Mikael Klintman of Lund University writes that conspiracy theories continue to spread because we haven’t looked at their root cause.
Despite creative efforts to tackle it, belief in conspiracy theories, alternative facts and ‘fake news’ shows no sign of abating. This is clearly a huge problem, as seen when it comes to the climate crisis, vaccines and expertise in general – with anti-scientific attitudes increasingly influencing politics.
So why can’t we stop such views from spreading? My opinion is that we have failed to understand their root causes, often assuming it is down to ignorance. But new research, published in my book, Knowledge Resistance: How We Avoid Insight from Others, shows that the capacity to ignore valid facts has most likely had adaptive value throughout human evolution. Therefore, this capacity is in our genes today. Ultimately, realising this is our best bet to tackle the problem.
So far, public intellectuals have roughly made two core arguments about our post-truth world. The physician Hans Rosling and the psychologist Steven Pinker argue it has come about due to deficits in facts and reasoned thinking – and can therefore be sufficiently tackled with education.
Meanwhile, Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler and other behavioural economists have shown how the mere provision of more and better facts often lead already polarised groups to become even more polarised in their beliefs.
The conclusion of Thaler is that humans are deeply irrational, operating with harmful biases. The best way to tackle it is therefore nudging or tricking our irrational brains, for instance, by changing measles vaccination from an opt-in to a less burdensome opt-out choice.
Such arguments have often resonated well with frustrated climate scientists, public health experts and agri-scientists (complaining about GMO-opposers). Still, their solutions clearly remain insufficient for dealing with a fact-resisting, polarised society.
Need to fit in
In my comprehensive study, I interviewed numerous eminent academics at the University of Oxford, London School of Economics and King’s College London about their views. They were experts on social, economic and evolutionary sciences. I analysed their comments in the context of the latest findings on topics ranging from the origin of humanity, the climate crisis and vaccination to religion and gender differences.
It became evident that much of knowledge resistance is better understood as a manifestation of social rationality. Essentially, humans are social animals; fitting into a group is what’s most important to us. Often, objective knowledge-seeking can help strengthen group bonding – such as when you prepare a well-researched action plan for your colleagues at work.
But when knowledge and group bonding don’t converge, we often prioritise fitting in over pursuing the most valid knowledge. In one large experiment, it turned out that both liberals and conservatives actively avoided having conversations with people of the other side on issues of drug policy, death penalty and gun ownership.
This was the case even when they were offered a chance of winning money if they discussed with the other group. Avoiding the insights from opposing groups helped people dodge having to criticise the view of their own community.
Similarly, if your community strongly opposes what an overwhelming part of science concludes about vaccinations or the climate crisis, you often unconsciously prioritise avoiding getting into conflicts about it.
This is further backed up by research showing that the climate science deniers who score the highest on scientific literacy tests are more confident than the average in the group that says the climate crisis isn’t happening – despite the evidence showing this is the case. And those among the climate concerned who score the highest on the same tests are more confident than the average in that group that says the climate crisis is happening.
This logic of prioritising the means that get us accepted and secured in a group we respect is deep. Those among the earliest humans who weren’t prepared to share the beliefs of their community ran the risk of being distrusted and even excluded.
And social exclusion was an enormous increased threat against survival – making humans vulnerable to being killed by other groups, animals or by having no one to cooperate with. These early humans therefore had much lower chances of reproducing. It therefore seems fair to conclude that being prepared to resist knowledge and facts is an evolutionary, genetic adaptation of humans to the socially challenging life in hunter-gatherer societies.
No quick fix
Today, we are part of many groups and internet networks, to be sure, and can in some sense ‘shop around’ for new alliances if our old groups don’t like us. Still, humanity today shares the same binary mindset and strong drive to avoid being socially excluded as our ancestors who only knew about a few groups. The groups we are part of also help shape our identity, which can make it hard to change groups. Individuals who change groups and opinions constantly may also be less trusted, even among their new peers.
In my research, I show how this matters when it comes to dealing with fact resistance. Ultimately, we need to take social aspects into account when communicating facts and arguments with various groups. This could be through using role models, new ways of framing problems, new rules and routines in our organisations and new types of scientific narratives that resonate with the intuitions and interests of more groups than our own.
There are no quick fixes, of course. But if the climate crisis was reframed from the liberal/leftist moral perspective of the need for global fairness to conservative perspectives of respect for the authority of the land, the sacredness of religious creation and the individual’s right not to have their life project jeopardised by the climate crisis, this might resonate better with conservatives.
If we take social factors into account, this would help us create new and more powerful ways to fight belief in conspiracy theories and ‘fake news’. I hope my approach will stimulate joint efforts of moving beyond disputes disguised as controversies over facts and into conversations about what often matters more deeply to us as social beings.
Mikael Klintman is a professor of sociology at Lund University, Sweden.