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RS126 - Preston Bost on Crazy Beliefs, Sane Believers

Release date: January 25, 2015

Preston BostCan it be rational to believe conspiracy theories? On this episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia and Massimo welcome Prof. Preston Bost, a professor of psychology at Wabash College who investigates what kinds of people latch onto conspiracy theories, and why. The three discuss evolutionary reasons for conspiracy theories' appeal, and ask: how do you determine whether a belief is "rational," anyway?

Preston's picks: and "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey"

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Reader Comments (12)

"Conspiracy theory" is a term that tends to lead to sloppy thinking. I don't mean that there's no real phenomenon that's being described, but it's a confusing name for it.

Consider: almost every believes that there was a 9/11 conspiracy. Most people believe that the conspiracy was plotted by al-Qāʿidah. A much smaller number of people believe that it was plotted by Don Rumself and/or the CIA, etc. Perhaps there are even smaller numbers of people who believe that some third option was responsible: space aliens, reptilians, what have you. Only the people who reject the most widely-held conspiracy idea are termed "conspiracy theorists".

On this basis, we might consider saying "unpopular conspiracy theorists". But, consider, then, the Kennedy assassination. In this case, according to polls, a majority of Americans reject the traditional "lone gunman" theory. I suppose one could make the argument that "lone gunman" still counts as the popular consensus because it perhaps agreed to by a plurality: since everybody can't agree on which conspiracy they believe in.

I would prefer to simply say "paranoid conspiracy theorist" or something like that – I think that would be cutting to the chase. What we mean when we say "conspiracy theorist" is essentially "this person has bad judgment". Pref. Bost's research is great at providing further information about how that happens, but we can only start from the observable fact that some people who argue for some conspiracy theories evince really bad judgment.

January 26, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Pandatshang

Massimo has written at length about the demarcation problem of distinguishing between science and pseudoscience. Likewise there's a need to distinguish between history and pseudohistory, and generally between rational and irrational ways of reaching conclusions.
Conspiracy theories too can range from plausible, like the Al Qaeda 9/11 plot, to insane, like reptilians ruling the Earth. Somewhere in between, there's a gray area, like whether Frank Olson was murdered by the CIA or committed suicide. At least I think it's in the gray area, because there's not enough information. There was no trial, because the family settled.

January 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Hmmm, the guest really didn't make a good case that conspiracy theorists are rational. In fact, the more he talked, the more bits of irrationality surfaced.

I wonder how a conspiracy theorist would respond to this question: "What evidence would make you change your mind?"

January 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres

The conspiracy theorist might respond, "Just show Obama's birth certificate," but as soon as it's released, he'll say it's forged and move the goalpost. Or, if he strongly believes the conspiracy theory, he might respond the same way you'd respond to the same question about 9/11 being an inside job or the Holocaust being a hoax.

January 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax

"question about 9/11 being an inside job or the Holocaust being a hoax."

Well, it's a little different since there are a thousand lines of evidence supporting mainstream beliefs; conspiracy theorists tend to have only a handful of supposed anomalies. I don't believe that earth has been visited by aliens, but I don't think it would take a whole lot to demonstrate to me otherwise. And I might even be willing to accept some sort of conspiracy to keep it quiet. I just don't feel that strongly about it.

January 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterGreg Esres

All this discussion about what irrationality means and that certainly there's a problem with how we define rational if so many people can be labeled as such…

No there isn't. What we're really faced with is a huge irrationality problem. That is the situation. Half of the US population votes republican and they are all about irrationality - they actually deny science and tend to be guided by faith. That is very screwed up in this day and age when science has explained so much of what used to be mysterious, and in the process provided perspective on what religion is all about.

Naturally they (the great irrational masses) also like conspiracy thinking. The solution to understanding this is not to back off on the definition of rational but to grasp the problem fully as one that has many facets and is overwhelming, really. (Humans are currently causing one of Earth's great extinction events.)

January 31, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCurt Nelson

Professor Bost said that political ideology made no difference in conspiracy thinking overall. But I'm sure that 95% of African Americans voted for Obama because they're so rational, science-minded, and not guided by faith.

February 1, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMax

"Hmmm, the guest really didn't make a good case that conspiracy theorists are rational."

I agree with Greg Esres here. I found the guest very hand wavy. Esp the assertion that it would take a whole semester to come to an agreement on the definition of "rational."

