Conspiracy Theories and Fallibilism

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission)

Many philosophers of science since Charles S. Pierce have touted fallibilism as basic to the methodology of science. Writers on conspiracy theory also often note that the views of conspiracy theorists are not fallibilistic or falsifiable. But people can mean various things by these statements. Here I briefly describe a couple of the different ways that beliefs are described as unfalsifiable or non-fallibilistic.

In Pierce’s philosophy, fallibilism is a basic principle needed for science. Pierce, like Karl Popper, after him, thought that science did not progress so much by the formulation of theories that would be confirmed and then ever more accepted as true. Instead, science proceeds as we gather evidence and develop explanatory theories on the basis of that evidence that we maintain as fixed beliefs as long as no strong disconfirming evidence overturns the beliefs.

In “The Fixation of Belief” Pierce describes the route toward knowledge in this way. His view is not that we gain truths that we can know will once and for all will remain true. Instead, we need to embrace science as a method of inquiry and fix our beliefs using the scientific method until that method leads to evidence that shows the flaws of our accepted theory or until a new theory emerges that somehow better explains the existing evidence. He essentially affirms that we should give up Truth with a capital T and affirm truth with a small t. Knowledge progresses as we adopt a non-dogmatic stance toward evidence and revise beliefs in light of newly discovered evidence.

In this context, Pierce proposes the concept of abduction. This is the logical/scientific procedure whereby we come to affirm a theory not that we know is indubitably true but that is the best explanation of the available evidence. Scientific investigation may not bring us the apodeictic certainty Descartes had hoped for. But it offers us a guide that is useful for our given pragmatic concerns. In this, it is possible that we will come to some settled views, but we cannot be entirely sure which ones those are. Karl Popper works along these lines in his Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge.

In his writing on science, he also proposes that all real scientific statements must in principle be constituted by falsifiable hypotheses. This is one of the main characteristics separating science and pseudo-science and metaphysics. Pseudoscience, like metaphysics, fails by proposing hypotheses that are not really amenable to counter-evidence. These sorts of statements are just untestable.

One example is the belief that God is infinite. What would be the evidence that God is or isn’t infinite? One might ask how we, with finite minds, could judge whether any other mind is infinite. That may seem to disconfirm the hypothesis. But in fact, this wouldn’t mean that God isn’t infinite. It would just mean we wouldn’t have the means to know even if he was. For Popper, such statements cannot be accepted as knowledge claims. Certain pseudo-sciences also are based on first principles that are not testable or falsifiable. Those too should be rejected.* This is basic background to an understanding of fallibilism.

But in fact, in many cases in which beliefs are said to be non-fallibilistic something different is meant from what Pierce or Popper tend to describe. The literature on conspiracy theories provides us with an example. When scholars maintain that conspiracy theorists have beliefs that are not falsifiable, they don’t mean that the statements themselves could not be falsified. They mean instead, one of two things: Either the conspiracy theorist will change the meaning of the terms so that despite all appearances the conspiracy theory still stands. Or the conspiracy theorist will not accept any reasonable standard of evidence as disconfirming his or her belief.

One example of the first strategy was offered by Sean Spicer in his earliest statements about the crowd sizes at the Trump inauguration. While this isn’t necessarily a conspiracy theory, it might be said to fit into a kind of “reputational conspiracy” of the Trump administration to convince America of its glory and grandeur despite all appearances. In any case, in the very first press conference of the Trump administration, Sean Spicer claimed “This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.” When pressed it was clear that he meant that the inauguration crowd at the Washington Mall was larger than the one at the Obama inauguration or any other in history. The Trump administration even doctored a photo to try to make the point, and they largely continued to insist on this.

But on one later occasion Spicer proposed that this statement about the inauguration crowd was meant to include TV viewers. The statement logically did entail this possibility. After all, he said they “in person and around the globe.” So although Trump and his administration largely simply continued to deny the evidence when faced with any that showed the smaller crowd size at the Trump inauguration, still when pushed into a corner, the administration and the Trump supporters could refer to the TV and even social media audiences. The statement then might be true. But the difficulty was in having any accurate data with which to evaluate the statement.

