There has been much concern with the abundance of misinformation in public discourse. Although misinformation has always played a role in political debate, its character has shifted from support for a specific position to a ‘shock and chaos’ stream of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Exposure to conspiracy theories can have considerable adverse impact on society. I argue that scholars therefore have a responsibility to combat conspiracy theories and misinformation generally. Exercising this responsibility requires an understanding of the varied rhetorical roles of conspiracy theories. Here I focus on instances in which people reject unequivocal scientific evidence and invoke conspiracy theories, or radical anti-institutional positions, based on ideological imperatives. I argue that those positions do not always reflect true attitudes. Instead, people may deploy extreme rhetoric as a pragmatic tool of political expression. I investigate this possibility by focusing on the role of conspiracy theories in the rejection of science. Conspiracist cognition and rhetoric violate the epistemic standards that underpin science. Ironically, this violation of epistemic standards renders conspiracy theories useful as a rationally deployed tool that serves political purposes. I present a study that confirms that conspiracy theories can be deployed to support worldview-motivated denial of science. I provide suggestions how scholars can debunk or defang conspiratorial rhetoric.
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- Cognitive Science
- social construction
- conspiracy theories