How to tell if conspiracy theories are real

David Robert Grimes, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Oxford who studies cancer, is familiar with conspiracy theorists. His mainstream writing for the likes of The Guardian and BBC News has included controversial topics that lend themselves to conspiracies, including homosexuality, climate change and water fluoridation.

“The charge that there is a scientific conspiracy afoot is a common one,” said Grimes, in an email interview with Live Science, “and almost inevitably those making these charges will descend into accusing one of shilling or being an agent of some malignant entity…”

For this new study, Grimes considered four common conspiracy beliefs: that NASA faked the 1969 moon landing during the Apollo 11 mission, that human-caused climate change isn’t real, that vaccines are unsafe, and that pharmaceutical companies are hiding cancer cures from the public. He created an equation to figure out how long these four cover-ups would likely last (if indeed they were cover-ups), given how many people are involved, the likelihood of leaks from the inside (whether on purpose or by accident), and how much upkeep would be required to keep everything under wraps.

Grimes then calculated the potential success of the four conspiracies that continue to garner support. He used the best-case scenario for the conspirators, where the fewest number of people are involved who could leak such undercover machinations…Using the same equation but modifying it to consider the need for added conspirators, the “lie” of climate change would last nearly 27 years if only scientists were involved in the cover-up, but under four years if scientific bodies were to take part. The vaccination conspiracy makes it to almost 35 years if it’s confined to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, but is revealed in three years and two months if drug companies are co-conspirators. The suppression of a cancer cure — maintained by Novartis, Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi, Merck and Co., Johnson and Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca — fails after around three years and three months as well.

Grimes is not idealistic about the impact of his study

“I think true believers will never change their views; in the words of Leon Festinger, ‘A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,'” he said. “While these people are ideologically deeply invested in a given narrative, I would hope that this paper might help the more rational people who have maybe heard some claims and want to ascertain if they’re probable or not.”

His main concern is the myths and conspiracies that could cause serious harm, such as climate change doubters and the anti-vaccination movement. As more people forgo vaccinations for their kids, so-called herd immunity — in which large numbers of people with immunity from a disease can shield smalls numbers of people who are not immune because outbreaks are unlikely — collapses. With this work Grimes is attempting to chip away at the less confident conspiracists and move them toward more science-based beliefs.

There still is no patch for stupidity.

41 thoughts on “How to tell if conspiracy theories are real

  1. green says:

    Perhaps 3 cases of conspiracy is not a viable basis on which to write a phd? Bayes would be turning in his grave at the quality of this work.
    And in answer to Leon Festinger who boldly states “I think true believers will never change their views….. A man with a conviction is a hard man to change,’” ditto a traditionalist/nationalist whose job relies on conformity.
    Did i hear that the earth was created only 4,600 years ago? Best we don’t waste time investigating the facts eh?

    • keaneo says:

      “Traditionalist/nationalist…conformity”? Might count as sophistry if I could figure out what it has to do with maths or postdoc research.

        • keaneo says:

          Read the bloody article. This is not a ph.d thesis – simply a mathematical exercise by a postdoc examining probabilities. 4 – not 3 – BTW. Sloppy reading, dude – if less than sophistry.

    • Goad says:

      Conspiracy theories are always conservative by nature and subject to being dismissed because they don’t offer an alternative assessment of events but instead labor after the fact to fit events into a pessimistic reading of history. Nevertheless conspiracists have always drawn their energy from an absence of observable conspirators in the real world, and as a result being enabled to be more boldly endow them with all sorts of magical powers in an imaginary or invisible realm.

  2. ALL TRUE, YES!! says:

    ☑ Jeb Bush’s Trump-Clinton conspiracy theory: here’s the evidence
    ☑ Marco Rubio and Microsoft stole Trump votes in Iowa
    ☑ “Iowa Caucus 2016 Conspiracies: 4 Theories Of What Happened With Clinton-Sanders Vote” – or The Top five Conspiracy Theories from the Iowa Caucuses
    ☑ America’s public school system was founded by “a member of the American Communist Party” according to Sen. Ted Cruz’s father
    ☑ “A Guide to Every Hillary Clinton Conspiracy”
    ☑ Obama will take over the United Nations before revealing he’s the Antichrist according to former Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann
    ☑ Nostradamus prophesied “the one called bush” (L’arbuste) would pay $5,200 per vote to come in 6th in Iowa.

    • From the head it stinks says:

      Des Moines Register: “Something smells in the Democratic Party” “Once again the world is laughing at Iowa. Late-night comedians and social media mavens are having a field day with jokes about missing caucusgoers and coin flips. That’s fine. We can take ribbing over our quirky process. But what we can’t stomach is even the whiff of impropriety or error.
      What happened Monday night at the Democratic caucuses was a debacle, period. Democracy, particularly at the local party level, can be slow, messy and obscure. But the refusal to undergo scrutiny or allow for an appeal reeks of autocracy.
      The Iowa Democratic Party must act quickly to assure the accuracy of the caucus results, beyond a shadow of a doubt. …we need answers to what happened Monday night. The future of the first-in-the-nation caucuses demands it.”

