Does combatting quackery and pseudoscience through rational argument and ridicule work?

As hard as it is to believe, I’ve been at this blogging thing for 12 years now. In fact, it’s been so long that this year I didn’t even remember to mention it when it happened nearly two weeks ago. Over that time period, I’ve dealt with a large number of conspiracy theories. Indeed, skeptics can’t help but avoid it. After all, conspiracy theories are at the heart of a lot of pseudoscience, quackery, and crankery. For instance, the very first bit of pseudohistory that served as my “gateway drug” into skepticism, Holocaust denial, is based upon a massive conspiracy theory that the Jews made up or vastly exaggerated the Nazis’ genocide against the Jews and are hiding evidence that it never happened or that far fewer Jews died, to the Holocaust deniers the Jews suffered no more than other groups suffering massive casualties during World War II. Similarly, most believers in alternative medicine believe in conspiracies by varying combinations of big pharma, the government, and the medical profession to suppress their favorite bits of quackery, due to a combination of ideology and (of course!), above all, to preserve big pharma’s profits.

One of the most common topics that I deal with is antivaccine pseudoscience. Not surprisingly, antivaccine ideologues believe in many conspiracy theories. Chief among these is that the government and pharmaceutical industry are “covering up” evidence that vaccines cause autism. To them, this conspiracy explains why high quality evidence from large epidemiological studies in the peer-reviewed literature has consistently failed to support a link between vaccines (or the thimerosal preservative that used to be in vaccines) and autism—or any other of the conditions and diseases antivaccinationists attribute to vaccines, such as autoimmune diseases, asthma, sudden infant death syndrome, and a wide variety of neurodevelopmental disorders. Indeed, that’s why I’ve started to refer to this conspiracy theory as the “central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement.” the “CDC whistleblower” manufactroversy so quickly blossomed into a full-blown conspiracy theory two years ago and has since resulted in more than one book (such as Kevin Barry’s Vaccine Whistleblower) and, of course, the propaganda film VAXXED by Andrew Wakefield and Del Bigtree, all promoting the idea that a troubled CDC scientist, William Thompson, has made claims that the CDC “covered up” evidence that, simply put), the MMR vaccine resulted in a much higher risk of autism in African American males. Thompson isn’t portrayed the way he really was, an emotionally troubled man who has nursed a grudge for 10 years against his former supervisors and collaborators because he felt that they didn’t listen to his concerns sufficiently and thus ended up spilling his guts to a biochemical engineer turned incompetent epidemiologist Brian Hooker, who tipped off Andrew Wakefield to Thompson’s complaints. Hilariously, although Thompson has been silent for over two years, even he doesn’t seem to believe Wakefield’s claims.

So conspiracy theories are important. Conspiracy theories are harmful very harmful, too. After all, arguably conspiracy theories are a large part of what fueled the election of Donald Trump, who is himself an antivaccine loon and even met with Andrew Wakefield back in August. (There’s even a picture.) It’s not for nothing that I fear for medical science under Trump.

So it was with great interest that I came across an article about a study on how to counter conspiracy theories Study: Rational arguments and ridicule can both reduce belief in conspiracy theories. The study itself by Orosz et al, carried out by a group in Hungary collaborating with a group in the UK, is entitled Changing Conspiracy Beliefs through Rationality and Ridiculing. The reason it caught my eye is because it goes against two tenets of science communication that I’ve learned since who knows when, one in particular that I’ve been pummeled with since time immemorial, given the name of this blog. The first is that you can’t change someone’s mind about pseudoscience or a conspiracy theory by rattling off the facts and science that refute it because that will make people double down through the phenomenon of motivated reasoning, in which intelligent people are very good at finding facts to support their beliefs and picking apart evidence that does not. (Most highly intelligent people are not skeptics and, through the Dunning-Kruger effect, people often overestimate their expertise in areas outside of their .) The second is that ridicule doesn’t change people’s minds, a tenet that has led to considerable concern trolling in the comments of this blog and my not-so-super-secret other blog. So a study that suggests that both methods can persuade is at least of interest, even if it turns out not to support the hypothesis.

Basically, the authors looked at three strategies for decreasing belief in conspiracy theories:

  1. In order to change the link between the object and the attribute, further logical pieces of information or logical steps can be provided, thus allowing us to elaborate on the logical structure which can result in a more complex link. (Using facts and studies to refute the belief.)
  2. The second possibility of conspiracy belief change involves increasing the distance between the self and those who hold a certain link between the object and the attribute. To achieve this, one can demonstrate that those people who hold such beliefs are characterized by negative traits or they are targeted as being ridiculous. As practically no one wants to be ridiculed by others, the ridiculing argument can be fueled by the ego-protective function. (The ridicule approach.)
  3. The third form of conspiracy belief change could relate to the identification with the object of the belief. Therefore, in this case, the primary goal is not to change the link between the object and the attribute, but to focus on the reduction of the distance between the self and the object of the CT. (The empathetic approach.)

