Beliefs about the nature of knowledge are linked to inclinations for conspiracy theories, study finds

Our beliefs about the nature of knowledge may influence how susceptible we are to believing in conspiracy theories and false information, according to research published in the scientific journal PLOS One.

The study suggests that epistemic beliefs — meaning beliefs about how we come to know things — have an impact on the belief in conspiracy theories.

“Being able to distinguish claims that are supported by the evidence from claims that are merely plausible and politically expedient is at the heart of our democracy. Our rapidly changing communication environment is putting tremendous pressure on long-standing practices for guarding against political manipulation,” explained study author R. Kelly Garrett, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University.

“If we want to find ways to fight disinformation and promote evidence-based decision making, we have to understand where beliefs come from. This study is just one piece of a larger project exploring these issues.”

The study examined the link between conspiracy theories and three different three epistemic beliefs, which the researchers called “faith in intuition”, “need for evidence”, and “truth is political”. The first refers to people who trust their “gut feelings.” Need for evidence refers to the belief that you need to examine the available evidence. Truth is political refers to people who claim that knowledge is both subjective and politically determined.

The researchers found that individuals who trusted their intuition or believed truth was political were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories. People who agreed with statements such as “I can usually feel when a claim is true” or “facts are dictated by those in power” were more likely to believe that the Apollo moon landing was fake or that the U.S. government knowingly allowed the 9/11 terrorist attacks to occur.

Those who believed in the need to check for external evidence, on the other hand, were less likely to embrace conspiracy theories. They were also more likely to correctly answer questions about scientific and political facts, such as climate change and the lack of WMDs in Iraq before the U.S. invasion.

“There’s a note of optimism in our findings that I hope people will remember,” Garrett told PsyPost. “Our research suggests that everyone benefits from attending to the evidence. So often, researchers studying misperceptions find that factors we’d hoped would promote accuracy end up promoting bias.”

“For instance, being more knowledgeable about science is associated with having more biased beliefs about climate change,” he noted. “Here, though, we find uniform benefits: liberals and conservatives alike were more accurate when they put more stock in the evidence.”

In an essay for The Conversation, Garrett added that people’s need for evidence could protect them from fake news and political misinformation.

“It may seem like common sense, but learning to dig into the story behind that shocking headline can help you avoid spreading falsehoods,” he wrote.

The study, like all research, has some limitations and there are more questions that need to be addressed.

“The work is just one small step in understanding the influence of people’s epistemic beliefs,” Garrett told PsyPost. “Almost all of the analyses are cross-sectional, and we have much more to learn. For example, where do epistemic beliefs come from? And how malleable are they?”

The study, “Epistemic beliefs’ role in promoting misperceptions and conspiracist ideation“, was also co-authored by Brian E. Weeks.