New research sheds light on the relationship between distrust of new scientific innovations and the general tendency to believe in conspiracies. The study provides evidence that different facets of conspiracism predict different anti-science attitudes.
The findings have been published in the journal Public Understanding of Science.
“Understanding the reasons why some people may reject scientific technologies — such as vaccinations or GMOs for food — is important, as we understand that people’s attitudes and decisions are not necessarily shaped by information and knowledge,” said study author Mathew Marques, a psychology lecturer at La Trobe University.
“Rather than a deficit in knowledge, it is a deficit in trust that is shaping attitudes towards advances in science and technology that could be beneficial for humanity. Given that there are often unfounded conspiracy theories involving contested scientific technologies, we thought it important to investigate the unique conspiracy facets associated with several contentious and uncontroversial applications of science.”
The researchers surveyed 1,011 Australians and 754 New Zealanders in 2019. The online survey included the Generic Conspiracist Belief Scale, a validated measure of one’s general tendency toward conspiracy thinking. The participants were also asked to indicate their level of comfort with eight technologies: genetically modified plants for food, genetically modified animals for food, childhood vaccinations, nuclear power, wind farms, solar farms, recycled water for drinking, and new 5G mobile phone networks.
Marques and his colleagues found that several facets of conspiratorial thinking were associated with distrust of individual technologies.
Those who agreed with statements such as “The government is involved in the murder of innocent citizens and/or well-known public figures, and keeps this a secret” — indicating a belief in government malfeasance — tended to be more distrusting of childhood vaccinations and nuclear power. In the New Zealand sample, they were also more distrusting of wind power.
Those who agreed with statements such as “The spread of certain viruses and/or disease is the result of the deliberate, concealed efforts of some organization” — indicating conspiratorial beliefs about personal wellbeing — tended to be more distrusting of childhood vaccinations as well, and in the Australian sample, were also more distrusting of 5G phone networks.
Australians (but not New Zealanders) who agreed with statements such as “Certain significant events have been the result of the activity of a small group who secretly manipulate world events” — indicating a belief in international cabals who secretly control events — tended to be more distrusting of genetically modified plants for food.
Australians who agreed with statements such as “Groups of scientists manipulate, fabricate, or suppress evidence to deceive the public” — indicating belief in the suppression of information by organizations — tended to be more distrusting of genetically modified animals for food.
“Very few people are against science, but people may be motivated in some way to reject the way in which science is applied if it threatens their core values or beliefs,” Marques told PsyPost. “Those who engage in some kinds of conspiratorial thinking are also more likely to reject beneficial scientific innovations. For example, those who believe in criminal conspiracies within governments and conspiracies related to restrictions on personal health practices and liberties are more likely to reject childhood vaccinations.”
But the findings are limited by their correlational nature.
“While our research was in two large demographically representative samples in Australia and New Zealand, it could not address questions of causality,” Marques explained. “That is, more needs to be done to disentangle the directions and understand the permanence of these beliefs. Research over time examining conspiracy thinking and attitudes could tell us more about whether there may also be people attracted to conspiracy thinking because of their pre-existing attitudes.”
The study, “Associations between conspiracism and the rejection of scientific innovations“, was authored by Mathew D. Marques, John R. Kerr, Matt N. Williams, Mathew Ling, and Jim McLennan.