Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories

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We don’t know the answer to the question, though society would surely be better off if there were no conspiracy theories. Maggie Koerth-Baker’s NYT Magazine essay looks at some of the research. Typically in psychology the results are fuzzy:

Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.

 She ends with this summary:

(…) Alex Jones, a syndicated radio host, can build fame as a conspiracy peddler; politicians can hint at conspiracies for votes and leverage; but if conspiracy theories are a tool the average person uses to reclaim his sense of agency and access to democracy, it’s an ineffective tool. It can even have dangerous health implications. For example, research has shown that African-Americans who believe AIDS is a weapon loosed on them by the government (remembering the abuses of the Tuskegee experiment) are less likely to practice protected sex. And if you believe that governments or corporations are hiding evidence that vaccines harm children, you’re less likely to have your children vaccinated. The result: pockets of measles and whooping-cough infections and a few deaths in places with low child-vaccination rates.

Psychologists aren’t sure whether powerlessness causes conspiracy theories or vice versa. Either way, the current scientific thinking suggests these beliefs are nothing more than an extreme form of cynicism, a turning away from politics and traditional media — which only perpetuates the problem.

9 thoughts on “Why Rational People Buy Into Conspiracy Theories

  1. Do I believe in a conspiracy theory by believing that the Linear-No-Thresh-Hold radiation policy is false and can not be corrected due to people who will not listen to the evidence?

    • Good question.

      If you reached your conclusion by seeing the LNT as a problem and then dismissed any evidence to the contrary as the product of conspiracy, then yes.

      If you reached your conclusion by noting the strange disconnect between the evidence of radiation harm and the regulation of radiation, and then sought to understand why that disconnect exists, then no.

      Note that it is perfectly possible to believe things that are true for completely the wrong reasons.

    • Heh. Would a better descriptor be confirmation bias? i.e., with respect to those who refuse to listen to evidence.

      I wonder how big is that population of “deniers”? The vast majority don’t know about LNT, but they do “know” that radiation from nuclear plants is very dangerous and scary. The same population thinks they live on a planet that has zero radiation – unless it is made by humans.

  2. I am trying to explore the limits of conspiracy theories.
    1. The the people believing in the conspiracy have to be in the minority?
    2. Can the law of the land be established by people who are conspiracy believers?

    The BEIRS committee repeatedly has “looked” at the evidence. I believe these rational people have ignored substantial data. Should I see the BEIRS committee as the instrument of a conspiracy?

    • Should I see the BEIRS committee as the instrument of a conspiracy?

      It doesn’t take a conspiracy to motivate people to stay inside the boundaries of the current status quo. My take is closer to “politics as usual”. What are the incentives for the committee to change direction? The ultra-low “safe limits” were initially established for nuclear workers. Some consideration of the cost impact might have been considered at the early stages. These initial limits were progressively ratcheted down for two key reasons:

      a) who could be criticized for regulating for “greater safety”?

      b) those designing the rules bore no consequences for the ratcheting of costs.

      You raised:

      1. The people believing in the conspiracy have to be in the minority?

      I can’t work out why that’s a necessary condition. The social feedback supporting a conspiracy theory seems to favor a belief in dark, hidden forces. How could such a belief spread to a majority?

      2. Can the law of the land be established by people who are conspiracy believers?

      I believe the “law of the land” is written by people who want to stay in power. Oddly, in the USA the law-givers are more than 50% lawyers. In Switzerland that number is closer to 6%, and in the lower house they cannot be professional politicians (unless they are happy to live on 25% salary).

  3. Some conspiracy theories are valid; that is why we have anti-trust legislation. On the other hand, some conspiracy theories are just plain stilly and result from inadequate education or the inability of people to think rationally and clearly.

  4. When mainstream information sources group together to exclude particular avenues of exploration, “conspiracy theories” proliferate naturally.

    The term “conspiracy theory” is not well defined, but whenever a society is dominated by “political correctness” to the core, dissident ideas will sprout.

    Climategate emails demonstrate that influential IPCC connected researchers have colluded to exclude research into theories which contradict the currently dominant CO2 uber alles dogma.

    An editor of Scientific American recently proposed that all research into genetic causes of intelligence should be banned.

    Research that demonstrates gender differences in brain structure and function are not nearly as well funded or widely trumpeted as other studies that demonstrate “no difference.”

    And so on.

    • Thanks for your insights Alice. Political correctness and similar barriers to information must fertilize ideas of hidden powers at work. OTOH we have such as “fake moon walk” theories. My personal view of such is a variation on that of economic surplus enabling specialist artisans. Or in the moonwalk case, “too much time on their hands”.

      Research that demonstrates gender differences in brain structure and function are not nearly as well funded or widely trumpeted as other studies that demonstrate “no difference.”

      That illustrates the general case of academic hysteresis. For the social sciences, grants are most likely to go to projects that are “inside the PC corral”.

      But hiring and tenure are heavily influenced also by the perspective of the senior faculty. Sebastian Thrun recently used the shorthand “impedance mismatch” for this principle – which manifests as a 25-35 year senior faculty turnover vs. technical obsolescence that has a period in the 5-10 year range. It’s remarkable that we manage to get so much good research done.

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