Cass Sunstein: Still Plagued by his Imaginary Conspiracy Theorists

A story had came out the other day, based on a study published in JAMA, about how lots of Americans believe in nutty medical conspiracy theories (i.e., flouride is bad, cell phone radiation is bad, etc) --

You're Not Alone: Medical Conspiracies Believed By Many

I found it nauseating to read and ending up commenting on multiple locations out of frustration, wasting time. But then I noticed that Voice of America was running the story ( and that Cass Sunstein was also writing about it, and it was even more nauseating, yet also, made sense. They are trying so hard to hold onto their control of things that their propaganda is practically glowing.

The good news is that about half of Americans see through it. The comments on these news articles indicated the views went about 50-50 -- half the people understood that being skeptical of every official claim is healthy and normal, and half the people were automatically defending authority without question

How dare anyone question fluoride in the water?
(The Sierra Club is against adding it to water -- oops, another conspiracist organization!

How dare anyone question cell phone radiation?

You must be a medical conspiracy theorist too and so can join the ranks of the rejected uneducated masses who also think the world is flat.

Nonetheless, it was nice to see that commenters were outing Sunstein openly, not many, but a few --

Guest • a day ago
Here's a conspiracy theory for you: The brief bio of Sunstein Newsday provides fails to mention, quite revealingly, that Cass Sunstein served the Obama administration as Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. He was hired a year after he and a coauthor wrote this in a harvard scholarly paper (aptly titled 'conspiracy theories'):

"We can readily imagine a series of possible responses [to inconvenient conspiracy theories]

(1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing.
(2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories.
(3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories.
(4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech.
(5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help."

It's a great summary.

Here is the JAMA article this is all based around --

Research Letter | March 17, 2014
Medical Conspiracy Theories and Health Behaviors in the United States
J. Eric Oliver, PhD; Thomas Wood, MA
JAMA Internal Medicine, online March 17, 2014.

Looking closer I note that the both authors are not scientists, but are affiliated with the Department of Political Science, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois . . . JAMA is likely the front-line of defending medical establishment authority. It's an incredible resource, of course, but also has stooped to a very low level by publishing this.

Doing a brief search, I find that core readings for the course at Dartmouth: GOVT 30: Political Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories, by Prof. Brendan Nyhan (, include:

Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood (N.d.). “Conspiracy Theories, Magi-
cal Thinking, and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion.” Unpublished

Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule (2009). “Conspiracy Theories:
Causes and Cures.” Journal of Political Philosophy 17(2): 202–227.

Why is the philosophy of "conspiracy theories" being taught to students in political science? I guess they will go on to be at the frontline of the propaganda wars themselves, if they go into politics.

Anyway, here is the latest masterly article by the great Sunstein . . . who hopes to tax Americans who dare to advocate ideas that diverge from the official story. See also:

Sunstein: The conspiracy of conspiracy theories
Originally published: March 18, 2014 1:10 PM
Updated: March 18, 2014 1:37 PM
By CASS R. SUNSTEIN, Bloomberg

Conspiracy theories surround us. Witness the reactions on the Internet to the tragic and mysterious disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Perhaps North Korea hijacked the plane. Perhaps the Chinese are responsible.

Maybe aliens did it.

Or, as an influential legislator in Iran contended to the New York Times, perhaps the U.S. "kidnapped" the lost plane in an effort to "sabotage the relationship between Iran and China and South East Asia." Pick your topic: Ukraine, the National Security Agency, assassinations of national leaders, recent economic crises, the authorship of Shakespeare's plays -- it's child's play to assemble a host of apparent clues, and to connect a bunch of dots, to support a relevant conspiracy theory. In recent years, for example, many Americans have become convinced that the U.S. (or Israel) was responsible for the attacks of Sept. 11, that the U.S. government concocted HIV/AIDS, and that federal agencies have conspired to hide the association between vaccines and autism.

Why do people accept such theories? The first explanation points to people's predispositions. Some of us count as "conspiracists" in the sense that we have a strong inclination to accept such theories. Not surprisingly, conspiracists tend to have a sense of personal powerlessness; they are also more likely to conspire themselves.

From the Reuters link "For

From the Reuters link

"For the new study, he and his colleagues used data from 1,351 adults who answered an online survey between August and September 2013. The data were then weighted to represent the U.S. population".

"Although it is common to disparage adherents of conspiracy theories as a delusional fringe of paranoid cranks, our data suggest that medical conspiracy theories are widely known, broadly endorsed, and highly predictive of many common health behaviors," the researchers write in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Oliver said the findings may have implications for doctors.

Instead of viewing patients who believe in conspiracy theories as crazy, he said doctors should realize those patients may be less likely to follow a prescription regimen.

"researchers say people who believed in conspiracies were more likely to use alternative medicine and to avoid traditional medicine".

"It's important to increase information about health and science to the public," he said. "I think scientific thinking is not a very intuitive way to see the world. For people who don't have a lot of education, it's relatively easy to reject the scientific way of thinking about things."

"viewing patients who believe in conspiracy theories as crazy"

Indeed, there is nuance in the text of some of the coverage and the original research, but the screaming headlines are what gets the job done, plus the follow-on opinion pieces like Sunstein's that proclaim, "Maybe aliens did it", and so serve to cement the categorization as "nuts" vs "regular people".

