25 June 2014
We came back from lunch for our final session to find that every seat in the room had a DVD, and the same glossy brochure claiming that the government is giving you all kinds of disease from their secret spraying program. For those that may not have heard yet, these people believe that those white lines you see in the sky behind high-flying jet aircraft are actually mind/weather control chemicals. They also believe a research program in Alaska that studies the Earth’s electromagnetic field (called HAARP) is also involved.
Just about every meteorologist in the country hears from these folks on a regular basis, and what they did not know was that a few hours earlier I had presented a talk about what causes these conspiracy theories to be so widespread these days. There is no reasoning with these folks, and I know of very few who waste their time to do so. That said, I do find it interesting that these theories are so widespread and I thought I’d share some of my talk about it. It seems to me that the more we understand what is behind the sudden increase in these conspiracy theories, the better we will be able to keep them from spreading.
The talk was about how two fake rumors of an impending blizzard went viral on Facebook, but I think the two are related. When many meteorologists attempted to squash the rumors, we were met not with “thanks that’s good to know”, instead the response was often anger. There has been some psychological research into conspiracy theorists (although surprisingly not that much), and I shared a few quotes from a NY Times Magazine piece (written by Science Journalist Maggie Korth-Baker) that attempts to explain what is going on here:
“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” says Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England. Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview….
In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.”
Below is the slide I used:
Sheep is a common term used by chem-trail believers, when operational and research scientists try to convince them that there is no truth at all to their belief. When i spotted the word sheep in the NYT piece, it really hit home with me! I think there are a lot of factors at play here and chief among them is the frighteningly sorry state of science education in America. Take that, and mix in a bad economy with a changing world (in which a high school education alone will not get you into the middle class), and you have all the ingredients. The internet just provides a way for the believers to satisfy their need for confirmation bias.
I ended my talk with quotes from Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan: