Jul 13 2010

Conspiracy Science

Maybe it was at a party, a family event, or even at work, but you have probably encountered before a person whom we would call a conspiracy theorist. Were you cornered as they became more and more animated, discussing how the shadow world government is slowly preparing for world domination using chemtrails and vaccines? Perhaps you became progressively sheepish as every logical question was met with an even more absurd bit of circular reasoning, accompanied by accusations of being naive, until physical escape was your only option.

This, of course, is an extreme example while conspiracy thinking occurs on a spectrum – we all have a little conspiracy theorist inside of us to some degree. Understanding conspiracy thinking in its subtle and extreme forms seems like an important topic of psychological investigation, and yet there is a paucity of good scientific research. Perhaps this is due to the stigma of conspiracies – academics don’t want to get the stench of conspiracy theories on them.

But there is some interesting research, and recently psychologists Viren Swami and Rebecca Coles reviewed this research in their article The Truth is Out There. This is a keeper – one for the skeptical files, if for nothing else than that they provide a handy list of references on conspiracy research.

They discuss that early papers on conspiracy theories focused on characterizing the theories themselves, rather than the people who hold them. They reference Hofstadter’s 1966 “seminal” paper on conspiracy theories in which he provided the following definition:

(Belief in a) “vast, insidious, preternaturally effective international conspiratorial network designed to perpetrate acts of the most fiendish character.”

That sums it up nicely. But the more interesting work came later when researchers began to explore the psychology of the people who hold conspiracy theories. It seems that in this area ideas followed a typical historical pattern – in that at first conspiracy thinking was seen as a form of psychopathology involving paranoid delusional ideation. More recently conspiracy thinking is seen as fulfilling certain universal psychological needs perhaps triggered by situational factors.

In my view both approaches are correct – there appears to be a spectrum of inherent predisposition to conspiracy thinking. At the same time there is a universal appeal to conspiracy theories and situations in which they are more likely to occur, even among the more rational. For example, the authors write:

To the extent that conspiracy theories fill a need for certainty, it is thought they may gain more widespread acceptance in instances when establishment or mainstream explanations contain erroneous information, discrepancies, or ambiguities (Miller, 2002). A conspiracy theory, in this sense, helps explain those ambiguities and ‘provides a convenient alternative to living with uncertainty’ (Zarefsky, 1984, p.72). Or as Young and colleagues (1990, p.104) have put it, ‘[T]he human desire for explanations of all natural phenomena – a drive that spurs inquiry on many levels – aids the conspiracist in the quest for public acceptance.’

Conspiracy thinking is rooted in a desire for control and understanding, triggered by a lack of control and information, or ambiguous and unsatisfying information about big events. The authors emphasize that the public often has a lack of access to adequate information to explain historical events (a situational factor). This can be coupled with what has been called a “crippled epistemology” – a tendency to utilize circular reasoning, confirmation bias, and poor logic coupled with this lack of information. The result is a popular conspiracy theory that makes sense (even if a perverse sense) of events.

One tidbit I found interesting was the offer of the fundamental attribution error as a partial explanation for conspiracy thinking. This is the notion that people tend to assume or overemphasize internal factors (inherent character) as an explanation for the behavior of others, rather than situational or external factors. If we see someone trip while walking down the sidewalk we think they are clumsy, rather than that there was a crack in the sidewalk. We, of course, exempt ourselves from this assumption are are happy to attribute our missteps to unavoidable external factors.

Conspiracy theorists take this attribution error to the extreme, and will often attribute the behavior of others to internal goals (the conspiracy) rather than benign situational factors.

One factor that was not mentioned in the article was the related notion of agency detection – the human tendency to see agency in objects and events. We tend to see a hidden agent where there is none. With respect to conspiracy theories this results from seeing an invisible hand behind otherwise disconnected events. This also relates to the desire for control, understanding, and privileged knowledge.

If you have any interest in conspiracy theories the entire article is worth a read. And as I said, the list of references alone is worth keeping this one in the files.