This is why the world was sure there were WMDs in Iraq, even as they retracted it quickly -- the claims were in the headlines while the retractions were buried in text on the back pages (that only those who already are deeply concerned are bothering to read).

The headlines on these -- painting common sense skepticism about mainstream medical practices and claims as "conspiracy theories" -- is ultimately what counts for the propaganda war.

Strange idea of what's 'traditional'

"researchers say people who believed in conspiracies were more likely to use alternative medicine and to avoid traditional medicine".

I find it ironic to see the word 'traditional' applied to the pharmaceutical industry and pill-popping society we have today.

Conspiracy - redefined and infantilized

The term "conspiracy theory" is a very effective tool employed (by authority and their corporate media lackeys) to shut down discussion of controversial topics, especially events in which those in positions of authority are implicated in (often heinous) criminal activity. The development of the phrase got its kick start with the assassination of JFK - which pitted two competing theories against each other: the "lone assassin" theory, versus the multiple shooter, or "conspiracy" theory. (The common definition of conspiracy is a "plan by two or more people to commit a crime").

So, in a concerted effort to discredit those who disagreed with the "Lee Harvey Oswald did it alone" explanation, the term "conspiracy theory" has been systematically and broadly linked with the absurd and nonsensical. By the time of 9/11, "conspiracy theory" has a long history of being viewed by the mainstream as an expression of ridicule - having been subject to regular association in the popular media with beyond the fringe topics with no basis in science or reality - like what was often seen printed in the Weekly World News and other tabloids. The huge majority of these discredited subjects (aliens, Bigfoot, Elvis' two headed cousin etc) have nothing to do with a conspiracy either; the term has effectively been redefined and infantilized. One of the first things uttered by President Bush in the immediate wake of 9/11 was "let us not tolerate outrageous conspiracy theories". His handlers and speechwriters were obviously clued up in this matter.

To inject "conspiracy theory" in a discussion has the effect of protecting suspicious parties from fair scrutiny - the challenge is discredited by default. I guess one has to hand it to those who are in control of the popular awareness - unfortunately they are masters of mass psychological manipulation.

Well said.

Well said, bloggulator.

Well said

Similar to points I made in this comment:

And you're right--a lot of the things that the 'conspiracy' label gets attached to nowadays actually have nothing to do with conspiracy! While the word by definition concerns two or more people, these days I find people using it even with respect to individuals, in cases where someone suspects that individual of speaking or acting with ulterior motives. Any suggestion that something shouldn't necessarily be taken at face value--whether pertaining to groups, twosomes, or individuals--is characterized nowadays as a 'conspiracy theory.'

Another thing about this that really bothers me, though, is when people who actually are informed fall for the trap of accepting this warped usage of the term 'conspiracy.' They'll be relating information that is not widely circulated--only to defensively say, 'And it's not a conspiracy theory!' While in many cases, what they're talking about does indeed concern a conspiracy! (though it may not be theoretical). Rather than lead people to understand how the term is abused in our day, they implicitly accept it as a synonym for 'crazy' or 'false.' All this does is feed the Orwellian beast, encouraging people to accept that government officials and corporate media really do have the power over language itself that they megalomaniacally presume to have; failing to appreciate Orwell's warning that one of the main battlefields between tyranny and resistance in our time would be that of language itself.

Also, on this subject, anyone who hasn't seen the first 2-and-a-half minutes of Part 1 of 'Evidence of Revision' should check it out. It's great! (As is the whole film, but it's the opening part that's relevant here):



If snakes could talk.....

If snakes could talk, they would object to that comparison.

Good sign of the times...

This article has some pretty impressive comments that are voted up to the top. Good sign of the times.

A Rewrite of His Previous Article

The book is a collection of some of Sunstein's most controversial articles, starting with his article on conspiracy theories. He says the article has been substantially revised. I haven't had time to read it yet, but it looks pretty similar to the original. (You can read most of it, and the Preface which discusses it, through Amazon's Look Inside feature.) The other articles don't seem to bear much on the issue of conspiracy theories.

Thanks for the link

I hope everyone can take a moment to contribute some wisdom . . .

Wait, I'm confused.........

I would like to see this book but I refuse to buy it. This whole trick of salting administrations with intellectual "elites" has been tried before: Sunstein (Harvard), Samantha Powers (Harvard), Obama (Harvard) etc. The biggest admission in the wake of the Vietnam war was that the leading "intelligentsia" in the government said that they never had any substantive theories that they believed in, vis a vis prosecuting the war, and that it was all posturing. If you turned this book in in college, by the way, you would be heavily docked in grading for being off the theme. According to Amazon the book includes items that are not per se "conspirtorial," same sex marriage being a prime example:

• Why perfectly rational people sometimes believe crazy conspiracy theories
• What wealthy countries should and should not do about climate change
• Why governments should allow same-sex marriage, and what the “right to marry” is all about
• Why animals have rights (and what that means)
• Why we “misfear,” meaning get scared when we should be unconcerned and are unconcerned when we should get scared
• What kinds of losses make us miserable, and what kinds of losses are absolutely fine
• How to find the balance between religious freedom and gender equality
• And much more . . .

By the way, their are much better polemicists and rhetoraticians on this blog than Sunstein could ever hope to be.

Cass Sunstein interviewed on MSNBC

"The TRUTHERS Who Perpetuate The Theory That The U.S. (GOVERNMENT) Orchestrated The Attacks On 9/11"