Interview with Stephan Lewandowsky, cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol

Stephan Lewandowsky is a cognitive scientist with an interest in computational modelling. Recently, he has become particularly interested in how people update their memories if things they believe turn out to be false. This has led him to examine the persistence of misinformation and spread of “fake news” in society. He has become particularly interested in the variables that determine whether or not people accept scientific evidence, for example surrounding vaccinations or climate science.

In your Conspiracy Theory Handbook you suggested that political ideology motivates certain people to seek conspiracy theories. Can you talk a bit about that? Also, is the motivation for the creation of conspiracy theories in the first place political too?

Stephan Lewandowsky ESMH expertIt can be but it doesn’t have to necessarily. You can look for example at the case of Princess Diana who was killed in a driving accident. That was not a political event, but it still stimulated a lot of conspiracy theories. So you can get conspiracy theories pretty much out of any event where people feel a loss of control, are frightened and seek psychological comfort in a conspiracy theory. Some find it much easier to believe in evil conspiracies than to come to terms with randomness. That said, at times the motivation is political, and in those cases it usually serves the purpose of escaping accountability or sidestepping an inconvenient piece of evidence.

Given the fact you’ve had a long experience with climate deniers, what lessons do you think we can learn from those conspiracy theories?

I think it’s important to understand that science denial in general tends to be accompanied by conspiracy theories. It isn’t just climate change, it’s also the anti-vaccination movement and now with Covid-19, there are people who are engaging in some rather exotic conspiracy theories. That happens whenever the implications of a scientific finding are challenging for people. The reason climate deniers believe in conspiracies is because if the science were right that would impact their identity or their wellbeing, so they are concerned about having to give up privileges that they enjoy at the moment. When you find yourself in that situation, it’s very tempting to invoke a conspiracy theory. The same goes for Covid-19. If coronavirus is a hoax then of course you don’t have to self-isolate.

Do you think we are more vulnerable in the current context when some political figures are undermining public trust in scientists?

It certainly doesn’t help. And I think you are right, the more the culture of a country is condoning the dismissal of expertise and evidence, the easier it is for conspiracy theories to find a foothold, there is no question about that. And we can see that in the data. There is a very strong correlation across European countries between the number of people who vote for populist parties and the number of people who are skeptical of vaccinations. So countries that have a large populist vote have more of a problem with anti-vaxxers across different countries. And of course populism by definition is not interested in evidence but in emotion and setting up this false dichotomy between the so-called “people” and “the elites”. Of course, that doesn’t involve evidence, that’s only emotion and it’s constructed in pursuit of power.

Your background is in psychology and you have mentioned conspiracy theorists are immune to evidence. What do you think makes them see reality in such a dogmatic way?

I think it’s important to understand there is a whole spectrum of people who believe in conspiracy theories to varying extents. There are people who make casual conspiratorial statements and are very different to people who spend their entire lives on the internet debating what they think to be a real conspiracy. The casual believers do tend to be immune to evidence but it is much harder when it comes to people committed to conspiracy theories because for them, they have become part of their identity.

I remember watching a video of an American woman tearing down a commemoration for the Black Lives Matter movement full of anger and saying it’s all a Soros conspiracy, and I was just left thinking where does that anger come from…

Well, the whole point in some conspiracy theories is simply to design a rhetorical vessel for an underlying prejudice or opinion. Certain racist people for example, will design any edifice it takes to have a plausible reason for them to express their racism.

In terms of Covid-19 related conspiracy theories, do you think social media have exacerbated the problem?

There are two things going on. The first is that pandemics have always created conspiracy theories. 300 years ago the plague gave rise to anti-Semitism and all sorts of other conspiracies, and that’s because it’s scary, people have a sense of loss of control, and whenever that happens they resort to conspiracy theories. The fact that we have a lot of conspiracy theories about the pandemic right now doesn’t surprise me at all, that’s what you would expect.

However, if you go back six months before the coronavirus emerged, I would have said yes you are right, there is quite a bit of conspiracy theorising now that is supported by social media, and one of the reasons this happens or why it’s so difficult to deal with is the fact that people tend to believe things that are also believed by those around them. For example, if you believe the earth is flat and everybody around me believes the earth is flat, I might do too. If I am the only person in my village that believes the earth is flat then I am probably more likely to believe I am the village idiot. And that’s the way things used to work before social media – you would look around and you would be calibrated by what other people thought. Of course sometimes there is dissent, but by and large people tend not to go totally extreme on their own.

With social media the problem is as soon as you go online any belief no matter how absurd it is, will be supported online by somebody. The moment they have that community experience, people will tend to stick to that belief because they are under the illusion that many more are sharing it. That connectivity that social media provides is very different from what we were used to. All of a sudden we have this ability to connect with other people who are so far away and small in number, yet we get this sense of empowerment by having that community.

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