Stephan Lewandowsky studies the way people think, and in particular, why they engage in conspiracy theories. So when the cognitive scientist from England’s University of Bristol observes wild speculation related to the COVID-19 pandemic, he sees how it fits into the historical pattern of misinformation and fake news.
I recently wrote about the viral video “Plandemic” as an investigative reporter assessing the range of unsubstantiated COVID-19 allegations put forth by a controversial researcher. Lewandowsky comes at the video and others like it from a science-based perspective. He is one of the authors of “The Conspiracy Theory Handbook,” which explains the traits of conspiratorial thinking.
Conspiracy theories related to the COVID-19 pandemic seem to be proliferating, and some may even be taking root. So I asked Lewandowsky to share how he identifies and understands them, and what we can do to sort through the confusion. The interview has been condensed for clarity and length.
What’s the difference between a real conspiracy and a conspiracy theory?
A real conspiracy actually exists, and it is usually uncovered by journalists, whistleblowers, document dumps from a corporation or government, or it’s discovered by a government agency. The Volkswagen emissions scandal, for example, was discovered by conventional ways when some engineers discovered an anomaly in a report. It was all mundane — normal people having normal observations based on data. They said, “Hang on, something’s funny here,” and then it unraveled. The same is true for the Iran-contra scandal. That broke via a newspaper in Lebanon. True conspiracies are often uncovered through the media. In Watergate, it was journalists not taking “no” for an answer.
A conspiracy theory, on the other hand, is discussed at length on the internet by people who are not bona fide journalists or government officials or whistleblowers in an organization or investigative committees of regulators. They’re completely independent sources, individuals who self-nominate and put themselves forward as being in possession of the truth. In principle, that could be true. But then if you look at the way these people think and talk and communicate, you discover their cognition is different from what I would call conventional cognition.
What are some differences between conventional and conspiratorial thinking?
You can start with healthy skepticism vs. overriding suspicion. As a scientist, I’m obviously skeptical. I’m questioning anything people say. I look at my own data and other people’s data with a skeptical eye. But after skeptics have been skeptical, they are quite capable of accepting evidence. Once something has withstood scrutiny, you accept it. Otherwise you’re in a state of complete nihilism and you can’t believe anything.
That crucial second step of acceptance is absent in conspiracy theorists. That is where conspiracy theorists are different. Their skepticism is a bottomless, never-ending pit of skepticism about anything related to the official account. And that skepticism is accompanied by extreme gullibility to anything related to the conspiracy. It’s an imbalance between skepticism for anything an official may say and complete gullibility for something some random dude on the internet will tweet out. It’s that imbalance that differentiates conspiracy thinking from standard cognition.
Conspiracy thinking is immune to evidence. In the “Plandemic” video, the absence of evidence is twisted to be seen to be as evidence for the theory. They say the cover-up is so perfect that you will never find out about it. That’s the opposite of rational thinking. Usually when you think of a hypothesis, you think of the evidence. And if there’s zero evidence, you give it up or say there is no evidence for it.
Conspiracy theorists may also simultaneously believe things that are contradictory. In the “Plandemic” video, for example, they say COVID-19 both came from a Wuhan lab and that we’re all infected with the disease from vaccinations. They’re making both claims, and they don’t hang together.
More generally, conspiracy theorists show this contradictory thinking by presenting themselves as both victims and heroes. They see themselves as these heroes in possession of the truth. But they also see themselves as victims. They feel they are being persecuted by this evil establishment or the deep state or whatever it is.
Why do you think some conspiracy theories are so popular?
Some people find comfort in resorting to a conspiracy theory whenever they have a sense of a loss of control or they’re confronted with a major adverse event that no one has control over. So every time there’s a mass shooting in the U.S., I can guarantee you ahead of time that there will be a conspiracy theory about it.
So you would expect conspiracy theories related to the pandemic. That doesn’t make them any less harmful. Here in the United Kingdom, people are burning 5G cell towers because of this extreme idea that 5G has something to do with causing COVID-19. More than 70 cell towers have gone up in flames because of this conspiracy theory.
Is conspiracy thinking at an all time high?
