This is the interview with Steven Novella from episode 016 of the You Are Not So Smart Podcast.
Steven Novella is a leader in the skeptic community, host of The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, and an academic clinical neurologist at Yale University School of Medicine. He blogs at Neurologica, Skepticblog, and Science-Based Medicine.
David: I can’t think of any brain I would rather pick on the subject of why we succumb to conspiracy theories, and the one in Steven’s head. So let’s hear what he has to say. Okay, Steven Novella, I think a lot of people would – since you are an expert on conspiracy thinking and conspiracy theories, conspiracy theorists. What they would like to know – from your area of expertise are Glenn Beck, Jesse Ventura, and Alex Jones involved in some sort of a conspiracy to protect us from learning that the reptilians used thermite paint to take down the twin towers on 9/11?
Steven: Are you asking if the conspiracy theorists are like a false flag operation?
David: Right. Are they some sort of an operation to keep us from the real, real, real truth?
Steven: Well yes and no. Let me say that. So I mean, basically no. Obviously they are not deliberately engaged in any kind of deliberate deception or misdirection to discredit conspiracy theorists and conspiracy theory, so that we don’t notice the real things. But I do say that – if you’re interest is being a watch dog on government to prevent government access or corporate access or whatever. Weaving bizarre conspiracy theories is not the way to go about doing it. You’re not doing your job. And if anything, you’re in fact providing cover if there is anything nefarious going on. So I do think that it does distract from the legitimate job of being a watch dog on the powers that be.
David: Well a lot of people who I think watch those shows, they think of themselves as being– Like they believe that they are critical thinkers and that those shows make them critical thinkers. So from your perspective, what is going on there in a person’s mind who thinks that okay, I am being skeptical. I’m watching and listening to people who are questioning everything?
Steven: Yeah it’s, it’s cynicism really, it’s not skepticism. Just blanket disbelieving everything any authority tells you is not critical thinking. That’s not skepticism. That’s being a contrarian. So but I do frequently encounter people who think that just being a contrarian and just disbelieving everything makes you a skeptic, and it’s not that easy. Being a skeptic means separating what’s likely to be true from what’s likely not to be true by using some kind of process of evaluating logic, evaluating evidence, trying to step back and look at your own thought process – that’s what we call meta cognition, thinking about your own thought processes. It’s not just a blanket, “Oh I don’t believe anything. Everyone’s lying. That’s just naked cynicism, which is kind of a cheap way to imitate skepticism, but it’s not skepticism.
David: Okay, so I – I just looked at the Gallup Poll, and there was a – right around the time of the anniversary of the Kennedy Assassination, they brought out the latest research by Gallup. And they said that in 1963, 29% of Americans believed one man was responsible for the JFK shooting, and 52% believe that there was a conspiracy. In 1976, that – belief in a conspiracy theory went to 81% of the population. And then today, most recently in 2013, it’s at 61%. So, and there were a lot of articles about that. From your perspective, what is going on here? Why is this conspiracy theory so popular and prevalent and – even after all these years?
Steven: JFK is an iconic figure in American history. And I think that that assassination had a huge impact on the American psyche. So it’s not surprising that people are still interested in it, still talking about it and speculating about it. It was a very complicated historical event, and there’s a lot of things that happened that might superficially make someone wonder, “Could one person really get that close to the President and take him out?” And the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, can superficially be made to seem like a silencing. And so, it’s a big historical event and people assume that a big event must have had a big cause. There’s a disconnect in our mind. The idea that one lone nut took out the most powerful person in the world. And all the ramifications that flowed from that. And yet it, there was no one else involved. Seems incongruent. So, but that’s again, that’s just our gut feeling. You have to step back from that and look at the actual facts. And when you do that, it becomes evident that all of the physical evidence points to one shooter in the snipers nest, in that book depository. And the only person that really was in the right place at the right time was Lee Harvey Oswald. He clearly– His behavior was clearly guilty. I mean, he fled the scene – he killed a police officer that he encountered, who just approached him for questioning. So and despite the – all of the conspiracy theories and 50 years of specu– Of investigating, no one’s been able to find any real evidence of an actual conspiracy. All they find are anomalies. They do what we call anomaly hunting. Where – if they find something that seems unusual, than that becomes evidence of a conspiracy. Not – they don’t know what conspiracy, just something’s off here. Something’s not right. But if you take a deep dive into any historical event, you’re going to find weird stuff, weird coincidences. People acting in a way that you can’t fully explain, because you don’t have all of the information about what situation they were in. You could, they could conspiracy out of anything.
