On July 2017, Guerilla Science hosted a slew of talks at Secret Garden Party 2017 exploring the science of celebrity, fame, and media. Naturally, we had to cover conspiracy theories and Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University, was on hand to explore what makes conspiracy theories so attractive and how it may or may not play a role in society.

Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University (left) with event host Ben Revell (right).

Catch a Conspiracy Theory” was a workshop held at the final Secret Garden Party. We invited Gardeners to test their knowledge of popular conspiracies (from fake moon landings to the death of Princess Diana). Needless to say, it was one of the most lively workshops of the programme. Guests were on full banter-mode creating their own versions of conspiracies and debunking others.

Discussing how the moon landing conspiracy theory is debunked.

We spoke to Viren about what research can tell us about conspiracies and whether or not it plays an important role in society.

GS: What did you think of the event?

VS: It was really great. I think the people really enjoyed it… and the bit about making their own conspiracy theories was probably the best part. And it was really fun as well.

GS: So we structured it differently than just a talk. Pub quiz style thing in the beginning and then we had people link up in groups (to create and debunk conspiracies). Were you part of the thinking up of the structure?

VS: So the first part we got people to just kinda say whether they believed in conspiracy theories or not. And the idea there was just to get people thinking about the prevalence of conspiracy theories. Now what we find is that between 40-50% of the general population believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Because conspiracy theories have such a negative connotation, very few people are likely to admit that in public. So the first thing we want to try and get people to do is to actually open up and talk about it and say, “Well I believe in these kinds of things…” And then what we found was that most people here was that Princess Diana was murdered by the royal family.

GS: Ooo, that felt like, from an audience member’s perspective, that felt like a touchy subject!

VS: It did! But that was the one most people were willing to admit that they believed it.

GS: That was surprising, wasn’t it?

VS: Yeah!

GS: How about things that you might’ve found surprising in that context? We’re in a festival setting, people are more likely to be engaged and play a little more… Was there something surprising from your perspective (as a social psychologist)?

VS: What I found surprising was how few people actually wanted to admit, at least in a public forum like this, that they believe in a conspiracy theory. You’d have expected a lot more people believed in at least some of these conspiracy theories. The other thing that surprised me was that it felt like there was a kind of negative vibe against conspiracy theories. Most people didn’t believe in them, and the ones that do were almost — not ridiculed– but almost looked at in a funny way.

GS: You didn’t expect that?

VS: No because I think conspiracy theories almost have a rational place in the world. They kind of help us to explain what’s happening in the world. They kind of provide a simplistic explanation, so you’d expect a lot more people to believe in them.

GS: Towards the end you were talking about what researchers think about conspiracy theories in terms of usefulness…does it serve a purpose? Or, you mentioned, just entertainment?

VS: Yeah. So one theory is that they kind of almost… not irrelevant, but that we shouldn’t really care about them because they’re essentially a form of entertainment. In the same way we might watch reality tv, conspiracy theories provide that sort of entertainment. We laugh at it, we make fun of it, and they don’t really have a meaningful place. … The different version, or kind of a different idea is that conspiracy theories are a kind of nascent social movement. They allow us to ask questions of big authority that we haven’t got the ability or the power to do so directly. So, for example, if there is a terrorist attack, and we start questioning whether the government did it, or whether the government allowed it to happen, conspiracy theories like that offer us a tool to question government in a way that we would not normally be given that power or the space to do so. So some people believe they are a kind of nascent social movement that give people a sense of power, or at the very least, they give a sense that we can do something about society. The opposite view is that conspiracy theories are generally a bad thing because they take people away from civic life, they take people away from mainstream politics, and they bleed into more negative outcomes like less care for the environment, more racist and homophobic attitudes, or kind of negative outcomes.

GS: I’m wondering what you think of conspiracy theories starting to take a mainstage rather than being niche… where most people don’t even bat an eyelid?

VS: One of the big changes I think, has been that conspiracy theories have always risen from the bottom-up. They’ve always been a low-level way of explaining what’s happening in the world. The big change now is that you see politicians actively using conspiracy theories to mobilize the poor. That’s not something we’ve seen at least in the west for a very very long time. That is the big change. It becomes so much more dangerous because all kinds of people believe it just because someone has said it and that makes it true rather than doing any actual critical thinking about whether or not it’s actually true, what does that statement actually mean. Pizzagate is actually probably the better example. Someone said it and therefore this guy took a gun to a pizza shop just because he thought there was a conspiracy.

GS: Is there a value to bringing these kinds of workshops, particularly for conspiracy theories? I mean I think there’s a tendency for people who tend to think rationally, or believe themselves as rational thinkers to shun the stuff and not pay attention to it. What do you think is the value of bringing it to a bigger space like Secret Garden Party, or even making an event out of it in public?

VS: I think it’s (a) about trying to explain that conspiracy theories, they don’t just because they are a form of entertainment. They emerge because people are trying to make sense of the world. Conspiracy theories offer a very simplistic explanation for what they say, look you don’t understand what’s happening with politics, you don’t understand what’s happening with the environment, but we can give you an explanation. It’s very simple. You can understand what’s happening here. And so understanding that rational process and rational decision making about why people might believe in them is really important, but the flipside to that is how do we get people moving away from conspiracist ideation. Like what you say, the most important thing here is to develop original thinking. Guerilla Science is doing such wonderful things about promoting science, promoting rational thinking, promoting analytic thinking. We need a lot more of that. We need to give people tools to critically evaluate statements and conspiracies they’re kind of seeing.

GS: Any tips for sifting through the conspiracy theories and not falling into that trap? Even the most rational thinker fall into a trap where they believe a conspiracy theory. Anything that affirms our beliefs, and if we’re tired we won’t look further. Any tips?

VS: I don’t know if tips are gonna help. I think what we need is much more structural change. For me, the biggest…the best way to challenge conspiracy thinking is actually to have better government. When you have transparent, open, and active participation in politics, you won’t have a need for conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories emerge because we don’t have democratic, transparent, open government. When we’re not actively involved as participants in politics, that’s when you have conspiracy theories. So get involved in politics, be involved, get to know grassroots organizations, and be involved in political movements.

GS: Last question – conspiracy theory people, are they worth having in the conversation?

VS: That’s a difficult question because I think once you believe in a conspiracy theory, the evidence suggests it’s actually very difficult to challenge those conspiracy theories. The evidence also does suggest that after having long-term discussions with these people, actually makes them better. But the most important thing is actually having critical evidence at the start, so before people actually get into the mindset of being a conspiracy theorist, that’s what we need to get the kind of targeted interventions.