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Conspiracies today are like spirits in ancient times – conspiracy researcher

When uncertainty becomes our daily routine, when there are no answers to mounting questions, we tend to search in the most unusual places. Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? We asked Dr. Michael Shermer, psychologist, historian of science and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Michael Shermer, psychologist, historian of science and founding publisher of Skeptic magazine, great to have you with us, Michael. Hi.

Michael Shermer: Nice to see you.

SS: All right. So conspiracy theories – they've always been there but over the last half a year, I mean, they really started to multiply in numbers. First, we have the Covid, which is a scam aimed to impose more state surveillance, then we have the 5G towers, they're causing the virus, then we have the vaccines that contain Satan's microchip, I mean, you name it.

MS: Yes.

SS: How would you explain this trend, like the latest trend?

MS: In general, people out of power tend to think that people in power have more power than they actually have and that gives rise, that kind of fuels these conspiracy theories that anybody can concoct and...

SS: Let's deconstruct conspiracy theories. What is the belief in conspiracy theories? Like, is it some kind of mental virus that targets our brain? Is it just the modern form of superstition, I mean, fundamentally the same as some kind of a medieval belief in evil spirits? What is it exactly?

MS: Yeah, there's several factors going on. First, it's an explanation for causality that is why do things happen. So you mentioned the Middle Ages, you know, a witch was a theory of causality. Why do storms and disasters and plagues and so forth happen? And it's because witches were cavorting with demons in the middle of the night, you know, so you torched these women as demonic forces. Well, that went away once we had a scientific explanation for things like the weather and plagues and diseases and so forth. Modern conspiracy theories, again, are more related to political and economic power differentials. And the fact is some conspiracy theories are real. You know, Watergate in the United States was a conspiracy theory that turned out to be real. You know, President Lincoln was assassinated by a conspiracy, the assassination of Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, that launched the First World War, that was a true conspiracy, these Serbian nationalists were conspiring to assassinate a foreign leader. So there's enough of these things that happen in the real world, you know, Wall Street traders that cheat the system and in your country oligarchs that hack the economic system after the fall of the Soviet Union – these are real, so people can see that some conspiracy theories turn out to be true… so what's to say that they all aren’t true? And therefore, we need some kind of a conspiracy theory detection device, which I've outlined.

SS: But also, could it be the lack of agency that drives people into believing weird things? If an average person has no power or control over the virus, vaccination, pensions, no power to influence government decisions, is this feeling of being powerless a factor in developing a set of conspiracy believes?

MS: Yeah, so uncertainty fuels conspiracism. So in the case of the virus, and you mentioned that, we didn't really understand it for many months, its origin and its spread and how deadly it was going to be, so naturally, that fueled the idea that, well, maybe it's concocted by someone like Bill Gates or the Chinese, or the Russians. And again, the fact is, the Chinese, the Russians, and the Americans all have bioweapon laboratories, in which they concoct, you know, biological weapons, chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, we know this happens, this exists and there have been accidents where viruses have escaped bio lab. So again, it's not impossible. So you know, these conspiracy theories usually have some little grain of truth in them that it could be true. And then from there, you fuel it like, well, maybe it's 5G, because here again, the uncertainty, you know, a new form of internet technology that's far vastly powerful than 4G and so on. Maybe that's helping to fuel it. Just anything that's kind of in the information eco-landscape that can fuel it will be glommed on to by conspiracists.

SS: But I mean, in this age of scientific success, with eradicating polio and smallpox and building atomic energy stations, flying into space for God's sake people were, it seemed, more likely to believe in science-proven facts. Like you've said, you know, once they were mystified by witches and conspiracy theories and then you had science that explained things to us. What is it about modern times that is undermining this belief?

MS: Yes, we do live in an age of science and most people embrace most of science, the so-called science deniers, people that deny scientific facts are usually denying them in a specific domain. So for example, conservatives in the United States are leery of climate science because they feel it challenges their belief in free markets and free enterprise and capitalism, and so on. Or they deny the theory of evolution, if they're religious, they feel that the theory of evolution challenges their religious beliefs. But otherwise, they accept all the other forms of science. On the left, you know, the GMOs, genetically modified organisms are a big fear, even though there's no evidence that they cause harm, nuclear power is considered a big threat. There's a lot of science denial on the left as well. But again, most liberals accept most of science. So it's targeted scepticism about science, where there's a perceived threat to your particular worldview that, you feel, defines who you are and you don't want to give that up.

