Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?
Are we genetically inclined for superstition or just fearful of the truth?
BILL NYE: How do I recommend reasoning with a conspiracy theorist?
MICHIO KAKU: Well, first of all I think there's a gene. I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking. And I think that when we were in the forest that gene actually helped us because nine times out of ten that gene was wrong. Superstition didn't work. But one time out of ten it saved your butt. That's why the gene is still here. The gene for superstition and magic. Now there's no gene for science. Science is based on things that are reproducible, testable. It's a long process the scientific method. It's not part of our natural thinking.
BILL NYE: I'm right now the last couple of months I've been messing around with this idea of cognitive dissonance. This is to say you have a world view. You're presented with evidence that conflicts with the world view so you either have to change your world view, which is hard because you've lived your whole life with it, or you just dismiss the evidence and dismiss the authorities that may have provided the evidence. The authority could be a person or it could be a book or, excuse me, an article on the electric internet computer machine. So you dismiss the evidence so that you don't have this discomfort, this conflict in your mind, this dissonance.
SARAH ROSE CAVANAGH: But we can also see it in conspiracy thinking where these fringe groups or at least they used to be fringe groups on kind of the outskirts of thinking about what could be real or what is happening, paranoid thinking for instance. Thinking about reptoids controlling our government. There have always been people who believed these sort of strange things but what social media and the internet in general has allowed to happen is for people with these beliefs to find each other and then when they're hearing back those same sorts of facts, those same sorts of theories then their beliefs strengthen.
MICHAEL SHERMER: What the skeptical movement has developed is a set of tools like the baloney detection kit. A set of tools to deal with particular claims that are on the margins of science like creationism, intelligent design theory, the anti-vaccinations, the holocaust revisionists. All these conspiracy theories and so on and all these alternative medicines. There's hundreds and hundreds of these claims that are all connected to different sciences. But the scientists in those particular fields are too busy working in their research to bother with what these claims are because the claims really aren't about those fields. They're just hooked to them. They're about something else.
CAVANAGH: I think that fear is an incredibly dangerous emotion. I think that it causes us to narrow our thinking. I think it causes us to shutdown options and there are a lot of threats in the world but I think what we need to face those threats are open, creative, playful thinking. And when we think as a hive mind, when we think collectively and we do so in a fearful sense then that shuts down a lot of our thinking.
KAKU: It's a struggle. It's a struggle that's eternal because it's part of our genetic makeup, okay. And there's even a name for some of this superstition. It's called pareidolia. What is pareidolia? It's the idea that when you look in the sky you see things that are not there. Let's do an experiment. Look at the clouds and try not to see something there. It's very difficult. You look at the clouds, you can't help it. You see Donald Duck. You see Mickey Mouse. You see snakes, animals. You see all sorts of stuff. You can't help it. Recently the Notre Dame Cathedral partially burned down and sure enough somebody said I see Jesus Christ there. I saw the picture, maybe you did too. It really did look like Jesus Christ, but it was the ashes of Notre Dame. And how many times do people see the Virgin Mary in a glass of tea. So we are hardwired to see things that are not there because for the most part they're harmless. For the most part they do nothing and once in a while it saves our butt. And so that's why I think we will have flat-Earthers. We will have the people who don't like vaccinations because hearsay through human history was a dominant form of information sharing.
CAVANAGH: One thing that I think we tend to do is we think that we're going to be the person who is going to crack a big mystery, who is going to solve a whole puzzle. I think that Hollywood has given us this idea and the famous book and movie, "The Da Vinci Code," sold us on this that we were going to be the hero who would figure everything out, this big vast conspiracy and I think the romanticization of that is dangerous and I think that we all think that we're going to be this hero who's going to discover some secret thing.
SHERMER: People find comfort in sort of attenuating the anxiety or uncertainty they're feeling by concocting some overarching plan. This is what's going on. Now I understand it. Now I don't have to feel so uncertain about the environment. So people concoct conspiracy theories for that main reason.
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: Think about it. Are you only believing conspiracy theories because you want them to be true? That's when you know there's trouble.
BILL NYE: Apparently the way to overcome that is to say we're all in this together. Let's learn about this together. Present the conspiracy theorist with the idea that he or she may be rejecting evidence because it's just so uncomfortable. And you're in it together. We're in it together. I'm uncomfortable too. But when it comes to moon landings just ask the person how you would generate all that paperwork. The warehouses full of documentation that NASA created to make landings on the moon would overwhelm anybody trying to do it on the side. It would just be very difficult to print all that. And just understand it's a process. Somebody who has a world view that's inconsistent with evidence and I may have some, it takes a while for you to turn around. Like the example of palm reading or astrology it's not something people reverse their ideas about immediately. In my experience it takes about two years for somebody to sort of look at palm reading, look at cold reading or a tarot card reading for a while and then realize that these tarot card readers, palm readers are just taking information that you've given them, the client has given them and feeding it back to you.