David: So how would you define a conspiracy theory? What are sort of the moving parts of your typical conspiracy theory? What separates it from other types of delusional thinking?
Steven: Well when you’re asking that question, you’re really asking about what we call a grand conspiracy theory. There are obviously small conspiracies. 3 people in a boardroom can certainly concoct a conspiracy to defraud their competition for example or whatever. But a grand conspiracy involves many people having to deceive the media, the government, large organizations. Or, either on a huge scale or over a long period of time. Grand conspiracies are inherently implausible. Because they tend to collapse under their own weight. You just, you have to make them bigger and bigger and bigger in order to explain away like, “Why isn’t the media exposing the flaws in the standard story about 9/11? Well they must be in on it too.” So they’re just massively increased the size of their conspiracy. The structure of a conspiracy essentially divides the world into 3 kinds of people. There are the people who commit the conspiracy, the conspirators. They are – are generally are perceived of as being incredibly evil, cartoon mustache twirling evil. They have amazing resources, and can concoct these fabulously complicated plans. But at the same time, they’re incredibly naive and stupid. Because they have to be in order to expose themselves to some extent. And then there’s the army of light, right? The people who can see the conspiracy for what it is, that are trying to save the world from the evil conspirators. And then there’s the vast majority of everybody else, who are the dupes, the sheeple, right? Everyone else in the world. So that’s the world according to the conspiracy theorist. They’re on the army of light, they’ve seen the conspiracy, and everyone else is too stupid to see it.
David: So, and you mentioned this earlier. What is – what’s strange about this to me is that it seems to be part of – and correct me if I’m wrong. It seems to be just sort of part of the way we’re naturally built to think about things. And there can be – certain triggers in the environment can cause a person who would normally consider themselves to be rational, to start to kind of fall into this sort of thinking. Would you say that’s true?
Steven: Yeah I think so. I mean I think we all have a little conspiracy theorist living inside of us, right? We all tend to be a little paranoid to think, “How could these things fit together? Is this all just a coincidence?” We don’t, we inherently don’t like coincidences. Apparent patterns – they speak to us, they, emotionally we respond by saying, “Oh that’s something real there.” We don’t like dismissing apparent patterns as just coincidence or illusion. And so, we look for the hidden hand, the meaning. And when you’re trying to connect events and explain apparently disconnected events, or apparent anomalies by saying, “Well that’s because there’s this malevolent intelligence behind it all who’s controlling everything. That’s a conspiracy theory. So it’s a form of pattern recognition, in order to generate a narrative that makes sense of a complex world. And you could make – I hate to resort to hand waving, sort of neuro psychological arguments – but it certainly makes sense that we would have some tendency to look out for ourselves, to be on the lookout for people conspiring against our interests. But we evolved of course in small tribes. We’re like – a couple of people could be banding up against us. But now that same mental hard wiring exists in a worldwide, complicated civilization. But we apply sort of the same pattern recognition, and say, “Oh there’s – the forces are conspiring against me. But these forces are now governments or institutions. It’s generational, it’s not just a few people who live near me.
David: And it always seems to me that it’s like – conspiracy theories are projected toward things that are just very complicated to understand. And they like take something that’s – this thing that has lots of moving parts, is very complicated. There’s more to it than– There are more people involved than you could ever meet and talk to. And then it turns it into something really, really, really simple. Like the – it’s like taking something very complex and making it super simple and easy to pick apart in some way.
Steven: Yeah, I mean, partly it’s a desire for simplicity and understanding. “I’m going to make sense of this wide array of events and factoids by saying it’s, ‘everything is created by the conspiracy. Any evidence that’s there, that was put there by the conspirators. Any evidence that’s missing, that was hidden by the conspirators. And so, once you’re inside that mental framework, there’s no way out. It’s a self-contained belief system. No evidence can convince you that the conspiracy is not true. Because that was just planted. Right, so like – when the – the moon hoax conspiracy theory. Pulling off a hoax to fake going to the moon was actually more complicated than just going to the moon.
Steven: But every time we come up with more evidence. “Oh look, we have a satellite now with low moon orbit that’s taking pictures of the Apollo 11 landing site. And you could see the footprints of the astronauts. I mean it’s smoking gun evidence.
Steven: That we were there, that people were walking around on the moon. “Well they, NASA must have faked it.” Well, there you go, so alright there’s nothing we can do unless we – even if we took that person to the moon and put them at the Apollo 11 site, they could say, “Oh, they just mocked this up for me.” I mean, there’s just no evidence that could possibly get them out their mindset. Because – and any evidence could’ve been faked, right?
