E8: What can conspiracy theories teach us about how we use "evidence"? (w/ Jenny Rice)

This week, Alex and Ryan sit down with Dr. Jenny Rice (Associate Professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky) and discuss the rhetoric of “alternative researchers” (i.e. conspiracy theorists), particularly how their practices mirror our own as we construct knowledge in our academic and personal lives. In Dr. Rice’s forthcoming book (tentatively titled Awful Archives) she outlines how “archival” practices – broadly defined as the accumulation, organization/categorization, and referencing of information – are often shaped by our sense of what is “beautiful” or “repulsive,” and argues that we can better understand collective knowledge-making processes if we examine “evidence” for its aesthetic dimensions. In essence, the constant accumulation of evidence into an archive of knowledge can give us a sense of satisfaction, in that it feels like we are “making sense” of a chaotic and complex world – continuously forming it into a coherent narrative that helps explain events occurring around us.

In exploring this idea through examples ranging from 9/11 “truthers,” the Sandy Hook “crisis actor” conspiracy theory, and the TV show It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, we try to work toward a better understanding about how our social & cultural practices shape the kinds of evidence we consider beautiful or ugly, and discuss how to use this understanding for productive ends when communicating among people with whom we disagree.


Works & concepts cited in this episode:

Adorno, T. W., Frenkel-Brunswik, E., Levinson, D. J., & Stanford, N. R. (1950). The authoritarian personality. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers.

Aristotle. Poetics (trans. S.H. Butcher). The Internet Classics Archive. Retrieved from: http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/poetics.html [where Dr. Rice draws on the concept of Megethos or “magnitude” – n.b. Section 1, part VII]

Bitzer, L. (1968). The rhetorical situation. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 1(1), 1-14.

Edbauer, J. (2005). Unframing models of public distribution: From rhetorical situation to rhetorical ecologies. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 35(4), 5-24.

Grassi, E. (1980). Rhetoric as philosophy: The humanist tradition. State College, PA: Penn State University Press.

Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32(2), 303-330. [Study on the “backfire effect” re: political beliefs]


Rice, J. (2012). Distant publics: Development rhetoric and the subject of crisis. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Rice, J. (2017). The Rhetorical Aesthetics of More: On Archival Magnitude. Philosophy & Rhetoric, 50(1), 26-49.

Schrag, C. O. (1992). The resources of rationality: A response to the postmodern challenge. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Alex Helberg