Beyond Truth and Lies

Conspiracy Theories, Post-Truth, and the Conditions of Public Debate

Political discourse is increasingly characterised by ‘alternative facts’, fake news and conspiracy theories, including notions of Western civilisation being infiltrated by Muslims, or of the invention and spread of COVID-19 by an oppressive elite. Our project contends that this phenomenon is an expression of what has been dubbed post-truth politics, judged by many to be a threat to liberal democracy because of how such politics seems to preclude shared descriptions of reality. Accordingly dialogue across ideological boundaries – traditionally understood as a cornerstone of liberal democracy – is made difficult or impossible.

Both in academic research and in public debate, many attempts have been made to counter post-truth politics by asserting the importance of facts, evidence-based decision-making, and rational argumentation. Such work is important, but also insufficient; the chasm between ideological camps is at the same time a dispute about what constitutes the rationality and persuasiveness of an argument in the first place. For example, many conspiracy theorists may have different criteria from liberal democrats for what a convincing argument looks like.

In light of the above, our project aims to find new ways to engage in critical political dialogue. To do so, we need to understand post-truth politics, including how, for example, political conspiracy theorists think, reason, and argue. Our aim to establish a basis for dialogue that allows for a critical discussion of what is said but such that it allows for criticism to be heard even by those who are criticized. The matter is distinct from reasserting the significance truth or facts. It requires a different arena in which criticism can be dialogically expressed and considered.

Our research focuses on a concrete and central element of post-truth politics, namely politics that has conspiratorial thinking as an essential component. There are obvious similarities between conspiratorial thinking and religious belief, including that both conspiracists and religious practitioners hope to change the circumstances of human lives. Both conspiracy theories and religious claims also rest on foundations that are difficult to verify scientifically; they may even appear irrational to outsiders. Theories from the history of religious studies can help us understand this. And with political science methods, we can examine the mutually antagonistic relationship between conspiracy theories and liberal democracy. Continental philosophical methods are deployed to analyse the relationship between the concepts of truth, trust, and authenticity. A first, fundamental question is how conspiracy theories and associated political movements challenge hitherto existing criteria for critical political dialogue. A second question is what basis can be established for a critical political dialogue if traditional notions of truth and rationality are no longer workable.

Our hypothesis is that what makes people accept political rhetoric and support political movements based on conspiracy thinking is that these are perceived as authentic in the first place, and that this is more important than whether what is said is “true” in more conventional senses.

We argue that an understanding of conspiracy thinking is an important piece of the puzzle for evaluating post-truth politics and that by finding other grounds for critical political dialogue, we can contribute to a healthy political conversation where different views are accommodated and where contradictions exist but without such polarization as to make criticism impossible.

The project is led by Associate Professor Patrik Fridlund (PhD in Philosophy of Religion, 2007). The other participants are postdoctoral researchers Aaron James Goldman (PhD in Religious Studies, 2021) and Rickard Andersson (PhD in Political Science, 2021). The project also involves internationally renowned researchers who contribute their expertise as political scientists, sociologists, hermeneuticians, and theologians. It also includes a research collaboration with the Centre for the History of Knowledge (LUCK) at the Department of History at Lund University, led by Professor Johan Östlingand other research projects and research programmes.

You can also read a Swedish version of this project statement.

Page Manager: aaron.goldmanctr.luse | 2023-03-10