This Just In: Conspiracy Theorists Not Quite as Kooky as Previously Reported
Greetings from the second International Conspiracy Theory Symposium, where one of the most cited findings in the field has been debunked.
If you believe that Princess Diana was assassinated, you almost certainly do not also believe that she is secretly still alive.
That may sound obvious, but there are parts of the academy where it flies in the face of conventional wisdom. In 2012, a much-cited paper in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science seemed to show that people willing to reject the official story of Di's death—that she had been killed in a car accident—weren't very choosy about which alternative they embraced: "the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered." When the authors asked for opinions about the contradictory rumors surrounding the demise of Osama bin Laden, they got comparable results. So strong was the correlation, they concluded, that it seemed fair to say that "any conspiracy theory that stands in opposition to the official narrative will gain some degree of endorsement from someone who holds a conspiracist worldview, even if it directly contradicts other conspiracy theories that they also find credible." Or as they put it more pithily later in the paper: "Believing that Osama bin Laden is still alive is apparently no obstacle to believing that he has been dead for years."
The press couldn't resist the idea of a kook so divorced from common sense that he thinks someone could be both alive and dead. The study became a staple of pop-science pieces on conspiracy theories, and of pop-intellectual writing by figures such as Cass Sunstein. And when other experimenters followed up on the paper, they replicated its results.
"Journalists love it," declared Jan-Willem van Prooijen, a psychologist from VU Amsterdam, as he addressed the International Conspiracy Theory Symposium at the University of Miami this past weekend. "It's a cool finding. There's just one problem: It's not true."
Van Prooijen is not the first scholar to challenge this idea. Last year, for example, the philosopher Kurtis Hagen noted that the original study did not measure people's beliefs so much as the degree of credence they gave to different possibilities: Rather than simply endorsing or rejecting each theory, participants were asked to rate each story's plausibility on a seven-point scale, an approach that gave room to entertain the ideas as suspicions without embracing them as full-fledged beliefs. But van Prooijen was discussing a more fundamental problem. The whole phenomenon, he told the Miami audience, could just be a statistical artifact.
Most people, after all, don't believe that Diana was assassinated or that she faked her death. If you're just looking at the overall numbers, that huge correlation between the participants who disbelieve both stories could create the illusion of a correlation where participants believe both. So van Prooijen and four colleagues ran their own series of experiments, this time paying closer attention to who was endorsing and rejecting each yarn.
The results, which will soon appear in the journal Psychological Science, showed that people who endorsed one conspiracy story were generally less likely, not more likely, to endorse an apparently contradictory narrative. There were a few exceptions, but these involved questions where, on closer examination, the theories weren't necessarily contradictory after all. For example: After the first experiment showed people maintaining that pharmaceutical companies were both obstructing research to find a cancer cure and withholding a cure they already possessed, the authors realized that these could be reconciled if you believe Big Pharma is hiding a cure for one type of cancer and blocking research on another. Whatever else you might think of that belief system, it is not as irrational as the Schrödinger's Princess scenario.
Van Prooijen's team doesn't deny that some people hold contradictory views on Osama's or Diana's death. The world is vast and strange, and all sorts of odd ideas can be found in it. But such people are not typical, even of conspiracists. If they once seemed more common than they really are, that makes van Prooijen and his colleagues wonder what else their field might have gotten wrong. "For instance," they ask, "to what extent is the correlation between conspiracy beliefs that are not mutually incompatible (often seen as reflecting a conspiratorial mindset) actually due to those who disbelieve both conspiracy theories?"
The conference organizers tapped Joanne Miller, a psychologist and political scientist at the University of Delaware, to comment on van Prooijen's paper. After endorsing his findings, she looked back at a study she had recently done on COVID theories, underlining some other ways that results that may seem contradictory might not actually reflect confused thinking at all. She had run her survey in the early days of the pandemic, when no one really had a good grasp on what was going on; all sorts of possibilities were being seriously considered. And her study had been set up in a way that prevented people from going back and changing their answers when they saw the next question. So she wasn't surprised when people agreed with one theory about the pandemic's origins and then expressed agreement with a mutually exclusive theory.
At a time of intense uncertainty, she said, such answers may be more rational than they look. "Are they really telling us that they believe these things," Miller asked, "or are they telling us that they need to believe something?"
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This was the University of Miami's second conference on conspiracism. Like the last meeting, held in 2015, it was primarily organized by Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the university who has produced several books on the topic. And like the last meeting, it brought together more than 40 scholars from a grab bag of disciplines: political science, social psychology, history, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, and more.
That 2015 gathering had been rather combative, as academics reacted in surprised and sometimes prickly ways to the discovery that other scholars were approaching their area of expertise in alien ways. On the first evening of the 2023 conference, I asked one young psychologist if he had heard tales from his colleagues of those eight-year-old clashes with professors from other fields.
"Ah," he said with a knowing smile. "You mean the philosophers."
