Another Peer-reviewed Publication: “Conspiracy Theories and Stylized Facts”

Conspiracy Theories and Stylized Facts
Journal for Peace and Justice Studies 21.2 (Fall 2011)
Kurtis Hagen

ABSTRACT: In an article published in the Journal of Political Philosophy, Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule argue that the government and its allies ought to actively undermine groups that espouse conspiracy theories deemed “demonstrably false.” They propose infiltrating such groups in order to “cure” conspiracy theorists by treating their “crippled epistemology” with “cognitive diversity.” They base their proposal on an analysis of the “causes” of such conspiracy theories, which emphasizes informational and reputational cascades. Some may regard their proposal as outrageous and anti-democratic. I agree. However, in this article I merely argue that their argument is flawed in at least the following ways: (1) their account of the popularity of conspiracy theories is implausible, and (2) their proposal relies on misleading “stylized facts,” including a caricature of those who doubt official narratives and a deceptive depiction of the relevant history.

[NOTE: I have included extended excerpts below, believing this to be within the scope of fair use.]


Informational Cascades  

[NOTE: Using Sunstein’s own words, with only slight change, I show how the “informational cascades” that he posits as an explanation for the popularity of conspiracy theories actually does a better job of explaining the popularity of dubious official stories.]

To see how informational cascades work, imagine a group of people who are trying to assign responsibility for some loss of life. Assume that the group members are announcing their views in sequence. Each member attends, reasonably enough, to the judgments of others. Andrews is the first to speak. He suggests that the event was caused [just how the government said it was] by a conspiracy of powerful people. Barnes now knows Andrews’s judgment; she should certainly go along with Andrew’s account if she agrees independently with him. But if her independent judgment is otherwise, she would—if she trusts Andrews no more and no less than she trusts herself—be indifferent about what to do, and she might simply flip a coin.

Now turn to a third person, Charleton. Suppose that both Andrews and Barnes have endorsed the [official story] conspiracy theory, but that Charleton’s own view, based on limited information, suggests that they are probably wrong. In that event, Charleton might well ignore what he knows and follow Andrews and Barnes. It is likely, after all, that both Andrews and Barnes had evidence for their conclusion, and unless Charleton thinks that his own information is better than theirs, he should follow their lead. If he does, Charleton is in a cascade. Of course Charleton will resist if he has sufficient grounds to think that Andrews and Barnes are being foolish. But if he lacks those grounds, he is likely to go along with them. This may happen even if Andrews initially speculated in a way that does not fit the facts. That initial speculation, in this example, can start a process by which a number of people are led to participate in a cascade, accepting [an official story] a conspiracy theory whose factual foundations are fragile. (2009, 213-214)

[NOTE: I then quote David Coady, who has done excellent work on the philosophy of Conspiracy Theories.]

[W]hat economists call “information cascades” … can occur when people express their opinions about the answer to a certain question in a publicly observable sequence. If the early answers exhibit a clear pattern, people later in the sequence may decide to ignore their own epistemic resources and follow the crowd. This belief forming strategy can be entirely rational from an individual perspective, especially if expertise on the question at issue is reasonably evenly spread amongst the group. The epistemic danger of this strategy, however, is that it can lead to relevant evidence being hidden from those later in the sequence. Thus the epistemic authority of thousands of people can be largely illusory, because most of them have had their beliefs determined by a handful of people at the beginning of the sequence.(Coady 2007, pp. 201-202)

Coady concludes that while it may be “individually rational” to go with the flow of an information cascade, “those who refuse to follow the crowd, even when the crowd is more likely to be right than they are, are doing the crowd an epistemic favour by making it more likely that the crowd itself (or at least most of its members) gets the right answer in the end” (Coady 2007, p. 202). It is worth noticing, in this context, that doubters of the official narrative of September 11 often point out how quickly an official narrative took form. Even if not explicitly mentioning “informational cascades” by name, they clearly imply that setting up such cascades is a propaganda device that was employed very early on. [NOTE: See footnote 8 below.]

