What are conspiracy theories?

Former US president Barrack Obama called conspiracy theories the “single biggest threat to democracy,” and he’s laying the blame squarely at the feet of social media companies.

What are humans up to now?

The problem with you humans is that many of you’ll believe anything. Like that the US Democratic Party is running a Satanic child abuse ring from a pizza parlour in Washington. Or that the moon landings didn’t happen. Or that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an ‘inside job’ and the World Trade Center twin towers were intentionally demolished.

For me, as a reasonably intelligent penguin these all seem absurd. They are what is called ‘conspiracy theories‘ — theories about conspiratorial behaviour by powerful people for which there is no real evidence and plenty of evidence against.

But wait. Sometimes conspiracies do happen. Sometimes bad people do get together and make evil plans which they try to keep secret. For example, it’s not a conspiracy theory to say that the tobacco companies waged a campaign for decades to obscure the fact that smoking caused cancer, or that the oil companies paid for lobby groups to deny the science on greenhouse gases and global warming. These conspiracies did happen! And many people died, and will still die, as a result.

So what’s the difference between a real conspiracy and a fake conspiracy theory? How can we tell them apart?

"I bee waiting 65million years for this moment"

Will this odd-looking ‘asteroid’ succeed in destroying most of our planet’s living things like the one 65 million years ago?

Firstly, it’s important to understand that people who believe in conspiracy theories are not necessarily stupid. People believe in these theories because they want to, because they help support beliefs that they already hold. For example, a lot of smart environmentalists, who strongly support the science on climate change, deny similarly strong science on GMOs (which they hate!). So they believe conspiracy theories that Big, Bad Corporations are trying to poison people with genetically-engineered foods – even though there is a worldwide scientific agreement that GM foods are just as safe as any other food. Like I say, these people aren’t stupid — what they are is biased. They have what psychologists call ‘cognitive biases’. If you want to see someone who exhibits cognitive biases, just look in the mirror! All people do. (Of course, penguins don’t. We know a fish when we see one.)

Given that all you humans have these biases, how are you going to tell truth from fiction, rather than just believing what you want to believe? Fortunately, some smart academics have produced a handy ‘Conspiracy Theory Handbook’‘ to help you figure this one out.

The authors are Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, from the University of Bristol in the UK, and George Mason University in the US respectively. Incidentally these two very clever humans have spent many years fighting science-deniers. Do you remember that important study that showed a 97% scientific consensus on the reality of global warming? Well, John Cook was the lead author on that study. And Professor Lewandowsky has made a career in studying what he calls ‘conspiracist ideation‘. So these experts can really tell their fish from their ice floes, as we say in Antarctica.

Lewandowsky and Cook have come up with a useful acronym to help identify the seven key traits of conspiratorial thinking. This is CONSPIR. Let’s go through each letter – by the end you’ll never be tricked into believing a false story again!

C is for Contradictory. Conspiracy theorists often believe evidence which is contradictory in nature. For example, the same people who believe Princess Diana was murdered also believe she isn’t really dead! They don’t seem to mind that these two beliefs contradict each other. They just ‘know’ that something fishy is going on. (Excuse the pun. I just can’t seem to stop thinking about fish!)

O is for Overriding suspicion. This means holding extreme suspicion of ‘official’ accounts of something. It makes perfect sense to be sceptical of those in power, of course. I’m not saying you should believe everything that every politician or head of state comes out with. But at the same time, being overly suspicious and always disbelieving official accounts is not rational either.

N is for Nefarious intent. This is the belief that the imagined conspirators are always bent on some evil design. For example, in the so-called ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy people don’t just believe that Democrats are meeting in the basement of a Washington pizza parlour to chat about the weather or politics. That would be boring but it’s distinctly un-boring if the conspirators say that these particular politicians are abusing children and worshipping Satan! So they do – and loads of followers believe them.

S is for Something must be wrong. For example, it is pretty clear that the COVID pandemic comes from a coronavirus that first emerged in Wuhan, China, after having probably evolved in bats and then jumped to humans. (As a penguin I don’t mind coronavirus though I admit I am scared about the latest (H5N8) bird flu!). But lots of people believe that Something Must Be Wrong, and that the official accounts are covering up the Real Truth. How else to explain such an awful pandemic? My friends at the Cornell Alliance for Science have written a Top 10 Guide to COVID conspiracy theories -– some of them are really bat-soup crazy!

