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You should see how David Ray Griffin takes apart Cass Sunstein’s work on consipiracy theories. Griffin’s book is titled Cognitive Infiltration: An Obama Appointee’s Plan to Undermine the 9/11 Conspiracy Theory. Sunstein and Vermeule’s paper, titled Conspiracy Theories, looks impressive when you first pick it up. It’s dressed up in academic language. It has the academy’s hallmarks, too: abstract, footnotes, bibliography. It’s also shot through with academic arrogance.

Cognitive Infiltration book cover.

The article aims to discuss how we should respond to conspiracy theories. Because false conspiracy theories have pernicious effects, Sunstein says we can’t let them stand unchallenged. For instance, government should undermine accounts of 9/11 that suggest it was a false flag operation. We can’t let people believe in false theories that make them wonder whethger the government is guilty of such criminal acts, Sunstein suggests. Sunstein wrote the paper not long before President Obama hired Sunstein to help him make the government look good.

Cass Sunstein

The interesting thing about this paper, published in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 2009, is that Sunstein has nothing to say about how we tell whether or not a conspiracy theory is false. He acknowledges that some conspiracy theories are true. The government’s account of 9/11 is a conspiracy theory. Sunstein clearly believes it to be true. He believes other accounts of 9/11 – accounts that challenge the government’s conspiracy theory – to be false. He compares the other accounts to parents’ conspiracy theory about Santa Claus. This comparison is just a vehicle for ridicule not a vehicle for discovering of qualities 9/11 conspiracy theories by analogy.

One comparison we might consider is that between cognitive infiltration and old-fashioned, regular infiltration. Cognitive infiltration, in plain language, means to get inside someone’s head! You want to confuse people so they no longer feel sure about what is true and what is false. Then you can lead them to trust or at least accept government again, rather than fellow conspiracy theorists.

Note a key element of Sunstein’s thinking here. If you assume 9/11 conspiracy theories to be false, and perniciously false, you will start to think of ways to counter-act their influence, even if your proposals are illegal. Another observation is that Sunstein so fears the damage to government’s reputation from 9/11 conspiracy theories, he promotes illegal conduct that would damage government’s reputation even more.