Conspiracy Theories - Denying to the Grave - Sara E Gorman, Jack M Gorman

Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us - Sara E Gorman, Jack M Gorman (2016)

Chapter 1. Conspiracy Theories

CONSPIRACIES ARE MYSTERIOUS. WE THINK IT IS REASONABLE TO say, even without any data to support it, that most people have never been part of a conspiracy or even known a person who has. It seems that in ordinary life getting even a moderately sized group of people who all agree on something together, finding time to meet, and then planning and actually implementing a secret operation over a long period of time would be fairly difficult. Getting a few people together to plan a surprise birthday party and keeping the plans secret until the actual event is difficult enough. Many of us believed at one point or another as we were growing up that our parents were conspiring against us, but today’s parents rarely have the time or energy for even that much underhanded activity.

Nevertheless, we are routinely asked to believe that large, well-organized, and focused conspiracies exist that, in order to maximize their profits and scope of influence, have as their goal the destruction of our health and well-being. Every charismatic leader we will describe in the next chapter claims to be the victim of at least one such conspiracy. In the health and medical fields, the alleged conspirators usually include some combination of organized medicine, mainstream academic science and public health, the government, and large pharmaceutical and other companies. Even Wayne LaPierre, the leader of the National Rifle Association with its vast economic resources and ties to the gun manufacturing industry, portrays himself as the victim of a conspiracy of left-wing politicians, the media, and the federal government, all of whom, he would have us believe, are intent on denying Americans their Second Amendment rights, thereby exposing us innocent citizens to bands of marauding, well-armed criminals.1 According to the leaders of conspiracy theory groups, “Most conspiracies are … invisible to the vast majority of sheeplike citizens who go grazing through the pasture of life, never suspecting the evil wolves lurking behind the rocks of everyday occurrences”2 Therefore, the conspiracy theory leaders tell us, they themselves are indispensable for our very survival. Although we frequently criticize the scientific community in this book for treating us as if we were ubiquitously stupid, it is often these conspiracy group leaders who act as if we are all fools.

You may detect from the tone we have taken in introducing this subject of conspiracy theories that we find them to be largely misguided at best and dangerous at worst. Indeed, as we review the supposed conspiracies that science deniers invoke to warn us against vaccinating our children, eating GMO-based foods, undergoing ECT if we are severely depressed, or shunning nuclear power, it will become clear that in these cases no such conspiracies actually exist. Hence, it would be so simple if we could conclude that one way to be sure science deniers are wrong is to note whether they are invoking secret and well-organized conspiracies as their enemies; if they are, we may dismiss them.

Maybe It’s a Conspiracy After All

In reality, we cannot accept the foregoing conclusion in any sense as a general rule because some conspiracies do in fact exist and some of them have indeed been harmful to human health. Perhaps the most egregious example of a real conspiracy in recent times was the collaboration of tobacco companies and a handful of scientists to deny the fact that cigarette smoking causes cancer and many other serious diseases. Let us imagine that in 1965 a crusader goes on the radio and television talk show circuit insisting that nicotine is a powerfully addicting substance and that smoking cigarettes is a deadly addiction. Furthermore, this crusader declares that tobacco companies, which usually compete against each other, had joined forces to finance a cadre of scientists with impressive credentials to promote false and misleading science supposedly showing that cigarettes are harmless. In addition, this conspiracy of tobacco companies and scientists was prepared to use its vast financial resources and scientific influence to ruin the scientific careers of anyone who dared claim otherwise and even to spread around lavish political contributions (not much different in this case from bribes) to government officials in order to induce them to back away from legislating against tobacco products.

Before we comment on the legitimacy of our imaginary anti-tobacco crusader’s claims, let’s quickly mention another conspiracy theory. A gastroenterologist named Dr. Andrew Wakefield claims that childhood vaccines are dangerous, capable of causing autism and other developmental abnormalities. Dr. Wakefield insists that pharmaceutical companies who make vaccines and usually compete against each other have joined forces to finance a cadre of scientists and pediatricians with impressive credentials to promote false and misleading science showing that vaccines are safe. Furthermore, this conspiracy of pharmaceutical companies and scientists is prepared to use its vast financial resources and scientific influence to ruin anyone who dares to claim otherwise and to bribe government officials and medical societies with contributions in order to get them to support widespread vaccination programs.

There is no question that in the first example (Big Tobacco) the imaginary crusader would have been absolutely correct and in the second Dr. Wakefield is absolutely wrong. The horrible saga of the tobacco industry and its scientific cronies shamelessly obscuring the clear evidence that cigarettes are addictive and lethal is one of the greatest blots on industrial and scientific conduct in our history. No one knows how many millions of people who died from the effects of smoking cigarettes might have been saved if that conspiracy had not delayed the public’s finally understanding the truth about nicotine and government’s passing stiff tax laws that discourage the purchase of cigarettes. On the other hand, Dr. Wakefield’s conspiracy is a fantasy. The scientific evidence that vaccines are safe and effective is overwhelming and there has never been any need for pharmaceutical companies to engage in secret activities to promote them. Doctors know that vaccination is an evidence-based practice, and lots of people who have no financial stake in the vaccine industry—like the entire world of public health officials—highly recommend vaccination. In short, people die from smoking cigarettes and lives are saved by vaccination.

But looking again at these two scenarios, we notice that the descriptions of them sound awfully similar. Back in January 1964 when Dr. Luther Terry issued the first Surgeon General’s report about smoking, about half of all American men and one-third of women were smokers. They did not just read the report, agree that the evidence it synthesized was solid, and quit smoking. In fact, it took years before smoking rates actually began to decline, during which time the tobacco industry did everything it could to counteract the message with a ruthless disinformation campaign.3 It took some very dedicated crusaders who were brave enough to face down the opprobrium of the tobacco industry and its hired hand scientists before an American public that had associated smoking with “Joe Camel,” the “Marlboro Man,” and “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” realized that they were being victimized by a conspiracy that was perfectly happy to see it be exterminated as long as profits remained high. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway lay out for us in gory detail the shocking collaboration of some highly respected scientists with the tobacco industry as they attempted to convince us that there is no link between cigarette smoking and cancer:

Millions of pages of documents released during tobacco litigation demonstrate these links. They show the crucial role that scientists played in sowing doubt about the links between smoking and health risks. These documents—which have scarcely been studied except by lawyers and a handful of academics—also show that the same strategy was applied not only to global warming, but to a laundry list of environmental and health concerns, including asbestos, secondhand smoke, acid rain, and the ozone layer.4

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum trace the origins of suspiciousness about large corporations to the early 1970s.