32 responses so far

32 thoughts on “Conspiracy Science”

  1. scottshan says:

    I’d be curious to know the relationship between cannabis use and belief in conspiracy theories. Speaking completely from anecdotes most of the people that I know that are really into the conspiracy stuff also are/were heavy marijuana users. Obviously it isn’t a necessary condition but I wonder if it acts as a catalyst that gets people into the circular reasoning/confirmation bias trap and then even if cannabis is removed they stay in that trap.

  2. mikerattlesnake says:

    Eh… I have met plenty of teetotaling (or at least pot-free) conspiracy theorists, and quite a number of rational-thinking smokers. I woulnd’t doubt that for those already conspirationally inclined that the drug would allow them to imagine said conspiracies more vividly and fantastically. Similarly (as written in Sagan’s “Mr. X” column in high times), it allows those with a rational, scientific mind to visualize their particular interests more vividly as well. It might be something interesting to study, but I suspect your hypothesis is based more on the stereotype of a stoner (and probably a few obnoxious, dredlocked real-life examples of same) than of the actual population of users.

  3. scottshan says:

    Absolutely, to clarify I’m by no means saying that all/most people who use drugs are conspiratorial thinkers or vice versa. I know many, many (as a recent university grad) rational, highly intelligent people who use cannabis frequently. As a Canadian pot is hardly a taboo subject within my generation.

    I just think that the some effects of pot(numerous and varied as they are) lend plausibility to the idea. The one dimensional thinking where you just run with an idea, without challenging the specifics, I think is more pronounced when using cannabis and is a hallmark of conspiratorial thinking. Anyways yeah, I’ve been pondering it for a while and was wondering what others thought.

  4. mrvlad says:


    I think your assumption of one dimensional thinking being an effect of pot smoking is incorrect. I’ve known a couple of very intelligent smokers who seem to be just as skeptical and able to challenge things and dissect problems from many different angles while high. A drug like cannabis is not going to radically change someone’s personality so I would think that it depends wholly on the user: a skeptic will not forget the importance of skepticism and a conspiracy theorist will develop more ideas that confirm his or her beliefs. To say that cannabis use causes one dimensional thinking in everyone is very misguided.

  5. SARA says:

    A few weeks ago, I had this thought:
    Conspiracy theories are like Rube Goldberg Machines, entertaining but hard to live with.
    Just like a Rube Goldberg Machine, the theories are fascinating and oddly believable while you are listening to the engineer of the conspiracy. It isn’t until later that it occurs to you that its overly complex and that the simpler answer is far more credible.

  6. scottshan says:

    Fair enough, I was going primarily on personal experience when I used to use cannabis and I noticed it in myself that I wouldn’t be as skeptical when I should have been. I would revert to more 1D thinking. But yeah I could very easily be wrong in general.

  7. CivilUnrest says:

    I’ll jump on the drug-user-stereotype bandwagon here and say that of all the drugs I have seen someone on, the one that seems most likely to spur a formally rational person to embrace a conspiracy theory is cocaine. That stuff makes you dumb as rocks, but people on it believe that they’re thinking at a level you (as a mere sober person) can’t even imagine.

    That being said, mrvlad is likely correct. Most drugs won’t permanently change your personality enough to turn you from a skeptic to a truther.

    While I am on the subject of “former” skeptics, how do you all deal with people who WERE skeptics/atheists/rational people and then go off the deep end? Is it possible to truly change THAT fundamentally, or were they just fair-weather skeptics from the start?

  8. ccbowers says:

    What about the possible utility of conspiracy thinking? The fact that people are attempting to connect the dots, even when the dots are random, may help prevent actual conspiracies… or at least uncover them from time to time. Also, in the setting of very corrupt governments (which may be much of the world), conspiracy thinking may actually be a reasonable reaction to the circumstances.

  9. Robb says:

    “… or at least uncover them from time to time …”

    I wonder, what is the largest bona fide conspiracy that’s ever been uncovered?

