Napolitano, M. G., 2021. Conspiracy Theories and Evidential Self-insulation. In Bernecker, Flowerree, Grundmann eds. The Epistemology of Fake News. OUP (pp. 82-105). Available here.

Abstract: What are conspiracy theories? And what, if anything, is epistemically wrong with them? I offer an account on which conspiracy theories are a unique way of holding a belief in a conspiracy. Specifically, I take conspiracy theories to be self-insulating beliefs in conspiracies. On this view, conspiracy theorists have their conspiratorial beliefs in a way that is immune to revision by counter-evidence. I argue that conspiracy theories are always irrational. Although conspiracy theories involve an expectation to encounter some seemingly disconfirming evidence (allegedly planted by the conspirators), resistance to all counter-evidence cannot be justified on these grounds.

Napolitano, M. G. & Reuter, K., 2021. What is a Conspiracy Theory? Erkenntnis.

Abstract: In much of the current academic and public discussion, conspiracy theories are portrayed as a negative phenomenon, linked to misinformation, mistrust in experts and institutions, and political propaganda. Rather surprisingly, however, philosophers working on this topic have been reluctant to incorporate a negatively evaluative aspect when either analyzing or engineering the concept conspiracy theory. In this paper, we present empirical data on the nature of the concept conspiracy theory from five studies designed to test the existence, prevalence and exact form of an evaluative dimension to the ordinary concept conspiracy theory. These results reveal that, while there is a descriptive concept of conspiracy theory, the predominant use of conspiracy theory is deeply evaluative, encoding information about epistemic deficiency and often also derogatory and disparaging information. On the basis of these results, we present a new strategy for engineering conspiracy theory to promote theoretical investigations and institutional discussions of this phenomenon. We argue for engineering conspiracy theory to encode an epistemic evaluation, and to introduce a descriptive expression – such as ‘conspiratorial explanation’ – to refer to the purely descriptive concept conspiracy theory.

Works in Progress

(Email me for drafts)

“Conspiracy Theories, Resistance to Evidence, and Political Propaganda: Why are Conspiracy Theories So Effective For Advancing Political Causes?” – under review

Whether deliberate or not, appeals to alleged conspiracies seem to advance political causes in an extraordinarily powerful way. In this paper, I offer an account of why this is so. I argue that some beliefs in conspiracies are resilient, in the sense that they are resistant to being revised, while maintaining the semblance of being rationally held in the face of mounting counterevidence. On my view, conspiracy allegations work as political propaganda when they contribute to the formation and sustainment of resilient beliefs in conspiracies. These resilient beliefs in conspiracies in turn structure the social-epistemic environment of their believers and isolate them from dissenting voices. Injecting and sustaining conspiracy narratives in political discourse can thus be an insidious and effective strategy for advancing political agendas and closing off rational debate.

“Belief Revision, Belief-Centered Groups, and Echo Chambers”

A prominent aspect of many paradigmatic absurd beliefs that people subscribe to, including beliefs in absurd conspiracies – such as beliefs about the Earth being flat, Covid vaccines injecting materials activated by 5g for mind control – is that these beliefs typically occur in communities that are defined by them: for instance, flat-earthers are the community of those who believe the earth is flat, anti-vaxxers are a community that believes vaccines to be a hoax. This collective aspect of these problematic beliefs seems to have been largely overlooked by contemporary social epistemologists. In this paper, I identify and describe a collective epistemic structure, which I call belief-centered groups, and show how it can supplement explanations of the same phenomena that individualistic social epistemology has been trying to capture in terms of filter bubbles and echo chambers.

“Collective Conspiracy Theories”

I identify and outline a collective phenomenon related to conspiracy theorizing, which involves groups, and which I call collective conspiracy theories. I adopt a Gilbertian joint commitment framework to highlight some aspects of conspiracy theories’ group dynamics which help explain the persistence and resilience of conspiracy theories. Among groups held together only by a joint commitment in a conspiracy belief, the collective is resistant to evidence in virtue of its common bond – if the conspiracy is rejected, then the group falls apart.

“Prejudice, Generics, and Resistance to Evidence”

I defend the idea that prejudices are always irrational based on an analysis of their generic structure. I argue that the generic propositions that are typically taken to constitute prejudices can in fact be interpreted in two different ways – as expressing statistical facts about the members of the predicated kind, and as expressing principled connections between the kind and a certain property. I then argue that on each interpretation – though for different reasons and in different ways – the belief in a generic statement ought to be disconfirmed by recalcitrant cases.

“Prejudice and Essentialized Representations of Social Groups”

I offer an analysis of what’s wrong with certain prejudicial beliefs which identifies the source of the problem with how these beliefs express an essentialized relation between the kind and the property in question.

“Echo Chambers

Encyclopedia entry to appear in The Blackwell Companion to Epistemology, Third Edition (Kurt Sylvan, ed.).


Conspiracy Theories and Resistance to Evidence
I defend a new account of conspiracy theories, which identifies the epistemological features that make them a socially relevant – and worrisome – phenomenon in our society. On my view, a conspiracy theory is an individual or group belief in a conspiracy which is resistant to disconfirmation by evidence. My approach diverges from the dominant accounts discussed in the literature in two major ways. First, rather than discussing conspiracy theories as a type of theory about a conspiracy, I focus on conspiracy theories as a type of belief in a conspiracy, namely, one that resists revision in light of new evidence. Secondly, conspiracy theories on my view are not only an individual phenomenon, but also, importantly, a collective one. The account I propose, and the shift in focus it produces, provides a new framework for understanding and addressing the phenomenon of conspiracy theories as a problem in our society with deep implications for our political environments.

Recent and upcoming talks

“Why are Conspiracy Theories So Effective For Advancing Political Causes?”
Invited lecture, Extreme Beliefs Project, VU Amsterdam, June 1st 2023
CSUF Philosophy Symposium, Cal State Fullerton, April 2023
Conspiracy Theories Symposium, University of Miami, March 2023
Eastern APA, Montreal, January 2023
UNC Chapel Hill PPE Workshop, August 2022

“Group Belief and Conspiracy Theories”
Values Institute Colloquium, Humanities Center, University of San Diego,  April 2022