Conspiracy theories – thinking that an event did not occur and not accepting the simple, broadly held and scientifically based explanation for the occurrence, phenomenon or event – vary in their origin. For example, an opponent of NATO would perhaps be likelier to say that NATO and the United States control the climate with the help of HAARP (High-frequency Active Aural Research Program), while some would persist that some other means of technology held by unknown others control meteorological conditions.

Suffice to say, a person belonging to either aforementioned group would be less willing to accept the scientific evidence that we, as a species, have affected the climate of our planet in such a way that it causes periods of unusual droughts, floods, storms, rainfall and would be less likely to accept that it is possible for any given year to show certain temperature fluctuations, deviating from the statistical norm. Whilst this may be a simplified explanation of a conspiracy theory, it serves its purpose for the contents of this article.

It is very easy to get involved in conspiracy theories, probably easier than we´d like to think. Have you ever come across an opinion on the Internet which seems so farfetched to you but the more you research and the more you engage yourself in what began as an irrational claim, it suddenly becomes rational, connected and even logical? Complex global economic situations, oil wars, the Cold War aftermath of espionage and counter-espionage, a world on the brink of major conflicts for decades, changes in the balance of power and new scientific revolutions – all these events are often incomprehensible and each and every one of us seeks an explanation to better understand and to perhaps fit our own worldview.

A basic precondition for survival is understanding the world around us. However, there are varying mechanisms by which people try to achieve this. Education, science, religion and art are hundreds and even millennia old systems through which we, as people, have sought an understanding of the world but the modern world is becoming ever more complex. If those systems do not change with the times, those systems fail to provide us with a sufficiently adequate basis for understanding the modern world which, in turn, causes a collision between our knowledge and new information. A way to solve this problem of cognition could be solved by choosing one of the already existing systems, for example either religion or science.

However, it is entirely plausible that someone can be both religious and a proponent of evolution and the Big Bang theory. A popular misconception is that scientists are always atheists thus we assume that someone who is scientifically oriented cannot be religiously oriented or vice versa. Another method of dealing with the complexity and enormity of information is explaining events, or even understanding them, in the form of man-made conspiracies against humanity, the existence of an invisible agreement within the circles of power against the rest of us. The so called conspiracy theories.

conspiracy theories

 

Since the dawn of man, conspiracy theories have abounded. From a rumor in a cave to the assassination of JFK, the death, and consequent sightings, of Elvis Presley, chemical dusting programs, the global hegemony called the “New World Order”, ancient aliens and reptile humans, people have sought, and created, various theories that fit with their own understanding and worldview. Whilst most of us can shrug them off as being fiction the more serious aspect of conspiracy theories is the interpretation of scientific knowledge and fact as being part of said manipulation by the circles of power. Those theories, for example, center on the issues of  vaccination, the theory of suppression of alternative medicines and the existence of “Big Farm.” They include the belief that some diseases are artificially created, that there are deliberately caused man-made epidemics and the denial of climate change.

In today´s day and age, with countless social networks (and Covid 19), we often come across comments such as; “How do you know that the flu is coming? And more dangerous than before? How can these journalists know that a deadly flu is coming? It surely means that mutations are intentionally made and placed amongst people. It used to be a natural cold without any hints. It’s no wonder that everything goes wrong when it’s another experiment performed on humans.”

The above comment was written by someone despite the fact that in 1918, before  technologies for manipulating genetic material existed, the Spanish flu, caused by the H1N1 virus, infected roughly 500 million. It is estimated that about 50-100 million people died as a result of the Spanish flu but there is still in existence an opinion that the flu is a harmless disease, and that flu epidemics are the work of scientists in conjunction with the circles of power, government and/or big business. One could even say that the person who wrote the above comments, believes that the flu is a synthetic virus that is deliberately spread around the world and makes no distinction between the flu and  the common cold. The “deadly” combination of ignorance, misinformation, lack of desire to learn and find credible sources is practically the cause of all conspiracy theories. Perhaps, therein lies the problem – misinformation is spread around the world on a daily basis which in turn can cause confusion and panic in the population.

Manipulative dissemination of half-information, click-bait and fake news lead to a collective feeling of insecurity and fear. Mix that with individuals who are scared or whole communities in chaos due to the inability to distinguish truth from lie and you have fertile ground for manipulation. At this point you may ask yourself why do people indulge in irrational and paranormal thinking? Michael Shermer, an American science historian and founder of the Society of Skeptics, explains that people are looking for familiar schemes and looking for meaning in the senseless chaos of information they are unable to process.

People thus conclude that there are schemes, which in reality do not exist. These are all errors of cognition, the results of insufficient information or the tendency to follow the “line of least resistance”, which result in the creation of frightening images of the world around us. Obviously, the Internet, with its countless media outlets is the best tool for spreading such ideas – be they conspiracy theories or other forms of “fake news” –  and it is not difficult to explain why it´s so. There are two basic reasons why people succumb to such influence but in doing so, they not only divide or squeeze the “likes” but also contribute to their spread and influence – firstly, agreeing with the premise given in that news and secondly, disagreement with said premise and the feeling of fear produced by the news.

