I have often written in my blog about conspiracy theories and those who believe in them. Among the conspiracy theory believers I have mentioned are global warming deniers, as well as antivaccination advocates, creationists, and flat Earth proponents. The newest addition to this list is the COVID-19 severity and mitigation deniers. In past posts, I have addressed some of these conspiracies, explained why they are wrong and delved into why people believe in them.
What I want to do in this post is present my thoughts regarding the similarities and differences in intellectual processes of conspiracy theorists and those of scientists. In doing so I will use as an aid the graph depicted below which is borrowed from an apocryphal interpretation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (which may or may not exist, but that’s another story) and bears some resemblance to cultural adaptation curves. I don’t claim this graph to be true. I am just employing it to present my view regarding how I think certainty is related to misinformation or incomplete information.
As I have written before, conspiracy theorists dismiss the experience and knowledge of mainstream experts because they consider them to be biased, and only accept input from people that go against the consensus in their fields. Conspiracy theorists believe that even with no scientific training they are as competent as the experts to read the scientific literature and figure things out. Invariably these individuals end up adopting an understanding of reality based on high levels of misinformation or incomplete information that merely reflects their biases. In the graph above this is indicated by the green curve that starts at the lower left hand corner and quickly shoots up to what I call the “Peak of Illusion”. The individuals atop this peak have developed a high certainty they are right based on misinformation or incomplete information. The peak of illusion is a really cool place to be. Everything makes sense and there is no confusion or doubt. I know, because I have been there a few times (see below).
Notice, however, that there is not a lot of room atop the peak of illusion. If the conspiracy theory believers start questioning the misinformation they have accepted or start accepting new information that contradicts previous notions, the certainty that they are right will begin to decrease, and this process will take them tumbling down to the Valley of Despair. The valley of despair is a gloomy place of uncertainty full of “ifs”, “buts” and “maybes” where it is not clear what is real, what isn’t, or what to do next. Most conspiracy theorists are stuck in the peak of illusion and avoid the valley of despair like the plague. Why is this?
I think that one reason why conspiracy theory believers are marooned atop the peak of illusion is that for many people even the illusion of certainty is preferable to uncertainty. Another reason may be that some conspiracy theories have religious undertones that link the faith of the believer to the conspiracy. Thus they may think that questioning the conspiracy is tantamount to questioning their faith. Yet another reason may be that some people find a sense of community in belonging to a group of fellow conspiracy theory believers, who in turn exert peer pressure on anyone questioning the belief in the conspiracy. Conspiracy theory believers may also be so emotionally invested in the conspiracy that they are subconsciously ashamed to admit they are wrong, and any criticism may make them lash out and double down on their beliefs.
Be it as it may, many of the traits that believers in conspiracy theories exhibit are also shared by other people including scientists. Scientists are human. They make mistakes; they get led astray by wrong data, or they may fall in love with beautiful ideas that turn out to be wrong. The vast majority of scientists (including me) have been to the peak of illusion several times during their careers. They know what it is to be confident that they have found the answers just to have their ideas blow up in their faces.
So why aren’t most scientists stuck on the peak of illusion?
The answer is a combination of training and experience. Scientists have been trained in the procedures to evaluate the veracity of ideas and interpretations. They accept the importance of controls, placebos, randomization, and blind experimental protocols. They try to reproduce experiments and observations, and they engage each other in critical discussions. Scientists also have been wrong many times, and they have learned to identify the personal frailties that have led them to be wrong. Thus, by virtue of their training and experience, most (but not all) scientists have learned to recognize the misleading siren song of certainty emanating from the peak of illusion and are naturally skeptical. Ideas must be tested, protocols must be followed, and facts must reflect reality. Self-doubt is essential in science.
Thus, in terms of the graph, the main distinction between conspiracy believers and scientists is that the majority of scientists SEEK the valley of despair. This is because they know that only within the confines of this bleak vale of confusion lies the path up the slope of enlightenment to the plateau of understanding. Granted, this path is not always clear. Progress in science more often than not is a meandering process replete with fits and starts, blind alleys, dead ends, and returning to square one. And what is not shown in the graph is that many paths leading away from the valley of despair can potentially lead back to the peak of illusion. However, as the scientific process moves forward and ideas are tested, accepted, or discarded, sufficiently developed theories emerge that explain the facts, useful applications are generated, and a consensus is reached that an understanding of reality has been achieved at a sufficiently high level of detail. It is only then that most scientists become certain that they are right. And this certainty is not illusory, because it firmly rooted in reality.
Therefore, when we scientists and others who accept science and its methods stand atop the plateau of understanding, look across that vast chasm, and see those people stuck on the peak of illusion denying evolution, global warming, the round Earth, the need for vaccination, or COVID-19 severity and mitigation, we wonder, how can we help them? How can we get them down from there and over to our side?
This is a topic that I will address in other posts, but I believe that helping these people transition from believing in these conspiracies to accepting reality is an important challenge for our time.
The graph by Sciencia58 was modified and is used here under a CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication license.