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.


Credit: Courtesy of Jez Elliot

The theory:
Some or all of the claims made in Dan Brown’s 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code, are true.

Studies say:
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.


Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Harris & Ewing Collection Collection

The theory:
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).

Studies say:
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.



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The theory:
Numerous outlandish narratives exist surrounding the events of September 11, 2001. In many of these stories, the U.S. government knew about the attacks ahead of time; in some, they even helped orchestrate the tragedy.

Studies say:
A second study by Viren Swami and colleagues found that belief in a 9/11 conspiracy was associated with political cynicism and a general tendency toward believing in conspiracies. This latter finding supports what psychologists call a “monological belief system,” in which any and all events can be explained by a web of interconnected conspiracies.


Credit: Courtesy of Michael Irving

The theory:
HIV was created by government-funded scientists as a bioweapon to extinguish certain minority populations.

Studies say:
Conspiracy theories can sometimes arise as a means of making sense of an otherwise senseless tragedy. In this way, theories about the HIV epidemic may help people cope with fear of the virus or the passing of loved ones afflicted by disease-related illness. Though assigning blame may be therapeutic to some people, such attribution has been linked with risky sexual behavior, negative attitudes about medication and lower treatment adherence among those infected with the disease.

DIANA and OSAMA (and 2Pac and ELVIS)

Credit: Courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Exit Art's "Reactions" Exhibition Collection

The theory:
Osama bin Laden was dead prior to the U.S. raid on his compound. Also, he is still alive.

Studies say:
A study in 2012 by Michael J. Wood and his colleagues at the University of Kent found that those who believed Bin Laden was dead prior to American intervention are more likely to believe he’s currently alive. Similarly, authors found that those who think Princess Diana faked her death are more likely to believe she was murdered. So, which is it? Dead or alive? Research suggests that such contradictory narratives are linked by an underlying distrust of authority. Among conspiracy theorists, it seems, this suspicion is strong enough to overpower traditional life-death logic.


Credit: Courtesy of Kathryn Hansen/NASA

The theory:
Scientists are not to be trusted. The 1969 moon landing was produced on a Hollywood movie set. And global warming is a conspiracy between the government and scientists to achieve world domination.

Studies say:
Polls estimate that anywhere from 6 to 25 percent of the general population believes the moon landing was faked, and 37 percent of Americans suspect global warming is a hoax. Although theories of earth and moon seem worlds apart, they are linked by a general rejection of science wherein distrust of one scientific claim predicts distrust of others.  Researchers have found, for example, that people who reject climate science are also more likely to reject evidence that smoking causes cancer. But that’s just, y’know, according to science, and who believes that stuff, anyway?