Consider a 2013 paper by the British psychologists Robert Brotherton, Christopher French, and Alan Pickering. The participants in the team’s initial investigation gave their views on 59 conspiratorial claims. The list was deliberately composed to reveal a broad, generic interest in conspiracies rather than an interest in specific events (such as Sept. 11) or specific villains (such as the CIA). It was also wide-ranging enough for the researchers to break down the theories by type: stories about government malfeasance, about extraterrestrial cover-ups, about malevolent global forces, about threats to personal health and liberty, and about efforts to control the flow of information. It is, in short, one of the most thorough efforts around. Even so, the vast majority of the items are clear-cut Enemy Above theories, and the remainder are, with one exception, phrased in such a way that the respondent can insert either an Enemy Above or a different sort of conspiracy into the villain role—for example, “Some of the people thought to be responsible for acts of terrorism were actually set up by those responsible.”
Or consider the study that another two British psychologists, Patrick Leman and Marco Cinnirella, published in Frontiers in Psychology last year. In that one, the respondents’ conspiratorial attitudes were determined by their responses to a Belief in Conspiracy Theories scale. Of the six items on the list that affirmed rather than denied the existence of a conspiracy, five were Enemy Above stories. The other—“The European Union is trying to take control of the United Kingdom”—is an Enemy Outside claim, but its adherents typically believe that British elites are complicit in the conspiracy.
The contents of such lists may explain why these studies sometimes come to drastically different conclusions about conspiracy believers. A 1999 paper, for example, included a wider range of theories in its questionnaire, asking its subjects not just about government plots but about Jewish cabals, terrorist infiltrators, and the Mafia. It found an association between conspiracy theories and authoritarian attitudes. Other researchers, using a different list of theories, found that conspiracy theorists tended toward defiance of authority and strong support for democratic values. Apparently it isn’t easy to generalize about a group as large as “people who believe in conspiracies.”
By now some readers are ready to shout, “BUT WHAT ABOUT CONSPIRACIES THAT ARE REAL?” Some of those readers may have abandoned this article already and gone to write something to that effect in the comment thread, capital letters and all. And it’s a fair point. Some conspiracies are real. The word conspire is in the language for a reason. And that adds further complications to the question of just whom we mean when we talk about conspiracy believers.
Many of these papers, to their credit, do raise this issue, noting that real conspiracies exist and that it is not innately irrational to believe in them. Goertzel’s EMBO article discusses the subject in detail, offering some sensible thoughts on how to distinguish a plausible conspiracy claim from an implausible one. Last year, in a special issue of the PSYPAG Quarterly devoted to the psychology of conspiracy believers, Brotherton wrote an entire article on the question of how to define “conspiracy theory,” noting that we do not typically apply the phrase to, say, the idea that a conspiracy of terrorists led by Osama Bin Laden plotted the 9/11 attacks. A conspiracy theory, Brotherton suggests, is not merely a theory that invokes a conspiracy; it is “an unverified claim of conspiracy which is not the most plausible account of an event or situation, and with sensationalistic subject matter or implications. In addition, the claim will typically postulate unusually sinister and competent conspirators. Finally, the claim is based on weak kinds of evidence, and is epistemically self-insulating against disconfirmation.” This is a much more limited definition than I would offer—and it opens a whole new can of worms about which theories should or shouldn’t be included in a study—but it does have the advantage of establishing what exactly the researchers are investigating.
Still, there are drawbacks to excluding conspiracies that are widely acknowledged to exist. Earlier this year, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a paper that surveyed Americans about several medically themed conspiracy theories, from “The CIA deliberately infected large numbers of African Americans with HIV under the guise of a hepatitis inoculation program” to “Health officials know that cell phones cause cancer but are doing nothing to stop it because large corporations won’t let them.” The researchers concluded that “conspiracism correlates with greater use of alternative medicine and the avoidance of traditional medicine.”
It’s a straightforward, respectable piece of research. Yet I can’t help wondering what would have happened if that list of medical plots had also included these items:
- As part of a series of mind control experiments, the CIA administered LSD to unwitting subjects, a program it continued even after it led to illness and death.
- In a 40-year ruse, the Public Health Service told hundreds of black sharecroppers that it would give them free health care. Rather than inform the patients that they had syphilis, the doctors deliberately left the disease untreated in order to study whether the illness affects blacks and whites in different ways.
- For a decade and a half, scientists used students at a New York school for the developmentally disabled as guinea pigs, deliberately infecting them with hepatitis in hopes of finding ways to combat the sickness.
All three of those tales are true. The first was one of the most explosive revelations in the Senate’s mid-1970s investigation of the CIA. The second is the infamous Tuskegee experiment of 1932–1972, which set off an uproar when it was revealed. The third, which took place from 1956 to 1971 at the Willowbrook State School, is brought up frequently in debates about informed consent: The parents agreed to the experiments, but the kids were in no position to understand what they were getting into.
If those items had been included in the JAMA study, what would the results reveal? Would people aware of real medical misbehavior be more likely to buy into the fictional stories, or would they be grounded in the evidence in a way the other believers are not? Would their beliefs also correlate with an interest in alternative medicine, or would there be a noticeable difference between their behavior and that of the original study’s conspiracy believers? How, in short, does an awareness of real conspiracies affect “conspiracist” ideas?
Just as the Facebook paper reminds us that not every false story involves a conspiracy, this alternate version of the JAMA study would remind us that not every conspiracy story is false. It could reveal a lot in the process. But to get there, you have to change your scope.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.