July 27, 2022
Who is more into conspiracy theories: the right or the left?
A new study sheds light on the political tilt of conspiracy theories.
First, though, let me admit that I’ve always been more sympathetic to conspiracy theories in theory than in practice. The notion that powerful figures plotted, say, the assassination of Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, or Archduke Franz Ferdinand seems not implausible.
But the quality of popular conspiracy theories is dire.
One fundamental problem is that widely appealing conspiracy theories demand formidable villains, bad guys who can keep a secret and who adroitly understand how the world works in order to seize the future.
But our elites instead seem inept at understanding cause and effect. They are recurrently surprised that, for example, their depolicing drives lead to an explosion of riots, murders, and car crashes.
The essence of conspiracy thinking is: “Fear the Plan”—but not because elites getting their way will no doubt unleash yet another orgy of unintended consequences, but because it will all go as nefariously calculated. (Amusingly, QAnon was a sort of reverse conspiracy theory in which supporters of the capricious and publicity-mad Trump administration were instead reassured, “Trust the Plan.”)
Hence my kind of conspiracy theory is that the reason Pfizer shut down its Covid vaccine clinical trial from late October 2020 until the day after the election was to deprive Trump of his October Surprise.
But it’s a boring conspiracy theory even though (or because) it’s likely true. As far as I can tell, there was no long-range secret strategy to do down Trump. Instead, CEO Albert Bourla kept stubbornly promising that Pfizer would announce results in October despite mounting anger toward him among Democrats (who were vaccine skeptics back then). Finally, it appears, it was made clear to him at the last moment that the media and the Biden administration would not look forgivingly upon Pfizer if it did.
I suspect that’s what real-world conspiracies are frequently like: desperate improvisations.
But nobody remembers and nobody cares, whereas less plausible conspiracy theories are ever-popular.
A new study in Political Behavior entitled “Are Republicans and Conservatives More Likely to Believe Conspiracy Theories?” by political scientist Adam Enders and colleagues finds, according to three different methodologies, that, contrary to the media stereotype going back to Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 book The Paranoid Style, the right side of the American political spectrum is no more conspiratorial-minded than the left side:
Across all studies, we fail to observe consistent evidence that the right exhibits higher levels of conspiracism––however operationalized––than the left.
First, the researchers looked at eight surveys conducted over the last decade regarding 52 different conspiracy theories. Twenty-five were more popular on the right, 23 on the left, and four fell right at the midpoint.
They readily admit that that you should worry about selection bias in their research:
Of course, one might protest that the patterns depicted…are artifacts of the conspiracy theories we chose to examine and, indeed, they would be correct!
However, as much would be the case for ANY study of specific conspiracy theories.
As, they imply, that’s also the likeliest reason why many political scientists assume that conservatives are more conspiracy-crazed: When they start making up lists of conspiracy theories they put down all the right-wing ones that drive them nuts, but ignore many of their own side’s.
This critically important point explains the discrepancies among previous studies: substantive inferences are heavily dependent on which conspiracy theories are considered. Inferences about the fundamental nature of conspiracism should not be made from patterns in a single or small number of conspiracy beliefs, even though precisely such generalizations are commonplace in the conspiracy belief literature…. Thus, findings of left–right asymmetries (or lack thereof) may be an artifact of which conspiracy theories researchers investigate.
If you were conspiracy-inclined, you might start thinking there had been a conspiracy to rig academic studies of conspiracy theories. More plausibly, it’s just been the usual bias and lack of self-awareness.
Enders & Co. point out all the conspiracy theories that are equally believed by the masses on the left and the right (but not the elites, who tend to have gotten the memo about which conspiracy theories are fashionable on their side and which aren’t):
For example, partisanship and ideology are not correlated with beliefs in conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination, the MMR vaccine, the Holocaust, GMO’s, Fluoride, cellphones, AIDS, pharmaceutical companies, government mind control, and lightbulbs.
What, you may be wondering, is the lightbulb conspiracy theory? It’s not the old lightbulb conspiracy theory about how Big Lightbulb had invented a product that never burns out that the cartel was withholding from the market.
Instead, it has to do with those twisty CFL bulbs from before LEDs:
“The U.S. government is mandating the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs because such lights make people more obedient and easier to control.”
Personally, that sounds about as sensible as any reason for CFLs (although I’m sure that at some point in the future there will be a nostalgic Stranger Things-style TV show about being 14 years old in 2011 that will feature the sickly but still heartwarming glow of CFL bulbs in every indoor scene).
But this new lightbulb conspiracy is not actually a real theory. Instead, it was fabricated by researchers for a 2014 poll as an all-purpose generic test untainted by previous exposure to determine just how much you like conspiracy theorizing for the sake of conspiracy theorizing. They found a tiny leftward slant among its believers.
Similarly, the new study looked at responses to a general conspiracy theory that “captures a sentiment that is presumably foundational to many specific conspiracy theory beliefs”:
Regardless of who is officially in charge of governments and other organizations, there is a single group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together.
They remark about this theory:
that we observe no difference between left and right may suggest that the psychological bedrock for conspiricism traverses mainstream political orientations.
Then the researchers hired an international polling firm to ask about eleven conspiracy theories in twenty countries. Once again, they didn’t find much difference related to politics.
Finally, they made up ten ambidextrous conspiracy theories in which they could substitute in either “Democratic” or “Republican,” such as:
Do you think that Democratic [Republican] political elites are secretly plotting with large banks to lie about the health of the economy to gain support for their economic policy proposals?
Democratic respondents turned out somewhat more paranoid than Republicans on these questions.
In sum, we find no support for the hypothesis that those on the right are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories that impugn liberals than liberals are to endorse the exact same conspiracy theories when they impugn conservatives.
I would add that there is a whole class of woke conspiracy theories that our culture is suffused in that aren’t asked about in this study because virtually nobody ever dares point out that they are indeed conspiracy theories. Instead, they are considered prestigious findings of the social sciences, even though most of them are empirically dubious. For instance:
(1) Unarmed blacks are being murdered in huge numbers by racist police.
(2) Redlining denying loans to blacks is the reason their property values are lower.
(3) Predatory lending is the reason black property values are lower.
(4) Black crime rates are higher because of over-policing of black neighborhoods.
(5) America’s murder rate is high due to rural rednecks buying rifles at the sporting goods store.
(6) Black test scores are lower because of the systemic racism of white schoolteachers.
(7) Female entrepreneurs seldom found tech unicorns because venture capitalists hate women so much that they leave billion-dollar bills lying on the sidewalk.
(8) The AIDS crisis of the 1980s was the fault of Ronald and/or Nancy Reagan.
(9) Races don’t exist and they were concocted by Enlightenment scientists to promote racism.
(10) Huge numbers of people were assigned the wrong gender at birth.
And so forth and so on.
Indeed, working together with other influential actors to punish people who point out that your conspiracy theory is a conspiracy theory is perhaps the most useful kind of conspiracy of all.