David: Does this frustrate you? ‘Cause I imagine that you have had to deal with a lot of people who were very – who’ve been become very good at insulating and defending themselves from any sort of evidence attack. Is there something that really frustrates you as a leader in the skeptic community?
Steven: I mean, it fascinates me. I try not to be frustrated. If that sort of thing frustrates you, then you’re in the wrong business. Because that’s just, that’s day to day. I mean, obviously, I can’t help but be frustrated at some points in time, but I just always have to step back and say, “What I’m interested in here is what’s going on in people’s minds, their thought process, that leads them to this point? How can I deconstruct their thought processes and figure out exactly where they’re going wrong?” And then, “Can I figure out a way to explain that to them? And if not, why? What escape hatch are they using to get away from logic and evidence? So by just taking sort of an academic view of it, I try to remove myself emotionally from the – what would otherwise be an extremely – on a personal level, can be extremely, extremely frustrating. But you just– You can’t let it get to you, otherwise you’ll go crazy. It’s like letting the trolls get to you online.
Steven: If that’s – if that happens, then you just get offline. You just – don’t engage in social media if you’re going to let trolls get under your skin.
David: For me personally, the thing that was most frustrating and bizarre was right after Sandy Hook. ‘Cause like, I think we all – anyone who is into this world of hoaxes and delusion thinking. You’re pretty familiar with things like the Illuminati and chem trails and the moon landing, JFK, drug companies, oil companies – all that kind of stuff. But then out of nowhere comes this event. And if anyone’s not – doesn’t remember, it was a– A young man went into a school, he shot 20 students, 6 staff members. And right afterwards, and it was almost – it was like within hours, this conspiracy theory community started to blossom online. And said that it was something created by the government to encourage gun control.
Steven: Right. And that worked really well, didn’t it?
David: Right. So what – is there something that we could do? Do you think that we could either prevent or prepare for this sort of thinking and behavior?
Steven: I think so. I mean, I do think that we have to be aware that – around any big emotional, in the media event like that. There’s going to be a community of people who are going to try to create a conspiracy around it. And I think there are things that we can do as a society, to maybe at least mitigate that. I do want to say though, about Sandy Hook. I live in Connecticut, I have family who live in Sandy Hook.
David: Oh wow.
Steven: And I personally, I personally know people who were at the school during the shooting, or were among the first responders. So I guess I’m part of the conspiracy too. Because I’m one step removed from people who are actually there. The notion that this was all staged or faked is ridiculous. I mean, now you have a conspiracy that would have to involve an entire community. How could a community not know if 27 people who live in their community were killed or not? If these families were fake– I mean there’s– How is– That one boggles my mind. How could you – if you think through it for even a minute, it just can not, can not be. It makes absolutely no sense. But what they’re looking for are – again – the anomalies. “Oh the police found some guy walking through the woods, and they took him for questioning and put him the car, then they let him go 15 minutes later.” Well who was he? Well the fact that you don’t know who that guy was, doesn’t mean that he’s part of some conspiracy. Turns out he was an off duty cop. They questioned him, he flashed his badge, and they let him go. Then he checked out. They were checking out anybody who was in the area. But you would never think, “Oh, maybe that guy was an off duty cop?” But weird things like that happen. That’s just the nature of reality. And that’s when– Your inability to explain explain exactly every little thing that happened, doesn’t mean that it’s therefore a conspiracy. It means you just don’t have enough information to make perfect sense of every tiny little detail. But getting back to like – what can we do to maybe mitigate these situations blossoming? I do think we need to document the facts on the ground very carefully. With an eye towards the fact that someone’s going to try to distort this into something that it isn’t. And I do think that we really need to weigh the conspiracy angle when deciding how transparent to make events. So for example, like the decision to – when the US Government found and killed Bin Laden. And they decided, “Right, we’re just going to kill him on site, get rid of the body. Don’t show any video. Not let this turn into anything like an interna–Minimize it’s propaganda purposes internationally etc.” But at the same time, by playing it all close to the vest like that, it looks like they have something to hide. I don’t believe there’s any conspiracy about that. But I mean, they had to balance those various factors. So I think the government and media have to think about– I think we should err more on the side of being transparent. And storing and saving evidence. Even though it might not legally be necessary. I think just for historical purposes, having original evidence available for independent review is – does go a long way I do think, to – at least to marginalize the conspiracy theorist. Like for example, with 9/11, I do think that the skeptical analysis and deconstruction of the conspiracy theorists really helped to marginalize them over the years. They’re never going to go away, they’re always going to be there on the fringe. But I do think it – it reduced the size of that phenomenon.
