The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 182: Conspiracy Theories

In a recent YouGov survey one in five Brits believe that vaccinations have harmful effects which are being hidden, despite there being publicly available scientific research that shows them to be safe. One in six think that the 1969 Moon landings were probably fake despite the obvious fact that landing on the moon is so much easier than creating a 50 year long worldwide conspiracy through multiple changes in government without it leaking out that it was faked. Similarly one in eight either have suspicions or firmly believe that the Earth is flat.
Some of you listening may even believe some or all of those ideas. Alongside the idea that the US government used to steal dead bodies from all over the world to test the effects of nuclear radiation on them.
Once you've got that strong a belief in your head, something with so much emotion attached to it, it's really hard to let it go. Especially when it's actually true. Because that last one actually is.

Project Sunshine was a secret project in the mid 1950's. An agency within the US government actually did arrange for stolen body parts from all around the world to be used in testing the effects of nuclear fallout. So when something like that happens it's not hard for people to also believe equally as crazy sounding ideas. Such as Covid-19 being a man made bioweapon that the Chinese government deliberately set upon the world so as to bring down capitalism. An idea that over than one in four Americans truly do believe.
I know 4 Americans and I'm in the middle of England. I can guarantee none of them believe it's a bioengineered Chinese weapon. And that is part of the reason for the problem.

My 4 American friends are all in a similar demographic to me, similar age, similar education, we're in the same tribe. And when you're in the same tribe you feed each other. Whether you feed each other with knowledge or with myths you live in the same bubble. Feeding the belief.
If you only see the one world and only experience the one bubble then it feels like YOUR world is THE world. When you live this way it's really hard to look outside of your belief system because it goes against everything your world tells you is true.
Because of this, we fall into the psychological processes and biases like all humans do. The "Proportionality Bias" that makes us feel that big incidents must have big causes, like a lone gunman on his own couldn't possibly have been responsible for assassinating John F Kennedy, its too big a deal. It must have been dozens of people.
Then there's the psychologists favourite "Confirmation Bias" which steers us towards information that supports what we already believe and deletes evidence to the contrary. Frustratingly, we're hard wired for it and have been since before we were Homo Sapien. Our ancestors were kept safe because of an "If this then that" belief system. Hearing a rustle in the bushes means we're more likely to get eaten by a tiger, so hearing a rustle equals "Run for your life." Dismissing the noise as evidence of something else, like the wind, when you already have a lifelong belief at play that says that unexpected noises are dangerous won't lead to a particularly successful species.
So its good to be paranoid. It's good to question things with suspicion. Here we are in the 21st century alive to tell the tale because of it. But we also need to be aware that we fall into this trap.

Also, we dont like to think that we're wrong, it hurts our pride. And pain is something the brain actively tries to avoid whether that's pain from a tiger or the pain of a ego poke. We want to be right, it makes us feel safe. And admitting that we're wrong about something, especially about a world view that we so strongly associate with such as a mistrust of authority, isn't going to happen to us overnight. You don't just jump from being a devout christian to an atheist overnight. It would make you feel like theres something wrong with the world, and something wrong with YOU so its no surprise that we give more weight to the things that we already agree with and ignore evidence to the contrary.

So how you you put people right? Well, whether its a conspiracy theory or any other faith in something, what do you expect to see happen if all you do is tell them they're wrong? They'll dig there heels in even more. Especially if you make them out to be stupid. I'd like to think you wouldn't do that to someone who has a different religious faith to you. You might think they're wrong but you'd be respectful. Look at it from there perspective.
I'm an atheist and the idea of a magic wizard in an invisible reality creating the universe with a Big Bang is no stranger than a Big Bang happening by 2 other universes banging together and making ours. They're both just as odd, and both ideas leave me thinking, "I don't know."
We need to be ok with "I don't know" sometimes. We need to be accepting of chaos and a lack of order.
The things if chaos makes you anxious, then you'll look for an explanation. If made redundant it's hard to answer "Why me?" with "Why not me?"
"Why not me?" implies there's nothing important or special about you at all. But to answer it with "Because someone had it in for me." Brings order and settles the chaos.

