Webster’s dictionary defines a conspiracy theory as, “A theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.”
It would be easy to write them off as a harmless distraction, but during a global pandemic people are making life-changing decisions based on conjecture and falsehoods. So why do people believe in things that don’t have evidence behind them?
The Three Blind Men
There’s an Indian story about a group of blind men who wanted to know what an elephant looked like. So, they inspected it by touch, each of them taking a different part of the animal. The first blind man grabbed the trunk and said, “An elephant is like a gigantic snake.” The second grabbed its tusk and proclaimed, “The elephant is like a sharp spear.” The third blind man placed his hand on its side and said, “The elephant is like an enormous wall.”
We are all a bit like those blind men grasping for our own personal truths, but not understanding the bigger picture.
Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?
Real conspiracies exist. The United States National Security Agency spied on its citizens and allies. Big tobacco lied about cigarettes being harmless. Big pharma lied about how addictive their opiates were. However, the truth didn’t come out because of Internet keyboard warriors jumping to conclusions based on circumstantial evidence. They were discovered because of government investigations, whistleblowers or investigative journalists who had substantial amounts of solid evidence in the form of organisation documents and peer-reviewed science to support them.
Our brains are wired to look for explanations even when one isn’t readily available and are heavily influenced by cognitive biases and heuristics.
A cognitive bias is an error in how you interpret information. Behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman has identified dozens of these. For example, confirmation bias occurs when you only look for information that supports what you already believe. The Dunning Kruger effect is when you think you are more knowledgeable in a subject than you actually are. This bias can lead to poor decisions.
A cognitive heuristic is when our brains use shortcuts in thinking to draw conclusions. For example, the stereotype that someone who wears glasses is smarter than someone who doesn’t.
Our brains use these strategies because for most of human history we’ve needed to make quick life or death decisions that didn’t allow for a lot of analysis. However, today there is less of a threat of being eaten by a wild animal, but the choices we need to make are infinitely more complex.
Although we have science to address these complex questions, sometimes the answers are complicated and even contradictory because there isn’t enough data available to draw a definitive conclusion. People often want a sense of certainty and need simple solutions that will not take much time to understand, so they resort to conspiracies.
It’s also easier to spread lies. In a 2018 MIT study published in Science Magazine researchers concluded that false information spreads on average six times faster on social media platforms than the truth does. The primary reasons were that they were novel ideas, designed to evoke powerful emotions like surprise or disgust, so people shared them more often.
How To Spot Fake Conspiracies
If you want to spot fake conspiracies, it is important to understand the scientific process and to be skeptical about outlandish claims. Behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman recommends thinking systematically to overcome cognitive biases and heuristics. You can begin by asking yourself a series of questions. Who is the source of the information and what are their credentials? Is there empirical evidence, facts or peer reviewed science to support the claim? Is there historical precedence for it? Is the information consistent with your experiences and those around you? Does the source have an agenda and what is it?
Getting to the truth can be a long and complex process, but it is important for making good decisions. To paraphrase philosopher Ayn Rand, “You can deny reality, but you cannot deny the consequences of denying reality.”
Palmer Owyoung is an environmental activist working with the Kamala Green Club and the Global Sustainability Hub.