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“The Anti-conspiracy Theory Conspiracy”, or “They’re Coming To Get Me”

January 16, 2010

This is a response to this blog about this paper

Let me start by saying, Cass Sunstein is my favorite modern-liberal so I had mixed feelings when I heard he was going to be the “regulatory czar”. On the one hand I was excited that a very intelligent and thoughtful person would be in a position of power, but on the other hand I was suspicious because government doesn’t really want an intelligent and thoughtful person.

I have, since first reading Sunstein, had some fundamental disagreements with him, but I take that as a matter of a basic difference of preferences/philosophical views (i.e. a difference that cannot be eliminated by teaching someone the “right” way). I did not, until reading the article by Glen Greenwald, believe him to be (especially) naive, nor did I believe him to hold scary authoritarian views.

Sunstein’s views are incredibly naive for assuming away Public Choice Theory. That said, as someone who rides public transit I enjoy his discussion of the “crippled epistemology” inherent in conspiracy theories. In this paper, Sunstein does a good job of presenting interesting concepts, but draws flawed conclusions.

On page 9 he discusses how government attempts to counter conspiracy theories can be folded into the conspiracy itself. “Here is evidence that your conspiracy is false.” “You giving me that evidence is part of the conspiracy!” A proposal to create a government conspiracy to counter conspiracy theories is pretty ironic. It is also like teasing a psychotic by attacking them when nobody is looking. Another irony is that Sunstein’s claim that conspiracy theories are negatively correlated with civil liberties, and yet he believes we can counter conspiracy theories with a plan that would offer the government significant power to abuse and reduce civil liberties. Freedom without the freedom to be wrong or do the wrong thing is not freedom (this is analogous to a profit-not-loss economy; removing one side of the equation gives up nearly all its advantages).

Sunstien recognizes that believing conspiracy theories is individually rational (for those who do hold them), but believes that they can become information cascades which result in a large number of people ignoring good information and accepting bad information. Sunstein believes that action should be taken against information cascades. Unfortunately, this type of information cascade is not the same as cascades he’s written about in other places. A stock market bubble is an information cascade that would be fairly easy to (morally) justify trying to pop, although in practice it’s not likely that government interference would be good on net (simply because it’s not likely they will be able to take the right action often enough to cover the cost of all the times they will take the wrong action). On the other hand, an information cascade dealing with how people view the political world should be left alone. Giving a political entity the power to try to manipulate political views is inviting abuse; this is part of the reason we have separation of church and state (and should have separation of school and state).

Sunstein is afraid of some conspiracy theorists holding their views so strongly that they are willing to cause considerable damage. He cites the Oklahoma City bombing as an example. It’s worth noting that the bombing was  a rare occurrence; we are not under constant threat of being blown up by conspiracy theorists. If we did as Sunstein suggests, and invested in preventing rare occurrences such as these, we would be wasting our time and money. The threats Sunstein’s program might prevent are overshadowed by the cost of preventing them.

Strangely, he believes that by outsourcing, the government can act without acting. If I say something on behalf of the government because the government had me say that, it is the government speaking as much as me. You cannot assume that enlisted “nongovernmental officials” will have credibility simply because they do not tell anyone they are being funded by the government.

His discussion of infiltration is, frankly, strange. It seems unlikely that such infiltration would be successful. Try going into a political chat room dedicated to people with views different than your own and see how many people have tried and failed to persuade these people to their side. Sunstein’s statement, “…there would seem to be ample reason for government efforts to introduce some cognitive diversity into the groups that generate conspiracy theories,” is more applicable to schools than the internet.

On net, I think Sunstein is smart but misguided. I do not believe that he is an authoritarian, or even an elitist (as Greenwald believes), but I think he is naive of the role of corruption in government. This paper flies in the face of his book, Why Societies Need Dissent. The cost of Sunstein’s policies would be great, the risk of abuse would be high and the gain would be negligible.

All told, conspiracy theories wouldn’t be a problem for the government if the government weren’t big enough to warrant conspiracy theories.

Some thought provoking quotes:

“Karl Popper famously argued that conspiracy theories overlook the pervasive unintended consequences of political and social action; they assume that all consequences must have been intended by someone.”

“A broader point is that conspiracy theories overestimate the competence anddiscretion 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.”

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Ajay Menon permalink
    January 17, 2010 5:55 am

    I agree with everything you said. Do you have any thoughts about Sunstein’s idea of libertarian paternalism?

  2. October 25, 2011 11:10 am

    Oklahoma wasn’t executed by conspiracy theorists, rather actual conspirators ;-)
    Of course this is coming from somebody who believes the government is capable of lies and murders. I guess that makes me a lunatic. ;-)

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