To test these methods, the researchers recruited 813 Hungarian adults selected randomly from an Internet-enabled panel, including 20,000 members, with the help of the Solid Data Ltd., in October–November 2014. To select the the sample, a multiple-step, proportionally stratified, probabilistic sampling method was employed. As described by the researchers, members of this panel used the Internet at least once a week. Also, individuals were removed from the panel if they responded too quickly (i.e., without paying attention to their response) and/or had fake (or not used) e-mail addresses. The sample was nationally representative in terms of gender, age, level of education, and location of residence.

Respondents then listened to this:

After agreeing with the informed consent form, participants listened to the first audio recording (for the transcript, see Appendix 1 in Supplementary Material). This is a 4:30 min recording that presented a conspiracy super theory including the victimization of Hungary by the financial imperium, the hidden control of Jews over the world, the EU as a non-functional oppressive power, and the bankers who exploit the Hungarian financial system. The text provided vivid, but confusing details about the mechanisms that “actually” shape the fate of Hungary and the world. This super CT met the above mentioned characteristics of CTs in terms of nothing happens by chance, nothing is what it seems, everything is interconnected with everything, and the world is divided into good and evil.

I must admit, having read the text of the speech, I found this to be a doozy, even by my standards. Here’s a taste:

The Zionist world strategy, in concreto, can be seen as the global strategy to achieve world hegemony. It can be successfully accomplished if humanity does learn anything about it. For this reason, Zionists practically issued war against everyone who knew about their activity, analyzes it, judges it, and understands and publishes about their world strategy. The international Jewry created the bolshevism, and the same power disintegrated the Soviet Union. Today, the United States is the next. The Zionist monetary world elite have already successfully gained control over the political system of the United States.

After listening to the speech the subjects expressed their acceptance concerning eight questions on four main topics (victimization of Hungary, EU, power of the Jews, bankers). They were also asked about their general acceptance of the conspiracy theory. Then the subjects were randomized to four groups. The control listened to a weather forecast. The rest were randomized to listen to one of three speeches utilizing these strategies:

In the rational condition, the text tackled the claims made in the first recording in a logically plausible manner, using numbers to support the objections, and pointing out the discrepancy between high influence and concealment. This speech pointed out the logical flaws of the first speech and corrected it with in-depth arguments regarding the link between the beliefs’ objects and attributes. The goal of this condition was to emphasize the logical inconsistencies and to create a more complex and coherent relationship between the objects of the belief and the attributes.

In the ridiculing condition, the script addressed the same logical flaws, but reasoned against them differently: instead of focusing on certain details, it derided the logical inconsistencies and concentrated on those who believe in the CTs, picturing them as evidently ridiculous (e.g., mentioning the believers of Lizard Men). This text intended to increase the distance between the respondents’ self and those who believe in CTs.

The empathetic condition contested the original text’s claim in a different manner: instead of focusing on content or those who believe in the content, it placed the objects of the CTs in the center, and compassionately called attention to the dangers of demonizing and scapegoating, while also pointing out the human character of the CT objects (i.e., Jews face similar conspiracy theories and persecution nowadays that the Early Christians faced). This condition intended to reduce the distance between the respondent and the objects of CTs and to raise empathy toward these groups.

Here’s a taste of each condition. First, an excerpt from the rational:

Contrary to the text, the world’s financial core does not consist of the above-mentioned housed, nor the Zionist/Israeli/Jewish lobby. The British banks are not the most important. The Chinese banks dominate the international ranking of the banks based on the value of their tools. Among the top 10 biggest banks, 4 are Chinese, while in the top 50, 10 are Chinese, 6 are American, and 5-5 are Japanese, French, and British. In the top 10 enterprises, ranked by Forbes, 5 are Chinese (among them the Chinese ISBC with a wealth of 3124 billion dollars) and 5 are American (among them the JP Morgan with 2353 billion dollars).

Hmmm. Sounds like me…sometimes.

Now, an excerpt from the ridiculing:

The fight against the “global financial empire” and other invisible enemies is the hobby and craze of conspiracy theory believers. The important thing is to always have an evil with whom people can be scared, like the bogeyman crawling out from under the children’s bed. It is the best to choose a suspicious group with a bad reputation as enemy: secret societies, the House of Rotschilds, the illuminati, the Cabalists, international financial capital, Jews, etc. There are people who, following this train of thought, think that Lizard people want to take control over us, and for example the American presidents are disguised Lizard people in reality. Believable, right? The Facebook page of the most famous Lizard people believer, David Icke, is followed by half a million people. According to a research, 2% of the Americans, more than 6 million people, believe in the Lizard people theory. Obviously, it is easier to scare with a bogeyman than to think logically. It has also been proven by research that logical thinking is not a strength of the conspiracy believers. According to a British study, people believing Osama Bin Landen to still be alive, despite the official version, also believe in that he was already dead when American soldiers found him. He lives and dies at the same time. Believable, right?

