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No Shit Study: Scientists Show Conspiracy Theorists Will Believe Anything

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Sorta transcript:

I’ve spoken in the past about how social media can be used to further pseudoscientific thinking, and now there’s yet another study that shows that Facebook conspiracy theorists live in an echo chamber, and apparently can’t tell when they’re being made fun of.

Italian researchers demonstrated this by looking at thousands of users who interacted with either science news pages or conspiracy theory pages on Facebook, finding that the vast majority of the people commenting on conspiracy theory pages never actually interacted with any other kind of page. So: echo chamber.

The fun part came next, when the scientists posted nearly 5,000 troll comments on the conspiracy and science news pages, sharing ridiculous unsubstantiated rumors like how someone completed a chemical composition of chemtrails, those clouds that form behind airplanes that are commonly and sanely known as contrails, and found that they contained viagra. That’s right, the government is dosing us with boner pills blasted into the atmosphere.

The researchers found that the conspiracy theorists were much, much more likely to share and like these comments.

In other words, the conspiracy theorists couldn’t differentiate between sarcasm and legitimately held conspiracy theories.

But here’s the thing: I also can’t differentiate between those two, because there really isn’t any difference. When I read the headlines claiming that scientists proved that conspiracy theorists will believe anything regardless of how stupid it is, I expected them to really come up with some stupid stuff. Instead, the best they came up with was viagra clouds. Compare that to what some people seriously believe about chemtrails: that they contain mind-altering drugs but you can help dissipate them by putting vinegar in a squirt bottle and spraying it into the air. Somehow, they believe that vinegar will travel five miles into the atmosphere and negate the effects of a bunch of poison being ejected from an airplane.

Their other “obviously false” rumors were that free energy has been discovered, something that conspiracy theorist websites report at least once a week.

So the news here isn’t that committed conspiracy theorists will believe absolutely anything no matter how stupid; it’s that they’ll believe anything within their already established realm of stupidity, without any verification.

If someone would really like to test the former idea, you’re going to have to work pretty hard to come up with any more absurd claims than what you’d already find in the average Alex Jones post. I mean, when people already fervently believe that the world economy is controlled by lizard people – actual lizard people – do you really need to spend the time proving that they can’t detect when they’re being mocked?

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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24 Comments

  1. May 19, 2015 at 2:20 pm —

    I don’t know about you, but I’m putting large rocks in sunny places around my home…just to be safe mind you.

  2. May 19, 2015 at 5:43 pm —

    Having encountered many a conspiracy theorist in my lifetime, yes, the ‘believe anything’ factor is high.

    The really bad part is what it means for indigenous peoples. If you mention something like involuntary sterilization or medical experiments, people will think you’re just another conspiracy theorist, just because, well, that’s something conspiracy theorists would say.

  3. May 19, 2015 at 7:36 pm —

    “you’re going to have to work pretty hard to come up with any more absurd claims than what you’d already find in the average Alex Jones post. I mean, when people already fervently believe that the world economy is controlled by lizard people – actual lizard people – ”

    Great piece. To be fair to Alex Jones, he vehemently rejects (or at least, has in the past vehemently rejected) the lizard people thing. That’s a David Icke specialty. Jon Ronson’s excellent book “Them: Adventures with Extremists” has a fantastic little bit in which Ronson gets Jones to talk about Icke. Jones had a fit, yelling and screaming about how Icke is “like a turd in a punchbowl” because he preaches the lizard people thing, implicitly discrediting all the nonsense that he and Jones agree on. (Icke is an occasional guest on Jones’s show. I think they have an agreement about things Icke isn’t allowed to mention; he stays within the boundaries of Jones’s particular fantasies while on Jones’s airwaves.)

  4. May 20, 2015 at 1:29 am —

    Rebecca Watson,

    I posted this on your youtube video. I go as a different name on youtube. Don’t ask me why, its complicated. I’m posting it here, since I’d like the other people at skepchick to see it as well.

    There are also conspiracy theorists who literally believe that the world is flat, and that’s something that’s crazy even for Alex Jones. As far as I can tell, even he accepts the fact that the Earth is round, unlike the Flat Earth Society.

