Conspiracy Theory “True Believers,” Part I: Science Denial Conspiracy Theories

May 22, 2020

In most of the blog posts on this site, we have focused our attention on the mis-leaders, the people who have invented and enhanced the science deniers’ toolbox and who have crafted the false narratives to be parroted by their small armies of followers. We have profiled a number of these mis-leaders in our Profiles in Denial series. In some cases, the mis-leaders have a science background and should know better, but they have subverted their scientific skepticism into denial – into rejection of evidence – in order to justify or promote their political, religious or economic preferences. In a few cases, such as that associated with anti-vaccination groups and some COVID-19 denial, the mis-leaders have woven conspiracy theories aimed to foster their own personal gain, by selling snake-oil cures. It is usually difficult to discern, and really doesn’t matter, whether the mis-leaders actually believe their own concocted stories, or rather put them out cynically to get others to buy into them.

The mis-leaders would hold little sway if it were not for their armies of followers. So, in this post we will focus on the followers, on those “true believers” in vast conspiracies among scientists and government agents to hide the “plain truth” from the masses over decades, or centuries, or millennia. In contrast to the mis-leaders, the true believers generally have little understanding of the scientific method or of the motivations of scientists. And this lack of knowledge aids them in erecting defense mechanisms to protect their easily debunked false notions. Psychiatrist Joe Pierre likes to describe the true believers as “conspiracy theists. That is, people who believe in conspiracy theories aren’t usually so much theorizing and coming up with explanations on their own as they are hearing them from other people or finding them online.” Nonetheless, many of the conspiracy believers consider themselves among the chosen few with the intellectual honesty and incisiveness essential to penetrate the alleged thicket of lies told by the conspirators.

In Part I, we will describe the scientific conspiracy theories of interest to us here, and the mechanisms true believers use to hold onto easily falsifiable ideas in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and the utter improbability of maintaining vast conspiracies over significant lengths of time. The real science denied in most of the conspiracy theories we consider has been dealt with in other posts on this site, but we will also introduce a couple of alleged “hoaxes” that we haven’t written about previously. We will also review polling data that illuminates the popularity of the various conspiracy theories, and the tendency of many true believers to buy into several of them.

In Part II, we will review recent results from psychological, brain-imaging and neurochemical research on the mindset of conspiracy believers, and the connections to other psychological disorders. We will also consider the role of the internet, social media and propaganda media in spreading conspiracy theories, promoting confirmation bias, and forging social bonds among the believers. And we will summarize the dangers of conspiracy belief, not only to the believers themselves, but also to the public at large.

I.1 Science Denial Conspiracy Theories

As a general definition, we will adopt the characterization bySunstein and Vermeule that a conspiracy theory is “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who attempt to conceal their role (at least until their aims are accomplished)”. Such theories are usually constructed out of a mistrust of “establishment” accounts for the reasons, or the random accidents, behind events of political or social significance. Prominent and widespread examples concern the variety of “alternative” conspiracies offered to “explain” the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the death of Princess Diana, or the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. In the case of singular, unanticipated events such as these, it is often difficult to assemble an airtight body of evidence after the fact, leaving some holes in the official account for conspiracy theorists to attack without cease.

Not all conspiracy theories need be false. Governments do sometimes try to cover up the facts behind illegal, unethical or otherwise reprehensible actions they take or permit. Indeed, we will come back in subsection I.5 below to consider a few actual conspiracies that have unraveled over time. Polling has typically revealed that approximately 50% of American citizens believe in one or more of a vast array of conspiracy theories that have not been proven yet. But our focus here is on a narrower set of conspiracy theories, ones in which the distrusted “establishment” accounts are based on broad scientific consensus among researchers who have studied the relevant conditions or phenomena intensively. Belief in such conspiracy theories allows the proponents to maintain the illusion of an alternative reality that poses less threat to them, that gives them someone tangible to blame for their perceived predicament, or that provides them with a false sense of unique insight.

