It would be enchantingly naive to think such machinations did not also take place, at least a little bit, at home.

Sunstein’s good, though; he identifies this problem:

Of course some conspiracy theories, under our definition, have turned out to be true. The Watergate hotel room used by Democratic National Committee was, in fact, bugged by Republican officials, operating at the behest of the White House. In the 1950s, the Central Intelligence Agency did, in fact, administer LSD and related drugs under Project MKULTRA, in an effort to investigate the possibility of “mind control.” Operation Northwoods, a rumored plan by the Department of Defense to simulate acts of terrorism and to blame them on Cuba, really was proposed by high-level officials (though the plan never went into effect).

But wait!

Our focus throughout is on false conspiracy theories, not true ones. Our ultimate goal is to explore how public officials might undermine such theories, and as a general rule, true accounts should not be undermined.

But… but… how does a person not in possession of an unelected, unaccountable high-government job know the difference? How does the average American twerp distinguish between false theories that public officials rightly undermine, and true theories that public officials undermine in the name of security? After all, public officials have been known to do just that. How do we know whether a public official is telling us the truth or lying to us? Perhaps Sunstein will tell us…

He sort of does, in fact, when he discusses the distinction between justified and unjustified false belief. For example:

…the false belief in Santa Claus is justified, because children generally have good reason to believe what their parents tell them and follow a sensible heuristic (“if my parents say it, it is probably true”)…

[efoods]I posit that the belief (true or false) that politicians lie to the electorate is also a ’sensible heuristic.’ It has been known to happen rather more often than is comfortable to the electorate. Politicians wishing to disseminate true information to dispel conspiracy theories are caught in a trap of their own devising: they are the Boy Who Cried Wolf. People would be far more willing to trust the establishment if the establishment were more trustworthy, and if its members were not caught lying, misrepresenting, prevaricating, and peculating so depressingly often.

Sunstein goes on:

A broader point is that conspiracy theories overestimate the competence and discretion of officials and bureaucracies, who are assumed to be able to make and carry out sophisticated secret plans, despite abundant evidence that in open societies government action does not usually remain secret for very long. Recall that a distinctive feature of conspiracy theories is that they attribute immense power to the agents of the conspiracy; the attribution is usually implausible but also makes the theories especially vulnerable to challenge. Consider all the work that must be done to hide and to cover up the government’s role in producing a terrorist attack on its own territory, or in arranging to kill political opponents. In a closed society, secrets are not difficult to keep, and distrust of official accounts makes a great deal of sense. In such societies, conspiracy theories are both more likely to be true and harder to show to be false in light of available information. But when the press is free, and when checks and balances are in force, government cannot easily keep its conspiracies hidden for long.

I quite agree with this piece of analysis; nevertheless it appears to break a fundamental precept of logical argument: namely, it begs the question. Where is the proof that America is a free society? Its conspiracy theories are false. How we do know its conspiracy theories are false? Because it is a free society. Minus 10, Mr Sunstein; see me after class.

He goes on:

This is not, and is not be intended to be, a general claim that conspiracy theories are unjustified or unwarranted. Much depends on the background state of knowledge- producing institutions. If those institutions are generally trustworthy, in part because they are embedded in an open society with a well-functioning marketplace of ideas and free flow of information, then conspiracy theories will generally (which is not to say always) be unjustified.

Let us use Sunstein’s own reasoning. I put it to you that the widespread prevalence of true conspiracy theories, as mentioned above, mean that the knowledge-producing institutions of the US are NOT trustworthy and that there is NOT a free flow of information in American society. Ergo even the false conspiracy theories are justified.

On our account, a defining feature of conspiracy theories is that they are extremely resistant to correction, certainly through direct denials or counterspeech by government officials.

Yes, because of the aforementioned ’sensible heuristic’ that, on the balance of probability, government officials are liars. When you do not trust the messenger, you do not believe the message.

…the self- sealing quality of conspiracy theories creates serious practical problems for government; direct attempts to dispel the theory can usually be folded into the theory itself, as just one more ploy by powerful machinators to cover their tracks. A denial may, for example, be taken as a confirmation.


Okay, look. I have made an effort in good faith to read this paper and give Sunstein a fairer hearing, but stuff like this:

Perhaps conspiracy theories are a product of mental illness, such as paranoia or narcissism. And indeed, there can be no doubt that some people who accept conspiracy theories are mentally ill and subject to delusions. But we have seen that in many communities and even nations, such theories are widely held. It is not plausible to suggest that all or most members of those communities are afflicted by mental illness. The most important conspiracy theories are hardly limited to those who suffer from any kind of pathology.

is beyond the pale. I don’t care that he dismisses the ‘individual pathology’ claim; he’s still making a major mistake.

That mistake is to lay the responsibility for false beliefs and conspiracy theories entirely on the shoulders of those who hold them, and absolve the establishment of any responsibility for the phenomena. Indeed, for Sunstein, conspiracy theories are a problem which government officials must solve, seeking out ways to promote the right sources of information and improve people’s ‘crippled’ epistemologies.

And isn’t that always how it is for people like this? The Herd have a pathology! Government must fix!

Until people like Sunstein realise that it takes two to tango, they’re never going to reach their solution, whether it be through nudging, taxes, prohibitions, bans, thought crimes or any other ridiculous measure that fails to take into account that public officials are part of the problem. So, the government wants people to believe the information it gives them, to trust them, to feel that society is open and transparent free? Public officials, I’ve got your solution right here:


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