The holidays are fast approaching, and you know what it means: pumpkin spices everything, seasonal cheers and family reunions – all while avoiding your QAnon-addicted relatives like the plague. But when you finally get the corner of them, then come prepared.
In his latest book, How to Talk to a Science Denier, author Lee McIntyre examines the phenomenon of denialism, examines the conspiracy theories that drive it, and explains how you can most effectively address your relatives’ misplaced concerns about everything from mRNA vaccines to why the Earth is not actually flat.
How to talk to a science denier: Conversations with flat ears, climate deniers and others who defy reason, by Lee McIntyre, published by The MIT Press.
Belief in conspiracy theories is one of the most toxic forms of human reasoning. That is not to say that there are no real conspiracies. Watergate, the tobacco companies’ collaboration to disguise the link between cigarette smoking and cancer, and the George W. Bush-era NSA program to secretly spy on civilian Internet users are all examples of conspiracies in reality that were discovered through evidence and revealed after exhaustive investigation.
What makes conspiracy theory reasoning so disgusting, on the other hand, is that whether there is evidence or not, the theory is claimed to be true, which puts it beyond reach by being tested or refuted by scientists and other debunkers. The distinction should therefore be between actual conspiracies (for which there should be some evidence) and conspiracy theories (which usually do not have credible evidence). We can define a conspiracy theory as an “explanation that refers to covert, malicious forces seeking to advance a terrible target.” Crucially, we should add that these tend to be “highly speculative [and] based on no evidence. They are pure conjectures with no basis in reality. ”
Therefore, when we talk about the danger of conspiracy theories for scientific reasoning, our focus should be on their non-empirical nature, which means that they are not even capable of being tested in the first place. What is wrong with conspiracy theories is usually not that they have already been rejected (though many have done so), but that thousands of gullible people will continue to believe them even after they have been debunked.
If you itch a science denier, chances are you will find a conspiracy theorist. Unfortunately, conspiracy theories also seem to be quite common in the general population. In a recent study by Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood, they found that 50 percent of Americans believed in at least one conspiracy theory.
This included 9/11 truther and Obama birther conspiracies, but also the idea that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) was deliberately withholding a cure for cancer and that the Federal Reserve deliberately orchestrated the recession in 2008. (Especially the JFK assassination conspiracy was so widespread that it was excluded from the investigation.)
Other common conspiracy theories — running within popularity and outlandish — are that “chemtrails” left behind by airplanes are part of a secret government-controlled spraying program, that the school shootings at Sandy Hook and Parkland were “false flag” operations, that the government is covering up the truth about UFOs, and of course the more “science-related” ones, that the Earth is flat, that global warming is a hoax, that some companies are deliberately creating toxic GMOs, and that COVID-19 is caused by 5G cell phone towers .
In its most basic form, a conspiracy theory is an unprovably justified belief that something extremely unlikely is true nonetheless, but we are just not aware of it because there is a coordinated campaign run by powerful people to cover up above the. Some have argued that conspiracy theories are particularly prevalent in times of great societal upheaval. And that, of course, explains why conspiracy theories are not unique to modern times. As far back as the great fire in Rome in 64 AD. we saw conspiracy theories at work as the citizens of Rome became suspicious of a week-long flame that engulfed almost the entire city – while Emperor Nero was conveniently outside the city. Rumors began to spread that Nero had started it to rebuild the city in its own design. Although there was no evidence that this was true (nor for the legend that Nero sang while the city was burning), Nero was apparently so upset by the accusation that he started his own conspiracy theory that it was actually the Christians, there were those responsible who led to the proliferation of burning them alive.
Here one immediately understands why conspiracy theories are anathema to scientific reasoning. In science, we test our beliefs against reality by looking for unconfirming evidence. If we only find evidence that fits our theory, it may be true. But if we find evidence that confirms our theory, it must be ruled out. With conspiracy theories, however, they do not change their views, even in the light of unconfirming evidence (nor do they appear to require much evidence beyond the gut instinct that their views are true in the first place). Instead, conspiracy theorists tend to use the conspiracy itself as a way of explaining any lack of evidence (because the wise conspirators have to hide it) or the presence of evidence that refutes it (because the scum has to fake it). Thus, the lack of evidence in favor of a conspiracy theory is explained in part by the conspiracy itself, which means that its proponents can count both evidence and lack of evidence in their favor.