We have dealt with a number of these science denial conspiracy theories in other posts on this site. None of them is inherently political, though some have been intensely politicized. The poster child for politicization is the theory that thousands of scientists and hundreds of governments worldwide have conspired for decades to promote the “hoax” of human-caused global warming, in order to gain fame, research grants, and political and economic power. A second example we have dealt with at length is the theory that governments, in collusion with medical professionals, have long been conspiring to promote vaccinations that will cause autism or otherwise endanger children’s lives. The recent COVID-19 pandemic has spawned a wide array of conspiracy theories concerning the origins, impacts and treatments for this new, highly contagious, respiratory virus. We have also described the social media-fueled resurgence of the longstanding, bizarre “flat Earth” conspiracy theory, which asserts that scientists, world travelers, astronauts, and above all, NASA – among many others – have been promoting the centuries-old “hoax” that the Earth is a round, rotating planet.

In the above cases, we have described the actual science involved and debunked the conspiracy theories in our other posts. We want here to include, as well, two other examples of rather alarming science denial conspiracy theories. A small but determined percentage of people maintain that the Apollo program Moon landings in 1969 and thereafter were all hoaxes staged on movie sets or other locations on Earth, in order to dupe the uninquisitive and allow NASA to save face and its healthy federal budget. And a disturbingly larger percentage buy into the theory that a cure for cancer has been known for decades, but continues to be hidden from the public in order that the medical profession and pharmaceutical companies can rake in profits from long-term treatment modalities. Before we consider how conspiracy believers maintain their convictions in all of these irrational notions, we want first to address some of the real science debunking the Moon landing and cancer cure “hoaxes.”

I.2 The Moon Landing “Hoax” Conspiracy Theory

The Moon landing hoax is an object lesson in how easy it is to launch a conspiracy theory that will eventually be adopted by millions. Hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide watched the initial Moon landing on live TV in July 1969. The viewers included Soviet cosmonauts who tracked and verified the landing, though they had no reason to protect NASA. The conspiracy theory began when one skeptic named Bill Kaysing self-published a pamphlet in 1976 entitled “We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle.” Kaysing had a “hunch” that NASA could not have successfully pulled off a trip to the Moon, so he began to convince himself that there were inconsistencies in the landing video and photographs. His suspicions were based on the facts that no stars were visible in the video, that the shadows cast did not seem right, and that there was no blast crater under the landing module. Despite multiple scientifically based explanations for these observations, as well as more profound scientific evidence of human activities on the Moon, Kaysing maintained that the landing was a fraud until he died in 2005.

The hoax theory got a considerable boost in 2001, when the Fox News channel broadcast a documentary entitled Did We Land on the Moon?, recycling Kaysing’s long debunked theories and adding new “anomalies” to the claims. Since then, the conspiracy theory has been kept alive by a variety of blog sites, and by social bonding among true believers via the internet and social media. And its continued life bears all the trademarks of science denial conspiracies. The believers pounce on what they perceive, often through limited scientific understanding, to be minor flaws or gaps in the “official” account. They view these as threads they can pull to unravel the entire, corrupt conspiracy. When simple explanations are offered to explain why these perceived “flaws” in fact reflect scientific issues the conspiracy theorists failed to comprehend, the explanations are ignored. When much more central and important scientific evidence is put forward to demonstrate the reality of the official account, the conspiracy believers label such attempts as further proof that the “explainers” are themselves part of the vast conspiracy.

In the case of the alleged Moon landing hoax, the “flaws” pointed out by conspiracy theorists were thoroughly debunked in the immediate aftermath of the Fox News documentary, with particular insight by Phil Plait in his Bad Astronomy blog and by Ian Goddard, with the aid of revelatory photographic mock-ups. Most of these alleged flaws were photographic anomalies perceived through a lack of imagination about the unique environment on the Moon. The conspiratorial claim that the fraudulent landing was filmed on a sound stage on Earth is clearly wrong, but the conspiracy believers certainly seem to think about the photographic record as if it were produced on Earth by a pretty careless director (who might or might not have been Stanley Kubrick).

moon shadow
Figure I.1. (Above) Photograph from the lunar landing used by conspiracy believers as evidence that the event was staged, because the astronaut appears illuminated even within the dark shadow cast by the landing module. (Below) Mock-ups by Ian Goddard to demonstrate that reflected light from a gray-paper foreground (left), but not from a black-paper foreground (right), are sufficient to illuminate the toy astronaut in the shadow.