Not only did the new mood of “questioning authority” include the questioning of science, but there was often good reason for skepticism. The environmental and consumer movements, spearheaded by the likes of Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader, brought home the realization that science wasn’t always beneficial. Seemingly wonderful technologies—DDT, chlorofluorocarbons—could have nasty, unforeseen consequences. A narrative began to emerge about “corporate science”: driven by greed, conducted without adequate safeguards, placing profits over people.5

In that light, then, how do we know that Dr. Terry was right but Dr. Wakefield is wrong? More important for our purposes here, how does a nonscientist consumer figure out that one person with “Dr.” in front of his or her name is to be believed while another misleads us with false findings? Some conspiracies are real phenomena, while others are the concoctions of manipulative charismatic leaders who use them as a tool to advance their dangerous agendas. We acknowledge from the outset of this discussion that we will not be able to provide easy guideposts by which to make these distinctions. And these distinctions are often easily made only in retrospect, after all the facts are in. Consider the following:

✵A conspiracy was behind the assassination of President Lincoln but not President Kennedy.

✵A conspiracy is maintained to perpetuate the belief that high-fat diets are directly related to cardiovascular disease but is not behind the scientific consensus that foods that contain GMOs are perfectly safe.

✵Conspirators hid the fact that General Motors cars had faulty ignition systems leading to several deaths, but there is no conspiracy among psychiatrists—or electric power companies—to promote ECT as a treatment for severe depression.

✵A conspiracy is behind the attempt to subvert scientific evidence that conclusively demonstrates global warming to be a real and present danger, but the relative safety of nuclear energy does not need conspirators to give us honest guidance.

✵A conspiracy was engineered in the Watergate scandal in an attempt to discredit the Democratic Party, but there is no conspiracy behind the scientific work proving that gun ownership is dangerous.

These five examples fall into different fields—history, nutrition science, product safety, energy science, and politics. The intriguing thing is that when we list them the way we have, there is really no obvious rule to determine which one in each pair is true and which is not. If conspirators plotted to kill one president, why couldn’t there be a conspiracy behind the assassination of another one? If doctors and scientists could be so wrong about eating milk, butter, and eggs, couldn’t they be equally wrong about genetically modified corn, wheat, and rice? If a company deliberately hid the dangers lurking in the use of one of its products, couldn’t another group do exactly the same thing? If all this business about climate change, fossil fuels, and destroying the ozone layer is really smoke and mirrors created by some scientists to keep their grant funding rolling in, as the conspiracy theorists assert,6 then perhaps those who tell us that nuclear power plants really don’t represent a danger are also just trying to maximize their incomes. And if even the president of the United States could get himself involved in a conspiracy, then how do we know that politicians who promote gun control, like Michael Bloomberg and Gabby Giffords, don’t also have some underhanded plot up their sleeves? This chapter attempts to answer some of these questions and explores why we are so prone to believing that the world is conspiring against us.

The Victim Mentality

It may help to understand something about why we are prone to gravitate toward conspiracy theories, even though most of us have never been in one and therefore have no firsthand knowledge of how they form or function. Only recently have social scientists and psychologists begun to perform experiments trying to understand what is behind conspiracy theories, and some of the information these preliminary studies have yielded is fascinating.

One of the striking characteristics of the charismatic leaders described in the next chapter is their penchant for describing themselves as victims of conspiracies. These anti-science leaders want to be seen as courageous lone wolves who are crying out against powerful and malevolent forces. They also represent themselves as belonging to a higher moral order than their opponents, who generally are depicted as ruthless and money-craving. Their messages about conspiracies can be terrifying and infuriating. In this “us” versus “them” contest, the conspiracy theorist tries to make us believe that if we don’t follow his/her lead, our very survival will be threatened. In writing about HIV denialism, Seth Kalichman nicely describes the process by which the culture of scientific denialism and victimhood, whether genuinely felt or feigned, leads to conspiracism:

A feature of denialism, at least at its root, is the tendency to think of the denialist position as beleaguered, and under attack and in a minority that has to stave off the assaults of the vast wrong-thinking majority. As a consequence, those involved in denialism often, in the other justifications for their position, declare their strong allegiance to the principle of free speech. Interestingly, then, denialists often set themselves up as plucky underdogs, battling for their rights to speak the truth against a tide of misinformation and, as often as not, conspiracies aimed at keeping them silent.7

How interesting it is to find out, then, that people who believe in conspiracies do so because they believe that they themselves would conspire if given the opportunity. Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton of the School of Psychology at the University of Kent reported on some of their experiments in a paper titled “Does It Take One to Know One? Endorsement of Conspiracy Theories Is Influenced by Personal Willingness to Conspire.” Based on previous research, Douglas and Sutton wondered if “those who have relatively few moral scruples about conspiring may be less likely to think that others would be deterred from conspiring, at least on moral grounds” and therefore set out to measure research participants’ level of “Machiavellianism,” a trait associated with “willingness to exploit others for personal gain.” Jack has often said that in psychology and psychiatry “there is a scale to measure anything and everything,” and indeed it turns out that there is a validated scale to measure one’s level of Machiavellianism, called the MACH-IV scale. Douglas and Sutton found that the more Machiavellian a person is, the more willing he or she is to believe in conspiracy theories. Douglas and Sutton concluded, “These studies suggest that people who have more lax personal morality may endorse conspiracy theories to a greater extent because they are, on average, more willing to participate in the conspiracies themselves.” 8 Thus, far from existing on a higher moral plane, conspiracy theorists on average seem to be people who “project” onto others their own openness toward conspiring. This dynamic, which anti-science conspiracy theorists would of course surely deny, may be manifest in the tendency of many charismatic leaders to form organizations with fancy-sounding names to support their causes.

This, then, may be one clue to picking out the phony conspiracy theories. Do they involve a charismatic leader who is him- or herself prone to setting up organizations that are tightly controlled by the leader, deliberate in secret, bully their opponents, and distort scientific findings? Does it seem as if the one who is promulgating a conspiracy theory is him- or herself prone to conspiring? We are reminded of Douglas and Sutton’s comment that “those who have relatively few moral scruples about conspiring may be less likely to think that others would be deterred from conspiring, at least on moral grounds.”

Still, most of us are prone to more subtle forms of conspiracy theories, as when we believe that the CDC is just not telling the truth about how Ebola is transmitted. So what drives a regular person to latch onto conspiracy-like beliefs?

A Dangerous Sense of Powerlessness

An important motivation fueling affiliation with conspiracy theories is the drive to overcome the feeling of powerlessness. After all, conspiracy theories assign blame to secret, powerful, and malevolent forces for things we feel we cannot control and therefore both give us an explanation for what is going on and somewhat ironically let us off the hook for doing anything about it. If the conspiracy involves the government, big corporations, and the entire healthcare profession, then no individual need feel remiss if he or she is not doing anything about the perceived problem. This makes the entry of a charismatic leader who claims to have the ability to fight back against the conspiracy an attractive option.

