Bayesian belief protection: A study of belief in conspiracy theories

Philosophical Psychology 36 (6):1182-1207 (2023)
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Abstract

Several philosophers and psychologists have characterized belief in conspiracy theories as a product of irrational reasoning. Proponents of conspiracy theories apparently resist revising their beliefs given disconfirming evidence and tend to believe in more than one conspiracy, even when the relevant beliefs are mutually inconsistent. In this paper, we bring leading views on conspiracy theoretic beliefs closer together by exploring their rationality under a probabilistic framework. We question the claim that the irrationality of conspiracy theoretic beliefs stems from an inadequate response to disconfirming evidence and internal incoherence. Drawing analogies to Lakatosian research programs, we argue that maintaining a core conspiracy belief can be Bayes-rational when it is embedded in a network of auxiliary beliefs, which can be revised to protect the more central belief from disconfirmation. We propose that the (ir)rationality associated with conspiracy belief lies not in a flawed updating method, but in their failure to converge toward well-confirmed, stable belief networks in the long run. This approach not only reconciles previously disjointed views, but also points toward more specific hypotheses explaining why some agents may be prone to adopting beliefs in conspiracy theories.

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