Conspiracy Theories

Conspiracy Science

Where studies of conspiracy theorists go wrong.


I have an article in Slate today about the psychologists and social scientists who study conspiracy believers. Much of their work is flawed, I argue—and when the scholars do get it right, the pop-science writers who cover them sometimes introduce errors of their own. Here's the opening:

Not super-sick, but maybe a mite bit paranoid.
Jack T. Chick

In the run-up to last year's Italian elections, the country's senate did not—I repeat: did not—pass a bill giving legislators 134 billion euros "to find a job in case of defeat." But a satiric story along those lines spread on social media, and not everyone who passed it along understood that it was a spoof. In just one day, 36,000 people signed a petition against the alleged law. Soon it was being invoked at anti-government protests.

Their confusion caught the eye of a quintet of scholars, who were observing how a large sample of Italian Facebook users engaged with different sorts of stories: articles from the mainstream media, articles from alternative outlets, articles from political activists, and fake news crafted by satirists and trolls. In March, MIT's Technology Review covered the researchers' work in a piece headlined "Data Mining Reveals How Conspiracy Theories Emerge on Facebook." The article began with the tale of that imaginary Italian bill and the people who believed it was real, wrapping up the anecdote with the line, "Welcome to the murky world of conspiracy theories."

This was an odd way to frame the issue. The rumor involved a bill that had supposedly been passed by the legislature, not a secret plan being hatched by some invisible cabal; it was not in any meaningful sense a story about a conspiracy. The larger study was concerned with the transmission of false stories, whether or not they involve conspiracies; the word conspiracy and its variants appear only four times in the paper. Yet the Technology Review piece brushes past this distinction, then compounds the problem by generalizing rather expansively from the research. "Conspiracy theories," the writer speculates, "seem to come about by a process in which ordinary satirical commentary or obviously false content somehow jumps the credulity barrier. And that seems to happen through groups of people who deliberately expose themselves to alternative sources of news." Evidently more than one credulity barrier has been breached.

To read the rest, go here. For my book on the history of American conspiracy thinking, go here.

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  1. And that seems to happen through groups of people who deliberately expose themselves to alternative sources of news

    I’d say this is exactly backwards. People who are more inclined to believing conspiracy theories are more likely to seek out alternate news sources.

    To be a conspiracist, one has to have a belief that small groups of people are able to pull off and conceal incredibly complicated plans successfully. To anyone who looks honestly at government (or large corporations), it’s absurd to think that these people could ever pull off anything more complicated than registering cars and printing driving licenses, and they can’t even do that well. And anyone who has worked for even a moderately large corporation has seen how incompetent most people are in such organizations.

    At the heart of conspiracy is, I think, a deep desire to be important enough to someone, anyone, that they would even bother fucking with you or fooling you. And that you outsmarted them because you figured it out. It’s just another form of insecurity and compensation for it.

    1. I think that’s part of it, but another part is a desire for things to make sense. Humans dislike randomness, bad luck, and to admit that we (or the people we like) make mistakes. It’s much more satisfying to blame someone else, even if it means believing in an improbable conspiracy.

      It’s often rooted in feelings of helplessness. If you are a German post-WWI, or an Arab post-WWII, your life is pretty screwed, and it makes emotional sense to blame the Jews, regardless of the evidence.

      1. Yes, I can see an element of conspiracists not wanting events to be random or bad luck or something uncontrollable; by imagining the conspiracy, they in effect put someone in control and that means things aren’t totally uncontrolled.

        I think there are two major kinds of conspiracists. There is the “just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me” kind, who see shadowy forces arrayed against them personally, and the “somebody is controlling everything/working the system for their advantage/keeping everyone else down” kind, who don’t see it so much as personally directed towards them, but rather everyone who isn’t in on the conspiracy.

        The former want to be important. The latter are more like what you describe; they use conspiracies to make sense of the world.

        1. It’s also laziness and self-pity. It’s easy and comforting to believe that you’re screwed because of the Jews or the corporations or the Kochs or the lizard men in government, so you might as well not even try to improve your life.

          1. Or, come to think of it, those fucking reviewers who rejected your papers and those fucking assholes in your department wouldn’t give you the tenure that you DESERVED because they hated you and feared you because you were so much more brilliant than them. How could they not fear your brilliance? You went to Tulane, after all. Those second-rate cunts at Pitt knew they could never measure up to you.

