The Minds of Conspiracy Theorists Can Be Changed, Scientists Say

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Over the weekend, NBA great Shaquille O’Neal unabashedly announced that he believes the Earth is flat. This might have been extremely shocking, save for the fact that he is just one of many celebrities and civilians that would agree. In turn, the Flat Earthers represent just one group of conspiracy theorists making their points known on the internet. In the age of fake news and the rapid spread of information, it may seem that such pseudoscientific beliefs are everywhere.

But North Carolina State University psychology professor Anne McLaughlin says we shouldn’t be discouraged.

Pseudoscience isn’t necessarily spreading more than it was before, she tells Inverse, and we have a way to stop it. “I don’t know if I could say belief in pseudoscience is proliferating — it always have been with us in some form,” she said in an e-mail. “We humans are naturally disposed to see causal connections between events, even when they aren’t there.”

One way to combat these inaccurate casual connections, she argues in a new paper co-authored with fellow professor Alicia McGill, is through critical thinking. McLaughlin says that because critical thinking is a skill — not something certain people are born with — the failure of combating pseudoscience is “mostly on us and the education these adults received.”

McLaughlin and McGill tested out the power of critical thinking training by examining the effect three courses had on undergraduate students. Student volunteers either enrolled in a psychology research methods course (which served as the control) or one of two classes on historical frauds and mysteries. A group of honors students participated in one of the latter classes. Before the semester began, the researchers quantified all students’ beliefs in certain pseudoscientific claims. Some of these conspiracies were revisited later in the courses on frauds and mysteries, which emphasized in their curriculum the skill of critically examining and assessing the evidence behind claims.

Not all of the conspiracies introduced in the initial assessment were revisited in the course. For example, the courses circled back to beliefs in lost city of Atlantis, but they didn’t reconsider the belief that 9/11 was orchestrated by the United States government. This variation, the researchers say, allowed them to see if student belief changes came from new skills in critical thinking or just new information.

When the semester was over, the researchers reevaluated the student’s belief in pseudoscientific claims. They found that the control group didn’t experience a shift in belief at all. But all the students who took the history courses did have lower beliefs in pseudoscience. This was especially true of the honors students, whose level of belief dropped by one point on the topics actually covered in class and by half a point in the topics that were not covered.

McLaughlin says that targeting students in this way would likely be a successful method regardless of the student’s age. What matters, she says, is training people in the ability to use logic and reasoning. It’s also important that people are actually interested in learning that skill, which can be half the battle. As for helping other people stop spreading fake news, she says that the best thing to do is ask them questions about their sources and why they think those sources are sound. We can only hope that someone’s willing to mention this to Shaq.

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