The Science Of Conspiracy Theories: Why Do People Buy Into Cover Up Stories?
Global warming is a hoax. Scientists created the AIDS virus to reduce the world's population. The U.S. government officials staged the Boston Marathon bombing. 9/11 was an "inside job." These are just a few of the loony conspiracy theories currently floating around in the cultural ether.
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Cover up stories have become part and parcel of our national narrative; every time some tragedy strikes, stories of conspiracy quickly follow.
Shortly after the Boston Marathon bombing, Florida professor James Tracy argued in a post on "Memory Hole," his blog, that the bombing, which killed three and injured hundreds more, was staged. Tracy is the same individual who claimed that last year's Sandy Hook shooting didn't actually happen, and that "crisis actors" were hired to perform the roles of grief-stricken parents during the shooting's aftermath.
What's most startling about conspiracy theories like Tracy's is that a large percentage of the U.S. public buys into them. According to a recent set of polls from Public Policy Polling, 37 percent of Americans believe global warming is a hoax; 14 percent think the CIA is responsible for the 1980s inner city crack cocaine epidemic; 11 percent insist the U.S. government allowed the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to happen; and 7 percent believe the moon landing was faked.
Why do people love to believe in conspiracy and cover up stories?
One important note to keep in mind is that conspiracy theorists don't consider themselves "theorists." According to Live Science, those who we call conspiracy theorists think of themselves as "independent thinkers." From Live Science:
Often those who promote conspiracy theories frame them as simply asking legitimate questions ... The problem is that the questions they ask are often non-questions that can be (and have been) easily answered. Conspiracy theorists prefer complex mysteries over simple truths, and so they find mystery where none exists.
While there is no typical type of person likely to become a trumpeter of conspiracy theories, there are some common characteristics among them. Scientific American reports that for one, people who believe in conspiracy theories have a general mistrust of authority. They also tend to believe in multiple conspiracy theories, rather than just one or two.
This suggests that conspiracism is more of a worldview and a lens through which someone filters the world around them.
Researchers at the University of Kent in the UK affirm this point. Their study, titled "Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories," states that present research suggests conspiracism is often based on the idea that authorities are covering something up and that the cult of conspiracy is more of a "network of mutually supportive beliefs" than it is a collection of loony ideas. From Scientific American:
A conspiracy theory is usually defined as an attempt to explain the ultimate cause of an important societal event as part of some sinister plot conjured up by a secret alliance of powerful individuals and organizations ... These findings are alarming because they show that conspiracy theories sow public mistrust and undermine democratic debate by diverting attention away from important scientific, political and societal issues.
According to New Yorker writer Gary Marcus, the trends of conspiracism are clear.
Marcus points out that people who believe in free-market ideology are less likely to believe in climate change. The opposite is true for science disciples: The more someone accepts science in general, the more likely they are to accept conclusions about our changing climate. He also cites a concept known as "motivated reasoning" -- the idea that people pick up information that supports what they want to believe about the world and disavow evidence that counters those beliefs.
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