            1. Well, that’s the only logical explanation, right? Right?!?

            2. Oh god no. Why did that have to be real?

              1. Because, nicole; when you look into the douchebag, the douchebag also looks into you. Or something.

    2. Brandybuck’s Law of Organization: The collective intelligence of any organization is inversely proportionate to its size.

  2. The conspiracy is you giving a modicum of credibility to Slate. I’m sure their readers won’t understand it or complain that you misspelled KOCHspiracy.

  3. the pop-science writers who cover them sometimes introduce errors of their own

    I don’t understand why there’s still a market for “pop-science” writing, when it’s so easy now to skip the (usually not-very-trustworthy) middleman and go right to the experts. The only value that “science writers” add is to aggregate news and links.

    1. As someone who has done some of that writing, it’s because complex things often need to be explained. It’s true that many writers do it in questionable ways, but there’s nothing wrong with the basic concept.

      1. Present company excepted, of course.

      2. The issue is that many science writers aren’t experts and science isn’t intrinsically interesting for most people.

        So you have writers, with a so-so understanding of the material, writing articles with outrageous, click-bait titles to get people interested. And then the internet plays telephone with the story.

        1. And, more broadly, ‘expert’ doesn’t really mean much, because people like Krugman are considered experts.

        2. Actually, writers may have little control over what titles get attached to their work. Often it’s the editors who write the inaccurate, click-bait titles.

      3. The ways are mostly questionable. There’s always a judgment to be made in the trade between speed & fidelity. Analogies are great learning tools IMO, but analogs are never perfect.

    2. You wouldn’t have that opinion if you’d ever taught science to non-sci. majors.

      Actually there’s an important fx served by middlemen explaining anything technical to non-specialists in that tech: sci., biz, cyber, law, sport, theo, you name it. Someone good at that can really cut down the time for understanding, and in some cases get people to understand stuff they’d’ve given up on otherwise.

  4. Also, is it just me, or have Chick’s graphic skills markedly improved?

    1. Practice anything enough and you should see some modicum of improvement.

    2. He has various other cartoonists drawing for him now, in add’n to his own. One of them is in the style of Kaz Prapuolenis, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s him.

      1. See if you can find “Jesus Loves Me?” (don’t know if that’s the title) and tell me that isn’t an Underworld in all but the lack of irony in the final frame.

    3. He has two artistic styles. The quick sketch for his tiny pamphlets, and a fairly good comic book style for his large comic books.

  5. the pop-science writers who cover them sometimes introduce errors of their own.

    This is why I don’t read garbage like Slate.

    Sorry, Jesse. I don’t blame you for slumming if it pays but you’ll never wipe the stench of Yglesias off that web-rag in my lifetime.

  6. There’s some excellence in the comments. Of course there is.

    Daniel 5 hours ago
    Why pick JFK to represent “conspiracy theories?”

    It’s one thing to think the “elites” of the world have been replaced by reptilian humanoids intent on breeding a race of chattel from humans. A whole other thing to think that a bunch of thugs from the CIA and the mafia would conspire to assassinate the president.

    One is crazy, the other is the most likely explanation given the evidence.

    And the guy who is making the most sense is not too popular, apparently.

    J P McMahon SLATE PLUS MEMBER2 hours ago
    @t6c One of the largest and most powerful organizations in history was the USSR. Besides controlling the largest country on Earth, they also controlled satellite states and had considerable influence in client states. The operations of those people who were the chiefs of the enterprise were conducted in total secrecy, except to NATO intelligence gathering agencies perhaps. It was impossible for the average Soviet citizens to know exactly who was pulling the strings, let alone what they were doing. Then one day that massive, carefully planned, highly structured, ruthlessly run organization just fell apart.

    Tim 1 hour ago
    @J P McMahon Wow, you Slate Plus guys are impressive where did you get hold of such obscure information?


  7. I didn’t know Robert Loggia had his own comic book. Interesting.

    1. And I presume he’s either a fundie or a Satan-worshiping Darwinist.

  8. I hear the Italian Parliament voted itself a lifetime supply of spaghetti and pizza. Pass it on.

  9. Wow?conspirologylogy.

  10. Whats interesting about it. Its just exposing the confirmation biases of cynical people.

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