The biggest battles in 2015 had indeed pit the philosophers against the psychologists. The former kept accusing the latter of treating ideas—the philosophers' stock in trade—as signs of some underlying pathology. The psychologists, in turn, sometimes griped between panels that the philosophers' guild was better at poking holes in arguments than in devising a scientifically sound research plan.
But now the mood was much more collegial. As the assembled academics interacted from March 16 to 19, everyone seemed far more eager to learn from each other's approaches this time around. That was partly a product of who was there and who wasn't. The discipline that is most prone to treating conspiracy theories as a pure pestilence—the burgeoning new field of "disinformation studies"—was almost entirely absent. The philosophers who were most inclined in 2015 to stick up for conspiracy theorists were not able to make it to Miami this time. (There was, indeed, a lot of turnover in general. The vast majority of this year's attendees were not there in 2015.) And the philosophers who did come were less interested in defending conspiracy theories per se than in figuring out which ones were worth taking seriously.
Take Maarten Boudry, a philosopher from Ghent University. His paper acknowledged that many conspiracies are real, but it also argued that there is a very common style of conspiracy thinking that it is fair to reject on its face. (If "at some point your conspiracy hypothesis can only be rescued from refutation by making the alleged conspirators preternaturally intelligent and powerful," he wrote, "then you have entered the realm of unfounded [conspiracy theories].") Another philosopher, Brian Keeley of Pitzer College, argued that we should try to distinguish conspiracy theorists from conspiracy liars. The former, he explained, are sincere. The latter are propagandists and snake-oil salesmen who promote stories they don't genuinely believe.
If the philosophers were now more accommodating of the social scientists, many of the social scientists were in a mood for self-correction. When Uscinski introduced van Prooijen's panel, he stressed the importance of looking back to see what scholars had gotten wrong in the past. After van Prooijen did exactly that, the panel's second presenter—Adam Enders, a political scientist from the University of Louisville—continued in the same critical spirit. Many scholars, he noted, had found a relationship between conspiracy thinking and "extreme" political orientations. Some of those results suggest that conspiracism is more closely associated with the political right. Others show a U shape, with the far left and far right both adopting more conspiracy theories than the center. But what if neither group was correct?
Enders' paper-in-progress, which he is working on with Uscinski and Miller, reexamines some of those older studies' data with a different set of regression models. Looking at the results, he found that it isn't just leftists and rightists who hold conspiracy theories: A lot of centrists do too. "On balance," the paper's current draft says, "all of these groups are slightly more conspiratorial than not…and none are extremely conspiratorial." Conspiracy thinking might be "simply a fact of life—a disposition that non-trivially afflicts most, regardless of political persuasion, at least under certain circumstances."
Out in the audience, Moreno Mancosu, a sociologist from the University of Turin, raised his hand and reported that in Italy right now, conspiracism does seem more closely associated with the right. But he wasn't arguing with Enders. He was agreeing that conspiracy thinking is not immutably associated with just one political faction. If the Italian right currently has more conspiracy theories than the Italian left, he said, that reflects factors specific to that particular country at this particular time. Context matters.
Drinking with Mancosu later that night and chatting about the days of the Red Brigades, I asked if he thought he would have found more conspiracism on the Italian left than the right if he had been working 45 years ago. "Absolutely," he answered. He also nodded to the cloak-and-dagger politics of that era—terror plots, mafia plots, Operation Gladio—and conceded that sometimes the conspiracists would have had a point.
The psychologists still tended to frame conspiracy theories as a problem to be corrected. (As van Prooijen observed on one panel, some of them have worked with governments and tech companies looking for ways to stop such theories from spreading.) But no one seemed visibly taken aback when Sarah Halford, a sociologist from Brandeis, took a rather different approach in her presentation. Halford, who has been doing fieldwork among activists opposed to 5G wireless technologies, pointed out that the anti-5G community consists of two broad groups: the people who think 5G is a covert weapon, a view that is clearly conspiracist, and the people who think it represents a health hazard, a view that becomes conspiracist only when it starts invoking corporate cover-ups. The second group is larger than the first group, and it also tends to find the first group embarrassing. Without taking a stand on whether the activists' health arguments are actually true, Halford argued that the industry had found it useful to focus on its more paranoid opponents—a case study, she said, in how institutions can use "anti-conspiracy discourse" to undermine their opponents.
So in Halford's study, the central social problem isn't conspiracy theories. It's the people invoking "conspiracy theories" as a threat. (I probably ought to mention that when her article discusses the broader phenomenon of using the "conspiracy theory" label to discredit someone, Halford takes a slap at my Reason colleague Eric Boehm for a short piece deriding Elizabeth Warren's "cockamamie conspiracy theory" about the sources of inflation. When I showed that part of the paper to Eric, he replied: "that's sloppy of me. should have been 'cockamamie theories.'")
