Fighting mistrust in science
‘We live in a post-truth society’
It was an article from 2011 that inspired him and his colleagues, says psychology lecturer Anastasios Sarampalis.
‘It tried to prove people can predict which card they’ll see before it is even selected. It really shook the scientific world that it passed the whole academic process of peer review.’
Sarampalis and his colleagues questioned the results. ‘There were a number of issues with the article. The statistics were poorly done, for example. In the end, we could only conclude that the research was flawed.’
Although the article was discredited and precognition became unsubstantiated again, it did change things in the field of psychology, Sarampalis says. ‘It contributed to a strongly introspective period in our field. If an article like that can make it past review, are we doing things right in the way we publish? Are we doing our work right?’
Truth in science
It is exactly those questions that Sarampalis and his colleagues at the Research School of Behavioural and Cognitive Neurosciences want to address at the Nothing But The Truth conference they are organising. On December 7 and 8, eight speakers from all over Europe will gather in Groningen to discuss truth in science – and just as importantly, how to communicate that truth to a broader audience.
What people really need to believe information is a trusted source
That second point is especially difficult in this day and age, says Karen Douglas, an expert on the psychology of conspiracy theories and one of the speakers at the event.
One of the reasons conspiracy theories do well, she explains, has to do with a deeper mistrust in science. ‘The image of science is sometimes that of someone speaking from an ivory tower. Science is not always communicated in a way that people can relate to. What they really need to believe information is a trusted source. That’s difficult, because not everyone trusts the same sources.’
For her research, the professor of social psychology at the University of Kent comes into contact with family members and friends of conspiracy theorists. ‘They sometimes really struggle to reach a person who has gone down that rabbit hole.’
We all have the potential to believe in conspiracy theories, she emphasises. ‘They are fascinating. The narrative that governments are holding back information is sometimes very appealing, or consistent with what you already think. And when you feel uncertain or out of control, theories like that can become more attractive. But for many relationships, these beliefs are a problem.’
Sarampalis recognises the distrust that Douglas describes. ‘We live in a so-called post-truth society, where fact and truth have become very shaky in public discourse. You can have strong evidence from science, which is not believed or trusted.’
It’s important to express understanding and yet challenge these beliefs
Changing the ideas of a conspiracy believer is very challenging anyway, Douglas says. ‘When relatives of these people get in touch with me, I try to talk about strategies for how not to make the conspiracy believers feel more isolated and alienated.’
First of all, she would suggest listening, and not making the other person feel invalidated. ‘If you go with a strongly hostile approach, they might only retreat further into the conspiracy theory. It’s important to express your understanding of the situation, and at the same time challenge these beliefs.’
One technique to do this? ‘Start a conversation about what information they have, what their evidence is, and how they got that evidence’, Douglas says. ‘Is the source credible? How did they find that source? It sounds straightforward, but of course it’s not.’
Interestingly, some evidence suggests that people from relatively democratic, well-organised countries like the UK or the Netherlands are more likely to believe conspiracy theories, she says. ‘That really has to do with them having more of an opportunity to question the role of the government in comparison to those in less democratic countries.’
Enormous scientific resources were used to test people for autism
Particular types of theories are more harmful than others, according to Douglas. ‘Anti-vaccine theories can compromise a whole population. If many people are deterred by them from getting vaccinated, the vaccines won’t work. And theories about politics or voting behaviour might get people involved in more radical direct politics and violence.’
Conspiracy theories can also be harmful to science, Sarampalis adds, like the claim that vaccines cause autism. ‘Just because of that, enormous scientific resources were used to test people for autism; capacity which could not be used for other studies.’
Douglas notes it seems possible to ‘inoculate’ people against conspiracy theories by first giving them a weak ‘dose’ of such stories. They recognise those as false, which makes them more likely to resist stronger theories when they come across them. ‘It’s a bit like a vaccine against a disease, where you also give a weaker dose of something. But we don’t know how long this lasts.’
In the end, totally eradicating conspiracy theories is unrealistic, