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Scientific American

Conspiracy Central

published December 2014 | comments (30)
Who believes in conspiracy theories—and why
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President Barack Obama has been a busy man while in office: he concocted a fake birth certificate to hide his true identity as a foreigner, created “death panels” to determine who would live and who would die under his health care plan, conspired to destroy religious liberty by mandating contraceptives for religious institutions, blew up the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig to garner support for his environmental agenda, masterminded Syrian gas attacks as a pretext to war, orchestrated the shooting of a tsa agent to strengthen that agency’s powers, ordered the Sandy Hook school massacre to push through gun-control legislation, and built concentration camps in which to place Americans who resist.

Do people really believe such conspiracy theories? They do, and in disturbingly high numbers, according to recent empirical research collected by University of Miami political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent and presented in their 2014 book American Conspiracy Theories (Oxford University Press). About a third of Americans, for example, believe the “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama is a foreigner. About as many believe that 9/11 was an “inside job” by the Bush administration.

The idea that such beliefs are held only by a bunch of nerdy white guys living in their parents’ basements is a myth. Surveys by Uscinski and Parent show that believers in conspiracies “cut across gender, age, race, income, political affiliation, educational level, and occupational status.” People on both the political left and right, for example, believe in conspiracies roughly equally, although each finds different cabals. Liberals are more likely to suspect that media sources and political parties are pawns of rich capitalists and corporations, whereas conservatives tend to believe that academics and liberal elites control these same institutions. GMO conspiracy theories are embraced primarily by those on the left (who accuse, for example, Monsanto of conspiring to destroy small farmers), whereas climate change conspiracy theories are endorsed primarily by those on the right (who inculpate, for example, academic climate scientists for manipulating data to destroy the American economy).

Group identity is also a factor. African-Americans are more likely to believe that the cia planted crack cocaine in inner-city neighborhoods. White Americans are more likely to believe that the government is conspiring to tax the rich to support welfare queens and turn the country into a socialist utopia.

Encouragingly, Uscinski and Parent found that education makes a difference in reducing conspiratorial thinking: 42 percent of those without a high school diploma are high in conspiratorial predispositions, compared with 23 percent with postgraduate degrees. Even so, that means more than one in five Americans with postgraduate degrees show a high predisposition for conspiratorial belief. As an educator, I find this disturbing.

Other factors are at work in creating a conspiratorial mind. Uscinski and Parent note that in laboratory experiments “researchers have found that inducing anxiety or loss of control triggers respondents to see nonexistent patterns and evoke conspiratorial explanations” and that in the real world “there is evidence that disasters (e.g., earthquakes) and other high-stress situations (e.g., job uncertainty) prompt people to concoct, embrace, and repeat conspiracy theories.”

A conspiracy theory, Uscinski and Parent explain, is defined by four characteristics: “(1) a group (2) acting in secret (3) to alter institutions, usurp power, hide truth, or gain utility (4) at the expense of the common good.” A content analysis of more than 100,000 letters to the New York Times in 121 years turned up three pages’ worth of such conspirators, from Adolf Hitler and the African National Congress to the World Health Organization and Zionist villagers, catalogued into eight types: Left, Right, Communist, Capitalist, Government, Media, Foreign and Other (Freemasons, the AMA and even scientists). The common theme throughout is power—who has it and who wants it—and so the authors conclude their inquiry with an observation translated by Parent from Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince (a conspiracy manual of sorts), for “the strong desire to rule, and the weak desire not to be ruled.”

To those who so conspire, recall the motto of revolutionaries everywhere: sic semper tyrannis —thus always to tyrants.

