Turning a blind eye to reality can get us into lots of bother

In A fraction too much friction, Samantha Trenoweth (WW, March 2021) asks, how dangerous are conspiracy theories?

Good seemingly rational people can get caught up in the unrealistic realm that is conspiracy theories.

Writes Trenoweth:

‘While no particular personality is more susceptible than another to conspiracy theories, there are types of thinking that can make us more easily misled.  According to Dr Carmen Lawrence, from the School of Psychological Science at the University of Western Australia (UWA), people who become absorbed by conspiracy theories have a greater tendency to engage in what’s called System One Thinking. 

“They are more likely to jump to conclusions, using Heuristics and biases, to have an emotional tone to their level of understanding, an unwillingness to embrace scientific explanations,” she told a forum hosted by The Conversation and the University of South Australia.

It’s important to remember that: Most conspiracy theories are internally incoherent.  So what’s the danger zone.

There was a time when belief in conspiracy theories was an amusing eccentricity.  But in a pandemic, in a global environmental crisis, when democratic elections are at stake, spiraling disinformation seems a little dangerous.  Should we be concerned? 

Well yes, for a number of reasons.  The first is that, according to Professor Ulrich Ecker, also from the School of Psychological Science at the UWA , “there are malicious actors out there who use social media as a tool to destablise societies.”

Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist from the University of Bristol, says: “If everyone around me thinks the Earth is round, I’m quite sensibly going to believe the same thing.  That worked really well while we didn’t have social media because, if I’m the only one in my village who believes the earth is flat, chances are everyone’s telling me I’m the village idiot and I will be quiet about it.  But the moment you have Facebook with a billion users, I can go online and it doesn’t matter how absurd my opinion is – bam – I’m surrounded by hundreds of other people who share that view and my belief is reinforced.  This can only happen on social media.  In real life you’d never meet those other people because there are so few out there.”

This should be something we take into account when we come across ideas that don’t stack up with common sense, sound science or what is in the best interests of the larger community.  This is not to say we should be blind followers of what might be the official thinking of the day.  There is no lack of evidence where authorities have got it wrong over the years and we would have done better if we’d paid attention to those who cautioned against blind faith.  Blindly following Kings and Queens, the church, political parties and vested industry promotions, have got us into a lot of bother over the centuries – as noted in the next part of Samantha Trenoweth’s report:

‘Another threat comes from industry.  Professor Lewandowsky, expresses concern that science-skeptical climate change conspiracies are “driven by ideology and by vested interests.  We have an abundance of evidence that we’re facing an organised political campaign to deny science,” he says.

So are conspiracy theories dangerous? “Yes,” he answers emphatically.  “Exposure to a conspiracy theory makes people less engaged in politics, more distrustful, less likely to reduce their carbon footprint.

As the victims of conspiracy theories mount, academics are scrambling for solutions.  A massive increase in emphasis on critical thinking as early as primary school is high on the list of interventions, along with ‘pre-bunking’ programs [teaching internet users about conspiracy theories before they encounter them seems to take the gloss-off] and finally some level of content moderation online.  How successful these might be is still open for debate, however.

“We know from history that there are spikes of misinformation and conspiracy theories in times of great crisis.  There’s no doubt we’re in such a time so we are going to see a spike of activity… is it forever?  I don’t think so … I suppose, like most human beings, I remain optimistic – stupidly so, in many respects – that we’ll take more action on climate change, get on top of the economic difficulties we confront and won’t continue to trash the planet.  But I’m not so optimistic that I can’t see the role of misinformation and conspiracy theories in making that a much more difficult task.”

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