Matthew Denith: Investigating Conspiracy Theories

Lecture: “Investigating Conspiracy Theories: The case for treating conspiracy theories seriously, even the (apparently) ridiculous ones”

The term ‘conspiracy theory’ gets a bad rap in public discourse. Recent academic work – particularly in History, Philosophy and Sociology – has convincingly argued that conspiracy theories do not deserve their bad reputation; conspiracies don’t just happen but many pejoratively-labelled ‘conspiracy theories’ have turned out to be warranted. But what would it be like to treat such theories seriously enough to engage in a systemic investigation of them? How do we sort good theories from bad? What counts as evidence for or against a conspiracy? Just who would investigate such theories? Drawing together a swath of recent academic work on these things we call ‘conspiracy theories’ I argue that we ought to treat conspiracy theories seriously and investigate them, even if that means sometimes we have to ponder whether alien shape-shifting reptiles run our governments.

Speaker: Matthew Dentith is  author of Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories, Co-host and producer of the Podcaster’s Guide to the Conspiracy Podcast. Dentith has published numerous papers in such venues as Social Epistemology, Episteme, Skeptic,and The Fortean Times.


Jack Bratich: “If Everyone is a Conspiracy Theorist, is Anyone?”

Jack Bratich, Associate Professor of Journalism & Media Studies, School of Communication & Media
Rutgers University

“If Everyone is a Conspiracy Theorist, is Anyone? Trumpism, Mutually Assured Disqualification, and Communications Warfare”

Jack Bratich is author of Conspiracy Panics: Political Rationality and Popular Culture, as well as co-editor of Foucault, Cultural Studies, and Governmentality, (with Cameron McCarthy and Jeremy Packer, 2003). He takes a critical approach to the intersection of popular culture and political culture and studies media culture as an intersection of power, knowledge, and subjectivity.


John L. Jackson, Jr: “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”

John L. Jackson, Jr.
Richard Perry University Professor, Dean, School of Social Policy & Practice
University of Pennsylvania

“What’s Love Got to Do with It?: Race, Conspiracy Theories, and Contemporary Hip-Hop Culture”

Dr. Jackson’s research examines racial and class-based differences in contemporary urban environments, including a focus on how urbanites themselves theorize and deploy those differences in everyday interactions. He is author of several books, including Impolite Conversations: On Race, Class, Sex, Religion, and Politics (co-written with Cora Daniels, 2014), and Thin Description: Ethnography and the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, 2013. He has also been involved—as producer, director, etc.—in the creation of several films, including Bad Friday: Rastafari After Coral Gardens (2010) and African-Americans and the Bible.

John L. Jackson, Jr. is Dean of the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice and the Richard Perry University Professor of Communication, Africana Studies, and Anthropology.

Joseph Uscinksi: “Conspiracy Theories are for Losers”

Joseph Uscinski
Associate Professor of Political Science
University of Miami

“Conspiracy Theories are for Losers”

Americans have believed in conspiracy theories since before the United States united. A ceaseless array of conspiracy accusations have demonized witches, Freemasons, foreigners, red coats, black helicopters, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, fifth columns, the government, and more recently, Vladimir Putin. The common assumption is that conspiracy theories are nothing more than the delusions of paranoid minds trying to make sense of an ever more complicated world. However, the evidence tells a different story. In this talk, Professor Uscinski will show that conspiracy theories follow a strategic logic: they are tools used by the powerless to attack and defend against the powerful. Conspiracy theories must conform to this logic, or they will not be successful. In this way, conspiracy theories are for losers.

Joseph Uscinski is associate professor of political science at University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida and co-author of American Conspiracy Theories (Oxford, 2014).

Lee Basham: “Governing by Crisis: How Toxic Truths Subvert Mainstream Investigation”

Lee Basham
Professor of Philosophy, South Texas College

“Governing by Crisis: How Toxic Truths Subvert Mainstream Investigation”

We live in an information hierarchy where a few control what most believe about important events and the causes of these. The basic institutions of this hierarchy are mainstream media and national law enforcement. Conspiracy theorists often accuse both of covering up extreme government crimes and deceptions; a shadow government controls what they tell us and more importantly, what they don’t. The typical response to this allegation is that these institutions are in the business of reliably revealing political conspiracies, not covering them up. Unfortunately, our best justifications for this hope fail. Worse, cover-up does not require descending control of information by high-placed conspirators. Instead, the problem is built into the foundation forces of our information hierarchy. Some conspiratorial scenarios are too toxic for our institutions of public information to investigate, let alone disseminate. Cover-up by our information hierarchy through intentional neglect of investigation, not descending control by a shadow government, becomes predictable. The danger this poses is extreme.

Lee Basham is a professor of philosophy at South Texas College and the University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley. He is author of a number of professional articles and book chapters on issues surrounding contemporary conspiracy theories.


Kathryn Olmsted: “Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Out to Get You”

Kathryn Olmsted
Professor of History, UC Davis

“Just Because You’re Paranoid Doesn’t Mean They’re Not Out to Get You: Anti-Government Conspiracy Theories in American History”

Kathryn Olmsted is author of multiple books on U.S. and California history, including Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI (1996), Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (2009), and Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism (2015). Her research develops one of the central themes of 20th-century U.S. history: the influence of anticommunism on American politics and policy.

Nick Schou and Ben Collins: “Contemporary and Classic Conspiracy Theories”

Nick Schou, Managing Editor, OC Weekl
Ben Collins, Senior News Editor at The Daily Beast

“Contemporary and classic conspiracy theories: a journalistic perspective”

Ben Collins is the co-host of Truther, a weekly podcast from The Daily Beast’s Erin Gloria Ryan, Ben Collins and Gideon Resnick that explores how conspiracies get started as they happen. In addition, Collins regularly covers conspiracy theories as part of his work atThe Daily Beast, having covered Alex Jones, Pizza Gate, NASA’s slave colony on Mars, and the widespread belief in “crisis actors.” His work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Esquire, and The Boston Globe among other places.

Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is managing editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner, and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).