For example, a number of their claims fail to appreciate the brightness of an atmosphere-free lunar morning, illuminated not only by the Sun low above the horizon, but also by reflections of solar light from the lunar dust and by reflections from the Earth itself. In such brightness, the photographs were taken with short exposures, and thus fail to show faint sources of light in the black sky, such as stars. The reflections from the lunar surface are bright enough to illuminate the suits of astronauts who stand in the direct shadow of the lunar landing module (see Fig. I.1). The Sun-induced shadows appear naturally to point in different directions when cast by objects on flat ground versus slanted hillsides. Distant mountain ranges, when viewed in the absence of an atmosphere to scatter light, appear so crisp in images that the Earth-bound mind tends to consider the mountains as nearby, and is therefore surprised when a relatively small displacement by the photographer can image the same distant mountains with and without the nearby lunar lander in the picture’s foreground. This is analogous to the surprise many of us experience as children (but normally get over as adults!) that the Moon appears to look the same even as you travel by car over a hundred miles on Earth and see entirely different foreground images. Relative distances matter!

Other claims by the conspiracy believers are dismissed as easily. The “missing blast crater” should never have been expected in the first place: the lander’s engines were throttled back for a gentle landing in the Moon’s relatively weak gravitational field; the exhaust spread out rapidly in the absence of an atmosphere to contain it; and the modest resulting exhaust pressure was enough to raise a lot of lunar dust, but not enough to cause a crater, upon landing. Exhaust flames were not visible when the lander took off from the Moon because the fuel used does not produce a visible flame. Claims that the planted American flag “was waving in a sound-stage breeze” failed to consider how the flag’s rippled cloth would move, even in the absence of an atmosphere, when it was supported by rigid rods at the top and one side, and the astronauts were rotating the flag pole to insert it into the lunar surface.

Claims that radiation would have killed the astronauts as they passed through Earth’s van Allen belts, where charged particles are trapped in Earth’s magnetic field, were never based on serious estimates of the likely doses. In fact, a serious estimate taking into account passage time and radiation flux capable of penetrating the spacecraft’s metal enclosure, shows that the accumulated dose to each astronaut would have been a significant fraction of the maximum annual dose allowed by the U.S. Department of Energy for radiation workers, but at least two orders of magnitude below lethal doses. This estimate, by the way, is consistent with the cumulative readings of radiation dosimeters carried by the Apollo 11 astronauts. In addition to these and a number of other explanations debunking the believers’ specific claims, a filmmaker has explained in detail why it would have been impossible to fake the Moon landing in a studio with the technology available in 1969.

Such explanations are dismissed by hoax believers as lame attempts to cover up the truth that only they can see. But more direct scientific evidence that shows human activity on the Moon is taken by them as clear proof of the vastness of the conspiracy. There are two clear demonstrations of the absence of air resistance in activities on the Moon. One concerns the trajectories of dust thrown up by the rolling wheels of lunar rovers, which rise and fall in nearly perfect gravitational parabolic arcs, which would never happen in the presence of moving air. A second is a simple physics experiment carried out by astronaut Dave Scott in front of a video camera on the Apollo 15 landing. Scott demonstrated that a hammer and a feather fell to the lunar surface under the influence of gravity in the same amount of time, which can only happen in the absence of any air resistance that would slow the feather’s descent. Evacuating a sound stage to simulate such phenomena would have been beyond technical reach, not to mention contradicting the hoax believers’ favorite theory about the breeze waving the American flag.

Then there are all the lunar samples brought back to Earth by astronauts on the six Apollo missions: 842 pounds of lunar rocks, core samples, pebbles, sand and dust. The rocks are distinctly different than rocks found on Earth, in both chemical content (e.g., much more titanium, much less volatile elements and compounds with low boiling points, such as nitrogen, hydrogen, water, carbon dioxide, ammonia, methane and sulfur dioxide) and age (much older than most Earth rocks, as fragments remaining from lunar impacts over 4 billion years ago have not had to suffer the wind, weather and plate tectonic damage experienced on Earth).