Historical records show that there were rampant conspiracy theories going on in the Middle Ages when the plague hit Europe. It was anti-Semitism at the time. That tends to be part and parcel of pandemics. People engage in conspiracies that involve some sort of “othering” of people. During previous pandemics, people chased doctors down the street because they thought they were responsible for the pandemic. In Europe, now a lot of antagonism is directed at Asians, because the pandemic started in China. The internet is helping the spread of conspiracy theories. It’s much easier now than it was 30 years ago. But it’s difficult to say we have more now.
Are conservatives or liberals any more likely to engage in conspiracy thinking?
There is a lot of research on this and political conspiracy theories tend to be most associated with extreme political views, on the right or the left. But if you quantify it, you frequently find more on the right than the left.
How do we talk to the conspiracy theorists in our lives?
It’s extremely difficult. In terms of strategy, the best people to talk to are people who are not conspiracy theorists. The vast majority of people are grateful for the debunking and responsive to it. That should be your target of communication if you have a choice. The hardcore conspiracy theorists are unlikely to change their minds. They will take what you say and display considerable ingenuity in twisting it and using it against you. On Twitter, I block them immediately because I’m concerned about my ability to have a rational conversation and I don’t want others to violate that right.
How do we prevent the spread of conspiracy theories?
By trying to inoculate the public against them. Telling the public ahead of time: Look, there are people who believe these conspiracy theories. They invent this stuff. When they invent it they exhibit these characteristics of misguided cognition. You can go through the traits we mention in our handbook, like incoherence, immunity to evidence, overriding suspicion and connecting random dots into a pattern. The best thing to do is tell the public how they can spot conspiracy theories and how they can protect themselves.
Are you aware of any cases where the conspiracy theorists turned out to be right?
There are tens of thousands of conspiracy theories out there, so I haven’t checked them all. But if you look at actual conspiracies, Volkswagen, Iran-contra, Watergate — the real conspiracies — they were uncovered by conventional cognition. There weren’t people there who took the absence of evidence to be evidence for the theory, or who reinterpreted contrary evidence to somehow support their theory. I’m not aware of any conspiracy theorists discovering something where they turn out to be correct.
–Marshall Allen, ProPublica
Loose in PC says
Well I don’t know if this is a conspiracy or real, but I’m not taking any chances.
The Covid-19 virus was intentionally released on planet earth to kill the Alien extra-terrestrial beings that have invaded our planet and abducting all humans with a higher then normal IQ and good reproducing qualities for their hybrid program. So I have decided to fool them by pretending to be Low IQ and getting a Vasectomy and stop wearing my mask …….. That will teach them alien bastards to mess with me !!!
CB from PC says
Exactly why the Democrats still cannot accept they lost the 2016 Election. And exactly why they continue to bash Trump’s response to the pandemic:
“Some people find comfort in resorting to a conspiracy theory whenever they have a sense of a loss of control or they’re confronted with a major adverse event that no one has control over.”
You are absolutely right CB! trump won the electoral college in 2016 and became president. Therefore, it is trump who is RESPONSIBLE for the pain and suffering, and loss of lives and jobs because of the COMPLETELY BOTCHED response to this terrible pandemic! trump WON. . . get over it!!!!
Sad Times says
Gary R says
@Sherry – China discovered the new coronavirus in December, but chose to hide it from the world. Now nearly every nation on earth is paying the price for China’s actions. Dr. Li started to see an emergence of a pneumonia-like virus and he really just sort of sounded the alarm on it, and especially given that it was so infectious. He was called in for questioning, forced to recant what he had said about it.
China gave a rare admission of fault, admitting ‘deficiencies’ in its response to the Wuhan coronavirus that has now infected more than 20,000 people. https://www.businessinsider.com/wuhan-coronavirus-china-admits-deficiencies-in-response-2020-2
But, you still blame President Trump? LOL. You Trump hating cult are WRONG! Keep drinking the kool-aid.
G. Gordon Liddy says
It’s ironic that in his handbook, an FBI conspiracy to protect Hillary Clinton in the private email server case was used as an example of this type of erroneous conspiracy thinking. Yet it’s been proven that Clinton used bleach bit to erase her hard drive. And this FBI cabal is being proven to exist with recent happenings in the news ie Obamagate. I’m sure you’ll allow your bias Pierre to dismiss this news itself as conspiratorial thinking and thus self-sealing your own liberal point of view
This guy is full of it, especially after calling out conservatives if he were forced to quantify the numbers. Wasn’t it Clinton herself who spoke of a vast right wing conspiracy? Let’s see the evidence Stephan and Pierre. Two liberal peas in a pod. What you guys lack in integrity is made up with consistency. Pierre, your reputation for liberal idiocracy precedes you.