    Flat Out Wrong, Part 1
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WAm2cagpsnk

    Note : to avoid confusion that isn’t me, that’s not my channel and I didn’t make the video. Martymer 81 is an excellent youtube skeptic through, and I recommend everyone subscribe to his channel.

  5. May 20, 2015 at 4:25 pm —

    Well, they refuse to believe real events that happen, so maybe scientists should start there, and work their way down.

  6. May 20, 2015 at 6:01 pm —

    I don’t always spray vinegar in the air to dissipate chem-trails…
    I never do. Because that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!

    Seeing how dumb everyone is being inside this energy harvesting prison makes me want to go out of body and never come back! (And no, Out Of Body does not mean death, I’m referring to Astral Projection!) XD

    You’re better off trying to focus the electromagnetic field around your body (the one your heart makes) into the chem-trails and then expand the atoms through electromagnetic repulsion to dissipate them than spraying the air like an idiot (Though I can’t say it wouldn’t work, it’s very unlikely to… Spraying the air though, that would do nothing)

    I can see why people think conspiracy theorists are nuts…
    I just wish there were another category to classify under.
    Like “not idiotic or benign theorist”.

    Anyway, hopefully the rest of the theorists don’t become as stupid as these ones… :/

    Call me crazy, (it’s not like I care! XD) call me wrong, but when I know, I know.

    Also, vinegar? Really!? Come on people!

    Note: I do not speak for ALL or ANY conspiracy theorists other than myself!

  7. May 20, 2015 at 6:34 pm —

    Wait! Boner pills? Viagra is boner pills?!? I thought it was for lowering cholesterol. Crap. All these years…wasted.

    This is worse than when I found out soylent green is people.

  8. May 20, 2015 at 8:42 pm —

    Here’s what a real skeptic would do. First, a real skeptic would more carefully choose her words. How would you define a conspiracy theorist? Does it take just the belief in one “conspiracy”? And how would you define conspiracy? Are you saying that all conspiracies are as silly as the ones you conveniently used? Or are some more silly than others? Are there any credible ones or at least ones we should investigate further without blanket dismissal?

    There are some people who have or do believed in what others would call loony conspiracies and they have been proven right and justified (take a look at those who believed in mass, furtive, gov surveillance for example or those who believed that the CIA played clandestine roles in the overthrowing of foreign government and causing international conflicts). Granted theories later proven to be correct may be in the minority but conspiracies cannot be dismissed out of hand. They must be dealt with on an individual basis and rationally scrutinized before dismissing them out of hand. Skepticism isn’t just skepticism over views that are contrary to popular opinion. It’s skepticism over popularly accepted views as well.

    • May 21, 2015 at 3:30 pm —

      Did you actually watch the video or read the transcript? It’s a comment on a study, not Rebecca promoting her manifest on conspiracy theory. There’s no dismissing out of hand going on here.

    • May 21, 2015 at 4:06 pm —

      “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

      — Joseph Heller

  9. May 20, 2015 at 9:49 pm —

    I think you also have to consider that many of the people commenting on those ‘believer’ pages are also there to make fun of the believers and are liking and sharing for their own entertainment. For example, the man featured in this video as an example of a believer spraying vinegar at the sky is actually Paul Williams, a well-known skeptic who ended that video stating that he does NOT believe in chemtrails and that viewers should exercise critical thinking.

  10. May 20, 2015 at 10:49 pm —

    “Somehow, they believe that vinegar will travel five miles into the atmosphere and negate the effects of a bunch of poison being ejected from an airplane.”

    Congratulations, you’ve just proven yourself just as stupid as the conspiracy nuts!

    So, what’s the point of “drugs” in the “chemtrails” if they stay five miles up? Obviously the idea is that it’s like crop dusting, and the chemicals eventually settle down to earth where they can be inhaled. At which point they presumably believe the acidity of the vinegar might break them down quicker. Which, compared to your assertion, actually sounds fairly reasonable. Now that’s fucking frightening…

    • May 21, 2015 at 12:50 pm —

      Man, I’ve apparently really annoyed the nutters with this one. (You guys should see the comments I haven’t let through!)