Studies have shown that people who feel that they lack control over situations are prone to illusory pattern perception, essentially seeing what is not really there. In a series of six experiments, Jennifer A. Whitson at the University of Texas, Austin, and Adam D. Galinsky, now at Columbia University, showed that study participants who lacked control over a situation saw interrelationships in random stimuli, thus creating illusory patterns out of deliberately meaningless information.9 Among these illusory patterns were conspiracy theories. Whitson and Galinsky also showed that when the participants were given an opportunity to express self-affirmation—that is, to review their own beliefs and values—the tendency to draw these false correlations was substantially reduced. They conclude, “When individuals were made to feel psychologically secure after lacking control, they were less prone to the perception of illusory patterns.” Exposure to information that supports a conspiracy theory has been shown to reduce motivation to participate in political activities, and this effect was mainly due in one experiment to feelings of powerlessness created by the information.10

Nor are we particularly selective about which conspiracy theories we subscribe to. Viren Swami, who works at both the University of Westminster in London and HELP University College in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and his colleagues studied agreement with conspiracy theories concerning the July 7, 2005, bombings in the London public transportation system and found that “the strongest predictor of belief in 7/7 conspiracy theories was belief in other general conspiracy theories.”11 Other characteristics of willingness to agree with conspiracy theories in this study included higher political cynicism, greater support for democratic principles, more negative attitude to authority, and lower self-esteem.

Fear Jumps in Where Mistrust Already Exists

A key element in people’s willingness to accept a conspiracy theory in making a healthcare decision is general mistrust and disillusionment with science.12 Belief in conspiracy theories also tends to coincide with mistrust of science.13 These findings have somewhat dire implications for the usual ways we try to counteract the conspiracy theorists. As researchers Jolley and Douglas note,

Because beliefs in conspiracy theories in general are associated with a mistrust of scientific claims, interventions that cite claims by scientists and medical professionals may also meet with suspicion. Such attempts at intervention may therefore fail on people who are sympathetic to a variety of conspiracy claims.14

Hence, merely telling people the facts can actually serve to exacerbate the problem. For example, if one believes (a) that psychiatric drugs and ECT are universally harmful and (b) that a conspiracy of drug companies, the government, and organized psychiatry is deliberately covering up that fact in order to make money, then getting psychiatrists—no matter how prestigious they may be—to explain the true state of affairs to the public feeds directly into the conspiracists’ hands. “Here again,” they will tell us, “is a psychiatrist who has a vested financial interest in prescribing medications telling you they are safe. Don’t even listen to him or her.”

Most psychiatrists who received drug company honoraria to speak to other doctors about the benefits of new psychiatric medication give their reasons as something like this: the drugs have been shown in scientifically rigorous studies to be effective and to have acceptable levels of adverse side effects; they have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration after careful review; so why not get paid to talk about them?15 The fact that doctors take money from drug companies to talk about the virtues of those companies’ brand-name drugs does not, of course, mean the drugs are prima facie dangerous or that there is any conspiracy afoot. But even the appearance of such a conflict of interest is disillusioning to us. To make things worse, it turns out that although psychiatric drugs are indeed helpful for many patients with moderate to severe levels of illness, their effectiveness has sometimes been exaggerated and their risks downplayed by some of the pharmaceutical companies that produce them.

The cautionary note here is obvious: opponents of healthcare conspiracy theories are so automatically suspect that they must be beyond reproach and totally free of any hint of conflict of interest; they must be “squeaky clean.” This is vitally important because a lot is at stake in combatting conspiracy theories in healthcare. Conspiracy theories unfortunately play a significant role in dissuading people from making lifesaving choices. Laura Bogart of Harvard University and her colleagues showed that belief in conspiracy theories was a significant reason that African American men with HIV infection did not take antiretroviral medications that had been prescribed for them.16 In this vicious cycle, then, conspiracy theorists impugn the honesty of scientists, such as those who have proven beyond any doubt that antiretroviral medications are effective and necessary treatments for people infected with HIV. The scientists then fight back, only to face the charge that they are acting true to form, supporting ideas they are paid to support and not necessarily those that are scientifically sound. A very profitable industry selling worthless home remedies for HIV infection grew up around HIV denialism, but a fact like that is often raised mainly by scientists and doctors who themselves take money from large, established corporations like drug companies. Despite the fact that in a case like antiretroviral medications for HIV there are clear right and wrong sides, media too often present the situation as if scientists were conducting a legitimate scientific debate. Peter Duesberg, an avid HIV denialist, is given equal weight with a scientist who argues that HIV is the cause of AIDS and that antiretroviral drugs are the medically proven treatment. Duesberg can charge that his opponents receive funding from drug companies that make antiretroviral drugs and therefore nothing that they say has any merit. The men in Laura Bogart’s study reading these things are bound to wonder who is correct, and those already prone to believing conspiracy theories and mistrusting science will teeter toward the dangerous decision to stop taking their medications.

Preying on the Most Vulnerable

It has sometimes been argued that belief in conspiracy theories is a logical response to complex issues that a nonspecialist cannot easily understand. The conspiracy theory supplies a readily grasped explanation that has the additional powers of emotional urgency and aligning the recipient with a cause. It is important to note, however, that society’s most vulnerable people are most likely to be swayed by such theories. Marina Abalakina-Paap was at New Mexico State University when she and her colleagues published a study showing “no support for the idea that people believe in conspiracies because they provide simplified explanations of complex events.”17 A tendency to “paranoid ideation” may also be a factor,18 although it is incorrect and counterproductive to label people who believe conspiracy theories as ubiquitously psychotic and responding to paranoid delusions. Rather, as has been shown on many occasions, people who feel powerless and have low self-esteem and low levels of trust are the easiest prey of conspiracy theorists. These are important considerations to bear in mind when devising strategies to counteract conspiracy theories. A person with low self-esteem will be resistant to overly technical scientific arguments that have the not-so-hidden message “We are scientists and you are not, so even though you are not smart enough to understand what we are telling you, believe us anyway.”

