Who’s Immune to Conspiracy Theories?

It seems like conspiracy theories are enveloping us. The new coronavirus was hatched in a lab and foisted on us by China! The one percent is manipulating the economy! Oh, my. It’s a long list that we can read and smugly think, we’re too smart to fall for that. Right?

But on the other hand, the literature on conspiracy theories makes one thing very clear. No one is immune.

Everyone Has a Theory

On a recent podcast, the senior science writer for FiveThirtyEight, Maggie Koerth, explained:

Honestly from what I’ve seen in research on conspiracy theories it depends on the specific theory. But when you get down to it almost all of us believe in some kind of conspiracy theory. It may not be that we all believe the same one.

You may not think you believe in a conspiracy theory but you probably do.

Joseph Uscinski is a political scientist who studies this aspect of political behavior. He described how diverse types of people blur the line between facts and conspiracy theories:

In my most recent poll, the one that had the most people agreeing was that the one percent controls the government. This is the Bernie Sanders campaign mantra. That came in at 54%. And then right after that I think we got 50% believing that Epstein didn’t kill himself.

Whenever I mention the one percent thing I always got a lot of pushback particularly from lefties and Bernie types. They’re like: “But they really do control everything.” The answer is no, no they don’t. There is no economics textbook you will pick up that asks, “how does the economy run?” and then says, page one, the one percent controls everything, end of book. That’s just not real. It’s a fever dream for for the radical left.

Dark Forces Conspiring to Make Us Fat and Sick

The subject of nutrition, health, and obesity is fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Big food, Big Soda, Big Sugar, Big Meat – they’re all conspiring to make us sick and fat. To addict us to food that hits a magical “bliss point” and turns us into veritable zombies who cannot resist the latest version of Doritos.

Medical journals publish scholarly analyses of correspondence to establish that Big Sugar led public health down a rabbit hole. It was a brilliant plot to make public health advocates worry about dietary cholesterol and fat for decades – instead of sugar. Email analysis is an emerging scientific method for sniffing out such plots.

Such sleuths have caught Big Meat red handed in their conspiracy to hide the health hazards of their product. The sleuths propose that industry is paying off academics in devious ways. When the academics dispute it, massive mayhem erupts and suspicions of a conspiracy only become more entrenched.

A Lousy Substitute for Science

Conspiracy theories make a lousy substitute for science. Every one of us would do well to consider the conspiracy thinking we’ve embraced and let it go. If you think you don’t have a pet theory of conspiracy, then you’re secretly conspiring to fool yourself.

Click here for classic research on belief in conspiracy theories and here for a good review of knowledge on the subject. For the thought-provoking podcast from FiveThirtyEight on this subject, click here.

Conspiracy, lithograph by Kathe Kollwitz / WikiArt

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May 20, 2020

4 Responses to “Who’s Immune to Conspiracy Theories?”

  1. May 20, 2020 at 6:57 am, Joe Gitchell said:

    Ted – thank you for pulling this together. So important.

    The way I try to understand this is that we are all descendants of successful pattern recognizers (big game follows this path more than the other…the days are getting longer, we could plant soon, etc) and there is a distribution of the “gain” (think audio line-in stuff) of the recognition across the population. Some of us are just more able to see patterns. Some times they are real but other times, not.

    I can’t resist sharing two more resources:

    This paper examining the Big Sugar conspiracy:

    And this interview of Ezra Klein interviewing Cass Sunstein:

    Stay curious!


  2. May 20, 2020 at 9:55 am, David Brown said:

    It’s doubtful that any sort of conspiracy is causing the public health to deteriorate. The problem seems to stem from from scientific ideology coupled with ignorance.

    Currently, there are competing scientific cultures arguing for or against high or low intakes of saturated fats and polyunsaturated fats.

    What scientists on both sides of the healthy fats divide are ignoring is a vast body of bioactive lipids research that is not getting publicized. Nor is it being translated into practical usefulness. One can do a web search using arachidonic acid in conjunction with any sort of mental or physical disturbance that comes to mind and access articles that say this sort of thing. “An increased AA/omega-3 fatty acid ratio, especially docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is associated with depression.”

    Try this web search: bioactive lipids obesity

  3. May 21, 2020 at 10:50 am, John DiTraglia said:

    I’m a radical lefty but i don’t believe that rich people control everything but that they have more influence than the rest of us.

    • May 21, 2020 at 12:26 pm, Ted said:

      I have similar feelings, John.