SHERMER: The further out you go in the extreme nature of a conspiracy theory the less likely the theory is to be true. The more people that have to be involved in the conspiracy theory, the less likely it is to be true. The more elements that have to come together just at the right moment to make the conspiracy work, the less likely it is to be true. And the more global it is, you know, world domination, that sort of thing, the less likely it is to be true. Conspiracies usually are very narrowly focused like insider trading or corporate manipulation like Volkswagen with the emissions or some government attempting to manipulate an election. It's a very specific thing that the conspiracy is really about.
MITCHELL: The way we get the information 24 hour bombardment makes people feel afraid and you've got a lot of people who feel like dangerous shut-ins who are railing against how said things are or dropping out because they're overwhelmed. And because of that dropout and that polarization you get a regime like Trump. You get a fertile ground for fascism which is about blaming someone irrationally for other problems in your life. It's an old game that has been played for millennia. That immigrant, that transgender person, that person who is of a different race their very existence threatens you because they're getting attention, money. They're stealing something from you and that certainly found its way into a World War II, but also the fragile state of truth right now which also comes out of digital addiction is that all conspiracy theories are true. All news is suspect. Facts are fungible. And in a world like that, that's the biggest danger.
SHERMER: The problem is this. None of us has the truth. The only way to find out if you're deceiving yourself or not, if you've gone off the rails, if you're wrong in some way is to listen to other people who disagree with you. These were the original arguments laid down by John Stuart Mill, 1859, "On Liberty," this is the classic work. One, I might be partially wrong and so by listening to somebody who disagrees with me I get to correct my idea. Two, I might be completely wrong and off the rails and boy, good thing I figured this out before I went too far. Three, I might be completely right but I'm not 100 percent sure about my arguments and hearing somebody on the other side helps me refine my arguments and strengthen my arguments. If I can refute that conservative or that radical leftist or whoever it is then how much stronger my position is. And four, it's not just the speaker's right to speak. It's the listeners right to listen. Maybe I, the protester don't want to hear this person but maybe there's people in the room that do want to hear this person for whatever reasons. It's none of my business. And then finally in terms of moral progress that I like to track. One of the biggest drivers for the last five centuries has been the principle of free speech. This is at the basis of all liberal democracies of all civil societies that everybody must have the freedom to express their points of view no matter how much we dislike them. I don't care if you're a Nazi or you think we didn't land on the moon or whatever your ideas are. Go ahead and tell us your best arguments and we'll see in the marketplace of ideas how well you do.
KAKU: You know the internet is very new. Newspaper are very new. Science and technology is very new. But gossip, hearsay, slander, rumors there's a gene for that, okay. So how do you combat it? Slowly, carefully, painfully. It's a painful process but in some sense we're going up against our genetic predisposition to believe in nonsense.
MITCHELL: In some ways we're in a better world than we've ever been in terms of health and human rights at least being considered in different countries and partly that's because of digital stuff. You can't actually shutdown digital communication no matter how hard you try in China or wherever. There's VPNs. People get through. So there are advantages to that.
CAVANAGH: I think that we need to let experts weigh in and I think that we need to trust expertise and I think that we need to look at Snopes.com rather than YouTube for our information. I think that we need to regain our trust and scientists and then people who have spent their life's work studying a phenomena rather than thinking we're going to hunt down the answer on the internet.
SHERMER: This whole idea of what we now call fake news, alternative facts has gotten bigger and bigger and it just gets unfolded in real time online within minutes and hours. And we have to jump on it fast. But also developing a set of tools that can apply to any future ideas because I don't know what's going to be popular in five years from now. Heck, I don't know what's going to be trending tomorrow.
BILL NYE: People just lost sight of history and we all tend to go well, look at the facts. Change your mind. But it takes people a couple of years.
MITCHELL: Consider your conspiracy theories. You have a problem with them if you only believe the ones you want to.
- From secret societies to faked moon landings, one thing that humanity seems to have an endless supply of is conspiracy theories. In this compilation, physicist Michio Kaku, science communicator Bill Nye, psychologist Sarah Rose Cavanagh, skeptic Michael Shermer, and actor and playwright John Cameron Mitchell consider the nature of truth and why some groups believe the things they do.