    The recent movie about the conspiracy to set the price of (something, I forget) was “huge”, but because it involved only the collusion of a handful of people who were the CEOs of large companies.

  10. tmac57 says:

    Robb, were you referring to this movie?

  11. banyan says:

    How did this thread suddenly jump to being about drug use? Did the posters want to distract people from talking about the psychological biases that lead toward conspiratorial thinking? Did Dr. Novella himself incite these comments? What is his connection to the commenters? These and other questions need answers.

    I think of conspiracy theories as being an unusual form of the representativeness heuristic. When people see a really big event, they assume it couldn’t have come from anything but a really big actor. I’ve seen 9/11 truther trolls post their incredulity at the possibility of 9/11 being carried out by a small number of people with limited resources. Ditto JFK assassination. I guess the moon landing doesn’t really fit the bill.

  12. tmac57 says:

    ccbowers:”What about the possible utility of conspiracy thinking?”
    The authors of the paper that Steve references actually address this question slightly in the last paragraph :
    “It may also prove
    useful to distinguish between beliefs that
    reflect ‘political paranoia’ in the traditional
    sense, and political realism. In doing so, it
    will be important for scholars to drop the
    assumption that all conspiracy theories are
    equally unbelievable. Only by evaluating
    and understanding ‘both the context of
    the explanation and the effects of the
    explanation’ (Waters, 1997, p.123) will
    we appreciate to what extent conspiracy
    theories reflect everyday cognitions.”
    The problem seems to be that once a ‘true believer’ gets ensnared by the conspiratorial ‘logic’, they become cognitively trapped by their belief system to the exclusion of any other plausible explanation. That is what seems to distinguish them from others who may be temporarily taken in with the conspiracy idea, but who later reject it as evidence mounts against it. The latter type would probably not really fall into the category of a ‘conspiracy theorist’ in my opinion. That kind of questioning may have some ‘utility’ as you suggest,as long as it is tempered with intellectually honesty and critical thinking.

  13. taustin says:


    I wonder if you’re seeing the correct direction of causation. In my (entirely anecdotal, and I wasn’t really paying attention) experience, pot smokers are less likely to be conspiracy theorists because they smoke pot than they are to smoke pot because they are conspiracy theorists. (Pot is wonder drug being suppressed by “big pharma” because they can’t make money on it.)


    You’re a very bad man. I like that about you.

    Has anyone ever examined how real conspiracies make us more likely to believe the conspiracy theories, even the goofy ones? Because certainly, there are historical examples of real conspiracies, rare though they are.

  14. scottshan says:

    @Banyan, I was simply wondering about a very common drug that I felt could influence people into buying into conspiracy theories. I certainly wasn’t trying to hijack a thread, I proposed an idea and people responded.

    Dr. Novella didn’t incite anything. I have listened to Dr. Novella’s podcast for years but I have never spoken to him personally.

    I didn’t think it was an overly off-topic idea to postulate the question of what they thought about cannabis influencing people’s thought process in regards to conspiracy theories.

    I fully admit that psychological biases play the majority of the role in conspiracy thinking. I was questioning a more minor aspect. Anyways I will “step out” on this aspect of this topic.

  15. juniorG says:

    I learned in my undergrad degree that men are more prone to ‘attribution errors’ than women are, with men tending to externalise blame for personal errors/misfortunes and women tending to internalise blame – there is a lot of literature on this. This makes me wonder whether there is a gender difference in the frequency or vividness of conspiracy theories – if so, this could lend support to the suggestion that attribution error is a potential source of the theories.

  16. jcbmack says:

    The NIH fascinates me to no end. The published studies on mariuana are majorly flawed, they are providing 26 million dollars in funds to a questionable school and so forth… like the whole “Reefer Madness” propaganda. Lancet did poorly statistcially based studies on marijuana use and schizophrenia as well… makes me wonder is there a conspiracy.