David: And it’s – 9/11 is one thing, and it’s incredible and strange that people are still pumping effort into that conspiracy theory. But in Sandy Hook, people were calling the parents. They were harassing parents, saying that their– That they were actors. It was one of the most infuriating and bizarre things I’ve ever seen whenever it comes to this – human behavior on a mass scale. So I would hope that someone out there is consulting with people in positions that can maybe mitigate that sort of stuff. ‘Cause it is obviously a human behavior that I think is going to happen again somewhere along the line.
Steven: Yeah, absolutely. And it can be very upsetting and very destructive. And again, you could be motivated to – so isolate those families. Which I think, they deserve their privacy. But then of course, any attempt at isolating them for their privacy then fuels more conspiracy theory.
Steven: So it’s a bit of a catch 22, right? And almost either way, you kind of feel the conspiracy theorist. ‘Cause they’ll take silence as an admission, to talking about it as a diversion. Whatever you do or don’t do, they’ll spin that into– See that supports the conspiracy. So you can’t win in a way, but I do think that – the one thing that governments shouldn’t do is just default to their hide everything sort of reaction. To keep everything hidden is kind of just the natural instinct, And I think they need to think about that carefully. And be as transparent as they can be. To at least minimize the fodder for the conspiracy theorists.
David: Conspiracy theorists are such a fascinating thing about the human mind, because I am reminded of ant spirals, the ant death spirals. Where ants get into a sort of a feedback loop and cannot stop themselves from going around and around and around. It always conjures up that image in my mind. It is like the several of the elements of the way we make sense of the world and the way we try to logically go about disassembling experience can get us caught in this weird loop. That’s almost inescapable. How would you recommend that if you are one on one with someone who is deeply invested in a conspiracy theory, what would be the best way do you think to proceed to try to knock them out of that loop?
Oh I do not have any magical solution to that, I do not think there is any formula or any single approach that works – because of exactly what you are saying. I like the analogy of the ant death spiral. We like to think of ourselves as like completely free thinkers, but in fact we are following algorithms, just like ants are. Just our mental algorithms are a lot more sophisticated and complicated. The solution is that you have to get out of that algorithm. That’s again the meta-cognition. You have to think about your own thought processes. As much as you can, and even thinking about the way you think about your thought processes. Because we’re just – otherwise, we tend to default back to our biases and our mental pathways of least resistance. So when people are stuck in an isolated belief system like that, a closed off belief system. There is no way to get through to them, by definition. All you can do is just persistently try to get them to think about that very fact itself. Try to get them to think about the way they’re approaching the evidence, the fact that they’re not open to the outside and it’ll either resonate with them or it won’t. You’ll get through or you won’t. And I have gotten through to people, although – not usually one on one, but like through my podcast. But that is because I get to talk to tens of thousands of people at once. And so, when you dealing those kind numbers, people will email me and will say that they did come out that way of thinking over time. Like eventually we sort of broke through, we cracked through. But the probability of doing that on any individual is statistically remote. Belief systems are very good at protecting themselves.
David: Wow. Thank you that is really cool. We are sort of running out of time here and I want to get in a few of these questions from Facebook. I told people on Facebook that you would be a guest on the show and there was a lot of people that wanted to ask you different things. So I will grab of them. This one comes from Steve Kory and he asks, “Have there been any conspiracy theories that at one time were dismissed as being part of the fringe, that were later discovered to be true? And if so, does this play into the hands of conspiracy theorists who were then able to say, ‘see you never know?'”
Steven: No, I mean we get that question a lot. And the answer is no. There are no grand conspiracies that were on the fringe because they were highly implausible, that then turned out to be true. There certainly have been government and corporate conspiracies – the moderate level conspiracies. The corporate boardroom conspiracy for example. Sure, those historically exist. We never doubt that. The confusion is between the grand implausible conspiracies and the more small scale mundane conspiracies. Nothing, no grand conspiracy has ever turned out, despite the odds to end up being true.
David: Okay. And we sort of touched on a couple of these things earlier, but Brad Clark, asks, “In a world that seems rife with hidden agendas of politicians and corporations, how do you define the line between a conspiracy theory and healthy skepticism and distrust of mainstream information?”
