The Skeptics Guide to the Universe is a long running and highly popular podcast that has weekly show since 2005. One regular item they have is called “Science or Fiction”. This is where the host, Steven Novella, presents his panel of skeptics with three items, and they have to see if they can spot which one is fake. This week, (Podcast #712 – March 2nd, 2019), the theme was conspiracies, and so they had to work out which of the following statements regarding conspiracy thinking is false.
Conspiracy thinking is itself a fascinating topic, hence I’m using this as a platform to launch toady’s posting.
Can you spot which is the Fake one?
Before we get into the detail, let’s play. Here are the three items …
- Item #1 An international survey found that overall belief in conspiracies was higher in the US than the 8 European countries surveyed. (Britain, Poland, Italy, France, Germany, Portugal, Sweden, Hungary)
- Item #2 A recent study shows that those who believe in conspiracy theories are more likely to accept and engage in minor criminal behavior.
- Item #3 Current evidence suggests that overall belief in conspiracy theories has been relatively stable over at least the last century.
Now before you read on, pause and ponder over each of the above. Which do you think is not actually true?
Once you have made a choice, dive in.
The Stability of Conspiracy Theories
Wait, that’s crazy, and simply can’t be true. The internet just must have acted as an amplifier for conspiracy thinking. In our modern age of “Alternative Facts”, Trump, and Brexit, it must be a lot worse than anything previously experienced.
There is data that verifies that this item is true.
Steve points to a Washington Post article that articulates 5 popular myths concerning conspiracy thinking explaining why they are not true, and this is number 2 ….
In the most thorough study to date, researchers combed through more than 100,000 letters to the editor published in the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune between 1890 and 2010. They found a stable background hum of conspiracy theorizing, not an ever-increasing cacophony.
This fits with the historical record: Conspiracy theories didn’t suddenly flourish in the 21st century, or even the 20th. They’ve always been with us, and people have spread them through whatever technology was available. Ancient Athenians performed plays espousing plots about every aspect of their lives; 19th-century anti-vaccinationists printed posters. The Internet is a useful tool for indulging in conspiracy theories, but it doesn’t seem to make people more inclined to go in for conspiracy theories in the first place.
In other words, this stuff has always been with us. A well-known familiar example would be JFK, but look further back into the 1950s and you have a supposed conspiracy concerning the cover-up of the existence of aliens (Roswell). Look further back and you find the idea of secret groups that control things, Illuminate, or claims revolving around the Lincoln assassination, etc…. Back back back, each and every generation has had their own variations.
The study appears to confirm that we have always had a rather predictable and stable percentage of people who buy into such thinking.
The impact of the Internet is still a debatable topic. We don’t really have sufficient data to conclude if it has actually acted as an amplifier and increased conspiracy thinking, or has simply made more people aware of it all.
Conspiracy Believers are more likely to accept and engage in minor criminal behaviour
OK, so this one just has to be the fake. Some might indeed believe crazy stuff that is not actually true, but that can’t mean that they are criminals.
Here is the study from a couple of months ago: Belief in conspiracy theories and intentions to engage in everyday crime
What I can easily get my head around is that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with negative outcomes such as political disengagement, prejudice, and environmental inaction … but criminals!
Wait, hit pause and ask yourself this – what do they define as “Minor Criminal behaviour”?
Everyday crimes are common offences that most people are likely to commit at some point in their lives. Such crimes can include running red lights, paying cash for items to avoid paying taxes, or failing to disclose faults in second- hand items for sale. Even though they may seem small, everyday crimes can have serious costs.
So where they are coming from is this.
Conspiracy theories are associated with increased levels of mistrust. These are people who point fingers at those in authority, and are accusing them of illegal or immoral acts. The hypothesis that the researchers have is that such thinking would lead people to disengage from social norms, making them more likely to engage in counter-normative behaviour.
They ran two studies.
Needless to say, it is all complicated, but their results did confirm their hypothesis …
In summary, we have found that conspiracy theories may play a unique role in predicting everyday crime (Study 1) and that exposure to conspiracy theories increases anomie, which predicts increased future everyday crime intentions (Study 2). This research extends previous work and uncovers the consequences of conspiracy theories in a new domain. It demonstrates that people subscribing to the view that others have conspired might be more inclined towards unethical actions. We call for more research on the effects of conspiracy theories on behaviour and research that may intervene on these effects.
Belief in conspiracies was higher in the US than the 8 European countries
Yes, this one feels true. With Trump spewing fiction on a daily basis, and outlets such as Fox News and Alex Jones pumping out utter BS, the US just must be the No.1 place to embrace wave and wave of conspiracy thinking.
This one is the fiction.
Details of a study via the University of Cambridge, can be found here.
The research surveyed over 11,000 adults across the US, Britain, Poland, Italy, France, Germany, Portugal, Sweden, and Hungary. Subjects were asked about their beliefs across 10 different conspiracy theories, including whether alien contact with humans is being covered up by the government or climate change is a hoax.
Sweden was the most skeptical country with 48 percent of people disbelieving every conspiracy presented, while Hungary was filled with the most believers with only 15 percent of people rejecting every conspiracy. In the United States only 36 percent of respondents disbelieved every theory proposed.
Meanwhile, (unrelated to the study, this is just me making a quip), Trump supports are working hard by vigorously promoting fiction as fact, and so strive to Make America Great Again by getting the US to the No.1 spot.
Well Played Steve
Steve did a good job with these three items. The two you would naturally lean towards thinking are fake turn out to be true, and the one item that you might naturally feel just must be true, turns out to be the fake one.
It illustrates just how easy it can be for each and every one of us to jump to conclusions that are wrong. We all have that potential.