Research: Belief in Conspiracy Theories is Spreading & is Closely Tied to Level of Education
There have always been conspiracy theories [the JFK assassination, the Trilateralists, the moon landing etc.], however, they now seem to pop up and spread faster than ever before. Moreover, in the past they were generally viewed as minor irritants restricted to small fringe groups like the followers of Lyndon LaRouche in the 1970s and 80s. Today, they are increasingly part of our national debate on critical public policy issues such as climate change, voting rights, the Covid response, immigration, and foreign policy [the "deep state"].
In their literature review, a recent academic study about conspiracy theories on social media platforms like Twitter said this about their growth: "For a long time, conspiracy theories were considered to be a deviant social phenomenon (Hofstadter, 1965) and an individual and societal anomaly (Abalakina-Paap et al., 1999). In recent years, however, they have penetrated mainstream discourse and legacy media coverage (Waisbord, 2018), permeated popular culture (Uscinski, 2018) and political rhetoric (Mede & Schäfer, 2020), and have become increasingly “normalized, institutionalized and commercialized” (Aupers, 2012, p. 24)."
And, that's the problem. Generally we don't much care if our neighbors believe that the moon landing was staged or that Princess Diane faked her death, but when Donald Trump suggested that climate scientists conspired to make-up data to demonstrate the existence of climate change, that he was battling "deep state" conspirators, and that the election was stolen, it becomes a national crisis, a crisis that undermines the nation's ability to address complex science and research-based issues.
As a result, there is quite a bit of research today concerning conspiracy theories and those that buy into the increasing bizarre fantasies [QAnon]. The research is clear on one point; individuals with lower levels of education are more likely to engage in conspiratorial thinking.
American Psychiatric Association: "Research shows that higher levels of education are inversely correlated with belief in conspiracies, presumably because education fosters critical thinking and skepticism, which makes it easier to suppress one’s often misleading intuition (6)."
Put another way, education provides individuals with the knowledge base to critically analyze simplistic and conspiratorial answers to complex issues.
And, you can see the difference today regarding some current political conspiracy theories. A January 2021 American Perspectives Survey determined that Americans without a college education are much more likely to believe in political conspiracies. Looking at several specific hoaxes circulating among conservatives they found that 56% of Republicans without a college degree believe that anti-fascists [antifa], rather than Trump supporters and white supremacists, were mostly responsible for the attack on the US Capitol on January 6th, while only 38% of college educated Republicans said the same. Republicans without a four-year college degree are also more prone to support the absurd QAnon conspiracy that claims that “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.” 34% of non-college educated Republicans believe that statement while only 19% of those with a college degree say the statement in accurate.
The Pew Research Organization found similar results regarding a prominent Covid-19 conspiracy theory last summer. They found that almost half [48%] of those with a high school education or less believed that the "coronavirus outbreak was planned by powerful people," compared to 24% of individuals with a college degree. They also found a substantial partisan split in their results. Almost twice as many Republicans believed the statement compared to Democrats [34% to 18%], reflecting the movement of college educated voters towards the Democratic Party over the last 20 years.
Here's the thing; a nation that is constantly battling a ever growing list of wacky conspiracy theories like the current election fraud controversy among Republicans in the House of Representatives is not debating issues that impact the lives of average Americans. And, in GOP led state legislatures, representatives are passing a broad array of measures to restrict voting based on the false assumption that the result of the 2020 election was somehow "fraudulent." Moreover, the nation will never be able to seriously debate solutions to climate change or craft immigration reform measures if we can't agree on a basic collection of "facts."
By: Don Lam & Curated Content