Contesting epistemic authority: Conspiracy theories on the boundaries of science

Jaron Harambam, Stef Aupers

Conspiracy theories are immensely popular today, yet in the social sciences they are often dismissed as “irrational,” “bad science,” or “religious belief.” In this study, we take a cultural sociological approach and argue that this persistent disqualification is a form of “boundary work” that obscures rather than clarifies how and why conspiracy theorists challenge the epistemic authority of science. Based on a qualitative study of the Dutch conspiracy milieu, we distinguish three critiques that are motivated by encounters with scientific experts in everyday life: the alleged dogmatism of modern science, the intimate relation of scientific knowledge production with vested interests, and the exclusion of lay knowledge by scientific experts forming a global “power elite.” Given their critique that resonates with social scientific understandings of science, it is concluded that conspiracy theorists compete with (social) scientists in complex battles for epistemic authority in a broader field of knowledge contestation.

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