  3. Jerry Fletcher says:

    “High cognitive ability not a safeguard from conspiracies, paranormal beliefs” (University of Illinois at Chicago) “In an article published online and in the February 2018 issue of the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Tomas Ståhl reports on two studies that examined why some people are inclined to believe in various conspiracies and paranormal phenomena.”
    See also “Epistemic rationality: Skepticism toward unfounded beliefs requires sufficient cognitive ability and motivation to be rational”
    “Epistemic rationality is that part of rationality which involves achieving accurate beliefs about the world. It involves updating on receiving new evidence, mitigating cognitive biases, and examining why you believe what you believe. It can be seen as a form of instrumental rationality in which knowledge and truth are goals in themselves, whereas in other forms of instrumental rationality, knowledge and truth are only potential aids to achieving goals. Someone practicing instrumental rationality might even find falsehood useful.”

  4. Brainwash says:

    “YouTube’s app specifically for children is meant to filter out adult content and provide a “world of learning and fun,” but Business Insider found that YouTube Kids featured many conspiracy theory videos which make claims that the world is flat, that the moon landing was faked, and that the planet is ruled by reptile-human hybrids.” (Business Insider)

    • Lit fuse says:

      “What is QAnon? Explaining the bizarre rightwing conspiracy theory” (Guardian UK 7/30/18) “…New York magazine and the Daily Beast have written articles explaining more of the basic beliefs of QAnon, but chances are that the more you read about it, the more confused you will be. Imagine a volatile mix of Pizzagate, InfoWars and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, multiplied by the power of the internet and with an extra boost from a handful of conservative celebrities.” [see links]

    • —27-1—covfefe says:

      “On June 28, 2018, a Time magazine article listed the anonymous “Q” among the 25 Most Influential People on the Internet in 2018. Counting more than 130,000 related discussion videos on YouTube, Time cited the wide range of this conspiracy theory and its more prominent followers and spreading news coverage.”

    • Cornered says:

      “Conspiracy theories are usually about evil cabals manipulating world events. QAnon, by contrast, is a conspiracy theory in which the good guys — in this case, Trump and his allies — are in charge. It’s a dream of power rather than a bitter alibi for victimhood. It seems designed to cope with the cognitive dissonance caused by the gap between Trump as his faithful followers like to imagine him, and Trump as he is.” Michelle Goldberg (NYT Op-Ed 4/6/18)
      ““You cannot possibly imagine the size of this,” said a Q dispatch last month. “Trust the plan. Trust there are more good than bad.” Q almost certainly doesn’t know any state secrets, but he, she, or they understand that some fervent Trump supporters require more reassurance than they’re willing to admit. Their desperate conviction that they will be proven right about Trump betrays a secret fear that they will be proven wrong.”

    • WW1WGA says:

      “President Trump posed for a photo in the Oval Office this week with one of the most prominent promoters of the “QAnon” conspiracy group, who later posted a video commemorating the visit.” (Washington Post 8/24/18) Michael Lebron, a New York-based attorney and radio host who regularly posts videos on a “Lionel Nation” YouTube channel, has urged viewers to absorb Q’s posts and follow along for clues of the coming “storm.” He also frequently appears on the Russian-funded television network RT, where he is cited as a “legal and media analyst,” and typically offers positive commentary about Trump.
      “Q’s it. The bomb. The future. The ignition switch, the connection, the conduit,” Lebron wrote in a July 4 blog post. “It’s like having your own personal Deep Throat, your own Mark Felt. Just imagine that. Better, where Commissioner Gordon summoned Batman through the bat signal, here our Batman summons us when he, she, it or they feel it necessary.”

  5. Epilogue says:

    “John Podesta Is Ready to Talk About Pizzagate : The former Clinton campaign chairman is among the victims still recovering from a vile conspiracy theory that ended in gunfire” (Rolling Stone) “…In the two years since the shooting, our understanding of online conspiracy theories has grown, of how they take root and the people who believe and spread those theories. But what about the victims? What is it like to be on the receiving end? How do you fight back against a plainly false allegation that changes your life?”
    See also ” Anatomy of a Fake News Scandal : Inside the web of conspiracy theorists, Russian operatives, Trump campaigners and Twitter bots who manufactured the ‘news’ that Hillary Clinton ran a pizza-restaurant child-sex ring”

  6. Zizzing & Dripping says:

    “What’s New About Conspiracy Theories? Outsiders have always had a weakness for paranoid fantasies. Now our leaders are conspiracists, too.” (New Yorker magazine, April 15, 2019)
    “‘Republic Of Lies’ Explores The Fixation With Conspiracy Theories” (NPR 4/20/19)
    “Donald Trump Loves Conspiracy Theories” (TIME 2017)

  7. He-Man says:

    “What motivates the motivated reasoning of pro-Trump conspiracists?
    New study suggests a desire to see society focus on men helps drive support.”
    Re: Hegemonic masculinity see
    “Neighborhood of Fear” How—haunted by the idea that their suburban homes were under siege—the second generation of suburban residents expanded spatial control and cultural authority through a strategy of productive victimization.

  8. Mike says:

    “Hitler in Antarctica” by Geoffrey O’Brien : A review of “The Hitler Conspiracies” by Richard J. Evans, The New York Review of Books, Jan 14th issue. “A historian of the Third Reich traces the processes by which history is not simply distorted but replaced by a fantastic parallel version.”

    “Facts are confining and dispiriting; fantasy is unbounded and exhilarating even when goaded on by dread. These are narratives of escape, even if they must culminate – as they often do – in a dream of annihilation.”

  9. Craicpot says:

    “Predictors of belief in conspiracy theory: The role of individual differences in schizotypal traits, paranormal beliefs, social dominance orientation, right wing authoritarianism and conspiracy mentality”
    “Which conspiracy theory do you believe in? People are vulnerable to believing what they think is right, especially when it involves identity” (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

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