If we look more directly at the last of the Trump conspiracy theories-–that there was massive fraud in the 2020 election–we see something else going on though, namely the second type of rationalization process I mentioned. For many, their belief that the Democrats were involved in massive election fraud in 2020 is unfalsifiable. Here, however, the belief is maintained in the face of all counter-evidence not with sliding definitions of terms but by denying the legitimacy of any of the real evidence that might disconfirm the statement.

For these conspiracy theorists, any source provided to dispute the fraud allegation is challenged, regardless of how reliable. And by contrast, nearly any evidence supporting the claim is accepted, regardless of how dubious. Here, the statement that there was massive voter fraud is not unfalsifiable on the face of it. There is reliable evidence to show there was no such fraud. Nonetheless, because no reasonable evidence is accepted, a statement about fraud that is in principle falsifiable becomes a statement about fraud that de facto is not.

For more on an earlier related discussion see “The Election Recounts and the Backfire Effect on Trump’s Base.


*Popper, for his part, also strongly questioned Freudian psychoanalysis and Marxism for being pseudo-scientific but for slightly different reasons. In his (I believe mistaken) view, first principles of both theories were just dogmatic assertions, not testable and not falsifiable.

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11 thoughts on “Conspiracy Theories and Fallibilism

  1. Since today is Pearl Harbor Day, let’s take a brief look at the evidence of complicity; an eight decade old conspiracy theory.
    FDR wanted to go to war, however he couldn’t have known where a Japanese attack would be or where it would come from. The attack occurred not only on Hawaii, but also at the Philippines and elsewhere, so how would naval intelligence know where the attacks would come from, where they would be and at what time they would commence?
    Thus the December ‘41 attacks are a fabrication: since FDR wanted war, it is supposed that he was a clairvoyant who knew the logistics of the attacks. And although FDR wanted war, he surely did not want the Pacific fleet crippled.
    A falsifiable old conspiracy theory.

    But then, the theory that the ensuing globalized war was an imperialist plot is not falsifiable—rather it is glossed over.

  2. Not only are many of these false beliefs permitted (and encouraged) to spread like some uncontrolled firewire, they are supported with threats of lawsuits (free speech) and some even granted immunity from liability, such as the proposal under consideration by Congress for businesses immunity for COVID-19 infections. Are these the embryonic steps back to “A war of all against all?”

  3. Let us look at Al Brooks’s analysis of the happenings at Pearl Harbor in Dec. 1941.

    First Al states as fact, that The President wanted to go to War, I also ‘Think’ that is the truth, but I have no proof to corroborate my belief, yet I still believe it and obviously so does Al!
    Al next states, as fact, that the President could not have known where a Japanese attack would be, or where it would come from,,,so how would naval Intelligence know where the attacks would come from, where they would be and when they would commence?
    Surely, as the President of the USA he may have known a great deal more than we can imagine, and indeed He didn’t want the Pacific fleet crippled and that is why the fleet was ordered to sea with some older ‘expendable’ Ships left to create the incident that would inflame the public and start the War!
    He may not have known all the details but he surely knew they were coming!
    So the President got the War and the public was united in the execution of that War, there is nothing that gives more meaning to Life than having a Cause you believe in to fight for!
    Did it happen this way? Well who knows really? The purpose of history isn’t simply to record the facts but to record the facts in a way that satisfy s a Humans need to feel pride in the Noble Deeds we have sacrificed for and accomplished in the past!
    I wasn’t there but significant members of my Family were and everybody was proud of them and all the Proud Patriots who managed to come home again!

    Belief comes from instinct, Al and I both essentially believe the Pearl Harbor story because we want to, not because we know the real details, I am happy to believe we went to the Moon, it seems that if you want to, you can now believe a different story.
    All the best to you and yours, Happy Holidays!

  4. The Holidays are slightly happier knowing that January 20th is about six weeks from now.

    We shouldn’t be too proud, though, of the Pacific war. Japanese soldiers are to this day (a holiday of sorts) widely called savages—yet savagery in war is synonymous with bravery.
    Dropping nukes on Japan was savage, wasn’t it?
    We agree that FDR’s role in the Pearl Harbor attack is unknown, therefore his non-culpability is not falsifiable? Only his intent for war is known.

  5. Al and John:

    Here are a few thoughts, not systemic enough.

    As you mention, Al, this is an old conspiracy theory.Conspiracies theories of course occur in a world in which conspiracies exist. There may have been a time when this conspiracy theory was dangerous–perhaps in halting an otherwise worthy war effort?

