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Robert Brotherton on Conspiracy Theories: “...just the tip of the iceberg.”


Susan Gerbic

August 2, 2017

Rob Brotherton is an author and professor at Barnard College in New York City. He has a PhD from Goldsmiths University of London; his thesis was on the psychology of conspiracy theories. He will be speaking at CSICon on Saturday, October 28 at 2:30 p.m. For more information about Rob, find it here

Susan Gerbic: Rob, so nice to meet you. I see you are interviewed all over the media from MSNBC to Breitbart. Conspiracy theories seem to be a hot topic these days. Your 2015 book Suspicious Minds – Why we Believe Conspiracy Theories is pretty timely. When you wrote this, you had no idea that the president of the United States would be someone who would spout this rhetoric. What a wild and crazy world we find ourselves in right now.

Rob Brotherton: Right. The Breitbart thing still tickles me. I’d written about the history of the Illuminati, how it became connected with hip hop for the Daily Beast, and Breitbart put up an article about it wildly misconstruing what I wrote—basically implying that I’d revealed Kanye West to be part of the Illuminati. Breitbart publishes misleading, clickbait stories—who knew?

Gerbic: You mean Kanye West isn’t a part of the illuminati? Can you tell readers a bit more about yourself? Why is the topic conspiracy theories your area?

Brotherton: I got into conspiracy theories very early in my psychology career, while I was still an undergrad. Around that time I was getting into the skeptical movement, reading books such as Flim Flam and The Demon Haunted World, and it got me interested in the weird side of psychology—false memories, magical beliefs, and the like. Then a faculty member suggested doing a project on conspiracy theories. At that point, the topic had been almost entirely ignored by psychologists, presumably because a lot of people assumed it was a trivial curiosity not worth spending much time on. But I was immediately hooked. For me, understanding conspiracy theories is important on the one hand because it helps us understand the psychology of belief in general and on the other hand because conspiracy theories can be impactful in and of themselves. In the last few years that has become more obvious, and more and more psychologists are researching conspiracy theories now.

Gerbic: It’s possible that people think that a belief in conspiracy theories is harmless; I’m thinking of the moon landing and lizard people in the government. Obviously, these aren’t exactly harmless as they fuel a mistrust of society around them. But they appear to be harmless compared to the false flag Sandy Hook theory (one of the fathers, Lenny Pozner, was a believer in conspiracy theories right up until the moment his son became a victim; he even was listening to Alex Jones the morning he dropped his son off at Sandy Hook) and Timothy McVeigh who believed the government instigated the Waco siege; his mistrust in the government eventually led him to bomb the FBI building in Oklahoma City.

Brotherton: Yes, there are those two reasons for concern. There are the rare but startling instances in which individuals are driven to extreme acts seemingly in large part thanks to their belief in a conspiracy. There was McVeigh, as you mentioned, or more recently Edgar Welch, the guy who went to investigate the Pizzagate conspiracy theory with an automatic rifle, though thankfully he didn’t hurt anyone. And then there are the broader but less tangible consequences, like choosing not to vaccinate your kids, take action against climate change, participate in the political process, or being generally distrustful. As far as the psychological research goes, studies do find that exposure to conspiracy theories can breed alienation. But it’s also likely that it goes in the other direction, too—that conspiracy theories resonate most with people who are alienated to begin with. So it’s likely a vicious cycle where alienation promotes conspiracism, which reinforces alienation, which promotes conspiracism, and so on.

Gerbic: Conspiracy theories have been with us for years, I remember reading that people didn’t believe that John Wilkes Booth assassinated Lincoln. I naively believed that when people had access to better information in a timely manner they would be less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. Is there any hope for our society? Is this just something we are going to have to learn to deal with?

Brotherton: Actually, I think you’re right, the accessibility of information thanks to the Internet has been great for debunking conspiracy theories. But it’s been good for spreading conspiracy theories as well. Overall it seems to be a wash, at least so far. The best longitudinal data we have come from a study by Joe Uscinski and Joseph Parent, who looked for references to conspiracy theories in letters to the editor published in a couple of national newspapers over more than a century. And they found that conspiracy theories form a pretty stable background hum. The proportion of people who are drawn to conspiracy theories, and the proportion who dismiss them, doesn’t change much over time, and both sides use whatever technology is available to consume and spread what they want to believe.

Gerbic: You will be speaking at CSICon in Vegas this year. Can you give us a glimpse into what you will be talking about?

Brotherton: The talk will be a whistle-stop tour of the highlights of the last decade or so of research into the psychology of conspiracy theories. I’ll focus on how some of the biases and shortcuts our brains use to make sense of the world that can make conspiracy theories seem appealing.

Gerbic: You spoke in 2011 at a conference in London called “Conspiracy Theory Day” and again in London in 2013 at the “Nine Worlds GeekFest.” CSICon sounds like it will fit right in; what would you say if someone said you are just speaking to the choir?

Brotherton: My take on conspiracy theories is quite different than the typical skeptical response of challenging the theorists on the facts. My secret agenda—don’t tell anyone—is to make skeptics question their views on conspiracy theories just as much as the conspiracy theorists. The stereotype of the tin-foil-hat-wearing crackpot is just wrong, and dismissing conspiracy theorists as people who just have the facts wrong misses an important psychological reality. We’re all potential conspiracy theorists, because that’s how our minds work. And, of course, sometimes people do conspire. The real trick is to calibrate your skepticism appropriately, which requires an awareness not just of when the people you disagree with are being biased but when you might be being biased yourself!

Gerbic: Okay, so now I need to know, what’s your favorite conspiracy theory?

Brotherton: I love the idea that the Illuminati is manipulating us via pop culture—I do an entire talk on references to the Illuminati in hip hop, if anyone is interested! But my favorite has to be David Icke, the British conspiracy theorist who weaves absolutely everything into a grand conspiracy narrative. I mean everything. I’ve been to a couple of his talks, and they last all day, eleven or twelve hours. He explains how the rings of Saturn are a radio transmitter and the moon is a hollow amplifier, beaming mind control rays down to Earth so that the evil Archons—his famous interdimensional shapeshifting lizards—can keep us trapped in their holographic reality. It’s great sci-fi. The only difference is that David Icke says it’s true, but I’m not convinced.

Gerbic: What’s next for Rob Brotherton? It seems that there is so much to work to do to educate about conspiracy theories that its almost overwhelming.

Brotherton: No kidding. I’m still researching conspiracy theories from different angles. My book was really the start of a conversation, not the end. I thought it was time to collect the early findings together in one place and get the message out that this is an interesting and important thing to study. But the research that’s been done so far is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

Gerbic: Folks, please join us at CSICon this year held at the Excalibur Hotel & Casino October 26–30, 2017. Join the Facebook page to get updates on where people are hanging out and what outside activities are happening. This isn’t only about attending interesting lectures but about meeting and interacting with like-minded people. Go for the speakers; return for the people. Trust me on this.

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Susan Gerbic

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Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. You can contact her at