Rational conspiracy theorists

Here’s an interesting study on belief in conspiracy theories:

Conspiracy theories can form a monological belief system: A self-sustaining worldview comprised of a network of mutually supportive beliefs. The present research shows that even mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively correlated in endorsement. In Study 1 (n = 137), the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered. In Study 2 (n = 102), the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. special forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive. Hierarchical regression models showed that mutually incompatible conspiracy theories are positively associated because both are associated with the view that the authorities are engaged in a cover-up (Study 2). The monological nature of conspiracy belief appears to be driven not by conspiracy theories directly supporting one another but by broader beliefs supporting conspiracy theories in general.

Based on this, one might be tempted to think that conspiracy theorists are just crazy! How can they simultaneously believe contradictory things?

Maybe they are crazy, of course, but these data don’t actually provide strong evidence for it. The problem is that the abstract uses a shorthand that seems quite reasonable at first but is actually a bit misleading. Instead of saying

The more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered.

They should say

The more participants believed that Princess Diana might haveĀ faked her own death, the more they believed that she might have been murdered.

That’s what the surveys probably revealed. They asked people to rate their belief in the various statements on a 7-point Likert scale from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree”. Anyone who gave strongly positive responses (say 6’s or 7’s) to two contradictory options would indeed be irrational, but as far as I can tell the results are consistent with the (more likely, in my opinion) scenario that lots of people gave 3’s and 4’s to the various contradictory options. And there’s nothing irrational at all about saying that multiple mutually contradictory options are all “somewhat likely.”

In fact, although the positive correlation between contradictory possibilities is amusing, it’s actually not surprising. The last couple of sentences of the abstract lay out a sensible explanation: if you’re generally conspiracy-minded, then you believe that shady people are trying to conceal the truth from you. Given that premise, it’s actually rational to bump up your assessment of the probabilities of a wide variety of conspiracies, even those that contradict each other.

I’m not saying, of course, that the original premise is rational, just that the conclusions apparently being drawn are rational consequences of it.

And I should add that, as far as I can tell, a careful reading of the paper indicates that the authors understand all this. A quick reading of the abstract might lead one to the wrong conclusion (that conspiracy theorists simultaneously believe contradictory things), but on a more careful reading the paper doesn’t say that.

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Ted Bunn

I am chair of the physics department at the University of Richmond. In addition to teaching a variety of undergraduate physics courses, I work on a variety of research projects in cosmology, the study of the origin, structure, and evolution of the Universe. University of Richmond undergraduates are involved in all aspects of this research. If you want to know more about my research, ask me!

One thought on “Rational conspiracy theorists”

  1. I worked with someone who was a conspiracy theorist of the first order. He believes, simultaneously, that George W. Bush was behind 9/11; that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. but had been working for the CIA since early adulthood; that the shooting of Gabby Giffords was really aimed at a judge who opposed gun control; that climate change is a hoax; and that the government is hiding the evidence of aliens. None of this adds up to a coherent worldview, other than just a burning need to disbelieve in whatever the “official” story is. I always figured the most disappointing thing for him would be if he discovered that the government actually doesn’t keep files on him, but I’m sure he’d just claim they were covering up that too.

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