Steven: Yeah, again, that gets to what I was saying. And again, this isn’t – I do not want to create the false dichotomy that there’s 2 completely different types of conspiracy. It is a spectrum. You don’t say, “At what point does a conspiracy become implausible?” I just think you have to evaluate every claim on its own merits. What is the evidence? What is the plausibility here? Is the thought process valid, or are people just weaving conspiracy theories out of anomalies and ignorance? So again there’s this – it’s the general critical thinking, skeptical meta-cognition formula. Just applied in this specific area to conspiracies. It is like saying, “What is the line between science and pseudo-science?” Well okay this. That’s a long conversation about all the little things that make science valid versus invalid. So there is no way around just doing a detailed evaluation of any individual conspiracy claim.
David: Great. So, Bill Heidenreich asks in this, I’m going to sort of paraphrase this. He’s saying that he cannot decide who to believe when it comes to the debate over climate change. ‘Cause he hears from one side that there are conspiracies afoot trying to convince you that climate change is real when it is not. If you don’t have a lot of scientific knowledge, you’re not – you’re very much lay person – what is the best way to make heads or tails of something like that?
Steven: Yeah that is really tricky, because you need some kind of scientific literacy, scientific understanding. Even if it is just broadly about how science works. How the institutions of science work. If it is all a mystery to you, then you just have one group of people of saying one thing, another group of saying another thing. The evaluation comes when you know like how the process of science works. And you can say, “Alright, the consensus of scientific opinion among published peer reviewed legitimate research is all pointing in this one direction, and their arguments all hold up.” Whereas the “global warming is all a big conspiracy” side of things, when you actually take any individual argument of theirs and drill down, it evaporates eventually. Eventually if you drill down deep enough, you realize that it was made up. It’s just not valid. It’s not a correct argument. And they actually don’t have the consensus or the weight of opinion on their side. You end up – you realize that it’s the same few people who are generating all of the anti-global warming opinions. So, you require some level of scientific literacy in order to make sense of it. If you can’t tell like a valid scientific argument from an invalid scientific argument, I do not know how you can separate those 2 things.
David: Okay, so more science education is required here.
Steven: Yeah, you need a scientifically literate public in order to participate in a democracy in the 21st century, when we have to make decisions about things like should we be vaccinating all of our kids? Should we be doing something about global warming before it is too late etc?
David: Okay, one last question, this is from Tandy Bird, and she wanted to know, “Are there certain traits that you have seen that seem to make a particular kind of person more susceptible to belief in conspiracy theories?”
Steven: Well, it certainly seems that way. I mean I don’t like to be an armchair psychiatrist, you know what I mean? So I try not to like analyze people’s psychology just from casual non-clinical interaction. But, it is certainly recognized that there are some people who have more of a tendency to be paranoid. To have, what we call, paranoid ideation. And it has been studied, in fact, people who tend to believe in conspiracies are also more likely to see patterns in random visual images as well. Which is really interesting. They might have this enhanced pattern recognition, or they may just have a decreased sort of reality testing filter – meaning that they are much more likely to think that patterns that they think they see are real. So I think that’s– But yeah, we all have that tendency to some degree, these just may be people who are further along that spectrum. They are a little bit more paranoid – more intense pattern recognition, and they are less skeptical of their own perceived patterns.
David: It is important, and correct me if I am wrong, but people who fall into this line of thinking, it is not stupidity, and they’re not dumb. They’re very–
Steven: No, they are often very intelligent. They’re very good. Ironically, people who are highly intelligent are a lot better at rationalizing their own beliefs. So they are much more sophisticated in locking themselves into the beliefs that they want to hold. So if raw intelligence isn’t enough, you really need critical thinking skills. You have to be able to get outside of yourself and think about your own thought process. So otherwise, it does not matter how much you know, your factual knowledge, your memory. Other measures of intelligence actually work against you in that they will make it – they’ll give you the tools to lock to yourself into whatever belief system that you want.
David: Wow, that is fantastic. Alright well, we’re are out of time. So I want to give people a chance, I know that people are going to hear this and are going to want to find out how they can keep up with you. Where can people find you out there in the internet and stuff?
Steven: So my podcast, The Skeptics Guide to the Universe. So if you go to theskepticsguide.org, then you will get to our website. You can find The Skeptics Guide on iTunes. I also blog at Science Based Medicine and Neurological Blog. Searching on any of those terms will get you to my stuff.
David: And what sort of projects are you guys working on? What’s coming up in the future for you?
Steven: Well, our future project is, we’re trying to really develop the video end of our content creation. We’ve made some videos in the past. We’re in the post production phase of a small web series that we finished filming over the summer. But we’re really hoping to continue to move in that direction. To make science and skeptically themed like YouTube and web videos.
David: Awesome. Well thank you so much for coming on the show, it was a great pleasure.
Steven: It was a lot of fun, thanks David.