We live in a country founded by genius and run by fools. The more we strive to live according to The Constitution the better.
Sometimes “conspiracy theories” have to abound to catch all the fraud & abuse that starts to occur, the hoarding of toilet paper is one group of individuals that saw that value in products, they were anticipating a recession of under & unemployment. See, a lot of folks got paid to stay at home, perhaps do even less than they normally do for more pay. Absolutely right about watching some and learning their behaviour patterns. There are some that will con & cheat their own. Why do you think as many marriages fail like they do ? And so now you put several trillions out there as incentive & a pot of gold for them to go sit in their house and figure out ways to get into that money ? I’m not saying everyone has done it, but enough of them most likely have. When the Federal Supplement to State Unemployment started to pay some of the labor force more than they would’ve earned actually working that became a problem, all of a sudden the economy had to get back going again. So they made some poor decisions and they don’t want to be accountable & responsible for that ? Flagler county sitting at 4 deaths for all of 2020 for Coronavirus. that’s their numbers. You know, they came up with that reporting system, you could see it at the individual county level for yourself, transparency. And now that transparency has disappeared. Took their numbers with healthy dose of skepticism, right or wrong ways to count. As the hospitals were getting paid $ 13K for the “off” & thus the non-ventilator cases, $ 39K for on-ventilator cases. The Flu never paid so well.
Conspiracy theories for the most part uncovered some form of fraud & abuse and that means they were right, Sometimes the charges have to appear to be outlandish and walked back on the spectrum, but you generally do find lies & deceit, fraud & abuse and this world generally can’t jail & try them all, so what you get is the same operators with a scapegoat, that escape their dose of accountability & responsibility, the prison time they truly deserve. Every administration has had one or several diversionary scandal that blew up in their faces. Take Bush, 9/11 became the Iraq War where there were no WMDs and you get the picture when those 8 years ended with trillions in bailouts to save the USA’s economy. And so too this has & will be the next round of bailouts already. The first round of them was more than the Bush-Obama bailout and 9/11 and everything in between to 2010 was operating with an economy that never shut down like the economy has in the last 2 months. So yeah, conspiracy theorists are generally right, a whistleblower actually saw it happening, knew of the one’s involved & their intent.
“Immune to Evidence” – a perfect description of Trump and his cult.
Yep! Finger pointing by the mindless “CULT”. . . It’s China’s fault! President Obama’s fault! Hillary’s server’s fault! Look! Look! Look! at that bright shiny object over there! A Pathetic FOX copy and paste job!
According to the “CULT” the catastrophic FAILURE in responding to this pandemic, is anybody’s fault but trump’s! Yet. . . as the “CULT” incessantly points out. . . he is the president. OK. . . so, if trump is not responsible for leading the efforts in protecting us and keeping us safe, exactly what is his job? Like it or not, trump and his sycophants have the needless pain and suffering and deaths of thousands on their hands!
Even the mindless “CULT” knows where the buck stops, and it IS at the desk of the president. Unfortunately, their FOX brainwashed “CULT” mentality prohibits them from actually using their brains, and their moral compass was thrown away years ago. All that is left is a bag filled with dried up, useless, cowardly (non-mask wearing) Joe Mullins loving social pariahs. . . with absolutely nothing credible to say. SAD! May they reap what they sow!
@Sherry concluded, “…May they reap what they sow!”
I give you the immortal Garbo in the 1939 film Ninotchka:
Buljanoff (Felix Bressart): How are things in Moscow?
Ninotchka (Greta Garbo): Very Good. The last mass trials were a great success. There are going to be fewer but better Russians.
Here’s to fewer trump followers after they get the answer to fatso’s, “What have you got to lose?”
No Problem. . . Darwin has this well in hand Pogo! Stay safe and healthy everyone!
Do not inject bleach! But please do wash your hands, keep your social distance, and wear your mask to protect your neighbor while in public. Always remember, you are smarter than trump. Take your individual power back and think for yourself.