I have often dealt in my blog with people who believe in conspiracy theories. These are individuals such as those who claim the Earth is flat and that the moon landing never happened; those who claim that the World Trade Center buildings on 911 were brought down by explosive charges and not by fires; those who claim that vaccines cause autism; those who claim that climate change isn’t real and the evidence for it is forged or altered by scientists and politicians trying to take away people’s rights and spread socialism; those who claim that the teaching of evolution is part of a conspiracy to attack religion and inject atheism into schools; or those who claim that the condensation trails left behind by flying jets are the result of the government spraying chemicals at high altitude.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? What does science have to say about this matter?
The belief in conspiracy theories has only become an important area of scientific investigation in the last two decades, but scientists have made many interesting observations and proposed hypotheses about the dynamics of the process as well as those who engage in it. The research so far indicates that, despite the great diversity of conspiracy theories, the belief in them arises as a result of the same underlying and predictable psychological processes. If an individual believes in one conspiracy theory, it is very likely that this individual will believe in other conspiracy theories even if these theories are mutually contradictory. Additionally, the belief in conspiracy theories can be greatly influenced by social context. Situations that lead to crisis in a society, such as wars, natural disasters or rapid social change, or situations that lead to individuals or groups of people feeling powerless, vulnerable, or victimized, will increase the belief in conspiracy theories.
The belief in conspiracy theories has been proposed to conform to four basic principles:
1) Belief in conspiracy theories has consequences. These consequences may be mostly negative affecting things like health, interpersonal relations, and safety of individuals or groups of individuals, but conspiracy beliefs can also fuel social change in societies, with the nature of the outcome being dependent on the type of change brought about.
2) Belief in conspiracy theories is universal. This means that belief in conspiracy theories is prevalent in all human cultures and is also found both in the present and the past. This suggests that belief in conspiracy theories is part of our biology and may have arisen through natural selection. The hypothesis has been proposed that in ancient hunter-gatherer societies, conspirational thinking was actually an advantage for individuals who faced intergroup conflict and aggression from other individuals who formed coalitions.
3) Belief in conspiracy theories is social, because it results in the upholding of a strong ingroup identity and the protection of this ingroup against some outgroup that is perceived to be hostile. It has been found that people who are likely to perceive their ingroup as superior, and to perceive outgroups as threatening, are more prone to belief in conspiracy theories.
4) Belief in conspiracy theories is emotional. Despite the fact that many conspiracy theories are underpinned by elaborate arguments, the evidence indicates that believers in conspiracy theories rely more on emotional and intuitive rather than analytical thinking. This may be the reason why belief in conspiracy theories can be triggered by strong emotional stimuli that produce anxiety, uncertainly, and feelings of lack of control.
The belief in conspiracy theories has been proposed to be driven by three psychological motives:
1) Epistemic Motives: These motives involve the need to reduce uncertainty by finding explanations when information is ambiguous or lacking; the need to find meaning when faced with seemingly random events; or the need to defend beliefs when they are challenged.
2) Existential Motives: These motives involve the need for individuals or groups to feel safe and in control of their environment.
3) Social Motives: These motives involve the need to maintain a positive image of oneself or of one’s ingroup. The belief in conspiracy theories may allow the individual or the group to deal with a threat to the positive image of the self or of the group by blaming others for negative outcomes.
As I explained at the beginning of this post, research into conspiracy theories is an emerging scientific field, so we need to give scientists time to gather more evidence and put to test the relevant hypotheses before we can come up with a definite theory regarding the how and why of conspiracy theories and their believers. But one of the things that I found interesting is the idea that conspirational behavior, far from being a pathology, may actually be part of our biology and may serve (or may have served) some useful purpose in our evolutionary history. This means that every one of us is capable of displaying this behavior, even without being conscious of it.
Regardless of whether conspirational thinking may be a product or our biology and serve several purposes as outlined above, I would argue that in the cases where conspiracy theories do not match reality (which is the majority), the long-term effects of leading a life divorced from said reality cannot be positive. I believe this is especially true nowadays in the age of the internet when believers in conspiracy theories band together and form networks of like-minded individuals with their own websites, and chatrooms. Such groups are easily identifiable by those who want to infiltrate their communities and exploit them.
Believers in conspiracy theories tend to view with distrust people like me who disagree with them publicly, but I think the real threat to these groups are those who agree with them in order to prod them towards some action. I have already outlined a step by step procedure by which anyone can sell snake oil. In my opinion, believers in conspiracy theories are highly vulnerable to snake oil salesmanship. This exploitation of conspiracy theory believers by unscrupulous individuals or organizations has taken place, and will continue taking place, because conspiracy theory groups tend to insulate themselves from those who are most likely in the position to help them, which in this case are those who disagree with them.