In extreme cases conspiracy theories can be evidence of paranoid delusions though. 20 years ago when someone with delusions walked the streets they had no-one to take them seriously. Nowadays they don't need to walk the streets, they can sit on the internet and join a group that fits their worldview, they dont feel so crazy anymore and their delusions might not even get diagnosed for years. They're just thought of as a conspiracy theorist with a grudge against institutions.
We don't recognise it as a mental illness because so many healthy people have some institution they don't trust too and if you have one bad experience with an institution then it could easily give you the worldview that ALL institutions are evil.

If throughout life you've been mistreated by authority, maybe by the police, you've been marginalised by government or by society. If you were let down by the education system, if you were belittled by teachers then you are likely to develop an emotional response to authority.
It might make you anxious about being different or it might make you rebel against what's thought of as the norm. Either way it could lead to needing to believe in something bigger than yourself to explain things.
If we feel threatened then we need to know why and conspiracies help us. It gives us an enemy to fight. Whether that's the Government, genetically modified organisms or the dangers of vaccines. It gives us a cause.
We already know from multiple studies that if you make someone anxious, with something as simple as an exam, it makes them more likely to accept conspiracy theories. Let alone having anxiety as a personality trait. Which is why there's a correlation with belief in conspiracies and having a chaotic childhood. If (for any number of reasons) caregivers weren't as attuned to their child as much as the child needed then they can sometimes develop a worldview of "I am good and others are bad." A defence mechanism to prevent them from thinking that there must be something wrong with them. It can lead to narcissistic traits that fuel an irrational need to be right all the time. Being wrong rocks the foundations, they'll fight to be right even when they're wrong. But they will still FEEL right, that's the thing. So when you ask someone with such fixed views what they would need to see in order for them to change their mind, they so often say "Nothing will make me change my mind." And that's the wrong answer.

When trying to solve something. The scientific method works the opposite way around. And we need to approach the world using the scientific method. It exposes the truth and turns conspiracy theories into reality. The scientific method works like this. You have a theory and you ask as many questions as you can to see if you're wrong, you investigate all the reasons why you're wrong. And you don't stop looking until there is sufficient proof.
It's too easy to fall into the trap of confirmation bias, looking for something that fits your belief and then stop looking. No, keep digging, keep looking, keep trying to disprove the theory and if you keep finding new evidence that shows you're right then you can be taken seriously.
But it needs to be new evidence. Not the same story simply rewritten and shared on Facebook!
People worrying about the 5G phone signals are sharing the same words from the same articles that say there is evidence from the World Health Organisations Cancer Research Agency that RF radiation is a group 2b agent. Which is defined as “Possibly carcinogenic to humans.” Which is true.
Do you know what else is in the 2b category?

Coffee.
Thyme.
Sage.
Red wine.
Lingonberries.
Sunflower seeds.
Bracken.
Ferns.

It either means that the outside world is a dangerous place or it means that we've got very good at measuring the carcinogenic possibilities of things, even when the risk is low.
Do you know whats in the higher risk category? Things riskier than 5G?

Crisps.
Chips.
Roasted barley.
Rice crackers.
Sweet potatoes
Black olives.
Dried plums.
Peanuts.
Being on a night shift.
The oral contraceptive.

Does it matter though?
Conspiracy theories are harmless aren't they? After all, we had exactly the same conspiracies when microwave ovens came out, when 2G, the second generation mobile network started and 3G and 4G, when wifi routers came out, and eventually it blew over and people forgot the conspiracy and got on with their lives. So it doesn't matter really does it?

Well. Not if its that a small percentage think there's a flat earth. They were never going to become rocket scientists anyway, literally.
But it is a problem if it causes the spread of disease. Or prevents the understanding of humans influence on climate change. If those beliefs continue then it does cause harm.

It's important to understand critical thinking and the scientific method because it transfers over to everything in your life. If you can learn to challenge those sorts of beliefs, then any beliefs, even the negative ones about yourself, can be improved.
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