Issues Magazine

Lies, Damn Lies, and Science

By Stephan Lewandowsky, Gilles Gignac & Klaus Oberauer

Conspiratorial thinking is a major element in the rejection of a broad range of scientific findings, from climate change to tobacco, vaccinations, GM foods and the moon landing. But why?

Prince Phillip runs the world drug trade, the 9/11 attacks in the US were an “inside job” of the Bush administration, and US President Barak Obama’s Hawaiian birth certificate is a forgery. Oh, and climate change is a hoax perpetrated by corrupt scientists who just want more government grant money.

Conspiracy theories are part and parcel of contemporary public discourse, and some people clearly find their allure irresistible. Surveys show that 10% of Americans believe that US agencies intentionally created the AIDS epidemic and 15% believe that the evidence for a link between second-hand cigarette smoke and ill-health has been invented by a corrupt cartel of medical researchers. Our research has shown that around 20% of Americans – one in five – believe that evidence for climate change has been produced by corrupt scientists looking for more taxpayer money.

It may be tempting to dismiss conspiracy theories as obsessions of a few dysfunctional or maladapted individuals. However, such dismissal is inadvisable in light of the fact that nearly half of all New Yorkers in 2004 believed that the US government had advance knowledge of the 9/11 attacks and consciously failed to act. Among African-Americans, nearly half of respondents believed in the early 2000s that people who take medicines for HIV are guinea pigs for the government.

These observations can either be taken to show that a very sizable segment of the population is dysfunctional or maladapted, or that conspiracy theories fulfill a cognitive or emotional need that is shared by nearly half the population.

Recent scholarship favours the latter interpretation. It is now commonly thought that belief in conspiracy theories helps people make sense out of a confusing and inhospitable reality. Assigning responsibility for traumatic or chaotic events to a cabal of all-powerful conspirators can deliver psychological comfort by assuaging feelings of powerlessness.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, alienation and a sense of powerlessness have been identified as predictors of conspiratorial theorising. People who have low interpersonal trust and suffer employment insecurity are particularly prone to believe in conspiracy theories.

Moreover, people who believe in one conspiracy theory are also likely to believe in others. If 9/11 was an “inside job” then NASA probably also faked the moon landing and Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated by the FBI.

Moon walk
Buzz Aldrin setting up seismic equipment on the Moon in 1969. Or was he in a TV studio?
Credit: NASA

Even entirely fictitious conspiracy theories created for a laboratory experiment will be endorsed by people who already believe in a variety of other such theories. The fact that there is a personal tendency to endorse conspiracy theories across various contents underscores their broad psychological role.

We have repeatedly uncovered a statistical association between people’s endorsement of conspiracy theories and their rejection of scientific findings. In one of our recent studies of visitors to climate blogs, the tendency of people to endorse a multitude of conspiracy theories correlated with the rejection not only of climate science but also of the link between smoking and lung cancer and between HIV and AIDS. This association was observed even though none of the conspiracy theories probed had any direct bearing on the scientific propositions being queried.

Our research and various analyses of social media converge on the conclusion that conspiratorial thinking is a major element of the rejection of a broad range of scientific findings – from climate change to tobacco, AIDS, vaccinations and GM foods.

Denial of the link between HIV and AIDS frequently involves conspiratorial hypotheses, such as AIDS being created by the US government. Popular books that are critical of mainstream climate science routinely refer to global warming as a “conspiracy” or “hoax”, and YouTube videos critical of human papillomavirus vaccinations and anti-vaccination blogs are suffused with conspiratorial content.

Why does conspiratorial thinking figure so prominently in science denial?

One reason is that a presumed conspiracy may be pragmatically useful to dismiss scientific findings that are considered inconvenient or threatening for other reasons. For example, the tobacco industry has referred to medical research on the health effects of smoking as “a vertically integrated, highly concentrated, oligopolistic cartel” that “manufactures alleged evidence”. This theory very conveniently permits the dismissal of scientific findings that threaten the very existence of the tobacco industry.

The invention of a conspiracy theory also provides an alternative explanation for the existence of an overwhelming scientific consensus – as in the case of climate change, where there is no longer any scientific debate about the fundamental facts that the globe is warming and that human greenhouse gas emissions are largely responsible. If a scientific consensus cannot be accepted as the result of researchers independently converging on the same evidence-based view, then the idea of a complex and secretive conspiracy among researchers – accompanied by complaints about the censorship of dissenting voices – can provide an alternative explanation for the existence of the consensus.

However, another more general aspect of conspiratorial thinking may explain its involvement in science denial.

The characteristics of conspiratorial thinking are anti­thetical to conventional scientific reasoning. Whereas consistency is a hallmark of scientific theorising, conspiracy theorists subscribe to mutually contradictory hypotheses that cannot be assembled into a consistent whole. Whereas science relies on the acceptance of evidence to guide theorising – including theory revision when necessary – the conspiracy theorist reinterprets contrary data as evidence for the conspiracy theory. Whereas science strives to consider all available data to develop hypotheses and theories, the conspiracy theorist explicitly rejects anything that supports the “official” account and relies on small anomalous pieces of data to question that official account.

It is therefore not surprising that in our research people who endorsed a variety of unrelated conspiracy theories were more likely to reject well-established scientific findings. The fact that conspiratorial thinking predicts the rejection of a range of scientific findings – albeit to varying extents – differentiates it from other psychological predictors of the acceptance of particular scientific propositions.

