Conspiracy Theories

Sunstein, C. R., & Vermeule, A. (2009). Conspiracy theories: Causes and cures. Journal of Political Philosophy, 17(2), 202-227.

(Sunstein 2009)

#Abstracts and Summary

Arthor Information

Cass Robert Sunstein (born September 21, 1954) is an American legal scholar, particularly in the fields of constitutional law, administrative law, environmental law, and law and behavioral economics, who was the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012. For 27 years, Sunstein taught at the University of Chicago Law School. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School.
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Our primary claim is that conspiracy theories typically stem not from irrationality or mental illness of any kind but from a “crippled epistemology,” in the form of a sharply limited number of (relevant) informational sources.

Lack of multiple information sources can increase the risk of embracing conspiracy theories.


  • understand the sources of conspiracy theories
  • examine potential government responses

The most distinctive characteristic of the consipracy theories is self-insulating quality. The very statements and facts the might disallow them can be taken as further evidence to enhance their belief.

Define Conspiracy

an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role. They can be true or false reasoning and facts. But mostly are false.

A Further Question

whether true or false, harmful or benign, are conspiracy theories justified?

Justification and truth are different issues; a true belief may be unjustified, and a justified belief may be untrue.

Karl Popper

The pervasive unintended consequences of political and social action are overlooked by conspiracy theory. The basic idea of Popper is that many social effects, including large movements in the economy, occur as a result of the acts and omissions of many people, none of whom intended to cause those effects. Nonetheless, there is a pervasive human tendency to think that effects are caused by intentional action, especially by those who stand to benefit (the “cui bono?” maxim), and for this reason conspiracy theories have considerable but unwarranted appeal. On one reading of Popper’s account, those who accept conspiracy theories are following a sensible heuristic, to the effect that consequences are intended; that heuristic often works well but it also produces systematic errors, especially in the context of outcomes that are a product of social interactions among numerous people.

Popper on appeal of conspiracy:

Their appeal lies in the attribution of otherwise inexplicable events to intentional action, and to an unwillingness to accept the possibility that significant adverse consequences may be a product of invisible hand mechanisms (such as market forces or evolutionary pressures) or of simple chance, rather than of anyone’s plans.

It is luck against causal story. We as human being have a natural tendency of disliking pure uncertainty.

Group Polarization

members of a deliberating group typically end up in a more extreme position in line with their tendencies before deliberation began.


  1. Cass R Sunstein, Adrian Vermeule. Conspiracy theories: Causes and cures. Journal of Political Philosophy 17, 202–227 Wiley Online Library, 2009.

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