      Anyway, Brian, if the conspiracy theorists believe that they’re negating the effects of the chemicals in their own personal space, why do the videos I linked to previously show them squirting the vinegar at the chemtrails they see in the sky and crowing success as the trails dissipate?

  11. May 21, 2015 at 9:11 am —

    The worst part is when these conspiracy theorists live a double life as respected scientists! I can attest to this; my former brother in law is a molecular biologist and even dedicates part of his time to promoting (real) science. Publicly, he’s a “normal” scientist, but privately he believes in, well, everything: UFOs, chemtrails, free energy, Reiki, reincarnations (he’s Christian, but believes some of the stuff from Hindu and Budhist religions as well), etc.

  12. May 21, 2015 at 9:04 pm —

    But its the same with non-theorists. I read a study that showed that all people generally tend to believe what they want, regardless of evidence.

  13. May 21, 2015 at 9:38 pm —

    First, I’ve missed you on SGU.

    Second, it’s not a matter of spending more money to disprove off the wall “hypotheses” (not actually theories); it’s a matter of grad students & post-grad students desperately needing to find subjects for publication.

    Third, and this is one one of the items that seems to reappear on conspiracy sites every few months, “William Shakespeare” simply did not write all of those plays and sonnets. Elizabeth and William Friedman, two of the most well respected cryptographers of the twentieth century, proved, conclusively, that all of the works attributed to Shakespeare were penned by Dame Agatha Christie.

    • May 22, 2015 at 7:03 am —

      Your Third made me laugh, and look up Elizebeth Friedman. :)

  14. May 24, 2015 at 7:04 am —

    There seems to be a misunderstanding in this article. The researchers did not write the troll comments themselves. They only collected them. This is clear from the original article, and the lead author even clarified this in a comment to the article on motherboard.vice.com.
    The youtube video also contains the same misunderstanding.

  15. May 26, 2015 at 5:52 am —

    Is there an equivalent of Poe’s Law for conspiracy theorists?

  16. January 28, 2016 at 4:53 am —

    Trolling people doesn’t prove anything.

    There are people who take in ANYTHING – the latest trend are very weak news-articles reporting as “science” and people eat it up and repeat it. Like this article “scientist discovered that…” without linking a paper or study. Hence it becomes speculative as we aren’t seeing the study. The “stupid people” will take it in as absolute truth because you start “scientist said…”. Whereas, what I write is opinion – and people are welcome to oppose my personal colored view. While “scientist say” is a dialogue killer and it becomes mono-directional.

    The same with conspiracies: some will take it in, some will entertain the thought but not in all seriousness.

    I do believe that conspiracies can be a form of entertainment and experimentation with idea’s and influences, as are Urban legends. It helps to make sense of the mystification of certain aspect of our lives out of our control. And allow to freewheel and see where you turn out when the “public truth” is often garbled, mystified and warped by political color and ideology. (there is no subjective news).

    When people pull apart 2 minutes of video and project their fears, insecurities and mild paranoia – they might not be able to objectively and critically analyze what they see or experience and certainly lack the broader picture (just read any comment on any subject online these days and you get what I’m saying).
    But almost certainly in all cases, these “conspiracy nuts” are trying to make sense of something. And accept (or entertain the thought process) that correspondents closest to their world-view, experiences and impressions. Sometimes, they do point out details that have been lost on others, certain of their truth.

    It would be more worthwhile to research the link with media-consumption (subjects in movies and soaps, news, advertisement,…) and the way “objective news” is being reported and accepted as truth (“scientist say, standing on your head 5 times a day will reduce depression by 12%”-type articles). Then you would, imho, discover that many people will accept a certain truth by the form it is delivered. And see validation in media for it.

    The psychological aspect of “conspiracy nuts” might be more interesting as trying to “disprove of them and shutting them up”, which is very dismissive… and *puts on tinfoil hat* might as well be a plot to stifle critical voices in fear to be labelled “stupid” for being inquisitive.

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