The issue is not merely providing an explanation that people understand but rather an explanation that makes them feel in control. As Ted Goertzel of Rutgers University notes in his excellent article “Conspiracy Theories in Science,” “A conspiracy theory gives believers someone tangible to blame for their perceived predicament, instead of blaming it on impersonal or abstract social forces.”19 For many years, parents of children with cerebral palsy were told that the cause of this tragic disorder involving the central nervous system was a lack of oxygen during labor and delivery. Obstetricians were held accountable by tort lawyers, who often won huge malpractice awards for their clients. It is clearly heartbreaking and burdensome to have a child with cerebral palsy, and blaming the doctor who delivered the child no doubt offered some solace to the parents. Moreover, it seemed like an easy explanation—the vulnerable newborn’s brain receives too little oxygen during the delivery, resulting in damage to delicate nerve cells and permanent neurological and developmental abnormalities. It turns out, however, that in most cases events that occur during delivery are not the cause of cerebral palsy. What causes it? The answer is the same as it is for so many disorders involving the brain: no one knows for sure, but it appears to be a host of factors, some of which are genetic. As we will discuss in chapter 4, these kinds of unknowns are naturally difficult for people to accept and we tend to want to find a cause in which we can believe instead. All of those obstetricians who lost multimillion dollar malpractice cases when juries were bombarded with emotion-ridden displays of disabled children were generally being blamed for something totally out of their control. But it is so much easier to stick blame for a tragic outcome on a single person than to grapple with the uncertainties of “many different factors” as the cause. Again, it is not simply that parents were unable to understand the more complicated, albeit accurate explanation, but rather that assigning blame to a person gives them a sense of control over the situation. They now have something to do—be angry at the doctor and perhaps sue him or her. This gets at the emotional features of believing in conspiracy theories and indicates why simply throwing more information at people does not work.

Manipulating Our Emotions

In conspiracy theory formation, we also see at play what Daniel Kahneman, Paul Slovic, and others have called the affect heuristic. Our minds are programmed to respond more strongly to emotional appeals and vivid presentations than to dry facts and statistical analyses. If we are asked how we feel about nuclear power, we easily summon up images of atomic bomb clouds and nuclear power plant meltdowns. The technology strikes us as scary. More difficult would be to review the data on the actual risks posed by different forms of energy production. To do so yields a surprising result: because it contributes to outdoor air pollution, energy derived from coal and oil produces more disease and death than does energy derived from nuclear power.20 In fact, energy produced by burning coal is responsible for 15 times as many accidental deaths as nuclear energy. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), air pollution now accounts for one of every eight deaths in the world, an estimated 7 million deaths in 2012.21 And of course, burning fossil fuels contributes to global warming whereas nuclear energy does not. But it takes some digging to get these facts and quite a bit of thought. We have to understand that burning fossil fuels releases pollutants in the air, which increases the risk and severity of respiratory diseases like asthma. Then we have to understand that asthma can be a deadly illness. At the same time, we have to be able to examine the data showing that catastrophic nuclear power plant accidents are rare events and that those that have occurred actually resulted in fewer health problems or deaths than expected. This does not mean, of course, that nuclear power is a panacea. The issue of where and how to store nuclear waste for power plants is a plaguing one, and there are other safety and security risks that need attention. Most important, the cost of building new nuclear reactors is prohibitive, so steps must be taken to make them economically viable. Solving these issues can be done, but it will require very careful scientific and environmental science, political will, and public understanding. It is much easier to ignore the risks of burning coal, oil, and natural gas and to shut down nuclear power plants than to have to think about all of these numbers and equations.

When we face a hard question for which only slow, time-consuming deliberation will yield an answer we are prone to fall back on emotional judgments; in other words, we employ the affect heuristic. “The affect heuristic simplifies our lives by creating a world that is much tidier than reality,” Kahneman writes. “Good technologies have few costs in the imaginary world we inhabit, bad technologies have no benefits, and all decisions are easy. In the real world, of course, we often face painful tradeoffs between benefits and costs.”22 As we discuss at other points in this book, simple, vivid, emotional messages, especially when they evoke unpleasant feelings like fear and disgust, activate more primitive regions of the human brain and inhibit the more rational, contemplative regions. It makes sense that these primitive regions, which include structures such as the nucleus accumbens, amygdala, and insula, are more rapidly and easily engaged. They evolved to make us take action under circumstances of life-threatening danger. If smoke is filling the room you are in, it is not important for you to figure out where it is coming from, whether the amount of smoke and its rate of filling the room are likely to pose a threat, and the biology by which smoke inhalation causes asphyxiation; instead, you had better quickly exit that room! We react to nuclear power as if it is smoke filling the room: we see the technology as potentially life-threatening and our response is “Shut it down.”

It’s All in Your Head

Under ordinary circumstances the more evolved part of the human brain, the prefrontal cortex (PFC), can be recruited to exert reason over emotion, albeit with some effort. Antonio Damascio, who has done groundbreaking research in understanding the impact of brain function on emotion and behavior, observed that people with damage to the ventromedial portion of the PFC—an area that is located in the front of the brain, toward the bottom, and in the middle—results in an inability to attach feelings and emotions with actual consequences.23 But very strong emotional reactions, like extreme fear, also serve to inhibit this part of the brain. The result is an inability to control emotional impulses. Anti-science conspiracy theories are characterized by a great deal of dramatic, emotional content. Everything is couched in terms of inflammatory words and phrases—brain damage, armed intruders, radiation sickness, rich corporate giants, and so forth.

If we think of conspiracy theorists’ ability to convince us what to think as a kind of social influence, we can understand the phenomenon in terms of recent brain research. For example, Micah G. Edelson of the Department of Neurobiology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel and colleagues from England and New York published the results of an experiment in which participants watched a movie and then answered questions about it.24 Next, brain imaging was conducted while the participants were again asked the questions but this time after receiving false answers to the questions supposedly given by fellow observers. Then, the participants were told that the answers supposedly supplied by their peers were in fact fabrications and given the opportunity to change their answers to the ones they originally gave. The investigators first showed that the participants changed their answers to conform to what they believed to be their peers’ beliefs before being told that those answers were fake. Next they showed that strong activation in the amygdala, a relatively more primitive part of the brain associated with emotional memory, was associated with lower likelihood of participants changing their minds back to the truth even when they were informed that the answers provided by their “peers” were fabricated. Strong amygdala activation correlated with strong activation of the hippocampus, an adjacent brain structure that stores memories but was inversely correlated with activity in the PFC.

It is no wonder, then, that conspiracy theorists do not begin addressing their audiences by saying, “I am going to calmly and systematically take you through a series of scientific facts in order to reach a conclusion.” Rather, they pack emotional appeals into their presentations, hoping to activate a lot of amygdala-hippocampal memory systems, inhibit audience members’ PFCs, and ensure that their message will be resistant to future attempts at reasoned falsification.

