Have you ever found yourself across the table from someone who believes in a conspiracy theory? I’d say the chances are pretty good.
One 2021 nationwide survey from the University of New Hampshire found about 1 in 10 U.S. adults believe in one of the big three conspiracy theories: that vaccinations contain microchips (9%), that the earth is flat (10%), and that the moon landings were faked (12%). Today, I don’t really want to talk about these theories or their validity. Instead, I am curious about why belief in these theories is growing.
Why are conspiracy theories getting more popular when there is more evidence than ever that they are wrong?
It’s a question that has led me down several rabbit trails I want to explore with you over the next few weeks.
Who Killed Truth?
A few weeks back I listened to a 10-part podcast series from 2020 called “The Last Archive.” In the series historian and host Jill Lepore asks a very interesting question of her audience: who killed truth? Tracing pivotal moments from the early twentieth century up to the modern era Lepore makes an interesting case for how the Western world has shifted over the last 150 years in its relationship with the idea of truth.
In her telling, we’ve traversed from thinking about truth as Mystery to thinking of truth as Facts to thinking of truth as Data.
Pre-industrial revolution, and certainly, pre-enlightenment centuries before, humans didn’t know things like we do today. It was unusual for someone to be formally educated. Literacy rates the world over were very low. And not only that, but even among the learned, things were difficult to “know” in the way we might scientifically know things today. The thinking and writing of philosophers and theologians ruled the day. Things were not known so much as they were explored. Knowledge and truth were based on wisdom and common sense passed from one generation to another. Simple realities like the weather and complex ones like the nature of life were ultimately unknowable.
Coming into the Twentieth century, a growing belief in objective truths discovered through the scientific method led to a change. Instead of seeing the world as mystery to be explored, there was instead a growing tendency to see the world as facts to be uncovered. Modernism treated the world as black and white–the things we knew, and the things we hadn't discovered yet. Famous detectivesm, like Sherlock Holmes, solved mysteries with cunning and science. Everything was knowable. People of that era believed that everything would ultimately be made knowable in an objective sense. Even asking a question like, “who killed truth?” seems only possible by someone who believes there is something objective to know.
As facts from the modern era began to be collected, categorized, and archived by increasingly complex machines, the facts we collected became something else. Data is the result of our collecting seemingly endless amounts of facts — far more than our human minds have the ability to process. We have so much information today, that answering the question “what is truth?” Hasn’t gotten more simple, it’s actually grown more complex. It seems we’ve traversed from having no answers, to having one overly-simplified answer, to having several equally plausible answers (depending on how you look at the data of course). Modernism has been laid bare by the ideas of post-modernism. There is no one black-or-white answer, there is only the truth I see in the data.
Today, there are more forms of “finding the truth” than ever before. We can search through millions of terabytes of data from TED Talks, YouTube influencers, articles, social media posts, podcasts, research papers, and news stories to find the answers we are looking for. Rather than using all of that data to move ourselves closer to the truth, we are instead utilizing it to confirm our already formed biases.
In his book, The Righteous Mind, author Jonathan Haidt points out that when our brains, which have a natural bias toward in-group thinking, meet the ubiquitous information on the internet, we should not be surprised that we often make decisions on what we will believe with our emotions rather than our logic. (As you read the quote below, consider the last argument you saw in an online chat as a reference point.)
“If you think that moral reasoning is something we do to figure out the truth, you’ll be constantly frustrated by how foolish, biased, and illogical people become when they disagree with you. But if you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense."
After processing how our world of data and emotion works, I realized my question about conspiracy theories was fundamentally flawed. More people aren’t believing in conspiracy theories today even though there is more evidence than ever that they are wrong. More people are believing in conspiracy theories today because there is more evidence than ever confirming that their suspicions are true: that they are being lied to by people in power. This information, even when it is false, is presented as true utilizing well-manipulated data and is thus just as convincing — and maybe even more so. Believing in a conspiracy theory comes with an added bonus: You get to feel like you’ve got something figured out that everyone else is missing.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a paper in 1999 showing the effect that gaining knowledge has on amateurs. In their study, they tested undergraduates at their university in several knowledge-based categories. After sharing their test scores, researchers asked the students how well they thought they did and how they’d compare their scores to others their age who took the same test. The results were telling. The students who scored lowest in these cognitive tests always assumed they did better than others. And not just by a little–by a lot.
Dunning and Kruger concluded what is shown in the diagram below called: The Dunning–Kruger Effect. When people first learn about a subject, they have a high level of confidence in their knowledge. It’s only after learning more that you begin to realize how much you don’t know. The more you discover, the more you recognize there’s so much more to learn.
The peak at the beginning of the Dunning-Krueger curve, to me, explains conspiracy theories. A penchant for questioning authority combined with access to ubiquitous free information from a variety of sources naturally leads to an erosion of trust in what the “experts” are saying. Those same experts speak with less passion and conviction (at least in part) because they are way further down the curve from their internet trolls. This is one of the reasons, I tend to trust the words of the humble expert over the raving conspiracy theorist. Despite what the internet might have us believe, there is no correlation between confidence and correctness.
But of course, there is another implication here. Those who think they are going to change the mind of a conspiracy theorist with just more data are missing the fundamental truth of why we believe what we believe. Our beliefs, especially our beliefs about complex realities, are based on emotion as much as or even more than they are based on logic or fact. This does not mean our emotional reasoning is devoid of cognition, just that there are many internal dimensions to belief. Philosopher David Hume understood this truth well.
“Disputes with men, pertinaciously obstinate in their principles, are, of all others, the most irksome; [...] it is in vain to expect, that any logic, which speaks not to the affections, will ever engage him to embrace sounder principles.”
— David Hume, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals
The problem with conspiracy theories is not the belief that we are being deceived by those in power—indeed at least from time to time we likely are. The problem with conspiracy theories is that we believe one person sitting alone in front of their computer can somehow uncover the real truth. Our data-driven world has made truth far too complex for one inexperienced person to decipher. This person hasn't found the truth, they've found an apparent confirmation of their own presuppositions.
If you want to show a conspiracy theorist the error of their ways, you don't need more data to combat their data, you need an approach that speaks to the emotional foundations of their point of view. An approach that acknowledges our very unique circumstances in the 21st century, and seeks a better way to create true trust.
More on this next week. Subscribe so you don't miss out!