In my research method courses, I often discuss with students the importance of being a good consumer of research and information. This really comes in handy during the this global pandemic (or conspiracy theorists would call the “plandemic”) as misinformation is everywhere! So, why do people believe in conspiracy theories? And how do we distinguish whether something is a conspiracy theory or not? John Oliver explained this beautifully (see YouTube video above), and I would like to summarize his points with my personal take on this.
People believe in conspiracy theories because:
- They help explain big events in a chaotic world that could just be accidental. This can also be called a proportionality bias—a belief that big events come from big causes. For instance, when Germany beat Brazil 7–1 in the 2014 FIFA World Cup Semifinals, many theories were brought up about this being a fixed match.
- In the digital era, it is relatively easy for people to make up materials (e.g., videos, audios) and spread fake news or information through social media that do not have the ability to monitor the accuracy of all information.
- Public figures whom people trust or admire believe and also spread the conspiracy theories. For instance, there are celebrities who support the anti-vaccine movement.
Here are some questions we can ask in order to debunk conspiracy theories:
- Is there a rational, non-conspiracy explanation? Keep in mind that correlation does not mean causation.
- Has the theory been held up to scrutiny by experts, more than just one or two, in the field?
- How plausible is this conspiracy, as a practical matter? It would require many people to cover up the truth if the conspiracy were indeed true.
I hope everyone will think a little more critically and be aware of their own reactions when hearing something that may sound like a conspiracy. If you are interested in more information about misinformation, one of my undergraduate research assistant Rosalyn Stoa did the UWGB PSI Talk below (similar to a TED Talk format) on this topic.