It also appears to matter a great deal which emotional appeal you encounter first. Paul Slovic and others have shown that once we are primed to make a decision by an emotional appeal, subsequent appeals, even if they too are emotional in nature, fail to dislodge the first impression. It is almost impossible for us to change our minds, which is troubling, since so much of science advances through the process of dislodging previous ideas.

These various studies demonstrate that affect is a strong conditioner of preference, regardless of whether the cause of that affect is consciously perceived. They also demonstrate the independence of affect from cognition, indicating that there may be conditions of affective or emotional arousal that do not necessarily require cognitive appraisal.25

Subscribing to a conspiracy theory based on the arousal of fear appears to be one such condition.

This difficulty with changing our minds is part of why it is so important for scientists to try to “get there first” when a new conspiracy theory is brewing. For example, a recent study by Brian Hooker, which was retracted by the journal that published it, claimed that the MMR vaccine causes autism in African American children. The Internet immediately exploded with blogs and articles blaming the CDC for “covering up” the “truth.” When the study came out, Sara noticed that a Google search of “Hooker autism article” yielded about 10 pages of results before she actually saw a scientific response. The scientists were so far behind the conspiracy theorists that it seemed impossible to believe that anyone would get through all the pages of results in order to ultimately find the scientific information at all.

Another important aspect of the role of affect in the development of conspiracy theories involves memory for the conspiracists’ arguments. If we learn something while in an emotionally aroused state, that learned information is stored along with a memory of the emotional state. When the emotional state is then revived, the associated “facts” will also be brought out of memory into consciousness. So, too, whenever the “facts” are even hinted at, the original emotional state is simultaneously revived. Hence, if the conspiracy theorist makes us angry when he tells us a “fact,” then by getting us angry again he will also have succeeded in having us remember what he has previously contended to be fact. If we are aroused with anger and fear when we are told that GMOs will somehow do mysterious things to our genes and give us cancer or some other dread disease, the memory of fear and those “facts” are stored in the brain together. Now every time anyone brings up the topic of GMOs, we simultaneously become angry and fearful because the idea that GMOs cause cancer immediately comes to mind. In that frame of mind, any attempt to dissuade us from the idea is rendered nearly impossible because we are in a primitive state of terror. Norbert Schwarz of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan explains:

When new material is learned, it is associated with the nodes that are active at learning. Accordingly, material acquired while in a particular mood is linked to the respective mood node. When the person is in the same mood later, activation spreads from the mood node along the pathways, increasing the activation of other nodes, which represent the related material. When the activation exceeds a certain threshold, the represented material comes into consciousness.26

Some Characteristics of Fictitious Conspiracies

We noted earlier that it would be foolish to debunk all conspiracy claims, since conspiracies do occur. So how can we distinguish between a true conspiracy and a false theory? Ted Goertzel lists several factors that may help distinguish true conspiracy theories—like Watergate—from incorrect ones:27

✵Cascade logic: more and more people are implicated in the cover-up. The number of people ever claimed to be involved in the Watergate scandal was always very small and did not grow over time. False conspiracy theorists must constantly add each new individual who challenges their point of view with scientific data to the list of conspirators.

✵Exaggerated claims of the power of the conspirators. In the case of Watergate, there was no need to exaggerate the power of the conspirators—they included the president of the United States. But in a case like the alleged cover-up of vaccines’ ability to cause autism, we are asked to believe that drug companies are so powerful that they can keep data secret from hundreds of scientists and government regulators. Maybe drug companies are not so eager to reveal dangers associated with medications they hope to profit from, and maybe the scientists who work for the companies can be dissuaded from revealing those dangers individually, but every bit of data accumulated in drug company studies must be turned over to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Also, another government agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), conducts surveillance studies on a host of things that might affect the public health. One such CDC endeavor showed no connection between vaccines and autism. So now we must believe that all of the scientists at two government agencies are in on it. Furthermore, independent scientists at universities all over the world have, without getting funding from drug companies, also reached the conclusion that vaccines don’t cause autism. Somehow, all of them must be in on it too. In essence, this massive conspiracy is controlled by super-powerful drug companies that can, even without paying people, control them. As Cass R. Sunstein notes in his book Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas, “Conspiracy theorists typically overestimate the competence and discretion of officials and bureaucracies, which are assumed to be capable of devising and carrying out sophisticated secret plans—despite abundant evidence that in open societies, government action does not usually remain secret for very long.”28

✵The lone scientific voice in the wilderness. As we will discuss in more detail in the next chapter, anti-science movements usually have one or more charismatic leaders at their fore and many of them are scientists who want us to believe that they are the victims of a well-organized conspiracy of all the other scientists in his or her field. It is certainly true that groups of scientists often get into feuds with one another over some aspect of the data. In Jack’s field, for example, some scientists think that fear is based in a brain structure called the amygdala and other scientists think it is in the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (BNST). This may seem a ridiculously technical detail (after all, those brain structures are very close to each other in the deepest part of the cortex), but for a while the issue raised considerable passion, with scientists looking for anything they could find to assert that their side was correct. But the idea of getting a large number of scientists together and organizing them into a conspiracy to bully a lone dissenter is a fantasy. The scientists on both sides would surely complain they don’t have the travel funds to come to the secret meetings, that there is a grant deadline looming and they don’t have the time to join the conspiracy, and that they don’t agree with some aspects of the case against the lone dissenter and want changes made in the case against him or her. Peter Duesberg’s argument that all of the HIV research community is conspiratorially against him is therefore basically unthinkable—no one could ever get that many scientists to unite around anything other than a huge federal research grant that funded each one of their separate research groups unless it were actually unassailably true and not worth arguing about.

Motive Is Not Enough

What aspects of alleged conspiracies are not reliable indicators of an actual plot? We do know that the alleged motive is not enough to prove a conspiracy, but many people fall into the trap of believing that strong incentives are proof of an actual conspiracy. In fact, the perception of a strong motive apparently misleads people into believing that a conspiracy might really exist. In a study conducted at Wabash College in Indiana, Preston R. Bost and colleagues presented research participants with two familiar conspiracy theories (that President Kennedy was not assassinated by a lone gunman and that the U.S. government is concealing aliens in Area 51) and two unfamiliar conspiracy theories (that the Roman emperor Nero burned down Rome in order to justify persecution of Christians and that the Coca-Cola company deliberately introduced a new product with the intent that it fail in order to boost sales of existing products). They found that when the participants considered the familiar conspiracy theories, they tried to use known facts and scientific evidence to evaluate its veracity. However, when evaluating the unfamiliar theories, they mainly relied on the believability of the motives ascribed to the conspirators. That is, if it seemed plausible that the conspirator had a motive, then the conspiracy theory was more likely to be believed. The authors noted, “Even an accumulated body of evidence often consists of elements that are difficult for the layperson to comprehend and remember: statistical probabilities, forensics tests, and complicated paper trails. Motive may provide a simpler cognitive framework within which to evaluate a conspiracy claim.”29