For example, there is much evidence that people who endorse an extreme version of free-market economics are particularly prone to reject scientific findings that have regulatory implications, such as the link between tobacco and lung cancer or between greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. Although people’s economic world view is a primary predictor of denial for some scientific propositions, it is not implicated in other controversial issues such as genetically modified foods.

Conspiratorial thinking, by contrast, appears to be a nearly inevitable – if sometimes numerically small – ingredient of all forms of science denial.

Business interests sponsor the speaking tours of climate change denier Lord Christopher Monckton (pictured here). There is good evidence that people who endorse an extreme version of free-market economics are particularly likely to reject scientific findings that have regulatory implications. Credit: AFP/Torsten Blackwood

It is therefore informative to examine the nature of conspiratorial thinking in more detail.

Common to all conspiracy theorising is a nearly nihilistic degree of scepticism. The conspiracy theorist refuses to believe anything that does not fit into the theory. Thus nothing is at it seems, and whatever the evidence it all points to hidden agendas or some other meaning that only the conspiracy theorist can fully understand. It is this extreme suspicion that enables conspiracy theorists to ignore mountains of evidence for an “official” version of events and focus instead on slight anomalies that, to the conspiracy theorist, present irrefutable evidence for an alternative version.

For example, 9/11 “truthers” – who believe that the Bush administration was responsible for the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington – rely on photos of the hijacked airliners to point to a diabolical device under one of the wings that was designed to magnify the explosion on impact. The fact that this device is merely a reflection, briefly visible in a video, does not deter 9/11 truthers. Nothing is an accident to the conspiracy theorist, and small random events are woven into a complicated and indisputable narrative that challenges the official account.

9/11 “truthers” are also seemingly unconcerned by the fact that this piece of imaginary evidence contradicts another element of the same conspiracy theory: that the World Trade Center was destroyed by a controlled demolition unrelated to the planes’ impacts. This contradiction is no isolated case because conspiracy theories are often incoherent, as revealed by laboratory experiments involving people who believed that Princess Diana’s death was not an accident. People who rejected an accidental cause of death tended to endorse both the belief that Diana was assassinated and the contradictory belief that she faked her own death.

The conspiracy theorist reconciles these incoherent beliefs through the over-arching premise that “there must be something wrong” with the official account. Within that premise, inconsistency no longer matters as a criterion of belief validity. Accordingly, many conspiracy theories are not proper theories at all, but piles of small pieces of assumptions and allegations that defy the rules of consistency of a conventional theory.

Another element of conspiracy theorising is its “self-sealing” nature, whereby any evidence contrary to the theory is interpreted as evidence in its favour. This reasoning relies on the notion that the stronger the evidence against a conspiracy, the more the conspirators must want people to believe their version of events. Thus, to the 9/11 truthers, a bipartisan US Congress report concluding that the attacks were perpetrated by terrorist hijackers only goes to show that Congress was part of the conspiracy to demolish the World Trade Center.

This self-sealing reasoning can give rise to baroque theories that are bedazzling in their complexity. For example, when a component of the numerous 9/11 theories became untenable – i.e. that no plane hit the Pentagon – the very fact that the theory was false was weaved into a larger 9/11 conspiracy. Specifically, the new theory held that the problem with the no-plane theory was that it was too transparently false to have been true. Thus the theory must have been a straw man initially planted by the government in order to discredit the over-arching theory that 9/11 was an inside job.

This final attribute of conspiracy theories also provides a pointer to their eventual demise. Because conspiracy theories are contradicted by much evidence, they must become more and more complex and unwieldy as more and more contrary evidence piles up – all of which must be incorporated into the conspiracy. Thus, conspiracy theories tend to collapse onto themselves under their own absurdity, until all that remains is a small cadre of hardcore aficionados who endlessly recycle stale “evidence” among themselves in an internet treadmill that no longer captures anyone else’s attention.

The cognitive attributes of conspiracy theorising are antithetical to scientific reasoning, and conspiracies lurk close to the surface of most forms of science denial. What are the implications and how should scientists respond?

Several studies have reported that the mere exposure to a conspiracy theory affects people’s subsequent thinking, even if they are explicitly trying to dismiss the conspiracy theory. In one study, people who were exposed to conspiracy theories about Princess Diana’s death and explicitly rejected those theories nonetheless exhibited a shift in attitudes. Similarly, another study showed that exposure to a conspiracy theory relating to climate change reduced participants’ willingness to reduce their carbon footprint.

Conspiratorial thinking thus affects even those who nominally reject the theory. We therefore need to take the infusion of public discourse with conspiratorial science denial quite seriously.

How can scientists respond? By definition, conspiracy theories are largely impervious to increasing amounts of evidence. Science communicators should therefore primarily address those members of the public who do not subscribe to any of the conspiratorial attempts to deny scientific findings.

Scientists need to remind the public that there will always be people who believe that Al Gore issues mating orders to butterflies via secret rays sent from Pyongyang, thereby triggering global warming. But those are not the people who should dominate decision-making in society.

Reproduced from Australasian Science

Stephan Lewandowsky is a Winthrop Professor at the University of Western Australia. Gilles Gignac earned his PhD at Swinburne University, and now specialises in statistics and psychometrics. Klaus Oberauer is Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Zurich.