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Suspicion and evidence: On the difficulties of online truth seeking - Mathijs Pelkmans, seminar series talk

Mathijs Pelkmans
Monday, October 2, 2023, 5:30 pm – 7:00 pm

How do people discern between truth and untruth? What characterizes their engagements with evidence? Some progress in answering these huge questions can be made by exploring them in conditions of radical epistemic uncertainty, such as were the early months of the pandemic, when the virus’s behaviour was largely unknown and the efficacy of interventions unknowable. This paper focuses on the workings of suspicion and its relationship with evidence, doing so by analysing conversations collected in a Facebook discussion group devoted to ‘COVID truth’. It argues that suspicion produces its own forms of falsification but has a contentious relationship with positive truth. And by outlining the epistemic labour of self-avowed truth seekers, the article elucidates some of the mechanisms by which Covid conspiracy theories proliferated and explains why its partakers tend to assume that they have a critical edge over the rest of us.

Mathijs Pelkmans is Professor of Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science. A specialist of the Caucasus and Central Asia, his work explores specifically the intersection of power, knowledge, and difference. This is true of his first monograph Defending the Border: Identity, Religion, and Modernity in the Republic of Georgia (2006) which traced the social biography of the Iron Curtain, as well as his second monograph Fragile Conviction: Changing Ideological Landscapes in Urban Kyrgyzstan (2017) which explored the fate of religious and secular ideologies in contexts of intense uncertainty. His interest in the shadowy sides of knowledge is especially visible in the edited collections Ethnographies of Doubt (2013), ‘Wilful Blindness’ (2020, with J. Bovensiepen), and How People Compare (2022, with H. Walker), and is central in his ongoing work on suspicion and conspiracy theorising.


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