“If you think Princess Diana was murdered, you’re [also] more likely to think that she’s still alive.”

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My general impression is that conspiracy theorists like to imagine themselves to be more sceptical than the “sheeple” around them who just blindly follow the official narrative. Unfortunately for them, research indicates that the opposite is true: they are defined by their credulity.

For example, in the video below Ezra Klein interviews Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law Professor who has studied how groups make decisions. His latest book looks specifically at how and why conspiracy theories spread. Among the observations he makes is that some people are drawn to conspiracy theories like “moths to a flame.” Their attraction them is so great in fact that they will sacrifice logical consistency to believe them. So for example, people who believe Princess Diana was murdered are more likely to believe she is still alive!

One of the consistent themes of what Mr Sunstein says is the importance of people’s social networks. This article from Slate highlights research showing that those favouring self-consciously anti-establishment new sources had a particular propensity to believe misinformation:

The researchers examined Italian Facebook activity in the run-up to the election of 2013, looking at how users interacted with “troll” posts—those that present a “caricatural version of political activism and alternative news stories, with the peculiarity to include always false information.”

One example was a story reporting that the “Italian Senate voted and accepted (257 in favor and 165 abstentions) a law proposed by Senator Cirenga aimed at funding with 134 billion Euros the policy-makers to find a job in case of defeat in the political competition.”

There are a number of obvious red flags in this story. There is no Sen. Cirenga, Italy doesn’t have that many senators, and that amount of money would be 10 percent of the country’s GDP. Nonetheless, it went viral during the election, was reposted credulously by several mainstream political organizations, and according to the authors, was “among the arguments used by protesters manifesting in several Italian cities” during the election.

The authors also divided users into groups who get their news primarily from political organizing sites, those who mainly share content mainstream news outlets, and those who prefer “alternative” news sources: “pages which disseminate controversial information, most often lacking supporting evidence and sometimes contradictory of the official news.”

They found that regular consumers of “alternative” news are far more likely to share false content. “We find that, out of the 1279 labeled users interacting with the troll memes, a dominant percentage (56% , as opposed to 26% and 18% for other groups) is constituted of users preeminently interacting with alternative information sources and thus more exposed to unsubstantiated claims.”

My read on all this is that if you’ve decided in advance that things have happened in a particular way you’re likely to go astray. It seems clear that the police covered up the truth about the Hillsborough disaster but not Diana’s death. You have to look at the evidence in each case and make a rational decision. Conspiracy theorists seem essentially to be people who propose the same solution to every problem and as a result tend to get them wrong.

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3 thoughts on ““If you think Princess Diana was murdered, you’re [also] more likely to think that she’s still alive.”

  1. I don’t think that anyone would disagree that one should “look at the evidence in each case and make a rational decision”. It’s a success term – if you’re doing that, then you’ve already worked out the best way of approaching things. In order for this advice to be useful, you need to describe what steps people should take in order to enable them to examine the evidence, and in order for them to reach a rational decision.

    Unfortunately, it’s not clear what those steps should be. Most people don’t have access to the raw evidence – all that we have is the evidence reported to us by news sources. If you think that mainstream news sources are unreliable, how do you do that?

    The definition of “rational decision” is also going to vary between people. If you think that the institutions of the state and the establishment are corrupt (not all that much of a stretch, given some of the stories that have come out re. Hillsborough, plebgate, the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and so on – it’s now pretty clear that the police regularly lie to protect their reputation), then you might think that it’s rational to treat the official line with scepticism and to assume the worst.

    • I think you’re right to say that what I’ve written is not very useful as advice. However, I wasn’t really giving conspiracy theorists advice on how to think rationally. I was highlighting and ridiculing their failure to do so.

      I don’t really think that final sentence about how one might reasonably “treat the official line with scepticism and to assume the worst” really makes sense. Treating something with scepticism and making assumptions about it are contradictory processes. One involves rigorously analysing the truth of a claim, the other concluding a certain thing before one has considered the evidence. That’s why I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about ‘climate change sceptics’ for example.

  2. Pingback: Just how implausible are AIDS conspiracy theories? | Matter Of Facts

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