There are also things the astronauts left on the lunar surface. These include retroreflectors planted on the surface by the Apollo 11, 14 and 15 missions, used by various laboratories to reflect laser beams aimed at the Moon from Earth, in order to make precise measurements of the Moon’s distance. And there are the remnants of the lunar landers, the flags planted, and the lunar rovers left on the surface by the six Apollo missions. All these remnants have now been photographed by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, with one example shown in Fig. I.2.

apollo-17-flag-shadow from 2012 Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter
Figure I.2. Photographic image of the Apollo 17 landing site taken in 2012 by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, showing shadows cast on the lunar surface by the American flag, the remnant of the landing module and the lunar rover vehicle.

The scientific evidence is dismissed by hoax believers because of NASA’s involvement in most of it. After all, the several hundred thousand NASA employees who have been involved in the Moon landing projects are all considered part of the conspiracy, along, of course, with the 12 astronauts who actually walked on the Moon and the worldwide scientists who have analyzed and used the materials they came back with and the materials they left behind. The sheer improbability of maintaining such a huge secret among so many co-conspirators for so many years is a topic we will come back to in subsection I.5 below.

I.3 The “Hidden Cancer Cure” Conspiracy Theory

Aside from fostering a deep distrust of experts that will, sooner or later, come back to bite them, one might dismiss Moon landing hoax believers as simply engaging in a harmless, though eccentric, intellectual fantasy. The stakes, however, become much higher and the potential impacts more lethal, when the conspiracy theories involve distrust of medical research. Parents who persist in their belief that the medical profession and worldwide governments are hiding the deadly impacts of vaccinations endanger not only their own children, but also their communities if their beliefs end up reducing herd immunity. The several COVID-19 conspiracy theories now being spread jeopardize the formulation and execution of a coherent national strategy to mitigate impacts of a lethal virus for which there is currently no herd immunity, proven treatment, or vaccine.

Some of the strategies adopted by conspiracy theory believers in denying scientific consensus are illustrated by a dispute in the 1990’s about the origins of the AIDS epidemic. Biologist Peter Duesberg, who disbelieved the consensus attribution to the HIV virus, demanded of editor John Maddox of the prestigious journal Nature the right to reply to all scientific papers supporting the mainstream view. While Maddox acquiesced at first, he soon cut Duesberg off, commenting that Duesberg had “forfeited the right to expect answers by his rhetorical technique. Questions left unanswered for more than about ten minutes he takes as further proof that HIV is not the cause of AIDS. Evidence that contradicts his alternative drug hypothesis is on the other hand brushed aside.”

As summarized by Ted Goertzel, a Rutgers University Sociology Professor who has done extensive research into conspiracy belief: “Duesberg and other dissenters also rely on another well-established rhetorical meme to advance their cause, that of the courageous independent scientist resisting orthodoxy… But being a dissenter from orthodoxy is not difficult; the hard part is actually having a better theory.” Fortunately in this case, the consensus view won out, and the incidence of AIDS and AIDS-related deaths has been dramatically reduced in populations where anti-HIV combination therapies are available.

A persistent conspiracy theory, with many believers, is that medical researchers long ago discovered a cure for cancer, but have hidden the discovery from the population at large. As in the case of the alleged link between the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine and autism, belief in a hidden cancer cure may have been started by charlatans trying to make a buck. Albert Abrams was an American physician around the turn of the 20th century who claimed he could diagnose any known disease from a single drop of blood, and treat it successfully with one of several “radionics” machines he designed. The machines included the “oscilloclast” and the “radioclast,” which were claimed to cure a wide range of diseases, including cancer, diabetes and syphilis, by applying radiofrequency signals directly to the body of the patient, and adjusting the frequencies to different values for different diseases. Abrams made many millions of dollars from the sale of his radionics devices, which customers were forbidden to ever open, as that would allegedly disturb their proper functioning. Abrams himself died of pneumonia in 1924, on the eve of being called to testify in a fraud trial for one of his practitioners, and just as the American Medical Association, in collaboration with Scientific American, was about to expose Abrams himself as the “dean of gadget quacks.”