The point is this: while the dynamic that Sunstein and Vermeule describe is undoubtedly real, it cuts both ways. Indeed, it works better as an explanation for the success of questionable official stories. Regarding September 11, some rather strong informational cascades (whether based on accuraste information or not) affirming the official story began flowing within the first couple days, and have continued unabated. Counter-currents, on the other hand, didn’t start flowing with any strength for several years. And, as we will see at the end of this article, many of those skeptical of the official story of 9/11 cannot plausibly be regarded as uncritically following an informational cascade. Further, regardless of what peculiar informational cascades might flow through a particular group or segment within society, it is a rare individual indeed that would have escaped the mainstream media and their relentless support of the official story. At most, a counter-cascade could have emboldened some to question the official story, and perhaps to begin to investigate the issue. But it is hardly plausible that a counter-narrative informational cascade would overwhelm the official/mainstream informational flood—unless it drew strength in some other way, perhaps from empirical evidence. (Whether such evidence is truly substantial cannot be adjudicated a priori, but must be carefully examined.)

Reputational Cascades

When it comes to reputational cascades, Sunstein and Vermeule’s theory is even less plausible.

Consider the case of Professor Woodward of the University of New Hampshire. According to an article in the Boston Globe:  “[William] Woodward, a professor of the history of psychology, is a member of Scholars For 9/11 Truth.… When news of Woodward’s association with the group was published in a local newspaper last month, it sparked a hail of criticism from New Hampshire politicians.” In another article, James Joyner describes the situation as follows: “A student activist group has joined New Hampshire Governor John Lynch in trying to fire a University of New Hampshire professor for his rather bizarre views on the 9/11 attacks…. Gov. John Lynch called Woodward’s beliefs ‘completely crazy and offensive’ and asked the trustees to investigate.” In an update to that article, Joyner writes: “[A reader] comments, ‘I don’t think they should fire him. I think they should ridicule him. Publicly. Relentlessly.’ Agreed. That is much more in the spirit of higher education than censorship.” Now, does this sound like an environment wherein a reputational cascade can plausibly account for the spread of the theory in question? I don’t think so. Further, I can personally attest, as an untenured assistant professor, that if I were basing my decision on enhancing, or at least not tarnishing, my reputation with my colleagues, advocating “9/11 Truth” would be just about the last thing I would do. Indeed, I have spoken my views on this matter with considerable hesitation, and despite the negative effect on my reputation that doing so risks.

Cure: Cognitive Infiltration

[NOTE: In this section I discuss Sunstein’s proposed cognitive infiltrations, emphasizing the likelihood of abuse.]



Stylized Fact 1: Conspiracy Theories are the Stuff of Rumor

[NOTE: In this section I discuss Sunstein’s treatment of the Northwoods Document, and quote the document at length.] 

Stylized Fact 2: Clear Evidence Proves Conspiracy Theories False 

In the on-line draft for their paper, Sunstein and Vermeule write: “Some theorists claimed that no plane had hit the pentagon; even after the Department of Defense released video frames showing Flight 77 approaching the building….” (2008, 20, emphasis added). If Sunstein and Vermeule had bothered to actually look at the video frames in question, they would have seen that they do not in fact show anything recognizable as Flight 77 approaching the Pentagon. Indeed, it is not at all clear what these pictures show. Apparently, either Sunstein and Vermeule were just too busy advocating infiltration to objectively scrutinize the evidence or else they were “stylizing” their facts.

To be clear, my own view is that this part of the official story of 9/11—that Flight 77 hit the Pentagon—is probably true, but it is far from clearly demonstrated. Indeed, legitimate questions remain. Further, there are other aspects of the official story that I am convinced are false—and the implications are quite troubling. Each person can make his or her own judgment on these matters—though I would hope that they do so only after consulting evidence, rather than being swept along by a cascade. In any case, it is positively chilling to think that, if I sought to meet with likeminded individuals, our group could be targeted for infiltration, if Sunstein and Vermeule get their way. Further, it adds insult to injury for them to use “evidence” as useless as the supposed pictures of Flight 77 approaching the Pentagon to “demonstrate” the falseness of alternative views, and thereby justify their deceit-countenancing, anti-democratic, and epistemically suspect proposal.

Stylized Fact 3: Infiltration is Benign

[Sunstein and Vermeule give] the impression that the COINTELPRO operations of the fifties and sixties were benign and passive. But this is far from accurate. … Had Sunstein and Vermeule given a fuller and more accurate account of the true history of past practices it would have aroused a sense that great caution is warranted here. So, instead they stylized.

Stylized Fact 4: Conspiracy Theorists are Ignorant Extremists

Perhaps the most significant stylized fact involves the caricature of so-called “conspiracy theorists.” Sunstein and Vermeule charge that conspiracy theorists generally have “little (relevant) information” (2009, 211) or “skewed information” (2009, 210). But these claims are unsubstantiated. Indeed, many people that would count as “conspiracy theorists” by Sunstein and Vermeule’s lights are very informed people. Indeed, many have specialized knowledge of one relevant kind or another. But Sunstein and Vermeule ignore them.

