Why do people believe conspiracy theories?

Consider this a companion piece to my last bit on flat earth ‘theories’ (and I use that term very loosely). The idea of a flat earth relies exclusively upon belief in conspiracy, that NASA and countless scientists are not only wrong, but they’re actively lying to you. You’ll see stuff like this all over Facebook, Instagram, etc:

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Of course the interesting thing about memes like these is that there’s never a reason given for why NASA and the media would perpetrate such a massive hoax. We can assume that anyone who develops and perpetuates a conspiracy is doing it for some reason. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there is rarely a motivation provided for these conspiracies. We’ll see why that’s not problematic for the believer in a moment.

Of course, the flat earth isn’t the only conspiracy out there. Climate change, vaccines, 9/11, cures for cancer or AIDS, weather control–take your pick. There are people out there who believe it and who disseminate that belief online via social media. The weather control one was a particularly new one for me, but I’ve seen it making the rounds lately:

Haap Patent Weather Modification Chemtails EMF

Well, at least here we have a motivation: military power. However, why would a secret government organization file a public patent for a top-secret weapon? That doesn’t make much sense, does it?

Whenever I look at these kinds of conspiracies, I’m struck by one common thread: they contradict themselves at an incredibly basic level. They set up these shadowy corporations or institutions as entities that are simultaneously both immensely powerful and yet completely incompetent. Take the HAARP example. Here we have a secretive government organization that has all this power and money and knowledge–they can even control the weather!–yet they’re so stupid that they file public patents, let photos of their devices leak onto the internet, etc.

None of that matters to the conspiracy theorist, because these conspiracy theories aren’t meant to appeal to a sense of reason or logic. That’s why they never provide evidence and they rarely provide a motivation. None of that matters, because conspiracy theories are designed to do one thing:

Mollify a perceived lack of control in the believer.  

But don’t take my word for it. There’s been research into why people believe conspiracy theories. This article from Psychology Today has some real gems in it for explaining the conspiracy theory phenomenon:

“Melley proposes that conspiracy thinking arises from a combination of two factors, when someone: 1) holds strong individualist values and 2) lacks a sense of control. The first attribute refers to people who care deeply about an individual’s right to make their own choices and direct their own lives without interference or obligations to a larger system (like the government). But combine this with a sense of powerlessness in one’s own life, and you get what Melley calls agency panic, “intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy” to outside forces or regulators.”

To me, this makes perfect sense. When someone who values their independence see a lack of control or an erosion of that independence in their own life, they manufacture a scapegoat in these conspiracy theories. Research by psychologist Jean Twenge provides some empirical data for this:

“Twenge’s research examines how Americans’ personality traits have been changing over the past several decades, from the 1960s through the end of the century, looking at the personality scores for each year. For example, she finds that trait anxiety (or neuroticism) has been rising dramatically in both children and adults over this period. […] In another study, she shows that people have come to hold an increasingly stronger external “locus of control”; this refers to the feeling that external forces are determining what happens to you, as opposed to an internal locus of control, the feeling that you dictate your own outcomes. […] Individualistic values have also been getting stronger in our culture, with greater importance attached to personal freedoms and self-reliance. […] The rise in anxiety, individualism, and external locus of control may therefore underlie the rise in conspiracy thinking. This is somewhat troubling because these personality trends show no sign of leveling off. In fact, given the current pace of globalization and the “Americanization” of other countries, it seems likely that these personality traits (and conspiracy thinking) will be increasing elsewhere too.

That seems like a succinct and accurate representation of the people who I know that believe in conspiracies. In my last post, I featured a screenshot of a conversation on Instagram. Let’s take a look at it again:

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The bit about density is still circled, but this time let’s examine some of the other comments on the thread, starting with the one from mitch_and_tammy: “Who gives a fuck if the earth is flat or round. Either way, I’m still a middle class slave!” This comment doesn’t really tell us if this person believes that the earth is flat. But it does show a predisposition toward not questioning the conspiracy because of a perceived lack of power and control.

Then there’s the comment from bitabites: “I KNOW it looks flat I know about operation paperclip. I know not to trust anyone so I know not to believe anything…” I’m not quite sure what operation paperclip has to do with the flat earth. Nevertheless, let’s examine the other language. This person exhibits a high degree of individualistic values, with much emphasis on “I,” on what the individual “knows.” There’s a strong distrust of that external locus of control– nobody is to be trusted and nothing is to believed.