Such is the complexity of the human mind.
Photograph by Damon D'Amato is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
I recently had an exchange on Twitter with people who believe in the conspiracy theory of chemtrails. What are chemtrails? Before we answer this question, let’s look at the phenomena of “contrails”. Contrails are a contraction of “condensation trails”. These are the line-shaped clouds that are seen to form behind jet aircrafts. If you look up at the sky, you are very likely to spot some of these contrails being produced by jets flying high over you. Contrails are created when the water in the exhaust of the jet engines condenses to form ice crystals. If the humidity of the environment is high and the temperatures are low enough, these crystals will take up more water, grow, and the contrails will persist for hours. On the other hand, if the humidity is low or if temperatures are not cool enough, contrails will dissipate quickly.
So what’s the conspiracy?
The chemtrail crowd claims that these contrails are really the result of the government spraying chemicals at high altitude. Thus they call them chemtrails. Why the government does this depends on which conspiracy you believe. There are those who claim that the government is engaged in these activities for the purpose of making people sick or controlling our minds, but the most common argument is that the government is engaged in weather modification to, for example, ward off global warming, and is doing so in a secretive way. These people put forward several arguments. Among them are that the trails last too long to be normal contrails, that long-lasting contrails are only a relatively recent phenomenon, that you can see contrails form even from the tip of the wing of airplanes away from the engines, that barrels of substances claimed to be part of the spraying equipment have been photographed inside airplanes, that many patents have been issued for geoengineering (climate modification), that there are secret climate modification programs going on worldwide, and that the government has lied before in the case of other conspiracies that were exposed. About 10% of the public in the United States believes in this conspiracy, and a higher percentage believes that it’s “somewhat true”.
I did a quick search on the chemtrail issue, and as I suspected, their arguments have been conclusively rebutted dozens of times. If you are in the mood for it, you can check the following sampling of references: Environmental Research Letters, Contrail Science, Metode, Skeptical Inquirer, EPA, and Air Force.
In brief: long-lasting contrails go back to the very beginning of jet aviation way before the conspiracy even got started; contrails forming on the tips of the wings are caused by cavitation of air in humid conditions; the pictures of barrels are interconnected ballast tanks used to simulate passenger motion when testing new airplane designs; the patents for geoengineering are not proof of a conspiracy; there are ongoing programs for specific local weather modification such as cloud seeding to produce rain, and in the US these programs are out in the open and approved by laws. Finally, yes, there have been government conspiracies in the past, but that proves nothing. If you claim there is a chemtrail government conspiracy (claimed by some to span the whole globe and involving many countries), you have to prove it with evidence, and such evidence has not been found even by individuals and organizations that are not exactly pro-government.
It seemed to me that the chemtrail conspiracy proponents belong to that group of people that I call “irrational skeptics”, and my exchange with them further suggested this is the case.
When I brought up the above evidence, some chemtrail conspiracy proponents asked who was paying me. This is a very common response of irrational skeptics. I cannot be in honest disagreement with them. There must be some ulterior motive. Somebody must be “paying me” to contest their arguments. Any challenge to the conspiracy is viewed as proof of the reality of the conspiracy.
The chemtrail conspiracy proponents also wrote things like “watch the skies” or posted selected photographs of planes allegedly involved in the activity, or of barrels inside planes with no context and without addressing the explanations that debunked the arguments implied by the photographs. I realized that none of them had read any of the references I provided or tried to rebut the arguments against chemtrails contained within them. This is another characteristic of irrational skeptics: they are impervious to facts. Nothing will convince them they are wrong.
Finally, another characteristic of irrational skeptics is that they do nothing about it. Chemtrail proponents could raise money and sponsor a credible study to, for example, assess whether a regular jet airplane flying in the right conditions can produce long-lasting contrails. Imagine if the results of such a study favored their position. That would make their claims more believable and people would take them more seriously. But they don’t, because believing in the tenets of the conspiracy is more important than testing them.
In my opinion, the chemtrail conspiracy, as most conspiracies, is nothing more than a mishmash of sweeping generalizations, innuendo, exaggerations, and mischaracterizations, combined with a generous proportion of denial, paranoia, and refusal to face the facts.
Eventually the chemtrail proponents blocked me on twitter. One stated that she is praying for me that I “wake up”. To tell you the truth, I do think that many of these people believe what they claim to believe, and I feel sorry for them. It must be terrifying to live in their world believing all those contrails crisscrossing the sky are harmful chemical agents dumped by the government. These beliefs undoubtedly take a toll on their lives and those of their families. And the irony of it all is that contrails may actually be detrimental to humanity in the sense that they enhance global warming, but this is not a focus of the chemtrail conspiracy.
Picture of the contrails of a jet by Adrian Pingstone is in the public domain.