  17. ccbowers says:

    “I wonder, what is the largest bona fide conspiracy that’s ever been uncovered?”

    Well, it depends what we count as a conspiracy. Generally we do reserve the term for something major, or use it in a derogatory sense. There are many cover ups that were later found out, but these are usually referred to as scandals or not specifically labeled conspiracy. Iran-Contra comes to mind, but that is referred to as an “affair,” whatever that means. I think you may have better examples in the history of other countries, of which I am not knowledgeable. The death or injury of journalists/politicians that were critical of Putin is a more recent one, but I guess those dots were never able to be connected.

    Of course widespread conspiracies are nearly impossible, almost by definition, so genuine ones would seem to be restricted to select people and involve money or power. Anything more complex would seem logistically impossible, unless you are a consiracy theorist.

  18. cottreau says:

    The strangeness about conspiracy theories, or more accurately, the people who support them is that counter evidence counts as evidence.

    The largest conspiracy theory that I’ve ever heard anyone tout, was from a strongly religious person on-line. They believed that the Catholic Church had founded Islam in order to wage war on the true believing Christians in the world, i.e. the Orthodox churches in the eastern empire. In the conspiracy, both the Catholic church and Islam are Satan worshipers who are preparing for the end time when Satan comes.

    When I pointed out that the Catholic church had gone on a long string of crusades against Islam, his immediate response was, “They want to throw off the scent.”

    I realized then that with a conspiracy theorist, all facts lead support their position, no matter how silly. It was an interesting exercise though. I spent far too long trying to tell if logic had any effect on this person.

    I do often wonder if there are real conspiracies out there. One of my favorite book titles is “Conspiracy Theories & Secret Societies for Dummies”.

  19. ebohlman says:

    I’ve noticed two apparent behavioral traits among a lot of conspiracy theorists:

    1) A tendency to believe that knowledge can be acquired without any effort. If they don’t know much about a subject, they take that as evidence that knowledge of the subject is being suppressed, not that they haven’t done the work to acquire that knowledge. Several years ago, I was reading an HIV conspiracist (not denialist) who was remarking on how, when he read news stories about some research involving chimps, he thought that the particular species of chimp named was a rare one and was surprised to learn that it was a common one. He attributed that surprise to suppression.

    2) A tendency to reject simple explanations in favor of complex ones, often in situations where a much larger number of people would make the opposite mistake, i.e. expecting simple answers to complicated problems.

    I think the first one is mostly a matter of rationalizing intellectual laziness and the second is really a matter of narcissism, expecting the natural world to entertain you.

  20. taustin says:


    Isn’t that a Chick Tract?


    Pretty much all classical conspiracy theory thinking involves a certain degree of narcissism. One must be very, very important, if “they”are out to get you.

  21. Pinky says:

    It think you nailed it, Steve, when you said in an early 2006 Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast [when it comes to Government conspiracies], “The Government can’t even hide a BJ in the Whitehouse! C’mon!”

  22. BillyJoe7 says:

    “The Government can’t even hide a BJ in the Whitehouse! C’mon!”

    Hey? I’ve never even been in the Whitehouse!

  23. Shelley says:

    I suspect that there’s a certain amount of ego involved as well.

    It has to be fairly self-bolstering to be under the impression that you’re one of the few who really knows/understands ‘the truth’; that the “supposed experts” (how many times have you heard that phrase?) either know nothing, are entirely mistaken, or they’re in on it.

  24. hippiehunter says:

    Generally I find conspiracy theorists funny , I live near Nimbin in Australia ( sister city of Amsterdam ! ) where every cloud is a chemtrail and the CIA are omniscient.

    In this part of the world I have found myself the only person in a room that believes man actually landed on the moon and that 9/11 was the act of a group of fundamentalist muslim mass murderers.

    The one conspiracy theory that angers me though is the ‘ Big Pharma ‘ nonsense that antivaxers prattle on about …..’ it is a conspiracy theory with a body count’. Not my line but true.