SS: Is it fair to also put some of the blame for the lack of public trust on scientists and journalists who perhaps don't communicate effectively these days? Maybe even politicians?

MS: Yeah, for sure. You know, if scientists are not trained in communicating clearly the results of the research, that's a problem. Science journalists tend to glom on to press release, like, statements about findings, and you know, they have limited space in newspapers and magazines so it's hard to be subtle. And everybody's looking for, you know, a simple causal connection A causes B, you know, vaccines cause autism or, you know, whatever, something simple like that. And the fact is most research is pretty complicated. So we have something called the replication crisis in science we've been going through for about the last decade, that is probably half of all published research in peer-reviewed journals can't be replicated. So it probably never should have been published in the first place. And so that, that causes the public to be distrustful. Well, if half of the studies that I read about are not to be trusted, then why should I trust the other half? You know, coffee is bad. No, coffee is good. No, coffee is bad. Eggs are good. No, eggs are bad. No, eggs are good again. All right, you guys can't make up your mind, so why should I believe you about vaccines, or climate change? That's why scientists have to be forthright and honest about their research and say where they really don't know, which is, you know, a lot of the time.

SS: You know, the old saying goes, simplicity is genius and Occam’s razor principle says that the simplest explanation to things is usually the right one. And I'm a strong believer in that actually. I mean, I come from a family of politicians. And, you know, we've been surrounded with theories of conspiracy all my life, but the truth is, things just happen, you know, and then it sort of gets out. Why then instead of simplifying things, we tend to complexify them with elaborate conspiracies? Would you say it's part of human nature, maybe?

MS: Oh, for sure, yes. I mean, you've captured it there in your phrase, ‘things just happen’. You know, a lot of randomness explains what happens in the world. There's nobody pulling the strings, there's nobody in control. I mean, if you just take something like economics, it's a complex adaptive system that just kind of moves along at its own accord, with you know, billions of people just trading and shopping and just taking care of their lives. And it's hard to graft on to that kind of chaos some sort of theoretical model that simplifies it all. Most economic models are not simple. They're complex. But people want to know, well, something like the conspiracy theory about the Illuminati, there are these 12 guys living in Europe somewhere that run the world's economies and wars and things like that. That's in a way more comforting to think, ‘Well, I can understand that; what I can't understand is you open an economics textbook and you know, no one can understand why the price of gasoline is what it is or the price of a barrel of oil is just almost impossible to predict; how can that be?’ You know, it's much easier to think somebody’s behind the curtain pulling the strings.

SS: Right. You know, I also noticed that when someone starts believing in one conspiracy theory, for instance, the theory about the harm of vaccines, let's say, because it's like a huge one right now, it's likely that they will end up believing another and another and then end up like, I don't know, a flat-Earthener or something like that. Why does it happen? Is there some kind of chain reaction spurred in the brain?

MS: Well, so you're right. Research shows that people that tick the box for one conspiracy theory, are more likely to tick the box for other conspiracy theories. And once you go down that rabbit hole, they're also more likely to believe in astrology and psychics and Bigfoot and UFOs and aliens, they get sort of the whole package. So it appears to be some people are more gullible, open-minded to fringe ideas. It's good to be open-minded because a lot of times we're wrong and maybe there'll be some new idea that we should accept is true. The problem is, you don't want to be so open-minded that your brains fall out, you believe every crazy thing that comes along. So in science studies it’s called the demarcation problem. How do you demarcate between science and pseudoscience? You know, where do you draw the line? How do you know which claim is real and which is not? When should I be sceptical? When should I be open-minded? And that's hard to say, you know, it really depends on the particular claim. But in general, you know, scientists reach a consensus about what's likely to be true through years and years of debate and disputation and research and arguing over what data sets mean, and so on. Then there emerges something like a consensus like in climate science, there's a consensus that CO2 gases and greenhouse gases caused global warming. But that was hard-fought, that took like 25 years of research to get to that consensus. But the public sees is this sort of authoritarian group of experts telling us what's true, but that's not how it really works.

SS: For someone like you who's studying this and who made a science out of it, do you have maybe like a simple three-step or a five-step rule that would apply to any theory to crack it down and say, this is a real one and this is not? Are there some criteria that could apply to anything?

