University
House chamber at the University College ©UG, Photo Egbert de Boer

Five questions about Andringa’s conspiracy trap

How could it all go so wrong?

House chamber at the University College ©UG, Photo Egbert de Boer
After UKrant revealed how associate professor Tjeerd Andringa lured students into the conspiracy trap and, as a result, he was suspended, many questions remained unanswered. How could this go on? Why was a physicist teaching this course? And why was he so popular?
By Christien Boomsma, Jonah Franke-Bowell, and Alessandro Tessari
2 February om 12:10 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 2 February 2022
om 12:10 uur.
February 2 at 12:10 PM.
Last modified on February 2, 2022
at 12:10 PM.

1The university knew about Andringa’s views ever since he started at UCG. How was he allowed to teach ‘critical thinking’ for this long?

Both former dean of the University College Hans van Ees and the present dean Hanny Elzinga have had conversations with Tjeerd Andringa about his conspiratorial beliefs. ‘The matter was lightly adressed’, Andringa said in an online press conference on Wednesday. ‘There was some concern, but they left the matter to me’, he said. 

To de Volkskrant Hanny Elzinga said earlier, she had learned about Andringa’s ideas a few months after taking office in February 2020. She only knew about statements made in ‘a private setting’, she said. She was not aware of the way he was offering/pushing such views in the classroom, she said.

Were other people within UCG aware of what was happening? UKrant asked former dean Hans van Ees, current lecturers within UCG, and other employees. However, they preferred to wait for the results of the UG investigation before commenting on the matter.

One thing that’s clear is that Andringa has always been out in the open. Over time, he reiterated through various alternative media outlets his controversial views on 9/11, vaccinations, the idea that the elite uses child abuse to find leaders and his theory on ‘kakistocracy’ (which assumes that leaders are by default the worst people for the job) 

Controversial

He has been teaching his course Systems View of Life since 2016, and according to students, his positions and methods have always been controversial. How was allowed to keep teaching without anyone intervening?

There is great reluctance in university to apply a form of supervision and looking closely at teachers and their courses

Klaas van Berkel, UG emeritus professor 

UG emeritus professor Klaas van Berkel – who also lectured at UCG in its early days – says that there is a possibility that his methods went truly unnoticed. ‘There is great reluctance in university to apply a form of supervision and looking closely at teachers and their courses unless it happens in a formal way, as it happens at the beginning of the academic year with syllabuses.’

In his many years of teaching, Van Berkel remembers just a few cases where a form of intervision – a kind of peer review of the ways courses are taught – was applied. ‘What happens in class is usually between you and your students. Therefore, if someone is crossing boundaries in class, only the students can complain about it and report it.’

Regarding Andringa’s public statements, he leaves some space for doubt. ‘Despite his several interviews to alternative newspapers, board members and colleagues could have easily missed them, as they were not published on their usual news sources.’

Naive

However, some events can’t possibly have gone unnoticed, says Van Berkel. Like Andringa inviting James Corbett to the UG in 2014, or Andringa’s personal website, where he proudly talks about his views. That could mean that UCG either preferred to turn a blind eye or did not act, out of naivety.

‘Academics might be naive sometimes. They probably don’t expect people from the inside to get involved in things like conspiracy theories’, Van Berkel says. (More on that in question 3)

But now the matter is out in the open, and with that the idea that the university should have acted earlier. Van Berkel: ‘They might have acted so late out of a fear of criticism. Universities fear being accused of censorship, and they prefer to handle things cautiously and follow formal procedures and investigations.’

2Why would a trained physicist teach about ‘critical thinking’? Wouldn’t a philosopher be much more suited?

UG philosopher and lecturer about conspiracy theory Marc Pauly agrees that it would make more sense to have a philosopher rather than a physicist teach about ‘critical thinking’, as philosophers have much more training in argumentation theory or logic. It’s also not really necessary to use conspiracy theories to teach your students about argumentation or reliability of sources.

However, he does like the idea of academics changing the focus of their research. ‘You want people to develop themselves in areas that may not have been their first area of expertise’, he says. ‘I wouldn’t want to stop them from teaching in those areas either, just because they have not published in them yet.’