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A Science of War

published November 2014 | comments (14)
Do democracies make better lovers?
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From Ukraine, Syria and Gaza to the centenary of the First World War in 2014, news junkies and students of history cannot help but wonder if war is a perpetual feature of civilization. German philosopher Immanuel Kant wondered as much in a 1795 essay entitled Perpetual Peace, concluding that citizens of a democratic republic are less likely to support their government in a war because “this would mean calling down on themselves all the miseries of war.” Ever since, the “democratic peace theory” has had its supporters. Rutgers University political scientist Jack Levy, in a 1989 essay on “The Causes of War,” reasoned that the “absence of war between democratic states comes as close as anything we have to an empirical law in international relations.” Skeptics point out such exceptions as the Greek and Punic wars, the War of 1812, the U.S. Civil War, the India-Pakistan wars and the Israel-Lebanon War. Who is right? Can science answer the question?

In their 2001 book Triangulating Peace, political scientists Bruce Russett and John Oneal employed a multiple logistic regression model on data from the Correlates of War Project that recorded 2,300 militarized interstate disputes between 1816 and 2001. They assigned each country a democracy score between 1 and 10, based on the Polity Project, which measures how competitive its political process is, as well as the fairness of its elections, checks and balances of power, transparency, and so on. The researchers found that when two countries score high on the Polity scale, disputes between them decrease by 50 percent, but when one country was either a low-scoring democracy or an autocracy, it doubled the chance of a quarrel between them. (continue reading…)

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Infrequencies

published October 2014 | comments (23)
I just witnessed an event so mysterious that it shook my skepticism
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Often I am asked if I have ever encountered something that I could not explain. What my interlocutors have in mind are not bewildering enigmas such as consciousness or U.S. foreign policy but anomalous and mystifying events that suggest the existence of the paranormal or supernatural. My answer is: yes, now I have.

The event took place on June 25, 2014. On that day I married Jennifer Graf, from Köln, Germany. She had been raised by her mom; her grandfather, Walter, was the closest father figure she had growing up, but he died when she was 16. In shipping her belongings to my home before the wedding, most of the boxes were damaged and several precious heirlooms lost, including her grandfather’s binoculars. His 1978 Philips 070 transistor radio arrived safely, so I set out to bring it back to life after decades of muteness. I put in new batteries and opened it up to see if there were any loose connections to solder. I even tried “percussive maintenance,” said to work on such devices—smacking it sharply against a hard surface. Silence. We gave up and put it at the back of a desk drawer in our bedroom. (continue reading…)

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Surviving Statistics

published September 2014 | comments (6)
How the survivor bias distorts reality
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When I purchased my latest vehicle, I was astonished to get the license plate 6NWL485. What are the chances that I would get that particular configuration? Before I received it, the odds would have been one in 175,760,000. (The total number of letters to the power of the number of letters on the plate times the total number of digits to the power of the number of digits on the plate: 263 x 104). After the fact, however, the probability is one.

This is what Pomona College economist Gary Smith calls the “survivor bias,” which he highlights as one of many statistically related cognitive biases in his deeply insightful book Standard Deviations (Overlook, 2014). Smith illustrates the effect with a playing card hand of three of clubs, eights of clubs, eight of diamonds, queen of hearts and ace of spades. The odds of that particular configuration are about three million to one, but Smith says, “After I look at the cards, the probability of having these five cards is 1, not 1 in 3 million.” (continue reading…)

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ClimeApocalypse

published August 2014 | comments (9)
Or just another line item in the budget?
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In the year 2393 a historian in the Second People’s Republic of China penned a book about how scientists, economists and politicians living in the 21st century failed to act on the solid science they had that gave clear warnings of the climate catastrophe ahead. As a result, the world experienced the Great Collapse of 2093, bringing an end to Western civilization.

So speculate historians of science Naomi Oreskes of Harvard University and Erik Conway of the California Institute of Technology in their book The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future (Columbia University Press, 2014), a short scientific- historical fantasy. During the second half of the 20th century— the “Period of the Penumbra”—a shadow of anti-intellectualism “fell over the once-Enlightened techno-scientific nations of the Western world…preventing them from acting on the scientific knowledge available at the time and condemning their successors to the inundation and desertification of the late twenty-first and twenty-second centuries.” (continue reading…)

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