Conspiracy theorists can be dangerous. Here's how to talk to them – Dr John J Marshall

Pointing out logical flaws and making fun of conspiracy theories – such as those about Covid-19 and 5G networks – can be effective, writes Dr John J Marshall.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon (or a top-secret film studio if you are a particular type of conspiracy theorist) (Picture: Nasa/PA Wire)Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon (or a top-secret film studio if you are a particular type of conspiracy theorist) (Picture: Nasa/PA Wire)
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin walking on the surface of the moon (or a top-secret film studio if you are a particular type of conspiracy theorist) (Picture: Nasa/PA Wire)

Some conspiracy theorists can be dangerous, but you can have a part to play in reducing that threat. The difficulty with conspiracy theories, like the idea that 5G networks increase our susceptibility to Covid-19 or directly cause the virus, that contrails from aeroplanes are seeding viruses, or Covid-19 was made in a lab (in the USA or China) is that these false beliefs can lead, for some, to radicalised behaviour.

Insidious conspiracies have moved from the fringe to the mainstream. Conspiracy theorists form part of a vast network of memes online. A meme is a belief that moves from person to person sometimes with the virulence of a virus leading to 'word of mouth' online 'memeplexes'.

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Group polarisation occurs online where believers mix ideas with others, radicalising and mutating their toxic positions along the way. The real problem is that conspiracy beliefs can fuel risky behaviour, a decreased inclination to reduce your carbon footprint (in response to climate conspiracy belief), or an unwillingness to have a child vaccinated (in response to anti-vaccine conspiracy beliefs).

Burning a mobile mast near a hospital is one of these unsafe potential patterns. One intense right-wing conspiracy theorist I assessed presented as polite and amiable, but his beliefs drove him to consider harming left-wing polemicists. Many conspiracy theorists are no joke.

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If we profile typical 5G conspiracy thinkers who want to damage important communication nodes, who are they?

Conspiracy theorists hide in the hinterland of scientific uncertainty and emerging knowledge. Science inches forward in a landscape of ambiguity. Scientist Carl Sagan said that when interrogating our world analytically with "a chain of arguments, all the links must work", adding that science is not something scientists do, but is a way of thinking.

Scientific uncertainty

For conspiracy thinkers, analytical scientific thinking is alien. Experimental work on the ‘novel Sars-CoV-2’ virus means evolving knowledge and uncertainties, in turn creating space for their peculiar ideas. Sagan added that pseudoscience "speaks to powerful emotional needs that science often leaves unfulfilled". Scientific evidence is not set in stone but instead is subject to revision. Conspiracies, by contrast, provide certainty and predictability in a scary world. Conspiracy adherents are getting something emotionally powerful from their beliefs.

Scientific uncertainty or "meta-ignorance" is a state of knowing that one is ignorant of all the essentials, in this case about a new virus. Scientists deliberately use terms like 'low likelihood' or 'maybe', 'if x then y', or 'we need to test new or old drugs for Covid-19 thoroughly’ – uncertain, contingent statements. Such typical ambiguity or probabilistic information creates uncertainty which amplifies anxiety. The rejection of analytic information is strongly associated with belief in conspiracy theories.

Certain personality traits make some people far more susceptible than others. Having curiosity, an active imagination and openness to unusual novel ideas are associated with conspiracy beliefs. But these positive traits are also entwined with suspiciousness, paranoid thinking, being self-centred, even narcissistic with general antagonistic negativity towards other individuals.

Everything happens for a reason?

They are politically cynical, disengaging from politics of all shades, but most of all possess lower levels of reasoned thinking. They are anxious and neurotic, worried about their place in the world and the impact of their preferred conspiracy on them. If you generally believe that scientists manipulate or suppress evidence to deceive the public or if you are tempted to think that a group of people run the world in secret, such general conspiratorial thinking is likely to develop into fixed and specific conspiracy beliefs.

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Conspiratorial ideas are borne of teleological thinking, a thinking bias defined as constructing some purpose out of natural events like thinking "the sun rises to give us light" or "bees pollinate plants to make honey for us".

This 'everything happens for a reason' thinking is at the heart anti-scientific and conspiracy theories. Such people discern patterns where none exist, linking sequences of co-occurring events as having imagined underlying causes. They come across as sure of themselves, but deep down, they are stressed-out about their world. They search for meaning to feel valued, plugging the chasm of anxious existential uncertainty, finding a short-cut conspiracy 'explanation' for their woes.

There is a deeper problem at root here when you open the Pandora's box of conspiracy thinking. This centres around how to shift someone them out of their views. Many are susceptible. These people are far from stupid but perhaps demonstrate more emotionally driven responses to threat.

Education is key to prevention

Such distorted thinking is a developmental failure that does not allow them to hold different ideas in mind, even contradictory ones which is a more mature position. Nuanced thinking like being able to sit with complexity can lead to unfolding 'good enough' shades of grey positions, a scary place for a conspiracy thinker. They are cognitively isolated.

The prevention of conspiracy thinking means having an education system willing to train children in scientific-analytical thinking in all areas of life to tackle conspiracy thinking proneness. The unintended consequence of inculcating scepticism would mean challenging notions from everyday superstitions to cherished religious assumptions.

Conspiracy theorists have been around for centuries, especially at times of social crisis. We dismiss them as possessing outlandish ideas or as crackpots, hoping their ideas will slam up against a wall of proof and evaporate. We could try and show empathy for them, the subjects of their conspiracies or even develop some perspective-taking and understand their point of view, get into their shoes, but this has been shown in one study to backfire. Tell the conspiracy theorist your counter position and they double down because you must be trying to move them from their 'truth' for some nefarious reason.

Instead, pointing out the logical flaws and inconsistencies and even using ridicule have been shown to reduce the intensity of odd beliefs. This is why comedy is so effective at shifting attitudes.

Of course, ideas about 'fake' moon landings can be harmless but taking their mind-sets head-on, you can be a cognitive infiltrator, doing society a great favour tackling beliefs that can act as a force multiplier for some who then do harm.

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Dr John J Marshall is a consultant clinical and forensic psychologist and is on Twitter @drjohnjmarshall

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