Interview with Pia Lamberty, social psychologist and co-director of the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy (CeMAS). As a psychologist, she has been researching why people believe in conspiracies and what consequences this worldview entails. Her non-fiction book “Fake Facts – How Conspiracy Theories Determine Our Thinking”, published with Katharina Nocun in May 2020, was on the Spiegel bestseller list.
Pia Lamberty, scientists facing abuse for speaking out publicly is not exactly a new phenomenon, is it?
Pia Lamberty: Unfortunately not. Certain scientific disciplines have been receiving threats long before the COVID-19 pandemic came along. I am thinking of the climate sciences, but also gender research and research on racism. They are often targeted by right-wing extremists. But now, the natural sciences and virology have become the target of hate too. This is a hallmark of conspiracy beliefs. They are nothing but prejudice against people who are perceived as powerful, and scientists are perceived as very powerful. Which is why they have become these people’s enemies.
What do we know about the people who abuse and threaten scientists during this pandemic?
Pia Lamberty: We don’t know much about the people who harass scientists, since there isn’t much research on it. I did receive a lot of threats during the pandemic, and the senders were more heterogeneous than you might think. Some are from the alternative medicine sphere, others are clearly right-wing, but there were also PhDs and medical doctors among them. And there were obviously also conspiracy theorists.
What drives conspiracy theorists?
Pia Lamberty: Conspiracy theories have been around for a long time, and you can find them across society, but there are certain factors that make it more likely for someone to believe in them. For example, people who have a lower level of education are more likely to believe in conspiracies, as are people who perceive themselves as right-wing. Conspiracy theorists think there are people out there who embody pure evil and want to destroy humanity by claiming there is a pandemic. In their view, they are on the good side of history, which, for them, justifies their violence. They believe that they are heroes who will save humanity.
How have they changed throughout the pandemic?
Pia Lamberty: Crises are the prime time for conspiracies. They play a bigger than usual role during pandemics and epidemics. It doesn’t matter whether it is Ebola, HIV or the Spanish flu. From a psychological point of view, the lack of control increases, which leads them to believe in conspiracies. They start seeing patterns where there are none and believe that there is a bad intention behind everything. However, something unique is emerging these days. In the past, you had disparate movements that believed that the earth is flat or that human-induced climate change is a hoax. But now they are much more organised and international, and they follow very similar narratives throughout the world.
Can we stop the abuse?
Pia Lamberty: We cannot stop the abuse, but we can protect the victims. We can prevent violence in the same way that we can prevent infections – by testing. We need to gather valid numbers on how much pandemic-related violence is happening out there. The police are not currently evaluating that, and they are reacting too slowly. If there is an increase, we should start taking protective measures early on. Universities and funding organisations should also protect their scientists and provide training on how to deal with backlash.
The police are reacting too slowly. Do you have an example for that?
Pia Lamberty: One of the most prominent conspiracy theorists in Germany, Attila Hildmann, never received any kind of punishment for the hate he was spreading online. So he said, ‘if not even the police react, then I don’t see where the problem is’. The same is true for all the other conspiracy theorists. If they attack scientists, handing out death threats and whatnot, and if that goes without any consequences, then they will do it over and over again. We need to stop these people in their tracks and show them the consequences of overstepping boundaries.
What boundaries specifically are we talking about here?
Pia Lamberty: As a psychologist, I believe in the power of social norms and drawing clear lines. There are certain things we can put up for discussion, like which containment measures make the most sense. But we shouldn’t discuss whether the virus is dangerous or whether vaccines help control the pandemic. We already know that for a fact. And you can of course criticise the government, but if you put a yellow badge on our arm, then you are leaving no room for discussion.
But then again, discussions with conspiracy theorists are limited by their desire to reinforce their bubble’s worldviews.
Pia Lamberty: We see that a lot, and this pattern shows most prominently if you look at conspiracy theorists’ mood swings. If somebody makes a statement in line with the conspiracists’ ideologies, they get celebrated. But as soon as they change their opinion, these heroes become enemies. This happened in Germany, when someone at the Standing Committee on Vaccination at the Robert Koch Institute (STIKO) did not immediately recommend vaccinating children, because vaccines had not yet been approved back then. But the moment the STIKO changed their opinion, they received a lot of hate.
You tested the prejudices of conspiracy theorists in a study. What did you find?
Pia Lamberty: There was already a very clear pattern years before the pandemic. Everything that is perceived as medicine is rejected by conspiracy theorists, and everything that is an alternative remedy produced by an underdog is seen more positively. We ran experiments in which we confronted participants with two descriptions, one of a normal medicinal drug, and another of a herbal remedy. Normal people evaluated the pharmaceutical drug more positively, because the description claimed that it had undergone rigorous development and testing procedures confirmed by studies. The conspiracy theorists, however, came to a completely different conclusion. They favoured the untested, supposedly natural substance.
Pia Lamberty: The stronger the need for uniqueness in a person, the more likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories, because they feel they are the only ones who know the truth and who stick out from the crowd. There are studies that show that this behaviour is linked to collective narcissism, which makes them think, ‘not only am I special, but my entire group is’. And that, in turn, is linked to hostility towards others. Essentially it’s increasing their self-esteem by devaluing others and lashing out.
Which has happened to you as well.
Pia Lamberty: Yes, and I don’t think it is going to get better. As a woman working in this field, I think I receive an exceptional amount of hate. So I talked to other people from my field, and they gave me lots of tips and advice on how to deal with being attacked. Fortunately, I have people that I can talk to and exchange experiences with. That helps a lot. There are times when it is better and times when it is worse, but this is the price you pay. You have to change your entire life. For every bit of private information, you have to think, do I want to give it away? Because it might be a security risk.
As awful as that sounds, you don’t sound as if you would surrender.
Pia Lamberty: I still think it’s worth it. It’s worth talking to the public even when there’s a lot of hate. I also receive a lot of positive feedback and have many people who show solidarity and support. We must not forget, as awful as the hate part is, that there are lots of people out there who are really grateful for scientists communicating with the public. That gives me the strength to continue.