Conspiracies or Science?

Those who believe in one far-flung conspiracy are likely believe in others.

Question marks inside picture of head on chalkboard

Why do some people simply reject science out of hand, and drift instead towards vast, far-flung conspiracy theories to explain political or social events? Social science researchers in Australia believe they've found an answer, and published their results recently on a phenomenon called "conspiracist ideation" to explain it.

What's more, the researchers found by studying various groups, if you're likely to believe in certain conspiracy theories—say, for instance, that NASA faked the moon landing or that a shadowy, quasi-governmental group called MAJIC 13 is hiding aliens in remote parts of the earth—then you're likely to subscribe to other conspiratorial ideation explanations for social or political events as well.

In other words, if you believe that Elvis is alive in the basement at Graceland, then you're likely to sign on to other conspiracies, too.

A number of social science studies over the years have linked "conspiratorial thinking" to the rejection of scientific propositions. In short, conspiratorial thinking refers to the propensity for certain groups—including government leaders, on occasion—to explain a significant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful individuals or organizations.

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Question marks inside picture of head on chalkboard

In these cases where the science is basically rejected as a rational explanation for something, a form of "conspiracist ideation" sets in, and alternative explanations take the place of the scientific evidence, the Australian researchers wrote in a paper recently accepted in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

For instance, a decade ago, certain groups simply rejected the scientific evidence linking HIV and AIDS, choosing instead to believe AIDS was either created by the U.S. government to "control" the African-American population, or that people taking AIDS medicines were simply guinea pigs for the government. A decade ago, "among African-Americans, 16 percent and 44 percent of respondents, respectively, (were) found to endorse those two beliefs," the researchers wrote.

At the time, this sort of denial of the scientific evidence of the link between HIV and AIDS in turn led its believers to assert that "dissident" scientists who disagreed with the scientific consensus were blackballed from publishing their research in peer-reviewed journals.

"The belief that censorship, rather than evidence-based peer review, underlies a consensus in the scientific literature also suffuses other arenas of science denial, such as in climate science and medical research other than HIV/AIDS," the researchers wrote.

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For example, they wrote, the tobacco industry referred to research in the 1980s on the health effects of smoking in internal documents as a "vertically, integrated, highly concentrated, oligopolistic cartel"—one that "manufactures alleged evidence, suggestive inferences linking smoking to various diseases, and publicity and dissemination and advertising of these so-called findings." This framework—that scientists were conspiring to connect non-existent links between smoking and lung cancer—prevailed for decades.

The role of "conspiracist ideation," and its proliferation throughout the blogosphere, is also prominent in the denial of the benefits of vaccinations, they wrote. Content analysis studies of YouTube videos critical of HPV vaccinations are replete with conspiratorial content.

"Common conspiracist themes include alleged government cover-ups of vaccine information, or suggestions that a vaccine solely exists to maximize the profit of pharmaceutical companies," they wrote. The conspiracy-heavy, anti-vaccine movement has had "demonstrably serious adverse public health impacts."

For instance, nations that discontinued or reduced the use of a vaccine for whooping cough under such anti-vaccine conspiratorial hysteria now experience this often-fatal disease at rates that are up to 100 times greater than countries that have continued vaccinations.

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Conspiracies rampant throughout the climate-denier blogosphere are also consistent with such thinking, they wrote. Despite the fact a recent review of more than 13,000 peer-reviewed climate change studies found that just 23 deny the underlying science of climate change, the climate-denier community holds fast to a belief that climate-related science—like AIDS-related science, tobacco-related science or vaccine-related science—is either corrupt or controlled by powerful forces.

Based on their reviews of the societal and cognitive processes that underlie each of these science denial situations, conspiratorial thinking in turn spurs the widespread proliferation of misinformation throughout the blogosphere, often confusing issues for the general public for years or even decades.

"My colleagues and I found evidence for the involvement of conspiratorial ideation in the rejection of scientific propositions – from climate change to the link between tobacco and lung cancer, and between HIV and AIDS—among visitors to climate (denial) blogs," one of the authors, Dr. Stephan Lewandowsky, wrote in a blog post about their research on conspiratorial thinking.

Eventually, as in the case of smoking and lung cancer, or HIV and AIDS, the underlying scientific proposition establishes itself with the public and the conspiracies fade away into the dust bin of history. But, until then, it can be awfully confusing for much of the public not equipped to pay close attention to the way in which scientific consensus occurs.

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