Open science, open society

In the latest issue of the Times Literary Supplement, David Runciman reviews ‘Rethinking the Open Society: New Adversaries and New Opportunities (paywall). The book is a collection of essays, edited by Michael Ignatieff and Stefan Roch, that grew out of a lecture series at Central European University looking at the idea of the open society in response to recent political developments and ongoing issues.

Runciman opens his review with some interesting remarks about the origins of the phrase “conspiracy theory”. Conspiracies are ancient, but the word ‘theory’ is a relatively new addition. It was coined by Karl Popper in the second edition of The Open Society & Its Enemies (1952), and is now in such widespread use that, notes Runciman, not a single one of the chapters in this book notes the link between the origins of these two ideas (the open society, and conspiracy theories) – despite the clear contemporary relevance of each to the other.

There’s a link also between the expression “conspiracy theory” and Popper’s philosophy of science. Popper famously argued that what the scientist does, or should aim to do, is falsify. Hypotheses that are falsified can be let go, those that resist falsification become accepted, and in this way does scientific knowledge progress. Regarding society Popper argued in favour of openness because, he believed, openness is the best way for political ideas – ‘theories’ – to be similarly exposed. It is, in Popper’s view, only in open societies that ideas and policies can be freely debated such that, as in a scientific lab, only the worthwhile survive.

Yet within the philosophy of science it has long been noted that while Popper’s insights are important, they are also clearly insufficient as a description of how science works. Many people, philosophers and scientists both, have observed that very little science is strictly falsificationist. In particular, when hypotheses appear to be falsified advocates tend not to reject them, but instead to explore further arguments and ad hoc additional theories that might accommodate the discrepancy. And indeed sometimes they are right to do so. (Mathematics is, incidentally, an unusual exception to these trends: here good counter-arguments are more readily accepted. Christophe Heintz blogged about this on these very pages some years ago.)

Runciman observes in his review that today’s enemies of the open society “have become more adaptable… often pay[ing] lip service to the idea of openness”. Also: “today’s conspiracy theorists are… opportunistic… They fit their theories to a rapidly changing landscape… adapting to the circumstances as they arise.” In other words: enemies of the open society are doing just what scientists do when their ideas are challenged! In neither case are good counter arguments straight-forwardly accepted. Counter-counter-arguments are sought instead.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting that scientists have the sort of motivations that enemies of the open society seem to. What I’m pointing out is the similarity in epistemic practice. There are, clearly, many differences between the politician and the scientist, but one thing they share is that when ideas are challenged they do not often reason in a Socratic way, treating arguments simply and only on their merits. Instead, they reason in an argumentative way, searching for whatever counter arguments might best persuade their target audience. In the political case, just as in science, this can mean developing ad hoc additional theories to explain why they were right all along. The conspiracy is simply one type of additional theory, albeit an often potent one.

None of this should be too surprising: argumentation is, after all, how people reason in general (Mercier & Sperber, 2017). To counter these tendencies we need, in science and society both, institutions and practices that function to keep us on the epistemic straight and narrow. In ways that are imperfect but nevertheless in the right direction, this is what peer review and open research practices do for science; and what democratic accountability and a free press do for society.


Ignatieff, M., & Roch, S. (Eds.) (2018). Rethinking the Open Society: New Adversaries and New Opportunities. CEU Press.

Mercier, H., & Sperber, D. (2017). The Enigma of Reason. Harvard University Press.

Popper, K. (1952). The Open Society & Its Enemies (2nd edition). Routledge.


