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The Crises of Expertise and Belief: Sample Chapter

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The need for chaos can have positive or negative effects depending on the context, the intensity, and the frequency of the chaotic behavior. On one hand, chaos can foster creativity, innovation, diversity, and change by challenging existing norms, assumptions, and structures. On the other hand, chaos can cause harm, damage, conflict, and suffering by disrupting social cohesion, trust, cooperation, and well-being. It is easy to identify how this tendency for chaos can be leveraged by opportunistic leaders and pseudo-experts to manipulate followers for their own goals.

A Romantic Relationship Might Help (Go-Figure!)

As previously noted, people tend to socially connect with others that share their conspiracy beliefs – social media undoubtedly accelerates this socialization process. A “group-think” dynamic appears to operate here. People find comfort in social dialogue with like-minded others. This is a reinforcing cycle of belief—that is unless individuals are involved in a romantic relationship! Research by Sandra Murray, et al. (2023) suggests that rewarding romantic connections might limit conspiracy theorists’ susceptibility to believing conspiratorial views, at least in the case of COVID-19.

While Murray’s research does not specifically delve into the “why’s”, it is feasible to speculate that romantic relationships may lessen the “Us-Them” aspect of conspiracy theory thinking as well as foster a less confrontational approach to dialogue on issues of suspicion. This may especially be the case if the romantic relationships are more diverse and cross in-group boundaries. As we describe further in Chapter 15, diversity of input and dialogue appears logically to mediate distrust and disbelief of out-group experts and leaders.

Extreme Left or Right! Or Just Stupid?

Conspiracy theories are relatively more pronounced on the political left in countries where the left tends to be more radical (e.g. parts of Latin America). They are relatively more pronounced on the political right in countries where the right tends to be more radical (e.g., the US). Indeed, the political polarization seen in US politics in recent decades has added to the potential for political extremes to develop and believe conspiracy theories, rejecting information and expert advice from scientists and experienced leaders in various fields (medical, climate, economics etc.) simply on the basis that these experts and leaders are part of out-groups and are therefore likely part of the conspiracy.

Regressing to Stupidity

The limitations in critical thinking and logic are apparent in people and groups that attempt to sense-make through simple reasons—this is where regression in cognitive functions is evident. The level of regression can be quite amazing. Reasoning, for instance, is deeply flawed in the case of Pizzagate where QAnon believers accept a reality in which high-profile Democrats (especially the Clintons) are sexually abusing children at a Washington, D.C. pizzeria. QAnon beliefs eventually led to an armed attack by a gunman.

Edgar Maddison Welch believed the theory and wanted to protect children from abuse. This is just one of many such events extensively researched and documented.  As in the case of Pizzagate, the outrageous reasoning is often not benign. As Douglas and her associates (Douglas, et. al., 2016b) suggest, people who tend to believe these conspiracies “instead of appreciating the complexity of many developments in society, extremist ideologies assert that societal problems occur for simple reasons – for instance, because they are caused deliberately by corrupt outgroups”.

This view is somewhat in contrast to the “connecting the dots” notion where some conspiracy theories, like QAnon, is made up of a complex array of disconnected events and individuals. However, what Douglas is reflecting is that “simple reasons” are cause and effect solutions often identified by people who lack critical thinking. Indeed, Jay Cullen (2018) concludes that:

… there are people that because of their (lack of) educational background, past experiences, and tendency to accept conspiracy theories will simply not accept scientifically derived information from experts (that conflicts with their in-group views). They reject scientific expertise a priori and cannot be brought to change their opinion with factual information when their opinion on a matter is not fact based.

However, Van Prooijen warns that “one of the main mistakes that one can make in explaining conspiracy beliefs is to dismiss them as pathological, (or stupid or ignorant). Instead, … conspiracy theories emerge from regular and predictable psychological responses to feelings of uncertainty and fear”.

While Van Prooijen may be correct in this viewpoint, some research findings (described below) suggests that people with higher levels of education and analytical thinking skills in particular, are able to mentally step back from feelings and thoughts of anxiety. They can “think about their thinking” (metacognition) in a more rationale manner. As a result, they are more likely to come to some kind of realization that a secret cabal of Democratic, Satan-worshipping child molesters, operating in the basement of a pizza parlor (referring to the QAnon conspiracy theory) is probably unlikely.

On the other hand, these educated people might simply be better at hiding their conspiratorial biases than people with less education. Jeff Jacoby (2023) offers research evidence suggesting that attitude regarding antisemitism might be just as strong among people who are “well-educated” as among those with less education. When asked how they feel about Jews, the educated interviews “are sophisticated enough to realize what is being asked.” They make the “correct”, liberated response and hide their own true antisemitic beliefs and feelings. We might extrapolate these findings to the more general domain of authoritarian attitudes and conspiracies.

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