Contrary to the Official Explanation

“How do you feel about vaccinations? Do you think they’re a good thing?” These questions say a great deal about the person asking them, but context is also important. Have you heard of the vaccine industry? Who’s funding these things?

For some people, being skeptical means more than waiting for the evidence. It’s easier, when faced with competing discourses, to base one’s decisions on the promise of certainty. “Once science has proven that it is safe,” he might say “I will consider it.” Until then he prefers the uncertainty of nature running its course to the uncertainty of fallible, imperfect, and mysterious science.

Nature doesn’t conspire. No one is lining its pockets:

a conspiracy theory is an explanation of an event that is contrary or opposed to the received, official explanation. Let’s call the received explanation from an official source the official story (Buenting & Taylor, 2010).

The cultural authority of science makes it particularly vulnerable to accusations of officialness. Is it ever rational to accept a conspiracy account? Buenting and Taylor defend conspiratorial thinking, arguing that given that we have uncovered actual conspiracies it is not always irrational to believe in a conspiracy theory. How to differentiate?

Suspicion is not enough. Buenting and Taylor offer a method for discriminating:

We suggest that if there is fortuitous data that supports the official story—that is, if there are highly fortunate incidences within the official story that suggest alternative explanations—then supporters of the official story need to offer good reasons not to accept the conspiratorial account. Without such reasons, we submit that it is irrational to believe the official story instead of the conspiracy theory (because of the ‘fishy’ nature of the evidence for the official story); or, rather, we submit that it is rational to believe the conspiracy theory (Buenting & Taylor, 2010).

What counts as fortunate incidences? Isn’t the tendency to see data as fortuitous part of conspiratorial thinking? How convenient that autism appeared out of nowhere. I would think that the idea that we’re being deceived by powers beyond our control must be a very seductive strategy for managing anxiety.

Joel Buenting and Jason TaylorConspiracy Theories and Fortuitous DataPhilosophy of the Social Sciences December 2010 40: 567-578, first published on May 24, 2010 doi:10.1177/0048393109350750