However, Abrams’ legacy lived on among followers and imitators. Among the latter was Royal Rife, who claimed to cure cancer nearly 90 years ago by using radio waves to alter the vibrations of cells in the body. The fraudulent technique has been summarized by Stephen Barrett, the co-founder of the National Council Against Health Fraud and webmaster of quackwatch.org:

One of Abrams’s many imitators was Royal Raymond Rife (1888-1971), an American who claimed that cancer was caused by bacteria. During the 1920s, he claimed to have developed a powerful microscope that could detect living microbes by the color of auras emitted by their vibratory rates. His Rife Frequency Generator allegedly generates radio waves with precisely the same frequency, causing the offending bacteria to shatter in the same manner as a crystal glass breaks in response to the voice of an opera singer. The American Cancer Society has pointed out that although sound waves can produce vibrations that break glass, radio waves at the power level emitted by a Rife generator do not have sufficient energy to destroy bacteria. The bottom line is that radionics devices have no value for diagnosing or treating anything.”

The Wikipedia page on Rife continues the story after Rife’s death:

Interest in Rife’s claims was revived in some alternative medical circles by the 1987 book by Barry Lynes, The Cancer Cure That Worked, which claimed that Rife had succeeded in curing cancer, but that his work was suppressed by a powerful conspiracy headed by the American Medical Association. After this book’s publication, a variety of devices bearing Rife’s name were marketed as cures for diverse diseases such as cancer and AIDS. An analysis by Electronics Australia found that a typical ‘Rife device’ consisted of a nine-volt battery, wiring, a switch, a timer and two short lengths of copper tubing, which delivered an ‘almost undetectable’ current unlikely to penetrate the skin.

In 1994, the American Cancer Society reported that Rife machines were being sold in a ‘pyramid-like, multilevel marketing scheme.’… Such ‘Rife devices’ have figured prominently in several cases of health fraud in the U.S., typically centered around the uselessness of the devices and the grandiose claims with which they are marketed. In a 1996 case, the marketers of a ‘Rife device’ claiming to cure numerous diseases including cancer and AIDS were convicted of felony health fraud. The sentencing judge described them as ‘target[ing] the most vulnerable people, including those suffering from terminal disease’ and providing false hope. In some cases cancer patients who ceased chemotherapy and instead used these devices have died.”

Despite this track record, many conspiracy believers still buy into the Rife radionic cure for cancer, or perhaps some other fraudulent cure. As is characteristic of many science denial conspiracy believers, they claim that the truth has been suppressed by commercial companies and worldwide researchers and doctors with a profit motive. A characteristic comment by one of the conspiracy believers appeared in response to a post on the Science-Based Medicine site:

So we can find a cure. It has probably happened multiple times. But nobody wants to cure cancer. Too many researchers earn a living seeking a cure by remaining inside a narrow, restricted channel of dogma. Their institutions get grant money and survive from the funding. Big Pharma makes big bucks selling chemotherapy drugs, surgeons remove tumors and various radiation devices employ radiologists and firms making these machines. MRI and CT scans would not be needed for cancer if Rife technology were available today.

This comment is scientifically, sociologically and economically ludicrous, but it is illustrative of conspiracy believers’ convictions. The application of “Rife technology” fails the laugh test based on simple principles of physics. We now understand that cancer represents a complex set of diseases. If cures are found, they are likely to differ from one type of cancer to another. And the concept that there is a monolithic “medical establishment” willing to commit medical genocide to enhance their bottom line, and which furthermore sees no benefit to that bottom line from promoting a cure for a major source of death worldwide, has been ripped to shreds, piece by piece, in a blog post by Steven Novella.

As Novella points out, the search for cancer cures is carried out by enormous collaborations among many researchers, laboratories, institutions and companies, not all of whom are driven by profit motives. Even those companies that seek profit are investing many millions of dollars annually in the research, and will want to see return on those investments. Patenting a cure for even one type of cancer would reap enormous benefits to a company’s financial and public relations bottom line. And it doesn’t take a Big Pharma apologist to recognize that extending life expectancy via such a cure would reap enormous additional profits for the pharmaceutical industry generally, from providing medications needed by the elderly. Researchers who make breakthroughs on the path to cancer cures are likely to see large increases, not decreases, in their research grants, renown and international prizes.