- "I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking," argues Kaku. The theoretical physicist says that science goes against "natural thinking," and that the superstition gene persists because, one out of ten times, it actually worked and saved us.
- Other theories shared include the idea of cognitive dissonance, the dangerous power of fear to inhibit critical thinking, and Hollywood's romanticization of conspiracies. Because conspiracy theories are so diverse and multifaceted, combating them has not been an easy task for science.
- 7 government conspiracy theories that are true - Big Think ›
- Are conspiracy theories on the rise in the US? ›
- Why your brain loves conspiracy theories - Big Think ›
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Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.
New study suggests the placebo effect can be as powerful as microdosing LSD.
- New research from Imperial College London investigated the psychological effects of microdosing LSD in 191 volunteers.
- While microdosers experienced beneficial mental health effects, the placebo group performed statistically similar to those who took LSD.
- Researchers believe the expectation of a trip could produce some of the same sensations as actually ingesting psychedelics.
Psychedelics: The scientific renaissance of mind-altering drugs<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="92360c805fe66c11de38a75b0967f417"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/5T0LmbWROKY?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>For the study published in eLife, the team recruited 191 citizen cosmonauts to microdose either LSD or a placebo over the course of several weeks and note the psychological effects. Volunteers were already microdosing LSD, so there was no true control. Each volunteer was given instructions on creating their own low-dose gel capsules, some containing LSD, others not. Then they mixed the capsules in envelopes so they didn't know if they were taking the real thing or not.</p><p>The trial design was ingenious: each capsule featured a QR code that was scanned after the addition of ingredients but before they were placed in the envelope so that researchers knew what they were ingesting.</p><p>The problem: volunteers sourced their own LSD. Lack of quality control could have had a profound effect on the results. </p><p>The results: LSD microdosers reported feeling more mindful, satisfied with life, and better overall; they also noticed a reduction in feelings of paranoia. </p><p>The catch: the control group felt the same thing, with no statistical difference between the groups. </p><p>Lead author Balázs Szigeti comments on the findings: "This suggests that the improvements may not be due to the pharmacological action of the drug but can instead be explained by the placebo effect." </p>
Credit: Alexander / Adobe Stock<p>Psychedelics are notoriously difficult to control for given the intensity of the experience. Yet there is precedent for the above findings. A <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00213-020-05464-5" target="_blank">2019 study</a> found that 61 percent of volunteers that took a placebo instead of psilocybin felt some psychedelic effects, with a few volunteers experiencing full-on trips.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Several stated that they saw the paintings on the walls 'move' or 'reshape' themselves, others felt 'heavy. . . as if gravity [had] a stronger hold', and one had a 'come down' before another 'wave' hit her."</p><p>The Imperial team believes the expectation of a trip might have been enough to produce similar results. Senior author David Erritzoe is excited for future studies on the topic, believing they tapped into a new wave of citizen science that could push forward our knowledge of psychedelic substances.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Accounting for the placebo effect is important when assessing trends such as the use of cannabidiol oils, fad diets or supplements where social pressure or users' expectations can lead to a strong placebo response. Self-blinding citizen science initiatives could be used as an inexpensive, initial screening tool before launching expensive clinical studies."</p><p>As investments into the psychedelics market explode, with one company <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-03-03/thiel-backed-magic-mushroom-firm-atai-hits-2-billion-valuation" target="_blank">reaching a $2 billion valuation</a>, a recurring irony appears in the long arc of psychedelics and research: the power of our minds might be enough to feel greater life satisfaction and a deeper sense of mindfulness. If that's possible with a placebo, we have to question why the rush to create more pharmacology is necessary. </p><p>This is, mind you, a separate conversation over the role of psychedelics and rituals for group bonding. The function of group cohesion around consciousness-altering substances will continue to play an important role in many communities. </p><p>Of course, we should continue to explore the efficacy of psychedelics on anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, PTSD, and addiction. <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/antidepressant-effects" target="_self">Pharmacological dependence</a> is a stain on the psychiatry industry. Whether or not psychedelics can be prescribed for daily use remains to be seen, but we know a moneyed interest is expecting a return on investment—the above company, ATAI Life Sciences, raised $157 million in its Series D round. </p><p>When it comes to wellbeing, some things money just can't buy. How we navigate the tricky terrain of mainstreaming psychedelics remains to be seen. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
What makes some people more likely to shiver than others?
Some people just aren't bothered by the cold, no matter how low the temperature dips. And the reason for this may be in a person's genes.