P is for Persecuted victim. Conspiracy theorists always see themselves as brave and heroic truth-tellers being persecuted by those in power. This is the story told by anti-vaxxers, those who campaign against vaccinations. They always claim that they are being persecuted by villainous pharmaceutical corporations, who supposedly want to poison us with vaccines. Actually, vaccinations have saved countless millions of human lives, and they are very thoroughly tested using rigorous scientific protocols to make sure they are safe and that they work. ‘Persecuted victims’ make for more exciting stories though – how many Hollywood movies have you seen that feature a persecuted victim eventually winning against all odds? In the real world this doesn’t often happen. People who claim to be being persecuted because they understand ‘the truth’ about something are most of the time just crazy.

I is for Immune to evidence. F this or example, there is no amount of evidence you can offer that will convince a ‘9/11 Truther’ that terrorists flew planes into the Twin Towers. Even though this was captured on film and seen by millions – they still believe that something else happened. Similarly, those who believe the moon landings were faked aren’t at all fazed by the existence of the massive Saturn 5 rockets that were used on the Apollo missions, or the fact that much of the world’s population watched the rockets take off on TV and the landing capsules then touch down on the moon. The astronauts collected lots of rock samples during the six years of the Apollo project. These contain isotopes of certain elements which are different from those in the rocks which make up our planet. But no amount of evidence will persuade them!

Finally, R is for Reinterpreting randomness. This is the tendency to believe that nothing happens by accident. Small, random events, like an odd-looking flag in a moon landing photo, are reinterpreted to mean something big and significant, especially if these can be woven into a bigger conspiracy. Often there is a confusion between causation and correlation. In vaccines, the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism first came about because autism symptoms often start to appear when kids are at the same age they get their first jabs. Does this mean one caused the other? No! But it can be made to look like it, because the human mind is always seeking patterns to try to explain the world. And randomness doesn’t mean that everything must be evenly spaced: just look in the sky, where randomly arranged stars appear to be in groups we call constellations. But they’re not really linked together -– it’s all just random.

What’s really scary about conspiracy theories is that the less evidence there is for something the more that some people will believe it. Why? Because the more evidence there is against, the more this ‘proves’ how clever the Bad Conspirators must have been to cover their tracks! This is the exact opposite of science, which takes evidence and assesses it rationally to decide whether or not a theory is supported. It is also self-correcting so that if something is found to be wrong, other scientists will soon show that they have a better explanation for the ‘something’ which makes it much more likely to be right.

So why do you humans persist in believing conspiracy theories? I reckon it is mostly about seeking meaning in the world. The truth is that all sorts of things happen for all sorts of reasons -– mostly by accident. No-one is really in control, not even powerful people! It seems crazy that someone as important as President John F. Kennedy could be shot dead by someone as unimportant as Lee Harvey Oswald, out of the window of a book store in Texas. But that’s what happened. There was no greater meaning. Princess Diana was killed because her driver had been drinking and she wasn’t wearing a seat-belt. That’s all. Again, there was no greater meaning.

Similarly, people who believe conspiracy theories often feel quite powerless, and are comforted by the feeling of being part of a small circle who ‘really’ know what’s going on behind the scenes. It makes them feel clever, when in fact they are just being dumb, and a bit sad.

But conspiracy theories are more than just silly. They can often be really destructive. All those millions of people who believe in anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories are not going to get vaccinated, and diseases are going to spread. This means more people will get sick and die who would otherwise have lived. Similarly with COVID – people who believe the whole thing is a government plot to take away your freedoms are less likely to take sensible measures to prevent the spread of the virus, like wearing masks or social distancing. Again, more people then get infected, fall sick and die.

from Royal Opera House Covent Garden

Nazi high command with Adolf Hitler on the left

And it’s even worse than that. Sometimes conspiracy theories are used by really evil people in order to justify them doing truly awful things. In the 1930s Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party convinced much of the German population that powerful Jews were conspiring against them. We all know what happened as a result: millions of innocent Jewish men, women and children were murdered as a result.

This is why conspiracy theories aren’t just amusingly nuts. They are malicious and destructive. Even though I’m just a penguin, I believe that the truth is worth fighting for. And the best way to establish the truth about most things is through the use of science. You humans have amazing brains — – you have made extraordinary progress in understanding the workings of the entire Universe. Don’t waste the precious gift of your intelligence! And if you’re really struggling to figure out if something is real or not, feel free to ask a penguin.

This guide was written by Mark Lynas (Cornell Alliance for Science) and Tiki the Penguin