This sounds like me a bit more of the time, although it’s a bit crude. I like my ridicule a bit more amusing.

Finally, an excerpt from the empathetic:

The different influential societies, families, bankers are often accused that they maliciously control countries, the EU and the events of the world from behind the scenes. As a consequence, Hungary often appears as a marionette that is controlled by them. Along other groups in the text, the global monetary empire, the super power whose leaders are the secretly controlling Zionists, alias Jews. It is important to know that the same scapegoat theory has already led to tragedy in multiple occasions. Similar theories constituted the Nazi propaganda about the world dominance of the Jews and resulted in the killing of 6 million people, women and children among them. Not only were the Jews the target of these conspiracy theories by any means. In the Middle Ages, the Jews were accused of poisoning water wells and murdering virgin girls. In the early eras of Christianity, in Ancient Rome, the same accusations were made against the Christians, and they were hunted and killed based on these accusations. A similar logic is behind current Christian prosecutions. The influential societies are often vested with demonic power so that they can be stripped of their goods.

So what were the results? Not being a social scientist or psychologist, I’m not able to judge more than in a general sense the various tools used to assess the subjects’ beliefs pre- and post-speeches, but they included:

  • Conspiracy Assessment Tool (CAT), which was created for this study to assess the individual’s attitudes toward conspiracies, assessing beliefs regarding conspiracies related to four aspects: (1) Hungary as a victim of conspiracy; (2) Jews as the leaders of the world; (3) the European Union is a parasitic formation without any function; and (4) the bankers as the leaders of the world.
  • Conspiracy Mentality Questionnaire (CMQ)
  • Balanced Inventory of Desirable Responding (BIDR)
  • Big Five (BFI)

The key result is here:

Figure 1

CAT scores, as you can see, decreased significantly among subjects who participated in the rational condition and the ridiculing condition, but no significant decrease was observed in the other two conditions: control and empathetic. From this the authors conclude that rational arguments and ridicule can reduce belief in conspiracy theories. The authors are, as they should be, fairly modest about their findings:

Considering these results and previous studies focusing on the benevolent effects of analytic thinking in CT belief reduction, it can be assumed that uncovering arguments regarding the logical inconsistencies of CT beliefs can be an effective way to discredit them. Our findings on the efficiency of rational argumentation go against the mainstream of the communication literature and “common wisdom,” as well as the current affective wave of social psychology emphasizing that emotions constitute the most important factor behind shaping beliefs and attitudes. Considering the modest effect sizes, we assume that rationality has a bigger impact on shaping (sometimes irrational) beliefs than previously expected, given that in the current communication environment, people are overloaded with emotional messages coming from ads, political and social campaigns. Future studies should also investigate the role of rationality and the “rationality heuristic” in belief change.

I like to joke that we have to be careful about studies whose results reinforce our preconceived biases. In this case, the question, of course, is whether these results are in any way generalizable. For one thing, the sample is relatively small and only involves one country. For another thing, this study only examines very short term measures. Most importantly, for my purposes, this study looked at a general population, not committed conspiracy theorists. In other words, this group is close to the group that I like to refer to as “fence-sitters.” In the case of the antivaccine movement, fence sitters are people who might have heard the misinformation about vaccines enough to be concerned but by no means have bought into the full conspiracy theory mindset of the movement or even started to seriously believe the lies.

In this study, the investigators were almost seeking to create fence sitters, as their subjects might or might not have heard about the antisemitic conspiracy theories to which they were exposed, much as new parents might be exposed to antivaccine misinformation. I know, I know, it’s a highly imperfect analogy, given how structured an experiment like this must by its very nature be compared to how parents generally find this information through friends and the Internet. Even so, these results give me hope that a combination of rational argument and targeted ridicule can be effective. I’m not so deluded not to think that such a combination probably at best doesn’t work and at worst hardens attitudes among the hard-core antivaccine ideologues or believers in other pseudoscience, but those were never my targets anyway (other than for ridicule). They’re so invested in their beliefs that changing them is as difficult as getting a fundamentalist to change or give up his religion. It happens, but not very commonly and usually not because of persuasion. Those of us who try, in our own way, to combat the pseudoscience and quackery that are so rampant today can only reasonably hope to try to inoculate the average citizen against such beliefs.