I should note that one psychologist at the conference had a rather different approach from her colleagues. Yzar Wehbe, an evolutionary psychologist working on a Ph.D. at Oakland University, presented a paper arguing that paranoia emerged as an adaptive response to real threats. That doesn't mean, of course, that any given paranoiac must be right. It "would not be reasonable to expect paranoia be well-designed to detect and defend against modern threats," she writes, since such threats "diverge markedly from the recurrent kinds of conspirators that our ancestors faced during the Pleistocene." But it does mean that our fears could serve a function. She went on to propose 60 hypotheses about how that might work in practice—an extended proposal for a new research program.
Wehbe told me later that she wasn't enthusiastic about institutional "interventions" to stop conspiracism. "We don't yet know enough about the psychological mechanisms that drive such beliefs," she elaborated in an email, adding: "What if decreasing levels of paranoia 'too much' renders people more vulnerable to actual conspiracies?" She also offered a civil libertarian concern: "I especially worry about institutional interventions that involve censorship, as limitations on free speech are rarely warranted."
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The participants represented not just a variety of fields but a variety of places, from Turkey to Indiana and from Serbia to Georgia. Several had hard-core conspiracists in their families, and at least two presenters had flirted with 9/11 trutherism in their youth. The crowd did tend overwhelmingly to be academics, but there was one presentation by a guy who never went to grad school—namely me, discussing a history paper I've been writing. (It's called "The Great Groomer Panic of 1968–70: Birchers, Discordians, and the Sex Ed Wars." I'll publish it eventually.)
I don't have space to summarize all the studies shared over the course of the weekend. But here are a few more highlights:
• David Romney, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, presented an article titled "The Supply of Conspiracy Theories in State-Controlled Media." He and two colleagues had examined two decades' worth of articles in Egypt's chief government-controlled newspaper, Al-Ahram, and its leading independent competitor, Al-Masry Al-Youm. A distinct pattern emerged in which the regime was much more likely to endorse conspiracy narratives when it was under threat. Or at least that's how Egypt's more autocratic governments behaved: There was a rupture in the pattern during the brief democratic interval that followed the Arab Spring.
Romney's paper is as notable for its method as it is for its conclusions: Computer-assisted text searches are allowing scholars to explore much larger sets of documents than ever before, opening the door to similar studies in other countries. Is Egypt's experience unique, or will follow-up research reveal recurring patterns across several societies? Hopefully we'll find out soon.
• Casey Klofstad, a political scientist at the University of Miami, presented "The New Satanic Panic," a gigantic study written by 14 authors from multiple disciplines. (Four of them attended the conference: Klofstad, Uscinski, Olyvia Christley, and Michelle Seelig.) Among other results, their survey found 33 percent of Americans agreeing that Satanic cults secretly abuse thousands of children each year, 30 percent agreeing that Washington and Hollywood elites are "engaged in a massive child sex trafficking racket," 28 percent agreeing that there is a secret "gay agenda" to make young people gay or trans, and 26 agreeing that Disney "grooms" children into sexualized lifestyles.
The point here wasn't just to put numbers on these beliefs, but to determine who is more likely to hold them. And here is where things get really interesting. Some of the correlations match what you likely expect: People with an anti-establishment orientation are much more likely to endorse these ideas, for example, and "Satanic Panic beliefs are associated with positive feelings toward Donald Trump, but negative feelings toward Joe Biden." But in terms of general partisan identity, the results were close to a wash: Whether you were a Republican or a Democrat didn't strongly predict whether you were more likely to believe any of this. And while believers were generally more likely to endorse "extremist" groups, this wasn't limited to groups on the right: There was, surprisingly, a positive correlation between Satanic Panic beliefs and favorable feelings about antifa. Clearly, there was more going on here than the familiar left/right sorting.
• My favorite paper of the weekend was "Presencing, Immersion, & Community," in which T. Kenny Fountain and Chandler Jennings of the University of Virginia examined conspiracy theories through the lens of religious studies. Conspiracy beliefs, they argued, can resemble "religious and aesthetic experiences often valued as meaningful and even pleasurable," making conspiracism "more contiguous with ordinary experience than the literature often suggests."
Much of their paper draws on the thinking of Tanya Luhrmann, an anthropologist whose work explores, in Fountain and Jennings's words, "the processes by which invisible spirits or gods become tangibly real to religious believers." This is not just an individual process, they note, but a social one: Believers develop a paracosm—a "private-but-shared imaginative world." And while a conspiracy belief is not the same thing as a spiritual belief, a similar process can be seen in conspiracist communities. Indeed, it can be seen among all sorts of groups built around immersive experiences, from literary storyworlds to video games.
Fountain and Jennings don't say it, but this isn't entirely different from the process by which scholars develop the ideas and rituals that form the scaffolding for their respective disciplines. Eight years after the first Miami conspiracy conference, the boundaries between these academic paracosms feel more permeable than before: the participants seem more open to signals from other disciplines' shared imaginative worlds. They have, after all, at least one goal in common: to better understand the mosaic of storyworlds that make up a society, no matter how weird or paranoid those paracosms might be.