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Conspiracy theories and scientific theories attempt to explain the world around us. Both apply a filter of logic to the complexity of the universe, thereby transforming randomness into reason. Yet these two theoretical breeds differ in important ways. Scientific theories, by definition, must be falsifiable. That is, they must make reliable predictions about the world; and if those predictions turn out to be incorrect, the theory can be declared false. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, are tough to disprove. Their proponents can make the theories increasingly elaborate to accommodate new observations; and, ultimately, any information contradicting a conspiracy theory can be answered with, “Well sure, that’s what they want you to think.”
Despite their unfalsifiable nature, conspiracy theories attract significant followings. Not all theorists, it seems, hold their “truths” to the standards of conventional science. And scientists are beginning to understand the types of personalities that buy into more extreme and unlikely theories. Research reveals that conspiracy theorists tend to share a core set of traits, regardless of their conspiracy of choice. Low self-esteem, for example, may characterize both those who believe that Paul McCartney died in 1966 and those who think that Britain’s royal family consists of reptilian aliens.
For a more in-depth account, see “What a Hoax” by Sander van der Linden in the September/October issue of Scientific American MIND.
DA VINCI'S DISCIPLES
Some or all of the claims made in Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code, are true.
Even theories billed as fiction can attract a following. A survey conducted in 2005 revealed that 64 percent of respondents who read The Da Vinci Code believed to some extent that Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene had spawned a secret bloodline. Willingness to believe in this conspiracy may be related to what researchers call “terror management theory,” which holds that subscribing to such grand dogma can assuage fears related to mortality. Indeed, a 2011 study found an association between belief in Da Vinci-esque conspiracies and anxiety about death.
The disappearance of aviators Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan has bred an array of conspiracy theories ranging from the optimistic (Earhart survived and lived in New Jersey until 1982) to the extraterrestrial (the duo was abducted by aliens).
In a study of 914 adults in London, University of Westminster's Viren Swami andAdrian Furnham of University College London found that 4.5 percent of respondents espoused an alien abduction theory, 5.5 percent believed the two were spies taken down by the Japanese, and only 32 percent endorsed a relatively undramatic account that the plane crashed into the Pacific after running out of gas. Further, researchers found that respondents who believed in Earhart conspiracy theories had lower self-esteem, were more likely to be cynical toward politics, were less agreeable and gave themselves lower ratings of intelligence.