We can see how this plays out in the debate about foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Here, the alleged conspiracy is supposedly headed by the giant agricultural company Monsanto and includes government regulators and scientists supposedly on the company’s payroll. The scientific issues here are indeed complex, as we discuss in more detail in chapter 5. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that GMOs are not harmful to human health, but the details of how a gene is inserted into the genome of a plant to make it resistant to insects, drought, or herbicides and pesticides requires explaining some complicated genetics. On the other hand, Monsanto is a huge company and its business practices are aimed at bigger and bigger profits. Corporations can and have indeed ignored all kinds of health and safety issues in favor of profits. The tobacco and automobile industries are notorious in this regard. Hence, rather than get into the complexities of genetic modification, we are swayed by the simple belief that Monsanto has a plausible motive to deceive us—that is, a profit motive. We may be able to identify another common thread to the claims of anti-science conspiracy theorists: someone or something is almost always being condemned for making money.

There is no question that people and corporations do a lot of evil things in order to make money. We are now witnessing a panoply of those in the uncovering of what caused the economic recession of 2008. Large financial corporations acted recklessly, with little regard for the security or interest of their clients, in order to make huge profits for their directors. Corporate greed is a real phenomenon, and the battle over how to regulate banks, large manufacturers, and financial institutions without creating unemployment and harming America’s cutting edge is apparently not easily resolved.

But the notion that if someone makes money from something then there is automatically something immoral, dangerous, or illegal being done is obviously unhelpful. We are not here debating the ethics of capitalism, the income gap, or free market economies. Rather, we are simply pointing out that it is entirely possible for someone to make a lot of money making a product or providing a service that is useful and safe. That is, it is insufficient to say that because a profit is being made, the result must be evil. Yet this is in general what conspiracy theorists assert, and in doing so they are preying on our feelings of envy and life dissatisfaction rather than arguing science. Just because a drug company makes a lot of money producing vaccines does not mean that vaccines are dangerous. It is true that in order to preserve profits, the drug company has an incentive to cut corners around safety and to cover up problems with its drug, but that does not mean it is doing so. Although we advocate greater disclosure and transparency of the fees doctors and scientists receive from corporations, we do not believe that every, or even most, doctors who get money from drug companies are guilty of misrepresenting the safety and efficacy of medications. Furthermore, conspiracists and the media who give them attention rarely bother to interview the alleged robber barons at the root of the conspiracies.

Reading Michael Specter’s article about GMOs in a recent issue of The New Yorker, we were surprised to see that he actually did interview and quote an executive of the Monsanto Corporation. In this interview, the executive speaks candidly, admits that Monsanto made some errors (although not covering up any science that disputes the findings that GMOs are safe), and explains why Monsanto believes what it is doing is ethically correct. What is striking to us about this is how rarely it is done.

When a conspiracy theorist uses profits as the basis for the assertion that something is unsafe, be it GMOs, vaccines, ECT, or nuclear power, we must be on guard. Blaming the rich and powerful creates a powerful emotion in those of us who are neither; that resentment quickly escalates into anger, and in a heightened emotional state we are apt to be more vulnerable to false conspiracy theories. It was never necessary to worry about how much money tobacco companies were making in order to prove that cigarette smoking is dangerous. The science was always clear. Therefore, we suggest that an important clue to suspecting a claim of conspiracy to harm our health is the unproven assertion that it must be true because someone is making a profit.

Given the unfamiliarity of the scientific issues involved in something like GMOs, the easiest way for conspiracy theorists to gain popular support is to convince people that Monsanto has a credible motive for dangerous practices. This is a much easier sell than trying to explain genetics and plant biology. As Preston B. Bost and Stephen G. Prunier showed in a study published in 2013, the stronger the supposed motive, the more likely people will believe in a conspiracy.30 But as anyone who watches police procedural dramas on television knows, there must be a dead body in order for murder to be suspected, not merely a motive to kill someone. By all means, be skeptical about large corporations, governments, professional societies, and the media. Don’t believe everything Monsanto, Merck, Pfizer, R.J. Reynolds, General Motors, Remington, the Food and Drug Administration, or the American Medical Association says. But make sure there is a body before turning a motive into a real crime.

How Should Scientists Respond to the Profit Motive?

At the same time, these results once again make clear the challenge scientists have in correcting our incorrect ideas. As Bost and Prunier conclude,

If this formulation is correct, it may partially explain why conspiracy theories are resistant to disconfirmation. Skeptics tend to fight conspiracy theories on the battlefield of direct evidence. The merits of this evidence, however, will not change the record of what occurred after the event—where the gains and losses are found—and will therefore not change the perception of motive that can be woven around those gains and losses. And as long as apparent motive remains, so will some of the persuasiveness of the conspiracy theory.31

The conspiracy theorists can identify some clear gains and losses. Monsanto, for example, makes a lot of money. So the motive to make money, supposedly by covering up the dangers of GMOs, has led inexorably, in the conspiracists’ view, to tremendous financial advantages. Thus, they assert, the conspiracy is proven. Scientists who now come along and try to argue that inserting a gene that makes a canola plant resistant to the lethal effects of glyphosate in Roundup cannot hurt a human being because it is irrelevant to human biology (we aren’t weeds) are now addressing an issue that is orthogonal to the conspiracy theorists. That is, the audience for the GMO conspiracy theory is operating along a chain of thought that involves a motive yielding a benefit in order to prove plausibility. In essence, the conspiracists have reframed the issue from one about scientific plausibility to one about the strength of a motive. The only way at this point to attack the conspiracy is to disprove the motive.

For scientists to break this link between motive and outcome they must therefore engage in a two-step process. This will require that they be able to demonstrate unequivocally their independence from whoever is the alleged holder of the motive—in this case, Monsanto. Even though it is far from proven that scientists who received money from Monsanto are guilty of lapses in scientific integrity, in order to get anywhere in combatting distortions of scientific truth the scientist must be able to say, “I know it is entirely possible that Monsanto is a terrible company, run by people who would run over their grandmothers to make a profit. So don’t trust a word they say. On the other hand, I have absolutely no connection to Monsanto and I don’t profit in any way from GMO foods. I conduct experiments in my laboratory to determine if they are safe, I am an expert in this field, and I have examined all the important scientific studies done in other people’s labs. And I am here to tell you that GMOs are safe.”