Virtually all conspiracy theorists are what I call “cafeteria skeptics.” Although they profess to maintain the highest standards of reasoning, they do so inconsistently. Conspiracy theorists are famous for their double standard of proof: they insist on an absurd standard of proof when it comes to something they will not believe, while accepting with scarce to non-existent evidence whatever they want to believe. We have already seen the weakness of this type of selective reasoning with cherry-picking evidence. Add to that a penchant for the kind of paranoid suspicion that underlies most conspiracy theories, and we face an almost impenetrable wall of doubt. When a conspiracy theorist indulges their suspicion of the alleged dangers of vaccines, chemtrails or fluoride — but then takes conflicting or debunking information as evidence of a cover-up, they lock themselves inside a hermetically sealed box of doubt that contains no amount of facts could ever get them out of. For all their protests against skepticism, most conspiracy theorists are actually quite gullible.
The belief in the flatness of the Earth is a good example. Time and time again at FEIC 2018, I heard presenters say that any scientific evidence in favor of the curvature of the earth had been falsified. “There was no moon landing; it happened on a Hollywood set. “” All the airline’s pilots and astronauts are using the scam. ” “These images from space are Photoshop.” Not only did dismissive evidence for these allegations not cause Flat Flatthers to abandon their beliefs, it was used as more evidence of the conspiracy! And of course claiming that the devil is behind the whole cover-up about Flat Earth, could there be a major conspiracy theory? In fact, most flatlands would even admit it. A similar chain of reasoning is often used in denial of climate change. President Trump has long stated that global warming is a “Chinese hoax” that should undermine the competitiveness of American manufacturing.
Others have argued that climate scientists feed the data, or that they are biased because they make money and pay attention to their work. Some would argue that the action is even more fateful – that climate change is being used as a justification to justify more government regulation or takeover of the world economy. Whatever evidence is presented to debunk these claims, it is explained as part of a conspiracy: it was falsified, biased, or at least incomplete, and the real truth is covered up. No amount of evidence can ever convince a hardcore science denier because they distrust the people who gather the evidence. So what is the explanation? Why do some people (as scientific deniers) employ conspiracy theory while others do not?
Various psychological theories have been offered involving factors such as bloated self-esteem, narcissism or low self-esteem. A more popular consensus seems to be that conspiracy theories are a coping mechanism that some people use to deal with feelings of anxiety and loss of control over major, disruptive events. The human brain does not like random events because we cannot learn from them and therefore cannot plan them. When we feel helpless (due to lack of understanding, the extent of an event, its personal impact on us, or our social position), we may feel attracted to explanations that identify an enemy we can confront. This is not a rational process, and researchers who have studied conspiracy theories note that those who tend to “go with their stomachs” are most likely to indulge in conspiracy thinking. This is why ignorance is strongly correlated with belief in conspiracy theories. When we are less able to understand something based on our analytical abilities, we may feel more threatened by it.
There is also the fact that many are attracted to the idea of “hidden knowledge” because it serves their ego to believe that they are one of the few people who understand something that others do not know. In one of the most fascinating studies of conspiracy-based thinking, Roland Imhoff invented a fictitious conspiracy theory and then measured how many subjects would believe it, depending on the epistemological context within which it was presented. Imhoff’s conspiracy was a doozy: he claimed that there was a German manufacturer of smoke alarms that emitted loud noises that made people feel nauseous and depressed. He claimed that the manufacturer was aware of the problem but refused to correct it. When subjects thought this was secret knowledge, they were much more likely to believe it. When Imhoff presented it as common knowledge, people were less likely to believe it was true.
One cannot help but think of the six hundred cognoscenti in that ballroom in Denver. Out of six billion people on the planet, they were the elite’s self-proclaimed elite: the few who knew the “truth” about the flatness of the Earth and were now called upon to awaken the others.
What is the damage from conspiracy theories? Some may seem benign, but note that the most likely factor in predicting belief in one conspiracy theory is belief in another. And not everyone will be harmless. What about the anti-waxer who thinks there is a government coverage-
up of the data on thimerosal if child gives another measles? Or the belief that man-made (man-made) climate change is just a hoax so that our leaders in government feel justified delayed? When the clock ticks to avert disaster, the human consequences of the latter can end up becoming unmanageable.