Epistemic humility is fitting, that is what often goes wrong with conspiracy thinking

Marc Pauly, UG philosopher and lecturer about conspiracy theory 

That is exactly the reason, says UCG managing director Sander van den Bos, that UCG did give Tjeerd Andringa the opportunity to teach this course and others like it. ‘All our teachers are interdisciplinary. It is not uncommon for our teachers to move out of the fields they are interested in, and it is something that we encourage.’
Still, when someone does so, epistemic humility is fitting, says Pauly. ‘That is what often goes wrong with conspiracy thinking. The idea that with some internet research, you could find out what is really happening, while you don’t have the expert knowledge. That is a problem.’

3How does a trained scientist fall for unfounded theories like children getting autism from vaccinations?

Perhaps, says Leiden University conspiracy researcher Jelle van Buuren, this example will finally free us from this misunderstanding that conspiracy believers are stupid, crazy, or uneducated. 

It can be a comforting thought, he says, ‘because if that was the case, we could dismiss the matter.’ However, there are many others like Tjeerd Andringa, who are highly educated, intelligent, and functioning, but still believe in theories like this. 

‘The belief in conspiracy theories has become almost mainstream’, says UMCG psychiatrist Wim Veling who published about conspiracy thinking. ‘It is definitely no longer a marginalised group.’

Epistemic

Indeed, anyone can fall prey to these thoughts, agrees conspiracy expert Karen Douglas with the University of Kent. ‘People are attracted to conspiracy theories when psychological needs are frustrated’, she explains. 

The belief in conspiracy theories has become almost mainstream

Wim Veling UMCG psychiatrist

‘The first of these needs are epistemic, related to a need to know the truth and have clarity and certainty. Others are existential: the need to feel safe and to have some control over things that are happening around us.’ Then there are the social needs to maintain our self-esteem and feel positive about the groups that we belong to, she says.

Especially in uncertain times – during terrorist attacks, climate change, or a pandemic – people are uncertain and afraid and are looking for an explanation. ‘All too often, the authorities may not give one, give a half-hearted one, or even come up with contradictory explanations’, Van Buuren says. 

Explanations

No wonder people go looking for an alternative story that fits. Add to that the deeply human need to have a big explanation for large events, and you have a perfect storm for a belief in conspiracies. A simple human mistake or a freak accident does not satisfy that need. ‘But conspiracy theories will reduce complex events to a neat story with a clear villain that explains a confusing reality.’

Andringa did just that when he created a neat story in which the elite tries to brainwash people into complacency by organising sex parties, controlling education and mainstream media, and governments organising terrorist attacks on their own citizens. 

Add to that the also very human ability to only pick up on the information that confirms what you already thought was true, adds Veling, and there you go.

Debate

However, Veling and Van Buuren stress that the questions people like Andringa ask are actually relevant. ‘They are asking very critical questions about power and the control of power. About how ethical some policies are, about how democratic we really are’, Van Buuren says.

There is a huge grey area where hitting the nail on the head transforms into conspiracy thinking

Jelle van Buuren, conspiracy researcher at Leiden University

And they may be right too. Politicians do lie, and big companies do make money at the expense of others. ‘But that critical debate has disappeared more or less from the public debate. Conspiracy theories fill that gap.’ The crisis in liberal democracy only adds to that. ‘It hardly matters which parties are in government. They all do just about the same.’ 

The complicated part, says Van Buuren, is that we should cherish critical thinkers, the people who think out of the box. ‘But yes, you can also go overboard.’ 

The exact point where critical thinking goes off the rails is hard to pinpoint, though, says Van Buuren. ‘There is a huge grey area where hitting the nail on the head – which can be uncomfortable or even painful – transforms into conspiracy thinking that is completely unhinged.’

4Tjeerd Andringa was popular among students. How is that possible, when he was pushing his opinions the way he did?

Tjeerd Andringa is known as a non-conformist lecturer. A man that thinks outside the box and has little respect for authorities. He pushes his students and is not easily satisfied. 

These are exactly the traits that make a lecturer popular, says Veling. ‘For a student it’s great to be so stimulated and challenged’, he thinks. ‘Especially when he is teaching stuff that may appear improbable and is different from what the average person is thinking.’

Apart from that, there’s also the balance of power. Because no matter how amicable he may be, he is still their professor. Which explains why, even though Tjeerd Andringa’s didactic practices are now being criticised, students praise their former teacher.