The Isolating Power of the Internet

Because a substantial amount of information about conspiracies is now transmitted via social media, it is time that science proponents learn to use it more effectively. Brian G. Southwell uses the results from a study of attitudes about the vaccine for the H1N1 flu strain to explain how social media works in framing the public’s views on healthcare:

The findings showed that regions of the country where correspondent Twitter messages tended to mention the HINI vaccine in a positive context also tended to have higher flu vaccination rates according to separate US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data. Regions where sentiment was relatively more negative tended also to have lower flu vaccination rates… . Moreover, the results revealed a distinctly polarized nation with little information flow between well-vaccinated groups and less-vaccinated groups.32

Are these two groups of people really so different that there would be no chance of usefully connecting them to each other? In fact, what appears to be going on here is a manifestation of the way that the Internet creates social isolation and polarization.

The Internet has enabled millions of people to connect with one another who otherwise would never have any contact and has broadened our horizons with vast streams of information. But it can also be very isolating and in this way promote adherence to conspiracy theories. Let us take the imaginary example of Cheryl, a well-educated, single mother in her early 40s who is struggling to make ends meet. She has no time for a social life between working and taking care of two children. She is often lonely but too busy to do anything about it. One night while watching the 10:00 news on television, she sees an interview with a man who takes the position that owning a gun is vital for the protection of home and family. Without disclosing whether he is a member of any political or advocacy group, he tells the story of another man who once thwarted a would-be burglar by shooting the armed invader to death, thus saving his wife and small children who were sleeping in an upstairs bedroom at the time. The man being interviewed is poised with his assault rifle as he declares, “It is guns like this that save our lives from the criminals out there. You cannot wait for the police to come. You need to protect the people you love.”

Shaken up, Cheryl goes to her computer and googles the incident about which she has just heard. At the top of the search result list is a link to an organization she has never heard of that seems to have information that corroborates the account of the incident she has just heard. Cheryl clicks on that link, as most of us generally do, because we are under the illusion that what appears first in a Google list is the most reliable. This of course is not true, as Noreena Hertz makes clear:

We consider most trustworthy those links that appear highest up on Google’s search page—the top three results on page 1 of a Google search receive almost 60 per cent of clicks. Yet Google sorts its results on the basis of a website’s popularity: in broad terms, the more people who link to the website, the higher up in the results it will be. And popular does not necessarily mean trustworthy. Ideologically charged websites with a high hit rate can easily edge out sound scholarship or truthful testimony.33

Looking over the group’s website, Cheryl gets even more details, like the names and ages of the children involved in the shooting incident. Their pictures are included. There is a quote from the local sheriff: “Thank goodness we have men like this who fight back against this kind of scum.” Reading along, Cheryl learns that there supposedly are many such incidents all over the United States and that they in fact occur on an almost daily basis. “Somewhere in the United States right now,” the web page says, “someone is being confronted by an armed madman intent on shooting him. Does he have time to call the police? Or should he take action himself? Those are the questions you need to ask when considering whether to have a gun.”

By now Cheryl is pretty sure that this organization is an advocacy group for gun access. She also reads that this group is facing a big challenge: a conspiracy of Eastern liberals, mainstream media, and left-wing politicians are determined to disarm law-abiding citizens and render them helpless against the bands of lawless criminals wandering all over the countryside. Cheryl is asked to click a button, contribute $10, and become a member.

Cheryl has worked a long day and then made dinner, helped with homework, and gotten two children to bed. She is exhausted. She is frightened. Ten dollars seems like a bargain. So she signs up. Not only does she feel like she has done a little something to protect her children, she has joined a group that will send her emails and literature in the regular mail. Maybe she can even go to a meeting once in a while and get out of the house. And she won’t feel guilty because this is something she is doing not only for herself but to protect her children and it doesn’t cost much.

The important thing to glean from this admittedly dramatized story is that Cheryl has taken no steps to verify anything on the television show or the web page. She has not been given any scientific data or any facts from other sides of the issue. From now on, she will be isolated from every other source of information about guns. Even if she herself does not decide to buy a gun (they are expensive and she wouldn’t have the time to learn how to use it), she is now self-identified as a victim of a conspiracy to deny her the right to bear arms, to be safe in her home, and to feel protected from homicidal maniacs who are around every corner. Everyone is out to get her, but there is some safety in joining the one group that sees the issue clearly and will help. As Southwell also notes, “Much of the discussion we seek with others in moments of elevated emotion … is not necessarily focused on new factual information sharing as much as it is focused on reassurance, coping with stress, and ritualistic bonding.”34 Once again, we see how efforts to counter anti-science conspiracy theories fall short. They are not comforting and do not encourage bonding. Scientists who present the data showing unequivocally that having a gun at home is far more dangerous than protective are not inviting people like Cheryl to join a group. But the isolating power of the Internet ensures that neither pro- nor anti-gun groups talk to each other. Similarly, thinking about the “army of aggrieved parents nationwide who swear vaccines are the reason their children develop autism and who seem impossible to convince otherwise,” Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum answer a frightening question: “Where do they get their ‘science’ from? From the Internet, celebrities, other parents, and a few non-mainstream researchers and doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus, all of which forms a self-reinforcing echo chamber of misinformation.”35

In the case of Cheryl, we describe someone who is prone to accepting a conspiracy theory because of her isolation and high level of experienced stress. The situation would be even worse if Cheryl had been reacting to an actual bad event. Neither of Cheryl’s children has autism or indeed recently suffered from any significant illness. She is not preoccupied with an accident at a nuclear power plant, is not so depressed that anyone has advised her to get ECT, and does not have a close friend just diagnosed with HIV infection or been held up at gunpoint. Any one of these situations would have made Cheryl even more susceptible to accepting the conspiracy theory. As Sunstein points out, “Terrible events produce outrage, and when people are outraged, they are all the more likely to seek causes that justify their emotional states, and also to attribute those events to intentional action.”36

Is there a way that we can break this Internet-imposed isolation and at least prevent our friends, our families, and even ourselves from signing on with anti-science conspiracy theory groups in the first place? We do not have an easy answer to that question but stress that most people who become convinced that they are victims of a conspiracy are psychologically normal and not paranoid. Rather, they are people who suffer from low self-esteem, feel powerless, and generally distrust authority.37 The leader of the conspiracy theory group exploits these characteristics by making the initiate feel welcomed to the group, by emphasizing the us-versus-them aspect of the conspiracy theory, and by ridiculing anything said that contradicts the conspiracy theory. Cass R. Sunstein explains:

Group leaders may enforce such segregation in order to insulate the rank and file from information that would undermine the leaders’ hold on the group. Even if contrary information and arguments are in some literal sense heard, they will be ridiculed and made a subject of contempt.38

As children, all of us got some satisfaction from making fun of people in the “other” group. That is precisely what conspiracy theorists do to make belonging to them feel so socially reinforcing.