If suppression of disease cures were a primary motivation for the “medical establishment,” why would they have participated in the eradication of tuberculosis and polio? Why would they not have suppressed the medical research that revealed the link between smoking and lung cancer, which led to an enormous reduction in lung cancer incidence in the late 20th century? Why would they place their patients, including their own family members, at risk of dying from cancer after they had discovered the cure?

Novella summarizes the absurdity of the “hidden cancer cure” conspiracy theory in the following way, and his summary could apply equally well to all of the science denial theories we have covered:

Often those who claim that ‘they’ are hiding a cure for cancer have only a vague notion of who ‘they’ are. They generally have an image of the ‘medical establishment’ as monolithic, but nothing could be further from the truth. The medical establishment is composed of universities, professional organizations, journals, regulatory agencies, researchers, funding agencies, and countless individuals – all with differing incentives and perspectives. The idea that they would all be in on a massive conspiracy to hide perhaps the greatest cure known to mankind is beyond absurd.

The absurdity is also captured in the scientist’s stick-figure cartoon of Fig. I.3.

cancer-cure
Figure I.3. Cartoon from thelogicofscience.com illustrating the absurdity of the “hidden cancer cure” conspiracy theory.

I.4 Polling on Science Denial Conspiracy Belief

It is instructive to look at polling surveys to gauge the fraction of populations who are fully invested in the science denial conspiracy theories we have highlighted, as well as the size of the larger groups in whom the true believers have succeeded to plant seeds of doubt about the science.

Polling with respect to an alleged climate science “hoax” provides a useful narrative. In a 2019 survey by the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Project, 17% of polled Americans (versus just under 10% of global respondents) answered “Yes” to the statement that “the idea of manmade global warming is a hoax that was invented to deceive people.” (Note that this question is somewhat different than those asked in the Yale-George Mason climate attitude surveys highlighted elsewhere on this site, where a pretty consistent 7% of American adults claim to be “very or extremely sure” that global warming is not happening.) However, in a 2013 poll by Public Policy Polling (PPP), 37% of polled Americans answered yes to the question of whether global warming is a hoax. These results suggest that there is a “soft core” of conspiracy believers who can be persuaded by new information, or by personal experience, as evidence has grown of the severity of storms, floods, droughts, forest fires and extreme weather events linked to global warming.

The PPP poll also revealed the strong correlation of belief in a climate hoax with political affiliation. 12% of Obama voters and 61% of Romney voters agreed with the hoax characterization. The percentage increased to 71% among voters who identified themselves as “very conservative.” When conspiracy theories are politicized, belief may be driven in part by the disjoint information sources sought by citizens with different political leanings. But the reduction in believers from 2013 to 2019 may indicate that weak political leanings can be overcome by new factual evidence.

The polling on belief in conspiracies that have no obvious political implications shows different trends. The fraction of Americans who believe in the Moon landing “hoax” had remained steady at 6-7% over decades of polling, indicating that eventually believers reduce to a “hard core” of “true believers,” even in the face of enormous contradictory evidence and vanishingly small probability that such a vast conspiracy could be kept secret for five decades. Firm believers in a “flat Earth” represent only 2-3% of surveyed Americans.

But even such small percentages can use social media effectively to sow doubt among many more. For example, a 2018 YouGov survey found that 16% of 8,215 American adults queried had various levels of doubt about the true shape of the Earth, including 33% (!) of millennials. Many new believers in a flat Earth admit that they came across YouTube videos on the subject while viewing YouTube videos in support of others of their favorite conspiracy theories. Similarly, the latest polling suggests that the percentage of Americans who now believe that the Apollo 11 Moon landing was faked has risen recently to about 10% overall, but to 18% among those in the 18-34 age group. The same poll, by the way, indicates that an astonishing 75% of Moon landing deniers also believe that aliens have visited Earth – one among many pieces of evidence that belief in one conspiracy theory is strongly correlated with belief in others.

Polling on belief in medical conspiracy theories is even more worrisome. According to a 2005 poll reported by the American Cancer Society, 27% of Americans agree with the statement: “There is currently a cure for cancer but the medical industry won’t tell the public.” The 2019 YouGov-Cambridge survey mentioned above also found that 13% of U.S. respondents and 17% of global respondents agreed that “The truth about the harmful effects of vaccines is being deliberately hidden from the public.” These results indicate a dangerously widespread distrust of the “medical establishment.”