A good thing

While some people might take umbrage at engaging with ideas that are deemed by society to be taboo, it can be an attractive learning opportunity for others, explains Panos Giallourides, a student of Andringa’s in the 2019 iteration of the maligned Systems View of Life course. ‘When you detach yourself from the emotions that surround these unorthodox ideas, you see that fundamentally he was trying to do a good thing – to get us to think critically.’

‘I think those that feel uncomfortable in his classes forget that growth, which for Tjeerd is a 

systematic challenge of our beliefs, is meant to be uncomfortable. Using this discomfort to criticise him is ridiculous; I, too, occasionally felt out of my comfort zone’, says Panos.

He really seems to know a lot about many topics and can entertain a conversation on any one of them

Edo Magnano, student at UCG

Another student of Andringa’s during the 2020 Systems View course agrees. She describes Andringa’s classroom as ‘a space in which you are able to say things that are out of your comfort zone, in an effort to get beyond it’. In this setting, she says, ‘Tjeerd creates a place in which one can learn to grasp how other people reason, without taking the norm for granted.’

Charismatic

‘Charismatic’ is how student Edo Magnano says he would describe Andringa in the classroom: ‘He really seems to know a lot about many topics and can entertain a conversation on any one of them – and does so in an intriguing way.’

This charisma doesn’t end once the lecture has finished, remembers Mira Soederhuizen. Andringa was her project supervisor during her final year at UCG. ‘He would often continue our conversation in the corridor, fostering with his students a deeper relationship, wanting to know more about their academic interest and aspirations.’

He would often continue our conversation in the corridor, fostering with his students a deeper relationship

Mira Soederhuizen, former student at UCG

Elias Outila, who took the Systems View course in 2020, agrees that Andringa has a 

broad base of knowledge and suggests this ‘gives him the ability to go beyond the conventional view on things’. This, says Elias, is him leading by example: ‘He then throws ideas into the air and sees if we have the knowledge to challenge them, too.’

Although this may prove to be an eccentric style of teaching, it does, in the end, have a purpose. ‘What Tjeerd really wants us to realise is that one could never really know any of these things to be true or false without having engaged with them oneself’, Panos suggests.

5Lecturers have a lot of freedom in their teachings. Now that Andringa has been suspended, are certain topics off limits?

The academic freedom in teaching is very important for both academics and the university. It allows lecturers to teach just about anything, in the way they see fit. That means we should be able to talk about anything, including conspiracy theory, says UCG managing director Sander van den Bos. ‘But it has to be balanced. Teaching students about critical thinking is important, but it has to be done within ethical boundaries.’

Van Buuren stresses how important it is to teach about them. ‘Conspiracy theories are a force in both society and politics. So yes, that is a subject you should consider.’

However, you don’t want to sell something as ‘critical thinking’ that is really promoting unfounded theories

Marc Pauly, UG philosopher 

However, a lecturer should not tell his students which thoughts are right and which ones are wrong. ‘Not even in a very subtle way. The core should be: what is truth? What are the facts? Who has the knowledge to have an authoritative opinion on a certain subject?’

Check

Van Buuren thinks it’s a good thing to have students check articles, to make them consider whether it is methodologically sound. He himself is very careful to keep his own opinions off the table at all times. ‘It is very important to show students that your head may be filled with assumptions that you should ask critical questions about. That’s the core of academic thinking.’

‘We as scientists should be critical of ourselves, too’, Pauly says. ‘There’s more than enough reason to. Think of the issues we’ve had with fraud, reproducibility, or financing. However, you don’t want to sell something as “critical thinking” that is really promoting unfounded theories.’

What lecturers should do, he says, is create an atmosphere that encourages a diversity of opinions. Pauly does think it would be wise to label theories that science does not agree with as such. ‘And yes, you can say that you don’t agree with that. But knowledge like that does have another status.’

Policy

When teaching conspiracy theories, he’d like to see a group of people tackling them with the students. ‘You could pick one and create a group – academics, but also people who challenge the consensus – with expertise that is relevant to the theory. But people who have the education and knowledge to properly divide fact from fiction.’

He believes that there’s a danger that – after what happened with Andringa – policy adjustments will be made. ‘And we’ll keep shifting paper around and create all these limitations. That would be the wrong reaction, in my opinion.’

Veling agrees wholeheartedly. ‘Academic freedom is highly valued and rightly so. Limiting that spells the end of the university.’ Instead of adding control mechanisms, he believes ‘it’s much more important to let students listen critically to what they are being taught.’

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