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Conspiracy beliefs and critical thinking
Should we accept every conspiracy theory we come across, or should we dismiss them all? The answer is neither. It can be argued that rejecting all conspiracy theories and labelling all the people who believe in them as idiotic is just as irrational as naively accepting every crazy allegation we can find on the internet. So where do we draw the line? And how can we trust our own thought processes to serve up a sound and reasonable conclusion?
A useful starting point is to think about what characterises our own innate thinking process. Research shows that people who are naturally inclined to believe conspiracy theories and more unsubstantiated claims have a tendency towards intuitive thinking and are less likely to process information using rational-analytic thinking.
To explain, intuitive thinking means going with the first instinct we might have about something and quickly forming decisions and opinions based on our automatic initial thought process. In contrast, reflective and rational-analytic ‘critical’ thinking involves questioning our first instinct and being actively open to consideration of other possibilities. This involves considering the relevant possibilities that relate to a situation and being able to access, organise, and analyse information that relates to the topic to be able to arrive at a sound conclusion.
In other words, to be able to think reflectively and critically we need to be able to be objective about the topic, be critical of how our own thoughts and biases may be affecting our opinion, consider what the alternatives are to a particular explanation of a topic, collect evidence from a range of sources and be open to the fact that as new information surfaces, own original point of view may need to change.
A big threat from some of the conspiracy theories we can find online is that they are designed to ‘push our emotional buttons’ i.e. they include false information that is deliberately designed to make us angry, fearful or outraged about something. This emotional response can interfere with our ability to move on from our initial reaction and think critically about the subject no matter how outlandish those claims may actually be.
Another point to be aware of when we are training ourselves to think critically about politically motivated and otherwise potentially harmful conspiracy theories is that the ones with the best ‘hooks’ are often based on a certain level of truth. From there though they can spiral into dangerous territory designed to warp our perception of the real world and what is going on around us.
During the COVID-19 pandemic we have found that false information has been spreading on the internet 6 times faster than factual information. Note that misinformation in defined as information that is incorrect but not designed to deliberately harm society. For example, in the early days of the pandemic there were rising trends in people sharing what they thought was helpful medical advice whereas in reality, this advice had no basis in helping someone afflicted with the virus.
As time went on, and perhaps as people because more insecure and unsettled with the impact that the pandemic was having on their lives, there was a calculable shift from misinformation spread to disinformation spread. Disinformation is defined as incorrect information that is purposely designed to be harmful to society. This might be initiated for a nefarious political objective, or to sell products such as miracle cures for, example, that in fact provide no cure at all.
History tells us that a situation that presents trauma to society, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, provides the optimum circumstances for conspiracy theories to run wild. We therefore need to up our efforts to be aware of our own thought processes, the conclusions we draw, and awareness of why certain harmful information might be being presented to us.
Just a few examples of where false information has arisen at the time of an international health crisis are described below. In 14th century France, rumours circulated that the Jews, acting on behalf of a Muslim prince, had bribed lepers to contaminate public water sources to kill Christians by spreading leprosy.
In 1630 in Milan, folk superstitions and anxiety led to two innocent citizens being tortured and executed because they had been falsely accused of spreading the plague which had broken out there. Traumatised populations love ‘a scapegoat’.
In 1890, during the Russian flu outbreak which spread worldwide and killed a million people, a prominent European newspaper ran a story suggesting that electric light was somehow the cause of the outbreak: ‘After all, “the disease has raged chiefly in towns where the electric light is in common use…” they wrote.
The 1918 flu pandemic was blamed on German submarines spreading the virus when it reached the Americas. These are just some examples of many.
So what causes more than the usual amount of people to ‘go down the rabbit hole’ to embrace dangerous and unfounded conspiracy theories in the time of a pandemic?
Psychology points to various important factors. The first being that when safety is threatened and uncertainty abounds, many of us are naturally wired to embrace whatever certainty we can find. In an evolving situation, where scientific knowledge is growing (and is sometimes contradictory) the certainty that the problem is in fact caused by a shadowy global elite, for example, provides a level of comfort to those who cannot accept the ambiguity of science not having answers and solutions.
Perhaps another aspect of human nature to consider is that we prefer simple answers to simple questions rather than having to consider complex solutions to complex situations. In relation to COVID-19 for example, the ramifications of the human impact on the world, our disrespectful treatment of the natural world, the problems with inequality with society, the lack of care by certain elected governments, failings in medical and social services etc. are hugely complex problems. It is perhaps less stressful for some to look towards a global conspiracy of shadowy elite, for example, than to try to figure out how we can possibly fix the issues in our world. Even though through democracy and putting pressure on governments where necessary we do in fact have control and could work towards making vast improvements for our planet.
Lockdowns confining people to their homes for long lengths of time have also affected many people in various countries across the globe. Perhaps with too much time on our hands, more people than ever have been led down a dangerous path by conspiracy sites designed to divide society and to distract us from the actual and pressing issues in the real world. The fantasy and high drama that some of these sites revel in, no doubt also makes a juicier ‘share’ on social media than the harsh realities of our current world.
Read the sentences below and decide if the information is TRUE, FALSE or NOT MENTIONED in the reading passage.
Q1: Conspiracy theories should always be ignored.CorrectIncorrect
Q2: Conspiracy belief is an example of critical thinking.CorrectIncorrect
Q3: Understanding how we think and analysis of presented information are both important parts of developing critical thinking skills.CorrectIncorrect
Q4: Deliberate emotional triggering from online conspiracy sites can interfere with our ability to think critically.CorrectIncorrect
Q5: False information can spread on the internet twice as fast as factual information.CorrectIncorrect
Q6: The type of false information being spread during the COVID-19 pandemic changed and became more dangerous.CorrectIncorrect
Q7: The 1918 flu pandemic is a time in history when the spreading of false information was at its very worst.CorrectIncorrect
Q8: People preferring what they perceive as certainty to knowledge may be one reason that they hook on to conspiracy theories rather than science during stressful times in life.CorrectIncorrect
Q9: The reality of complicated problems and solutions can be too confronting so we may prefer false simplicity.CorrectIncorrect
Q10: Conspiracy sites act as a distraction to the real problems we should be focussing on in this world.CorrectIncorrect