I get asked for my thoughts on conspiracy theories fairly often. Here are a few that drive me especially crazy:
-Evil biologists are trying to keep religion out of schools by suppressing dissenting academics who disagree with evolution.
-Vaccines cause autism and Big Pharma is covering up this fact in order to keep making profits from them.
-Bigfoot is real, but mainstream scientists are trying to suppress genetic evidence that shows that it’s a hybrid between humans and some other kind of ape.
There’s a common narrative in all three situations: an individual or group discovers “uncomfortable truths” that go against current dogma, and are promptly suppressed by a cabal of powerful and wicked scientists (or perhaps corporations, the government, or some secret group that controls the world).
Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a science advocate who I admire, puts it this way:
“ What all conspiracy theories have in common is that there’s a point where you have to bridge a gap in the absence of actual data…But when there’s actual knowledge about the world nobody has to talk about covered up information. It’s just there, writ large, ready to be absorbed and embraced.”
I’ve seen this happen many times. The most recent example was when a number of scientists tried to explain why the “Bigfoot genome” paper was nonsense. Supporters reacted with anger at the “mainstream scientists” who were trying to “suppress” the results. One comment on Dr. Melba Ketchum’s Bigfoot Facebook page is a good example:
“It’s tragic and appalling that the mainstream scientific community, who so often malign the religious community for willful ignorance of objective truth, have, by and large, chosen to be guilty of the same thing out of fear of ridicule, reputation, and egotism.”
Does this sound reasonable? It might, if you don’t know the context. But what this person is saying is that these scientists, who have spent over a decade researching the human genome, are refusing to accept the Bigfoot results because they are afraid of them or too wrapped up in their own egos to accept them. The truth is actually far more boring: we’re merely expecting anything put forward as “science” to meet the same standards that our own work does.* No special exceptions should be allowed for anyone.
Why is engaging with conspiracy theorists such an unproductive exercise? Scientific American recently addressed this question in an interesting article. The article highlighted a study of conspiracy theorists by Wood et al. which found that people who believed in any conspiracy theory tended to accept all conspiracy theories—even ones which contradicted each other:
“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. An important conclusion that the authors draw from their analysis is that people don’t tend to believe in a conspiracy theory because of the specifics, but rather because of higher-order beliefs that support conspiracy-like thinking more generally.”
These “higher-order beliefs” seem to be primarily a general distrust of authority coupled with feeling personally powerless. Conspiracy theorists often see evidence of coordinated, sinister behavior within random patterns of events, a behavior known as apophenia. As Dr. Tyson observes, “People actually wanted to believe that it was a hoax, and made all information fit that need.” Evidence contradicting these beliefs is either ignored or re-interpreted to fit the pre-determined outcome.
Conspiracy theories do genuine harm to people by focusing mistrust in the wrong places. The pushback against the (imaginary) scientific conspiracy to fake human-caused global warming diverts attention from climate change itself. It badly hinders efforts to alleviate the causes. Expending energy and money on legislative efforts to force schools to teach the (non-existent) controversy regarding evolution uses resources that could go instead towards preparing students effectively for college. Even the (seemingly harmless) goofiness of the Bigfoot believers contributes to a general air of distrust and hostility towards scientists. And the fraudulent claims about the dangers of vaccines are preventing concerned parents from immunizing their children, which is leading to a resurgence of outbreaks of several infectious diseases.
The solution, I think, isn’t to continue to debate with people who hold these beliefs so firmly. Instead, I’m very eager to show people how science actually works, so that they’ll be more comfortable judging for themselves whether a claim is reasonable. This is a skill that we teach to graduate students, but it’s really something that everyone can (and should) learn. I’ll try to cover the basics of how to tell good science from bad in my next few posts.
*I’m referring to peer review here. I’ll talk more about why this is so important soon.