People share the news because they are afraid for themselves or their loved ones. The moment that we do, we are reverting back to what our caveman ancestors did – alerting the community to danger. It is simply an evolutionary mechanism of survival. We might also share some conspiracy theory because we find it funny or stupid because by making fun of such content, and the people who place it, we want to present ourselves as better or more intelligent. However, it could well be that what we find funny or even ridiculous, someone else is inclined to believe it to be true. Perhaps, unwittingly, we have sent someone down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories making us no better than those who created them. Quite often people with certain cognitive problems and mental difficulties are more susceptible to believe groups that support and disseminate such content. However, that is perhaps the intention of those who support conspiracy theories. That’s perhaps why David Icke, a former sports commentator and conspiracy theorist about reptiles (and a number of other bizarre and irrational things) argues that mental illness doesn’t exist and that these diagnoses are “conspiracies,” “to stifle the voice of those who see what is happening in the world.” In essence, conspiracy theories explain everything and are made to convince you that you are not to blame for anything, that you are not the problem, but that the problem is your environment and that you should fight against it. When examined closely, not only are certain things within a certain singular conspiracy theory connected, usually by some bizarre logic of those that believe them in the first place, but conspiracy theories as a whole are also connected.

Irrationality spills over from one conspiracy theory to another. Thus, conspiracy theories about the pharmaceutical industry, vaccines, the existence of synthetic viruses that cause pandemics, control of the human population through DNA manipulation and the creation of so-called “designed babies” all intertwine. Every little detail or scandal, such as cases of scientific dishonesty, drug monopolies, conflicts of interest, government cover-ups, corruption scandals, and everything society sweeps under the rug – for conspiracy theorists, these provide more proof that they are right. It is only when we become an open, transparent society, a society of high moral standards that we can begin to turn the tide.

A common trait of conspiracy theorists is the rejection of “Ockham’s razor”, an epistemological principle named after the English Franciscan William of Ockham, who lived in the 13th century. According to this principle, the amount of assumptions that lead to a conclusion should be as few as possible. In other words, if you have two hypotheses, one simple and one complicated, you should choose the simpler one.

However,  conspiracy theorists do just the opposite. They choose explanations that are full of assumptions, involving many events and people, and explanations that are, at the same time, difficult to prove or disprove. One might pose the question at this point whether it´s possible to change the current situation? Well, the the easiest and most painful answer is to impose censorship. However, censoring sites and pages that spread misinformation and anti-science propaganda would be completely counterproductive and would completely undermine what is being striven for – an open and democratic society in which human rights and freedoms and the obligations that result from them are highly valued.

Such censorship would be only lead to an autocratic society as examples of government censorship have shown us. Perhaps the solution is to invest in a network of sites that fight misinformation at all levels. Special attention here should be paid to fact-checking sites, such as Snopes.com. It will take time for the general public to get used to the existence of such sites, not only to use them but also the will to verify the various rumors spreading on the Internet. The constant presence and visibility of credible information is extremely important. In all probability, the best long-term view is to change the profile of the “average user.”

That can only be done through investment in education from the lower grades of primary school right up to university level students. Here, the term education refers mostly to the system of public education, public schools, because there is the largest percentage of future “average users,” but private schools should be included because they often, due to self-imposed image of elitism and indiscriminate acceptance, become places where science and scientific thought are neglected.

Reaching a future “average user” who may not end up in medicine or genetics and teaching that user how to surf through an avalanche of offered information is key to fighting the Russian roulette of conspiracy theories and misinformation. Also, it is interesting to note that one study, published in 2018 in Health Psychology, entitled “The Psychological Roots of Anti-Vaccination Attitudes: A 24-Nation Investigation” [1] by three authors from the University of Queensland, showed that in some countries, like Sweden, Germany, Australia, people have less pronounced anti-vaccine attitudes, but are also less prone to conspiracy theories.

The profile of conspiracy theorists naturally varies but if one chooses to speak of stereotypes, most of them are on the margins of society. In fact, just as conspiracy theories and false news undermine democracy, underdeveloped democracies provide fertile ground for the development of conspiracy theories. Societies where there is pronounced inequality, mostly those with a high Gini coefficient (taking into account the limits and possibilities of misinterpretations of this statistical quantity) are places where such theories and misconceptions succeed.

In societies where there is marked economic and educational inequality of its members, whether they are transitional, post-war, conflict societies or countries with high GDP but have “islands” of vulnerable, discriminated and vulnerable populations, this problem is very expressed. The existence of conspiracy theories and the receptivity of a certain population to those theories is a serious symptom of a crisis of democracy and a deeper disease – the political and economic exclusion of certain groups –  which can be acted upon by persistent and very difficult struggle for social equality, equal opportunities for all members of global society, enabling schooling for all and reducing elitism. Only such a society, one in which one individual can express his full capacity and be very satisfied with his life, could be called a democratic and sustainable society.

Unfortunately, the impact of conspiracy theories as a product of inequality only further undermines democracy and creates an even greater economic gap and division, leading to an even greater proliferation of said conspiracy theories.

[1] Matthew J. Hornsey, Emily A. Harris, and Kelly S. Fielding. The Psychological Roots of Anti-Vaccination Attitudes: A 24-Nation Investigation. Health Psychology, American Psychological Association 2018, Vol. 37, no. 4, 307–315

 

  Author:

Jelena Kalinić, MA in comparative literature and graduate biologist, science journalist and science communicator, has a WHO infodemic manager certificate and Health metrics Study design & Evidence based medicine training. Winner of the 2020 EurekaAlert (AAAS) Fellowship for Science Journalists. Short-runner, second place in the selection for European Science journalist of the year for 2022.

Translated by Jonas Helgason