I felt very little confidence in his expertise. I wish the hosts had pushed back a little harder against his assertions.

February 15, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJewish Steel

After this episode I felt how I would imagine feeling if I had gone to a professional baseball game...and they played "slow-pitch". In other words, the subject of "conspiracy theories" with professional philosophers, has all of the potential for fun, that a baseball has with two teams of professional athletes.

Conspiracies have always been a FACT of human civilizations and especially the aspect of civilization known as "leadership", "authority", "government", etc. Thus theories about these various conspiracies are perfectly natural to any curious population, especially if said conspiracy effects their lives to a significant degree.

The problem that I have with the mass-scale post-9/11 version of "conspiracy theorist", is that it chains this natural tendency of curious speculation, to a huge iron ball of irrationality simply because it dares to challenge the authority of "The Official Report", first and foremost. In other words, this version maintains the notion that "Official Reports" are effectively scientific "Gospel" and to challenge it/them is to commit a scientific felony of sorts.

Yes, there is always a full spectrum of public theories that range from 'genius observations' to 'flat-out insanity' in relation to most major events, but to automatically award any mainstream "Official Report" as the de facto Prevailing Legitimacy, is simply bad science at best.

I love this show! Thank you for keeping it going.

March 21, 2015 | Unregistered Commenter-E-
I find this discussion more condescending and insulting, not to mention naive, than insightful.

I am what the people engaged in discussion on this podcast would call a "conspiracy theorist" when it comes to certain issues (not all). I don't always believe there is something nefarious behind the official account of things, but have on many occasions found myself on the opposite side of the "official account" of issues.

People who believe conspiracies didn’t create the category “conspiracy theorist” and don’t categorize themselves that way. I question everything, consider actual facts and evidence and am not always on the side of the conspiracy. I don’t see why people need to create buckets for people, unless it serves an agenda of marginalizing a truth that damages the status quo, but that’s just another conspiracy theory right? And how do you classify a "conspiracy theory"? Does it have to defy an official government or accredited scientific account of something? Is not every criminal investigation's conclusion and court verdict nothing but the result of a conspiracy theory? Are all jurors just conspiracy theorists?

The lack of tolerance for "conspiracy theorists" may be due to the fact that people need life to be simple good vs evil and to know with certainty which side they are on in order to function. People don’t realize that they need something that simply doesn’t exist, unquestionable truth. I don’t need that to survive. I crave facts to analyze and decide for myself what is most plausible, and rarely accept a dogmatic truth either way. However, let’s face it, we’re fed practically nothing but lies on a daily basis by government, media, and even the scientific community. Even after the lies are exposed years after it “matters anymore", people continue to believe new lies because “things are different now”.

Things have barely changed in thousands of years of human history.

Preston sounds like he is trying to grapple with the fact that people he knows to be rational believe things that defy the status quo, and needs to rationalize it to himself. The question shouldn’t be framed “Why do rational people think crazy things?” it should be “Are rational people really thinking crazy things?”. But that is one of those Red Pill / Blue Pill kind of questions isn’t it? You either have the mental/emotional fortitude to question the status quo, or you don't.

It is worth noting that you’ll find that most of the time the mind of someone that believes an “official story” can be far more unyielding than one that believes a “conspiracy”. I have gone back and forth, swayed to believe the official story and the conspiracy on multiple occasions on multiple issues, whereas many who believe the status quo out of the gate are steadfast, closed minded, and resort to personal attacks instead of rational discussion far more often. It is more convenient to have someone think for you, and spoon feed you dogmatic truth and reinforce you when you lash out in mental anguish at anyone that challenges your beliefs.

Anyway, I am glad people are talking about this, even if I disagree with the hypothesis that believing in things that oppose the status quo simply makes to a rational human being that thinks crazy thoughts.
October 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterL.
MAX - "Professor Bost said that political ideology made no difference in conspiracy thinking overall. But I'm sure that 95% of African Americans voted for Obama because they're so rational, science-minded, and not guided by faith."

what does this have to do with anything?? all you shows is your own Right-Wing political ideology ..
November 14, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
Fanatical Conspiracy Theorists apparently will take any slight evidence, or even the absence of evidence, as evidence of a conspiracy. Strange that Earl Warren did this as Governor of California, especially since when later appointed as Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court Warren presided over tremendous advances in civil rights.
December 19, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson

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