The problem with conspiracy theories

Just how gullible can people be? In a recent experiment, scientists deliberately made false claims on social media sites to find out

The Dark Knight Rises film mentioned a place called Sandy Hook. Months later, 20 children and six teachers were shot by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School

The Dark Knight Rises film mentioned a place called Sandy Hook. Months later, 20 children and six teachers were shot by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School

 

Earlier this year, Italian scientists and data researchers set out to chart how conspiracy theories – the idea that a secret society, politician or, increasingly, large corporation, is responsible for an unexplained event and cover-up – spread in the information age. And, if someone thinks, despite the lack of any evidence, that Princess Diana was murdered by the British royal family, the moon landings were faked and that secret, shadowy groups such as the Illuminati or lizard people rule the world, what else might they believe?

The scientists got together and, in more than 5,000 comments on Facebook, made deliberately false claims: the trails left by aircraft had been chemically analysed and were found to contain Viagra; an infinite energy machine has been created but is being suppressed; and mosquito sprays are toxic to humans.

The result? There appears to be no limits to the credulity of conspiracy theorists, who, compared with social-media users who read or share scientific pages, were much more likely to like, share or agree with the recently created fictions.

“Online social networks are echo chambers,” says Alessandro Bessi, a computational social scientist who worked on the research. “Users tend to interact only with those who share the same views on a given topic. Conspiracy theories cannot be disproven: if you argue against someone that vaccines do not cause autism, and show them studies that prove it, they are likely to reply that big pharmaceutical firms pay researchers off.”

Rebuttal attempts, says Bessi, are doomed to failure because believers tend to see any attempt at debunking as part of a conspiracy to quash the truth. “If a newspaper publishes an article stating an opinion [that conspiracy theorists disagree with], they think that the journalist and maybe the newspaper is controlled by someone.”

Indeed, this journalist experienced this last year, when I was accused of being in the pocket of the chemical industry after writing a science article that was broadly supportive of water fluoridation.

Research published in July 2015 by Dr Rob Brotherton, a psychologist at Goldsmiths University of London who specialises in conspiratorial thinking, found that people who are prone to boredom are also more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Previous studies have also linked boredom to feelings of mild paranoia. The implication is that, if you’re prone to twiddling your thumbs, your mind might also be inclined to create the odd paranoid narrative.

 

Human thinking blinkered

Dr Robert King of UCC’s school of applied psychology carries out research into how human thinking tends to be blinkered. “The human brain is a bunch of evolved kludges, rather than a seamless truth- finding engine,” he says. “Intuition, authority and tradition, so long used to find the truth, are all scientifically useless. We see faces in clouds because we are primed to see plans and causation. And if we are feeling a bit paranoid, we see malevolent agency.”

Hanlon’s Razor refers to the principle that we should not ascribe to malevolence what can be explained through stupidity. It’s not, says King, that humans don’t get together and plot things. “They do – but they are usually quite bad at it and plots leak out. The most powerful government in the world, using the most powerful technology, couldn’t prevent the Edward Snowden leaks. Do people really think that they could cover up aliens? More recently, the American Psychological Association participated in torture; they would have loved to cover it up but, fortunately, they couldn’t.”

Scientists correct each other’s blind-spots, glitches, biases and faults; conspiracy theorists do not. “It’s imperfect and there are slip-ups, blind alleys and sometimes outright frauds. But science is more than a body of knowledge; it’s a way of thinking.”

 

Lack evidence

Bessi says that, by definition, conspiracy theories lack evidence, but this doesn’t mean they are untrue, and he points to the Snowden revelations as proof that the US government was, in fact, spying on people. Colm Ryan of CorkSkeptics.ie, however, disagrees, saying that the Snowden revelations were supported by compelling evidence. “I don’t put his revelations in the same camp as the idea that the September 11 attacks were an inside job or the moon landings were faked . . . For some of these conspiracies to be true, you would need a cast of thousands of actors, all working together. That’s not how the world works.”

 

 

THREE RECENT CONSPIRACY THEORIES: AND WHY THEY DON’T HOLD WATER

Conspiracies in the era of social media take on a life of their own.

  • MH370: The fate of the missing Malaysian airplane, which disappeared in March 2014, has been variously blamed on a secret plot by the Chinese, Malay or US governments, alien abduction and a hushed-up terrorist attack. Conspiracy researchers at Goldsmiths University of London surveyed 400 people. About 7 per cent thought it was a conspiracy. Most believed it to be an accident or error. This study also found that people who accept one conspiracy as true are more prone to believe others.
  • We’re all being programmed: The Dark Knight Rises film mentioned a place called Sandy Hook. Months later, 20 children and six teachers were shot by a lone gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games novels, in which 23 children are ritually sacrificed by a dystopian state, also lives in Sandy Hook. The predictive programming theory claims that these film references are a way of preparing the public for events planned by secret cabals (in this instance, Satanists) that run the world, which will then seem less surprising. As Dr Rob Brotherton points out in an article, predictive programming is full of holes. The psychological methods these films are supposed to use are implausible, while these films almost always have the sympathetic heroes fighting (and usually defeating) the oppressive state: hardly a recipe for making us love evil regimes.
  • Ebola: During the most recent outbreak, internet conspiracy forums buzzed with the idea that it was created in a lab, either by accident or design, as part of a government biowarfare plot. But all the genetic testing indicates otherwise – unless, of course, all the scientists are being paid off to stay quiet or to lie.
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