These two individuals, particularly the second one, exhibit the kind of anxiety and paranoia that psychologists commonly ascribe to conspiracy theorists. Their belief in a flat earth, therefore, are unsurprising.

It’s also unsurprising, therefore, that scientifically trained or inclined people seem less likely to believe in conspiracies. Science relies almost exclusively upon external loci of control–we need other scientists to independently confirm or refute our findings. And because science is a genuinely collaborative effort, there’s less emphasis on “I” and more emphasis on “we.” Science isn’t about the individual, it’s about the scientific community as a whole. Science as a collective body also tends to work toward the same goal, with mutual cooperation and respect. In short, science empowers people, groups of people, whole scientific communities.

So, what do we do to combat this? Well, from the research that’s been done the first and most obvious thing is to make individuals feel more empowered. We can do that on a political, social, and economic level. We can correct the massive income and wealth inequality that exists in this country for starters. We can stop moneyed interests and corporate lobbyists from influencing our political system. Those are probably the biggest causes of anxiety we currently face.

But we also have to do a better job educating people. Basic scientific understanding is floundering in this country. People don’t know how science works, and more importantly don’t know how to critically evaluate evidence or anything they read and see. Sadly, science has become one of those external loci of control, the “other” that’s trying to suppress you. Of course that’s farthest from the truth, but it’s the outcome of a society that doesn’t understand science and feels large amounts of anxiety and paranoia–we have a tendency to fear what we do not understand.

We in the scientific community need to do a better job of engaging with these conspiracy theories and their believers. If people feel a lack of control in their lives, what they really need is power. And I would argue that science is the ultimate provider of knowledge.

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How to end the flat earth argument

Apparently people still think that the earth is flat despite an overwhelming amount of evidence to the contrary. This stuff is all over social media, and it infuriates me to no end because we’ve known that the earth was a sphere for thousands of years, and if ancient man could figure that shit out then I would expect that someone who has access to satellite photography would also be able to figure it out. But alas, people are ignorant as fuck and thus we have the flat earth theory. Everyone’s favorite astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, recently had to respond to an NBA star commenting that the earth is flat.

I had an exchange with someone on Instagram earlier today. Someone I follow posted something showing how the earth was curved, not flat. Well, cue the “woke” enlightened folk. So I asked how a flat planet could form in the presence of gravity. Well, apparently gravity is also a conspiracy. Here’s the response I got:

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See, guys, there’s no such thing as gravity because density! Duh. And no, I’m not blurring anyone’s name out on here because if you’re stupid enough to think the earth is flat and gravity isn’t real you deserve to be called out. And yes, I also realize that you all have my Instagram handle now.

But here’s why I asked about gravity.

I wanted to think of a proof or a thought experiment I could give a flat earther to get them to realize that they’re wrong. And I think I came up with one. And it all hinges on gravity. In order for a flat planet to form, gravity either 1) needs to not exist, or 2) not behave according to our current models. My response to good ol’ Jonathan there was this:

“There’s a very easy way to prove whether or not gravity is real. Pick an object, any old object will do. Next, find a place you can drop it from–a second story window, a tree, a rooftop–it doesn’t matter. Now, if you know the mass of the object and the height from which you’re dropping it from, then it’s a matter of simple math. Calculate the time it would take the object to reach the ground 1) by using the standard model of gravity and the equation time = √(2d/g) and 2) by substituting the value of g for literally anything else–like the formula for density. Then drop the object and compare the times to those given by your two equations.”

That’s really something any middle school student should be able to do. The response I got?

…total crickets. Nobody had a response. None of the flat earth geniuses, to nobody’s surprise, derived a new form of math to describe acceleration and motion that didn’t use gravity.

Because you can believe that the government lies to us about the shape of the earth and the ISS and moon landing are faked by NASA, but there’s one thing that doesn’t lie–GODDAMN MATH.

But just the fact that this needs to be explained to people is incredibly disheartening. It speaks to a broken education system. It speaks to a culture steeped in paranoia. It speaks to a political system wherein people are encouraged to openly deny evidence. People are so quick to latch onto conspiracy, but they can’t see that the way to to truly keep someone ignorant is to make them question observable, measurable, testable, repeatable evidence. THAT’S how you keep someone in ignorance. And the fact that this is happening speaks volumes about our social and political state.

So if you ever run into a flat earther, give them this proof and see what happens. My guess it that cognitive dissonance will be so great that their head will explode.