I was talking to somebody a couple of weeks ago about a friend who is struggling with cancer, whose body is so damaged by cancer treatments that it is having trouble healing from a recent surgery. The someone I was talking to, to my surprise, insisted that the cure for cancer already exists but the parmaceutical companies are just hiding them so they can sell other drugs that just treat the symptoms. I was astonished and said so. He told me he could give me the references where I could find the evidence that had convinced him, along with articles about pools of thermite found in the World Trade Center ruins, indicating that our government was somehow complicit in 9-11. He wasn’t happy when I called him a conspiracy theorist and he insisted that he just does more and better research than most people. He was absolutely sure that if I looked at his sources, I’d believe his theories and was insulted when I called them crackpot sources without looking at them. Even though I hadn’t seen his exact sources, I’d seen plenty of similar rubbish in the quagmire of information and misinformation that the internet and social media has created. My someone is not alone.
All I need to do is watch the posts roll by on Facebook or take a minute to read the viral emails that I routinely trash to know that an astonishing number of people believe an astonishing array of theories with very little basis in science. 9-11 conspiracies and Big Pharma (the notion that pharmacuetical companies are witholding cures in order to continue selling other drugs) are only two of them. A significant percentage of Americans believe that the U.S. moon landings were faked (possibly with the help of Stanley Kubrick), that Oswald did not act alone, and that foods based on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) are universally evil. If you have never debated a crackpot theory with a conspiracy theorist, just read The Top Ten “Conspiracy Theories” Which Are Turning Out to Be True and you’ll get the picture. Most of us are doomed to complacency because we are too lazy to do the research and because our judgement is clouded by cognitive dissonance, as if they themselves are immune. The truth is, it is cognitive dissonance and its good buddy, confirmation bias, that leads people to believe nonsense that anyone with an understanding of true research and the scientific method find laughable. You can read about the psychological profile of conspiracy theorists here, if you are interested.
Perhaps what amuses me most about conspiracy theories, aside from what they consider research , is the astounding capabilities they attribute to people and organizations that can hardly get out of their own way in everyday matters. People who viewed George Bush as a dunderhead were willing to believe that somehow he was involved in 9-11. It is not an affliction confined to liberals. Recently, Texas conservatives believed that military exercises were actually he beginning of the Obama government to take over the state. Yes, the same Obama whose administration screwed up the website for his signature legislation, The Affordable Care Act. A scientific friend whose wife has worked for years in medical research of mine put it perfectly regarding Big Pharma. I don’t trust the pharmaceutical companies, he said, but they aren’t smart enough to keep cures a secret. The standard conspiracy theorist response to this argument is that these sinister organizations intentionally make mistakes to confuse us. Right.
Research … and the application of the scientific method … is difficult and time consuming. As a species, we all must overcome our natural tendency toward cognitive dissonance (a discomfort with things that are contrary to our beliefs), confirmation bias (our tendency to select information … or misinformation … that supports our beliefs) and black-and-white thinking. The scientific method was designed to help us do just that. Good research, especially in social matters, requires us to read a subtantial amount of material with which we may disagree and to then subject what we find to the scientifc method. There is a common belief that a theory is simply something that might be true. In science, a theory is something that is supported by the preponderence of evidence. The existence of God is not a theory, it is a belief, as is the possibility that the moon landing never happened. You might say, why should I care if people believe in conspiracy theories? An article in the U.K.’s science website, The Conversation, titled Pseudoscience and conspiracy theory are not victimless crimes provides an answer, along with a nice summary of the scientific method. When crackpot theories and pseudoscience pass as science, children go without vaccinations and cancer patients forego treatment that could save them to try quack treatments with no medical value. The possible benefits of GMO-based foods go out the window with the frenzy to ban all GMO foods. Skepticism is part of the scientific method. For consriracy theorists and pseudo-scientists, it is an excuse for belief.