The COVID-19 pandemic is quite new, but already there are first polling results on the level of public buy-in to some of the widely publicized conspiracy theories it has spawned. Polling carried out by Uscinski, et al., in mid-March 2020 – when the outbreak in the U.S. was beginning its exponential rise – revealed that among more than 2000 U.S. adults surveyed, 29% agreed that the threat of COVID-19 has been exaggerated to damage President Trump. That belief was, as one might expect, strongly correlated to political support for the President, and was most likely adopted in response to Trump’s own early messaging about the virus, and that of his media allies. However, 31% of respondents agreed that the virus was purposefully created and spread, and that belief was only slightly more concentrated among self-identified Republicans and conservatives than among Democrats and liberals. The proponents of the purposeful spread theory tended to be those with a psychological predisposition to view major events as the product of conspiracies.

The YouGov-Cambridge poll also suggests an interesting correlation between the possible growth in conspiracy belief and the growth in populism and populist governments worldwide during the 21st century. The survey asked over 20,000 respondents across 19 countries about their belief in a range of conspiracy theories. They reported separately from the overall responses those given by people whom the survey identified as “populists” by their answers to the two questions indicated in Fig. I.4. Note that the two populism questions do not lean left or right politically, but rather appeal to citizens who feel unrepresented by their governments. Overall, 24% of American respondents were identified as populists, a figure toward the middle of the pack among the 19 countries surveyed.

YouGov-Cambridge poll on populism
Figure I.4. Results from a 2019 YouGov-Cambridge survey of more than 20,000 respondents from 19 countries, regarding the percentages who identify as “populists.”

As illustrated in Fig. I.5, the identified populists showed significantly greater belief in an array of conspiracy theories. Some of the conspiracies are directly connected to government policy, and thus might have a conceivable political divide over belief. But some of the conspiracies, like those about vaccines and AIDS, are not overtly political, so the results suggest some level of “conspiracy belief mindset,” which also affects populist outlook. Many conspiracy believers, and many populists as well, are driven by a feeling of being overlooked and manipulated. They seek to join like-minded peers to contradict the “establishment experts” and to use their beliefs to identify and advertise their own uniqueness and insight. Unfortunately, their inability to acknowledge deep holes in their own explanations and to recognize their incompatibility with observed facts – in other words, to apply critical thinking to their own beliefs – makes them, ironically, much more susceptible to manipulation and exploitation by populist governments and cynical mis-leaders who seek to replace the “establishment experts.”

YouGov-Cambridge poll on conspiracy theories and populism
Figure I.5. Results from the 2019 YouGov-Cambridge survey, showing the greater tendency of populists to believe in an array of popular conspiracy theories.

I.5 The Utter Improbability of Maintaining Vast, Long-Lasting Conspiracies

The unifying characteristic of all the science denial conspiracy theories we have considered is that they all rely on enormous networks of co-conspirators to have maintained secret machinations – machinations often opposing the individual interests of at least some alleged co-conspirators – over long periods of time. Any appreciation of human nature should tell a believer qualitatively that the more people who are “in on” a conspiracy, the more difficult it is to keep the secret. Physicist David Grimes of Oxford University has made an interesting attempt to quantify this improbability analysis for four of the specific science denial conspiracies we have considered: the fake Moon landing and climate change “hoaxes,” and the vaccination and hidden cancer cure “conspiracies.”

Grimes uses Poisson statistics to estimate the probability of internal leaks – whether by accident or by whistle-blowing – by co-conspirators that would lead to failure of a conspiracy over time. The resulting failure probability obviously depends critically on the probability of any one such leak and on the number of co-conspirators over time. He makes very conservative estimates of the leak probability – i.e., estimates designed to offer a best-case scenario for conspiracy theorists – by analyzing three actual government conspiracies that were eventually exposed, despite a clear motivation to avoid exposure of illegal or unethical activity by most of those in the know.

