Fighting Anti-Science Conspiracy Theories

Ally Winning, European Editor, PSD



Ally Winning, European Editor, PSD

­One of the things I read a lot about is conspiracy theories, particularly ones involving science. This is mainly due to the fact that I have a close family member who has fallen down that rabbit hole. Additionally, whenever I make one of my infrequent visits to Facebook, I am usually surprised by someone who I thought was better informed posting misinformation. It is not just social media that feeds conspiracies, often mainstream news sources fall into the same trap. Even the BBC features people such as ex-politician Nigel Lawson and gives equal airtime to the anti-science views of his Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF) as it does to real scientists working in the area. However, organisations like GWPF could not reach a fraction of the people that they do if their content wasn’t picked up and shared across multiple platforms, accounts and groups on social media. I’m not sure what kind of effect the material has, but when that amount of money is being spent, you have to guess there is a return. The misinformation is on a variety of subjects, but three of the most popular ones currently seem to be climate change, renewable energy and electric vehicles. It can only be assumed that the intention is to try to discourage potential electric vehicle purchasers and pose any attempt to fight climate change as too expensive.

I’m not sure why people take information that is clearly wrong and spread it further without at least a cursory check, especially when much of it can be discounted almost immediately. For example, last week an acquaintance shared a meme about lithium mining on Facebook. It used an image of the largest and possibly the most famous and recognisable excavator in the world, Bagger 288, claiming it was used to mine lithium, when in actual fact it is exclusively used in coal mining. There’s no doubt there are issues with lithium mining, but using outright falsehoods surely is counterproductive, or should be. Maybe the excavators that are used to mine around 20% of our lithium supply just weren’t sexy enough for the original creator?

Because of that interest, I’m always interested in reading more about the psychology behind the belief in conspiracies. Recently, a newly released report from researchers from Portland State University entitled “Knowledge overconfidence is associated with anti-consensus views on controversial scientific issues” caught my eye. The researchers looked at the traditional way to tackle conspiracy belief, education, and why it hasn’t worked well. They found the reason for that was overconfidence in the subjects, which means they have little motivation to learn the truth. As their views on the issue get further from scientific consensus, their assessments of their own knowledge of that issue increases, while actually decreasing. For the subjects to be motivated, they’d first have to realize how wrong they really are. Unfortunately, the study didn’t offer much in the way of solutions, but at least it tells us why education isn’t working and offers a path for further research and perhaps to minimize the damage it causes.