MS: Yeah, so several things. Is the claim been tested by somebody? Who is the person making the claim? Do they have some credibility to them or they are just some nobody? It's not that outsiders and nobodies can't make contributions to science, they can and have, but it's just very unlikely. There's a community of scientists, experts in a particular field, that argue amongst themselves. And the reason that's important is because most of us get it wrong most of the time, that is we have cognitive biases, like the confirmation bias, and the hindsight bias and my-side bias and all these things that distort how we see the world. But if I have somebody else that I can talk to or a community of people that are interested in what I'm interested in, experts in this particular area, and I can bounce ideas off them, and they can say, ‘Shermer, you've gone off the rails, that's a crazy idea’. And then before I publish, you know, I have a sounding board there. People that work in isolation, you know, are less likely to get at the truth. And then, you know, is it in a peer-reviewed journal? Or is it in some, you know, non-peer-reviewed journal or just a magazine or a web page? And anybody can create a web page that looks impressive. That doesn't mean it's been checked. You know, is there fact-checking? There's a reason major newspapers, like the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and so on have fact-checkers because most of the journalists that write get facts wrong, even when they're trying to be careful, they still get facts wrong. So it's good to have fact-checking. So just little things like that, you know, kick the tyres, ask a few questions. Where did this claim come from? You know, who checked it? Did somebody challenge it? You know, is it in a peer-reviewed journal? You know, there might be aliens or might be Bigfoot, you know, there might be this or that, anything is possible. Where's the evidence? I got to see the evidence for myself.

SS: Do conspiracy beliefs also have gateway theories, I mean, something easy to get into and get hooked on? I don't know what they're like, New Age, Holocaust denial, Kennedy assassination...

MS: Yeah, so, of course, they all have gateways on the internet.  This is part of the problem, the internet is a liberating force for the spread of knowledge. You know, almost all human knowledge now is available for free instantaneously. But the downside of that, like the printing press, the same device that can print Shakespeare can print ‘Mein Kampf’ by Hitler. The internet that can give us you know Wikipedia pages and all human knowledge for free, also gives us QAnon crazy conspiracy theories and anti-vaxxers and, you know, ‘vaccines cause autism’, you know, all that stuff is also freely available. So the key here is fact-checking and fortunately, in the last five years or so, there emerged these websites like Snopes and PolitiFact, and my own website, skeptic.com that checks the claims made by in my case scientists and other cases like PolitiFact, the speeches by Trump. And now maybe they're not getting it right, but there's half a dozen of these political fact-checking sites available now. And so consumers need to be aware of that, you know, if you're going to consume content online, be sure and check the places like Snopes that fact-check these kinds of claims.

SS: So in the case of QAnon, those who are into it supposedly fantasise about saving children and bringing criminals to justice. Can feeling good, this sensation of possessing some secret knowledge about something, having some sort of enlightened opinion about how things are be the sexiest thing about conspiracy theories?

MS: Yeah, yeah, there is a kind of titillation psychologically of somebody who thinks they have inside knowledge about what's really going on. Now let's take QAnon. It started in 2015 when Trump was running for office the first time and there was this theory that there was a paedophile ring being run by Hillary and other celebrities, out of a pizzeria in Pennsylvania. And now, did people really believe this? I mean, millions of people said, ‘Yeah, I think that's possible.’ But if you really believed that there was a paedophile ring and children were being sexually molested, wouldn’t you call the police or do something about it? Well, one guy did, he went to the pizzeria with a rifle. He had an assault rifle with him. And he burst in there and shot up the ceiling and demanded to go to the basement where the paedophile ring was. Well, there was no basement at this pizzeria. So he's just standing there, ‘Oh, my God, I'm wrong.’ But at least he had the courage of his convictions, right? He said, ‘If there's a paedophile ring, I'm going to do something about it.’ So I suspect that millions of people that tick the box on the surveys that said, ‘Yes, I think QAnon could be true, the paedophile ring’ and so on, I don't think they really believed it. Because if you really believed it, you'd call the police or something. So there's kind of two forms of belief: there's reality and then there's kind of mythical truths, truths that are just kind of wink-wink thing ‘might be real.’ For example, there's some percentage of Icelanders who say that they believe in fairies. Okay, do they really believe in fairies? Probably not. But it's just kind of part of their culture. Like, ‘Yeah, yeah, fairies... they might be there.'

SS: I think they do. I’ve been there.