The three revealed conspiracies Grimes uses for his estimate are: (1) spying on U.S. citizens by the National Security Agency (exposed in 2013 by whistleblower Edward Snowden after roughly 6 years of the spying); (2) the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which the U.S. Public Health Service failed to offer penicillin to cure the syphilis of African-American men being studied (exposed by researcher Peter Buxton in 1972, after 25 years); and (3) an FBI forensics scandal regarding purposely misleading forensic laboratory analyses (first exposed in 1994 after 6 years by whistle-blower Dr. Frederick Whitehurst, but not fully investigated for another decade). The most conservative estimate Grimes extracts for leak probability from his analysis of the number of co-conspirators and the longevity of these three cases is that there would be at least 4 leaks per year per million co-conspirators. And that estimate is drawn from cases where co-conspirators had strong motivation to cover up illegal or unethical activities. One would imagine the leak probability would be very much greater among scientists asked to vouch for falsified or cherry-picked data, against both their own interests and their own competitive instincts. Scientists are usually driven to expose, rather than to cover up, flaws in experiments or analyses by other scientists.

Still, Grimes uses this conservative estimate of leak probability with equally conservative estimates of the number of people who would have to be “in on” the various science denial conspiracies. Those conservative estimates give rise to the cumulative failure probabillity as a function of time shown for the four science denial conspiracy theories in Fig. I.6. The solid curves included in the figure for the Moon landing hoax and the “hidden cancer cure” conspiracy are based, respectively, on estimates of the number of potential leakers taken from the number of employees of NASA (~400,000) and of eight major pharmaceutical companies (~700,000). The red dashed curves for the climate change and vaccination conspiracies are based on very conservative estimates that the only people who would have been in on the conspiracy are published climate scientists (~30,000) or employees of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and of the World Health Organization (~22,000). The solid curves in those two cases are based on more realistic estimates that whistle-blowing could have occurred among any members of relevant scientific organizations or of various vaccine production companies.

conspiracy failure rates
Figure I.6. The cumulative failure probability as a function of time for four science denial conspiracy theories, as estimated by David Grimes.

 

 

Grimes estimates that any conspiracy that requires hundreds of thousands of informed scientists to keep a deep secret from the larger public would almost certainly have failed well within a decade of the secret event or finding itself. And all four of the alleged conspiracies included in Fig. I.6 would have been going on for multiple decades by now. In the case of flat Earth belief, the conspiracy would have to be maintained by still many more people, spanning centuries (including, of course, NASA and all the astronauts who have taken those “fraudulent” photos of a round, rotating Earth). One can retain some skepticism regarding the accuracy of Grimes’ quantitative estimates and still see that the alleged longevity of these science denial conspiracies defies common sense.

In the face of such improbability and overwhelming scientific consensus, how do the true believers maintain their convictions? Most of them have developed a nearly ironclad, “catch-22,” defense mechanism. They claim that their only responsibility is to point out what they perceive as flaws or gaps in the “official” account. It is not their responsibility to find evidence to support their own belief in what happened, but rather a challenge for others to disprove their version of reality. But scientists who endeavor to disprove their claims, or to address the flaws or gaps the conspiracy believers highlight in the consensus view, are immediately judged to be part of the (ever-growing) conspiracy and therefore not to be trusted. For example, there have been many ironclad disproofs of the flat Earth hypothesis, yet the true believers simply reject them, often claiming falsely that such demonstrations support their theory! Conspiracy belief thereby becomes unfalsifiable, or “quasi-religious.” The true believers are able to hold supreme confidence in their own beliefs because it is impossible to prove them wrong to their satisfaction.

This misplaced confidence is part of what fuels the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias studied by Cornell University social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in a series of psychological experiments. They found that low-ability people often do not possess the self-awareness and cognitive skills needed to recognize their own incompetence. They thus tend to systematically and substantially overestimate their knowledge, ability and performance on tests. As David Dunning hasput it, “the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”

The conspiracy believer’s defense mechanism is similar to Donald Trump’s narcissistic defense of his delusions of his own superiority. Anyone who questions his statements, knowledge, motives, decisions or blatant lies is automatically classified by him as “fake news” or one of the “Trump haters” afflicted with “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” and is not to be trusted. Conspiracy belief – another Trump characteristic – can indeed be viewed as a form of narcissism, as we will explore further in Part II of this post.

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