    Most of us don’t have enough knowledge of historic details to adequately evaluate many of the conspiracy theories in history. As the events about which there are conspiracy theories exist become more distant typically any danger posed by the conspiracy theory also subsides. At this point, what are the real world consequences of believing that the most plausible historical theory is that the bombing was a conspiracy? We might ask the same about the myriad of conspiracy theories about Kennedy. At some point, these become more or less of historic interest.

    Most of the conspiracy theories I focused on have graver impacts now. If 70% of the Republicans believe that Biden did not fairly win the election, that makes a real difference, since it might convince many Republicans not to cooperate with someone they view as an “illegitimate president.” Or it could lead some to violence him to allegedly protect our democracy. Similarly, if large numbers of people believe that the coronavirus is human generated by those hoping to implant tracking mechanisms in humans with a virus immunization, this is not just an idle belief. It inspires the believers to a course of action–avoiding immunization–that can have real world harm.

    Most of us have so little knowledge of history that we believe textbook versions of events with little further thought. I don’t think the two earlier historical cases I mentioned would make much difference (though they could have some peripheral harm). Of another order of magnitude would be Holocaust denial. This one becomes more dangerous in light of the existence of the state of Israel, which is related to the War, but also in light of the historical persecution of Jews.

    One question to ask when evaluating conspiracy theories is why there is a political interest in it. Another is what the potential harm is.

    History, though, is a discipline where theoreticians generally engage in abduction–reasoning to the best explanation. Here as new evidence is unearthed clearly the best explanation may change. Most of us don’t have a detailed enough knowledge of history to know the difference in average cases. So we generally end up in a situation of trusting in the general consensus of experts when there is one (or giving into biases we may have because of wanting to be good patriots or what have you).

  6. Kevin:

    We’re in a very strange situation now where the president is a conspiracy theorist. There is a political interest in spreading the conspiracy theories for his own political gain. At least regarding domestic affairs, we’re on a terrain here that I don’t think we’ve seen used on a majority population. These are strange and dangerous times.

  7. Darrell,
    Correct on all counts. Only brought up Pearl Harbor because today is the anniversary—plus it is (that is to say was) the first big ‘modern’ conspiracy theory. Infallible that FDR wanted war: he told some around him, and hinted to many others, that the US had to get in the war before Hitler and Tojo prevailed. And later to prevent Russian troops from conquering too much of the west.
    Now we don’t know what FDR knew in advance of the attack, but we don’t want to ascribe a tea-reading ability to FDR. The Japanese attacked numerous targets right around the time of Pearl Harbor; FDR couldn’t possibly have known all the islands that would be attacked, or when, unless he had been a godlike all knowing all seeing being.
    FDR might have known some details of a coming attack, yet unless he had been a Japanese admiral he couldn’t have known enough to consider him complicit.
    FDR was complicit in wanting the war, not in the attacks. A naval man such as he would not have wished thousands of sailors to die or be injured—and there is no evidence whatsoever that he did.

  8. Beyond falsifiablility as a basis for truth, Peirce famously jumpstarted pragmatism, which William James further defined and popularized. Applying its principles to Trump, we ask not whether his conspiracies can be proven false but what is the result of believing in them. As Peirce wrote, “ Consider the practical effects of the objects of your conception. Then, your conception of those effects is the whole of your conception of the object.” Consider, then, the practical effects of believing the president’s fraud conspiracy. A true believer is soon stuck in a web of misinformation designed to prop up the lie. He/she loses faith in democracy, a loss that actual facts need not cause. Finally, the true believer is forced to trust a narrowing and self-interested group of people and their fringe sources. And that’s just individual belief. If a critical mass of Americans believes such “truth,” the consequences might be much more dire.

  9. I’m not so sure that there’s necessarily no way that a being can prove that it is infinite even if the universe itself is finite.

    Perhaps you could ask such a being not what is but what isn’t. Ask them if there is anything that is conceivable that does not exist and what if anything the things are that do not exist. Or ask for some type of real number that could not be known to a being except of a certain complexity.

  10. You are correct. The pragmatic effects of believing Trump’s lies and conspiracies are disastrous. JGM

  11. Bruce: You make a great point about the broader application of pragmatism to considerations of conspiratorial beliefs. I’m not sure how long we can withstand this onslaught of disinformation about matters of such importance to our political institutions.

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