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What does it mean to believe a conspiracy theory?

This entry was posted in Conspiracy Theories on 23 May 2013 by

We had Michael Newton visiting the group yesterday to give a talk about conspiracy and the killing of the Kennedys. It was great to hear a rich and detailed account of the all-too-familar JFK assassination and the Robert F. Kennedy killing, about which I knew very little. He joined our meeting this morning and we had a good conversation, turning over a lot of the issues and themes about conspiracy and conspiracy theories.

Richard raised a point that has been bothering me a little over the last few weeks. When we say people “believe in” a conspiracy theory, what exactly do we think they are doing? What do we mean by “belief” in these cases?

I’ve been thinking about this because of a couple of psychology papers that Andrew posted in the dropbox which analyse different aspects of belief in conspiracy theories. Lewandowsky and colleagues argue that rejection of climate science is correlated with both a belief in a cluster of conspiracy theories and with endorsement of “free market ideology.” There’s much of interest in this paper (and it’s been discussed in, among other places, Scientific American, and the New Yorker), but one thing I still don’t quite see is what it actually means to believe a conspiracy theory. The authors are simply interested in whether people tick “agree,” “agree strongly,” or “disagree,” or “disagree strongly” with statements like “Princess Diana’s death was not an accident but rather an organized assassination by members of the British Royal Family who disliked her.” Are we supposed to infer that the respondents to the survey believe that it is true? Another recent psychology paper (Wood et al 2012), which Hugo discusses in his recent post, finds that some people who endorsed the proposition that Diana’s death was ordered by the royal family also endorse the proposition that she is still alive. Is this flagrant endorsement of at least one false belief simply an indicator of mental frailty? Or do we need a more differentiated account of what is actually meant by such declarations of belief? It would be a lot less dramatic if agreeing to such a proposition simply meant that people were “willing to entertain the possibility,” or might “not rule out the hypothesis,” or simply “doubt the official account.”

In short, there seems to be a lot of work on why people believe conspiracy theories, but not so much on how they do so, or how exactly we are supposed to interpret their endorsement of conspiracy theories. If anybody knows of some work that addresses this question, I’d be interested to see it.