Conspiracy theorists may be crazy, but they’re not irrational

Scientific American has a piece about a study from a year or two ago about the belief systems of conspiracy theorists. It has some good information in it, but one aspect of it is misleading, in the same way as a piece I wrote about last year on the same subject.

For example, while it has been known for some time that people who believe in one conspiracy theory are also likely to believe in other conspiracy theories, we would expect contradictory conspiracy theories to be negatively correlated. Yet, this is not what psychologists Micheal Wood, Karen Douglas and Robbie Suton found in a recent study. Instead, the research team, based at the University of Kent in England, found that many participants believed in contradictory conspiracy theories. For example, the conspiracy-belief that Osama Bin Laden is still alive was positively correlated with the conspiracy-belief that he was already dead before the military raid took place. This makes little sense, logically: Bin Laden cannot be both dead and alive at the same time.

That’s a misleading description of what the study actually found. The actual finding was that people who believed that Bin LadenĀ might still be alive are more likely to believe that heĀ might have been dead before the raid.

Those beliefs are, in my opinion, stupid and wrong, but they’re perfectly consistent with each other. Even if statements A and B contradict each other, there’s no contradiction between the statements “The probability of A is significantly different from zero” and “The probability of B is significantly different from zero.” (Unless “significantly different from zero” means “greater than 50%, but there’s no indication in the study that that’s how participants thought of it.)

With this in mind, I don’t think that the positive correlation is the least bit surprising. Both beliefs presumably spring from the same source: a belief that the standard mainstream view is wrong. If that’s your starting point, then it’s only natural that your assessment of the probability of a bunch of different non-standard stories would go up.

As the authors of the original study put it,

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.


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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!