Afternoon InquisitionEvents

AI: At Risk Youth and Conspiracy Theories

Last night at the Houston Skeptics in the Pub gathering, I spoke at length to one of the local skeptics who has siezed an opportunity to speak to what are termed “at risk” young people about 9/11 conspiracy theories. Apparently, a large group of these Houston area kids have become exposed to many of the oft-debunked conspiracy ideas surrounding the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington DC, and they have embraced them as true.

It will be interesting to see how our friend relates critical thinking to the young people, and I will be reporting on their interactions here on the pages of Skepchick.

But I began to wonder about this particular demographic, and whether there could possibly be something inherent in the group that makes them susceptible to bogus claims.

But this is the Afternoon Inquisition. So instead of listening to me ramble, I put the question to you . . .  

What elements, if any, specific to a demographic might lead to belief in spurious claims? Is there a link between social status and a rational worldview? Might a distrust of authority lead someone to more readily entertain tenuous subversive ideas?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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  1. I think it’s the exact opposite – someone who trusts authority is the only kind of person that thinks government is competent enough to pull off a coverup (Area 51, 9/11, etc). People who are skeptical of government and authorities know that they’re too friggin incompetent to even tie their own shoes, let alone pull off something as massive as 9/11 AND manage a cover-up.

  2. @andyinsdca: Your logic is impeccible but it appears the most vociferous anti-government people I associate with are completely at home with the idea that the government is both too stupid to run any public program while simultaneously being cunning enough to destroy the very fabric of our lives through secret and shadowy start chambers. If I point out the contradiction, I am labelled “naive” or, worse, “part of the vast left wing media conspiracy”. Which is pretty funny, really, since this blog is about the only part of my life where “media” and “me” overlap.

  3. At risk youth are most often poor, under educated, lack internet access, have not been taught deductive reasoning skills, nor have they seen much rational thought modeled at home. Not to mention the bazaar motives and irrational crazy that is contained in many conspiracy theories may reflect their home life more closely than a rational reasonable or plausible explanation.

  4. @SkepLit: Cognitive dissonance is a huge part of most irrational beliefs. Critical thinking starts with the idea that if 2 statements about reality contradict each other, then one or both of them must be wrong. I think this notion does not come naturally to many people, which is why critical think should be (but rarely is) taught in school. But even if it is taught, as @James Fox says, at risk kids are likely to have missed it.

    Our work here is *not* done, In fact, it’s barely started…

  5. Offhand I don’t remember exactly what I’m basing this on, so take it with a grain of salt, but; it’s my understanding that critical thinking and susceptibility to whacky beliefs, overall, don’t reliably track with any demographic variable.* Not even education. Particular whacky beliefs will prevail among particular demographics, but at least anecdotally, you see beliefs mixing and transmuting across demographic boundaries all the time. Anti-vax is popular with undereducated fundamentalists and overeducated coastal liberals. Belief in “sovereign citizens” immune to taxes and government used to be the exclusive preserve of white rural Midwestern Christians, but it’s now crossed over to black urbanites.

    So, I would suggest that these Houston kids are probably no more susceptible to spurious claims in general, but might for any number of reasons be favourably predisposed to particular ideas.

    *Except possibly gender, with women supposedly being somewhat less skeptical, but it’s not clear whether this is a real effect at all, and if so it’s probably socialization.

  6. I think that I read that people in the not-getting-pertussis-vaccine demographic are ignorant tools that think that aliens from Venus are colonizing Uranus. And are also turning cows inside-out from the extreme end of the digestive system…

  7. As a teen, you’ve had less time to work out an identity for yourself and familiarize yourself with the world than as an adult by virtue of not having lived as long.
    Now, many adults haven’t necessarily spent all of that time learning about the world but they’ve had more of it to spend, so if a teen and an adult have both been equally interested in finding things out about things, then the adult will, all other things being equal, have spent a greater amount of time on it. If you follow me.

    I believed all sorts of strange things as a teenager. Heck, I believed acupuncture was an effective treatment for a number of conditions up until quite recently because I hadn’t come across any information to contradict it. I believed there were probably some kind of conspiracy going on with a number of things even if the specific claims being made by some (OK, most) conspiracy theorists seemed pretty far-fetched.

    So, I’d say that young people in general are an “at risk” demographic. At the same time, they’re also a “we can still get to them” demographic. Old people who’ve not only incorprorated weird beliefs into their minds but made them important parts of their identities are generally folks we can’t really get to.

  8. For an interesting examination of the conspiracy theory phenomenon then I would recommend looking at “Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory has Shaped Modern History” by David Aaronovitch. To address the specific question, young people are more at risk than others because conspiracy theory is so much more exciting than the truth, it gives them the belief that they are rebelling against an establishment and that they are one of the small group to have seen through to the facts that ‘they’ don’t want us to have (at fourteen, I thought “Chariots of The Gods” was great science!).

  9. @andyinsdca: What I laugh at are the people that believe all the CT’s, yet say government is inefficient and can’t do anything right.

    Make up your minds, folks! :-D

  10. I find this is not an “at risk youth” problem but a more general one. Anecdotal evidence: a friend’s daughter, who is college educated and very smart (otherwise) swallowed the who 9/11 truth CT hook, line and sinker. Maybe it’s more something about people who, for whatever reason, do not develop critical thinking skills. Maybe (pure speculation) it’s the development of the human brain? Even Rebecca Watson admitted in an interview that she once believed homeopathy was real when she was younger. Maybe it takes time for some/most people’s brains to deal with the world as it is. Some people’s brains never develop that far. Why? That’s another interesting question.

  11. @sadunlap: Hey, when I was a teenager I bought into the whole bread chrust my personal lard and savoir line. In retrospect it was a total emotional and social appeal which I was apparently more than willing to hang up my rational thinking tools to buy into (and stick with for many years after that). I blame all the hormone and chemical fluctuations involved in the adolescent thinking process and a couple of cute girls.

  12. @QuestionAuthority:
    That’s actually my primary objection to conspiracy theories. I work for government and I know for a fact governments are nowhere near efficient enough to pull of a conspiracy.

    I actually think vulnerability to conspiratorial thinking is a matter of contrarianism. Some people (I’d put many religious believers in this category) they adhere rigidly to whatever belief system they were raised into, because they are too averse to rocking the boat. If everyone I know thinks this, surely it must be right.

    Conspiracy theorists, UFOlogists and so on are at the opposite extreme. They see anything believed by the majority of people as naive or false by virtue of the consensus surrounding it. Scepticism is then the effort to find the virtuous amount of contrarianism, enough to question popular truths, but not so much that we reject things simply because they’re popular.

    Since teenagers are especially contrarian (at least with regard to the non-teenage parts of society), it would make sense that they would be more vulnerable to conspiracy theories. However, it’s possible that they might be less vulnerable to other kinds of woo, such as mainstream religion.

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