    I think in this case it is often a contrived conspiracy theory in that it is promoted by alt. med. practitioners as a diversion from thier own lack of efficacy.

  25. banyan says:

    @scottshan It was a joke, friend. It’s hard to get across irony in this silent black and white text. You’re in the clear!

  26. Hypatias Daughter says:

    “…..or ambiguous and unsatisfying information about big events. The authors emphasize that the public often has a lack of access to adequate information to explain historical events (a situational factor).”
    ebohlman “If they don’t know much about a subject, they take that as evidence that knowledge of the subject is being suppressed, not that they haven’t done the work to acquire that knowledge. ” A variation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect

    Twenty years ago, one had to make an effort to believe in woo, as the only sources were books and the occasional mimeographed newsletter with a circulation of 86. Now the internet spreads woo faster than than a lizards tongue.
    Claiming this is due to scientific ignorance misses the fact that the same internet that feeds them the woo has tons of real science these people are choosing to ignore. And more worrisome, because science denies them their woo, they also dismiss science as a procedure to find the truth.
    Why there is a subset of people who aren’t just ignorant (but are willing to learn), but embrace their ignorance over science is a bigger question.

  27. zoe237 says:

    Speaking of Catholics, was the shuffling of pedophile priests from parish to parish a conspiracy amongst the higher ups? How about wmds in Iraq, or 9-11 is connected to Saddam Huisein? Curious.

    Or is that an example of a conspiracy theorem?>

    In addition to this final recommendation:

    [i] {“It may also prove useful to distinguish between beliefs that reflect ‘political paranoia’ in the traditional sense, and political realism. In doing so, it will be important for scholars to drop the assumption that all conspiracy theories are equally unbelievable. “[/i]

    the authors also note that

    [i]”The fact that some conspiracy theories (such as US Department of Defence plans to stimulate acts of terrorism and blame them on Cuba) have turned out to be true certainly bears out this point. “[/i]

    It seems to me that along with a ton of people who are paranoid, they are just as many who trust everything they see on tv, or whatever. Gullible versus paranoid. There’s a balance there.

  28. zoe237 says:

    Oops, should have used carrots. Sorry.

  29. HHC says:

    The authors of the conspiracy pdf discuss briefly the Tuskeegee syphillis study in the South. There is no doubt that the KKK were active in the U.S. during this period and impacted the civil liberties of all minority groups. But the study of black syphillitic patients was extended beyond the original intention of 6 months. The patients received monitoring of their lifestyle and free meals. The doctors did not interfere beyond providing nutrition. This laissez-faire attitude was also common in the Midwest. Would you tell the Midwest’s Klansmen to stop having children out of wedlock or not have sex when they were infected with syphillis? Their children were simply dropped off at the state hospitals. The quality of that care is documented by our justice system.

  30. BillyJoe7 says:

    “Gullible versus paranoid. There’s a balance there.”

    That’s the point Michael Shermer makes in terms of type 1 and type 2 errors.

  31. Pixy Misa says:

    Twenty years ago, one had to make an effort to believe in woo, as the only sources were books and the occasional mimeographed newsletter with a circulation of 86.

    You are apparently too young to remember the seventies. If you think nonsense is endemic now, this is nothing compared to that decade.

  32. mindme says:

    ||Twenty years ago, one had to make an effort to believe in woo, as the only sources were books and the occasional mimeographed newsletter with a circulation of 86.

    You are apparently too young to remember the seventies. If you think nonsense is endemic now, this is nothing compared to that decade.||

    Agreed. One had to make no effort. We had grocery store magazines, shows like In Search Of and That’s Incredible. Amazingly popular books like Chariot of the Gods. What has changed is critical thinking information was actually what you had to make an effort to find. You had to descend into the bowels of your university library to discover Skeptical Inquirer and something called the Skeptics Movement. You had to take a course on logic to discover the tools of logical thinking. We had no snopes.com.

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