Sunstein has advanced a rather radical suggestion to counteract the power of groups on the Internet to spread conspiracy theories: “cognitive infiltration of extremist groups.” While acknowledging the ethical problems associated with such an approach, he explains how it might work in the case of conspiracy theories that accuse government agencies of a secret and harmful collusion:

Hearing only conspiracy accounts of government behavior, [extremist network and group] members become ever more prone to believe and generate such accounts. Perhaps the generation of ever-more-extreme views within these groups can be dampened or reversed by the introduction of cognitive diversity. Government might introduce such diversity—needless to say only under circumstances in which there is a compelling and legitimate need to respond to the conspiracy theory… . Under this approach, government agents and their allies might enter foreign chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic, or implications for action, political or otherwise.39

It is unclear how serious Sunstein is about this suggestion, and it is not one that we feel comfortable endorsing. The last thing we need in fighting conspiracy theories is secretive assaults on websites and chat rooms by government agencies. Even if such activities worked, which is far from likely, scientists would be put in the position of in fact conspiring against the very people they are hoping to educate.

But it may be possible to attempt something like “cognitive infiltration” in a more transparent fashion. The wonderful website is a fun resource for checking out rumors about everything, including health issues. One can choose from many myths that have already been researched. The information provided appears to be systematically collected, unbiased, and largely accurate. It has nice graphics and a kind of breezy style of writing that is engaging. It bursts all kinds of myths, like the one about Typhoid Mary infecting thousands of New Yorkers with typhoid fever or the 2014 study that claimed to invalidate the link between sun exposure and skin cancer. Could there be a way to openly introduce this kind of approach into websites that support anti-science conspiracy theories?

Room for Corrective Action

We began this chapter by bemoaning the difficulty of distinguishing real from fraudulent conspiracy theories. Hopefully, this chapter has suggested both some of the characteristics that can be used to identify anti-science conspiracy theories and consequent approaches to combatting them.

The first principle we wish to emphasize is the need to be on the scene early and vigorously. Research shows that once a conspiracy theory is articulated and circulated it becomes extremely difficult to counteract it. The scientific, medical, and public health communities need to organize an advanced team of intelligence agents, perhaps not unlike those used by the military, to learn of nascent conspiracy theories when they first emerge, to determine whether there is any validity to them, and if there isn’t, to begin immediately to marshal efforts to contradict them. Much of this work must be done through sophisticated use of the Internet. Scientists may not have time to become familiar with each new incarnation of social media. They must therefore hire people who do. Fighting a conspiracy theory without using Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is fruitless. In a few years using those sites will probably have become fruitless as well.

Next, it is important to understand who the proponents of false conspiracy theories generally are. They are characterized by chagrined scientists and doctors who have felt slighted by their colleagues. They often form new organizations with long and provocative names; name themselves the president, director, or CEO; and frequently avoid disclosing how large the membership actually is. Most important, they tend to portray themselves as lone wolves who are the victims of huge and powerful conglomerates usually comprised of some combination of industry, government, and professional societies.

The techniques that these conspiracy theory originators use are also telltale signs of an anti-science position. Motive is emphasized over outcome. Anyone who makes money is automatically criminal. Yet how the conspiracy theorist earns a living is never discussed. The power of the conspiracy is vastly exaggerated. The list of people implicated in the conspiracy grows and grows. Perhaps most important, conspiracy theorists exploit the affective heuristic by couching all of their messages in angry, frightening terms that avoid scientific discourse in favor of high emotion and drama.

It is equally important to understand the profile of people who are most vulnerable to these demagogues. Fundamental to this is recognizing that they are not stupid. They may not have significant scientific sophistication, but they are generally intelligent. They are also usually not psychotic or paranoid. Rather, those who succumb to conspiracy theories tend to be lonely, isolated people who are mistrustful of authority, especially the government, and feel themselves to be under substantial stress. Most important, they feel powerless and are waiting for something to empower them. And indeed, all of us have at times been prone to believing a conspiracy theory.

Besides trying to get there first, scientists and those who care about science must begin now to experiment with different forms of messaging. We simply do not know yet how to balance giving people facts with emotional appeals. How much do we appeal to the amygdala versus the prefrontal cortex? Typically, scientists have not thought of effective education as one of their responsibilities. When pushed to talk to nonscientists, their approach is generally to try to simplify the science. Some are better at this than others, but it may be beside the point because, as we have seen, those who believe in conspiracy theories have been programmed to deny the validity of countervailing data. We need carefully conducted studies to teach us how best to engage with even the most seemingly recalcitrant members of the anti-science population.

Another tricky and for scientists unsettling area to consider when trying to combat false conspiracy theories involves resetting the identification with the victim paradigm. It would be hard to find an actual individual who can demonstrate that her health was harmed by consuming GMO foods. Nevertheless, in this particular conspiracy theory we are asked to feel for those innocent victims who will supposedly be rendered ill because of the conspiracy to put GMOs in what we eat. Similarly, most of us have never been the victims of a home invasion in which armed assailants threatened our lives or the lives of our loved ones. Yet the gun lobby wants us to identify with people who have been or will be such victims. Missing from this scenario is of course the true victims, those victimized by the anti-science conspiracy theorists. These include children starving in Africa because bugs eat the crops they could be eating if GMO seeds had been used; teenagers who shoot themselves with their parents’ guns; unvaccinated children who catch measles and develop life-threatening encephalopathies or pass measles on to children being treated for cancer who cannot be vaccinated; people with severe depression who do not respond to psychotherapy or antidepressant drugs and kill themselves when they could have been saved by ECT; and so on. Scientists generally do not give emotion-laden appeals in which these victims are discussed, even though they are real, whereas the conspiracy theorists’ “victims” are too often fabrications. Recently, anti-smoking advertisements have become increasingly graphic, showing people with severe pulmonary disease gasping for air. Scientists are more comfortable making statements like “The risk of acquiring chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD is greatly enhanced by cigarette smoking.” But as we have seen, that statement does not carry the human, amygdala-provoking, memory-enhancing power that so many of the anti-science statements do. Perhaps it is time to realize that anti-science conspiracy theorists are in fact the conspirators who create real victims. Those victims are the people who actually deserve our empathy, but we know almost nothing about them. Somehow, for example, gun lobbyists have led us to believe that more people are shot to death every year by armed home invaders than by self-inflicted gun wounds. It is time that we learn how to use the power of the Internet, emotional appeals, and compassion for those who feel powerless in order to fight back against the anti-science conspiracy theorists.