  • Dan Sperber
    Dan Sperber 25 January 2019 (14:46)

    Conspiracy theorists still have a bright future
    If Hugo Mercier and I are right, then it is not just conspiracy theorists and scientists who, when presented with objections to their claims, tend to look for counter-counter arguments and, if needed, minimal modifications of their claims that undermine the objections. This rather, is a general feature of exchanges of arguments, and one, moreover, that can be defended on epistemic ground: before accepting an objection and renouncing a view you think you had strong reasons to accept, examine how valid and damaging the objection is. As Thom notes, scientists and conspiracy theorists have very different motivations for doing so. The main difference, in the end, I would argue, is that scientists have a real interest (not just for the love of truth but also because this is what is rewarded in their profession) in adopting a view that can, among competent scientists, withstand objections, and hence have also a strong interest in forsaking views that it turns out cannot. Conspiracy theorists on the other hand are taking a social and political stance that makes them stand apart and against the majority, or the powerful, or the “elite.” This stance is aimed at a typically incompetent audience and developed by people who typically become quite competent in the theory itself but much less so in its subject-matter. Such a stance is attractive to many and provides social benefits to its most vocal advocate quite apart from its epistemic merits.
    I agree that social practices and institutions may promote (or impede) an epistemically fruitful use of argumentation, but I would argue that they can be designed to do so only to the extent that what is at stake in these practices and institutions depends on the achievement of epistemic goals. In politics, for instance, this is the case only to a rather limited extent.
    Conspiracy theorists develop their own practices and institutions, with the added resources now provided by the Web. They get their rewards from their undemanding audience. They often get extra benefit from helping politicians pursue their own goals. They are, if anything, protected by democratic institutions (and, arguably, they should be). Conspiracy theorists still have happy days in front of them.

  • Thom Scott-Phillips
    Thom Scott-Phillips 26 January 2019 (13:50)

    Do open societies promote the fruitful use of argumentation? Why?
    Thank you Dan for the comment, which addresses a question that my post raises but does not answer, namely: if scientists and conspiracy theorists have some similar epistemic practices, then where is the difference (for there clearly is a difference)?

    I am not yet sure about your second paragraph. You write, “social practices and institutions may promote (or impede) an epistemically fruitful use of argumentation… only to the extent that what is at stake in these practices and institutions depends on the achievement of epistemic goals”. It is certainly true that epistemic goals are not the ultimate stakes in politics, and this fact complicates the comparison. Nevertheless, can it not be the case that one function of (say) a free press and fair elections is to promote and maintain the relevance of knowledge to politics – and that they do this by facilitating the epistemically fruitful use of argumentation?

  • Cathal O'Madagain 14 February 2019 (20:34)

    science vs conspiracy: crazy vs paranoid
    Very interesting to see you make this connection between conspiracy thinking and scientific thinking. Another thing they have in common is that really breakthrough scientific theories, when introduced first, tend to sound crazy (the air is made of parts? time passes more quickly at the top of a mountain?!), and a similar level of craziness in speculation is required of the inventors of both (cf. Bohr: “your theory is crazy, but not crazy enough to be true”). Conspiracy theorizing in general could even be seen as a sort of instinct for theoretical innovation misfiring. So what is causing the instinct to misfire in some groups, producing nonsense, and to work so well in others, producing innovation and breakthroughs?

    One risk factor is surely what Dan mentioned – that if you don’t know your subject matter, you can’t tell if your theory should be rejected. But conspiracy theorists tend to obsess over their subject matter, so I wonder if that’s the whole explanation. Another could be the lack of feedback from others with conflicting perspectives, a sort of echo-chamber problem that a lack of a free press, as you have pointed out, will exacerbate. However, many groups that peddle in conspiracy theories have easy access to other perspectives if they simply cared to look them up (everyone who watches Fox knows they’ll get a different perspective if they watch CNN).

    Here is a further factor that could be playing a role: paranoia. Conspiracy theorists tend to think that some or most of their community are deliberately misleading them (in the limit, anyone who doesn’t agree with the theory must be in on the conspiracy). Scientists don’t (generally) think this. They know other scientists disagree with them, but they don’t think other scientists are deliberately trying to deceive them. If you are generally trusting of information from others, then counter-arguments will work (eventually) to disabuse you of false ideas. But if you are overwhelmingly mistrusting, you’ll get stuck. The breakdown of trust in a society may be a good predictor of the rise of conspiracy thinking.

    This is one reason to think that a default epistemic attitude, for the purpose of the effective distribution of information in a group, needs to be one of trust; and that a default attitude of mistrust will lead to a sort of epistemic collapse. If Putty Nosed monkeys were paranoid, “Pyow” wouldn’t mean jack.