Interestingly, belief in conspiracy theories has recently been linked to the rejection of science. In a paper published in Psychological Science, Stephen Lewandowsky and colleagues investigated the relation between acceptance of science and conspiricist thinking patterns. While the authors' survey was not representative of the general population, results suggest that (controlling for other important factors) belief in multiple conspiracy theories significantly predicted the rejection of important scientific conclusions, such as climate science or the fact that smoking causes lung cancer. Yet, rejection of scientific principles is not the only possible consequence of widespread belief in conspiracy theories. Another recent study indicates that receiving positive information about or even being merely exposed to conspiracy theories can lead people to become disengaged from important political and societal topics. For example, in their study, Daniel Jolley and Karen Douglas clearly show that participants who received information that supported the idea that global warming is a hoax were less willing to engage politically and also less willing to implement individual behavioral changes such as reducing their carbon footprint.
These findings are alarming because they show that conspiracy theories sow public mistrust and undermine democratic debate by diverting attention away from important scientific, political and societal issues. There is no question as to whether the public should actively demand truthful and transparent information from their governments and proposed explanations should be met with a healthy amount of scepticism, yet, this is not what conspiracy theories offer. A conspiracy theory is usually defined as an attempt to explain the ultimate cause of an important societal event as part of some sinister plot conjured up by a secret alliance of powerful individuals and organizations. The great philosopher Karl Popper argued that the fallacy of conspiracy theories lies in their tendency to describe every event as 'intentional' and 'planned' thereby seriously underestimating the random nature and unintended consequences of many political and social actions. In fact, Popper was describing a cognitive bias that psychologists now commonly refer to as the “fundamental attribution error”: the tendency to overestimate the actions of others as being intentional rather than the product of (random) situational circumstances.
Since a number of studies have shown that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with feelings of powerlessness, uncertainty and a general lack of agency and control, a likely purpose of this bias is to help people “make sense of the world” by providing simple explanations for complex societal events — restoring a sense of control and predictability. A good example is that of climate change: while the most recent international scientific assessment report (receiving input from over 2500 independent scientists from more than a 100 countries) concluded with 90 percent certainty that human-induced global warming is occurring, the severe consequences and implications of climate change are often too distressing and overwhelming for people to deal with, both cognitively as well as emotionally. Resorting to easier explanations that simply discount global warming as a hoax is then of course much more comforting and convenient psychologically. Yet, as Al Gore famously pointed out, unfortunately, the truth is not always convenient.
Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.