For example, if all those who take the possibility of insider complicity in 9/11 seriously count, then that list includes established scholars that have employed their considerable research talents to understanding the dynamics surrounding 9/11, such as David Ray Griffin, Peter Dale Scott, Nefeez Ahmed, Graeme MacQueen, and Lance deHaven-Smith, to name just a few; it includes established scientists such as Steven Jones, Jeffrey Farrer, Niels Harrit, and many others; it includes professional engineers and architects—more than 1,400 have joined Richard Gage in calling for a new investigation into the collapse of the Twin Towers and Building 7; and it includes intelligence professionals such as Ray McGovern, Robert Steele, and (with some vacillation) Robert Baer. That is still a short list, but the complete list of highly accomplished people that have publicly questioned the official account is at least in the hundreds. By caricaturing conspiracy theorists Sunstein and Vermeule are able to pretend that informed and sophisticated “conspiracy theorists” do not exist. But these people do exist. And Sunstein and Vermeule’s theory of the “causes” of conspiracy theories does not account for them. And the inappropriateness of their proposed “cure” is most clear with regard to them.


The stylization of the above “facts” is important for the plausibility of Sunstein and Vermeule’s argument. (1) If they fully acknowledged the history of real conspiracies and of theories that remain plausible if unproven, that would undermine the efficacy of their dismissive rhetorical posture regarding the ill-defined subset of those theories that they believe should be undermined by covert operations. (2) By whitewashing the history of infiltration, they make their proposal seem less obviously problematic. (3) By presenting a caricature of people who espouse so-called “conspiracy theories” they treat them as “other”—something less than human, beings not fully capable of reason. Otherwise, a more honest, straightforward, and respectful response would seem more appropriate than infiltration. And, finally, (4) the bogus claim that there are pictures clearly identifiable as Flight 77 approaching the Pentagon made it possible for them to ridicule conspiracy theorists who continue to believe otherwise. Without recourse to ridicule, Sunstein and Vermeule’s responsibility to deal with the relevant evidence in a more sophisticated way would have been more evident. And addressing the evidence in this way would have made establishing the falsity of all theories that suggest insider complicity in 9/11 hopelessly complex. But without establishing the clear falsity of those theories, they could not reasonably frame the members of the so-called “9/11 Truth Movement” as irrational, and thus appropriate targets for cognitive infiltration. In the final version of their paper, Sunstein and Vermeule drop the reference to Flight 77, presumably because it is so easily exposed as false. In the end, they didn’t really need to resort to ridicule based on false evidence. The strong bias against conspiracy theories, especially in the academy, evidentially seems to make such ridicule unnecessary.

It should have been obvious to these law professors that peaceful, law-abiding people ought to be allowed to freely assemble and pursue their inquiries without infiltration. And this applies even to those who promote theories that posit state crimes against democracy (SCADs)—which is what the most “dangerous” so-called “conspiracy theories” typically allege. In the interest of peace and justice, all people ought to be allowed to freely assemble and pursue their inquiries without infiltration—even those, or perhaps especially those, who dare to question official narratives.



1 This paper (a version, that is, resembling the conference presentation but under the title “Conspiracy Theories and Stylized Facts”) and my earlier paper on this topic, “Is Infiltration of ‘Extremist Groups’ Justified?” (Hagen 2010), were both denied peer review at the Journal of Political Philosophy, which published Sunstein and Vermeule’s article.

8  An example that has been cited is footage from FOX News of (ostensibly) a random bystander, a man wearing a Harley Davidson shirt, who was interviewed shortly after the towers had collapsed. The “bystander” says, “… and then I witnessed both towers collapse, one first and than the other, mostly due to structural failure because the fire was just too intense.” See “9/11: Clues you might have missed” The FOX News presentation is cut so as to reinforce the message, presenting a close-up of some flames as the young man says, “Because the fire was just too intense.” The allegation is that presenting this on the news was supposed to begin or reinforce a cascade of opinion that the towers collapsed due to fire (in addition to the damage from the plane), not from something more elaborate. Once this opinion became entrenched, most people continued to believe it, despite the discovery of significant quantities of red-grey chips in the dust that appear to be bits of unreacted nano-thermite (see Harrit 2009). Or, so it could be argued.

[NOTE: Please support the Journal for Peace and Justice Studies in any way that seems appropriate. Citations should be to the original JPJS article. Here is the website:
Unfortunately, it has not yet been updated to show the most recent issue.]