MS: Also, you know, since you mentioned, you have a history of politics in your family, part of it, I think, is a political signalling to your tribe, you know, ‘I'm willing to believe this crazy idea, that's how loyal I am to my party.’ So Republicans have been put on the spot, ‘I’ve got to publicly signal that I agree with Trump's crazy ideas about the conspiracy to hack the election.’ And I don't think most of them believe it but they’ve got to say that they believe it, because their political future is on the line if Trump denounces them. So here's that word belief. You know, when they say, ‘I believe that that Trump is correct, that the election was stolen from him,’ I don't think they really believe it factually. I think they believe it sort of tribally or politically, mythically like, ‘Yeah, that's our story and we're sticking to it all the way to the end because I’ve got to stand by my tribe, my party, my team’...

SS: So there's a lot of self-sacrifice in political conspiracy theorism, right?

MS: Oh, yes. Well, so it remains to be seen what the fate of a lot of these politicians will be in the coming years after stating these crazy ideas. You know, I mean, let's just put a dart on that one, just to be clear. So this theory that the Democrats stole the election, it's self-refuting for this reason that they somehow were so diabolically clever that they managed to hack into all these electronic devices that were counting votes, and so on and so forth and stole the election, millions of votes stolen from Trump. And yet, they somehow forgot to steal the election of the Senate and the House where they're probably going to lose control of the Senate and Biden will get nothing done because the Senate will simply block him. Why didn't they steal a couple of those house seats so they could at least control the Senate? But you know... So, I mean, it's just ridiculous.

SS: Alright, so before people who didn't believe in the moon landing, etc. were somewhat marginal. Now with numerous YouTube channels, Facebook groups, there's more and more of them everywhere in the world. Can moderating social media be an effective tool against the tide of belief in misinformation?

MS: Yeah, so, as you know, there's debates about whether the US government should break up the big social media companies like Facebook. And I don't think they should. I think that's the wrong move. That's too strong an arm by the government. I do think that, that they should be held accountable publicly, that is to say, people should demand that they do some fact-checking or they should just shut it off. I mean, the rise of the fact-checking sites I mentioned before is a good counter to Facebook. And of course, as you know, Zuckerberg has said that they're going to start filtering content. But the problem with that is it's not like the New York Times that gets, let's say, 100 submissions for op-eds every day, and they publish two and they fact check them carefully. Facebook gets, you know, the equivalent of, I don't know, 100 million posts an hour, I don't know what it is, but you know, how could they possibly fact-check the posts? So the moment they start screening and saying, okay, we're not gonna let anybody post something to do with QAnon, okay, but what about this conspiracy theory? Or that one? Because, you know, some of them might be real, what if it's just a shade above normal conspiracism? Well, that could be true. Are you going to screen that out? So the moment they start filtering, that's going to be a problem, I think. So, you know, there's not a good solution, because it's orders of magnitude more powerful than mainstream media.

SS: Like we're saying, conspiracy theories have so many adherents now that they're starting to actually influence whole societies. We spoke about Trump, Trump's presidency is a prime example. You know, while officials hint at following one theory or another, regular people show up with guns, and they try to kill nonexistent human traffickers, intimidate those who are counting votes. Or take those who believe Covid is a made-up story, and therefore refuse to wear masks. Is the belief in conspiracies becoming more of a danger now than before?

MS: I think it's potentially more dangerous, though, again, most people don't act on those beliefs.

SS: So basically, you don't think that it's going to reach some sort of a critical mass when the society won't be able to afford to ignore it anymore, the conspiracy theories?

MS: It could. I don't think it'll happen. If it does, I think it'll backfire. I mean, there's a reason why most terrorist organisations fail to get most of their political goals achieved because when you impose violence, you lose the large support of your base, most people don't want to get involved in violence. Just take like the rise of the militia in the United States in the early 1990s. They were huge. You know, all these guys out there in their camouflage uniforms and guns, you know, just pretending to be soldiers and so on. And it was considered to be a threat to American political stability. And then Oklahoma City happened, the bombing in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh. And the militia movement collapsed overnight after that because most people that were involved were like, ‘Oh, my God, that is insane, we can't do that.’ And so they lost a lot of their support, financial support, as well as membership.

SS: All right. Well, Michael, it was such a pleasure talking to you. Really. It will be interesting to recap in one year's time what happens. Me and you, what do you say?

MS: Let's do that. We'll see. We will test some of my prediction. We’ll put them to an empirical test.

SS: Yeah, yeah. Really interesting. Anyways, thanks a lot. Stay safe. Take care of yourself. And I hope we'll talk soon.

MS: Okay, thank you. Bye-bye.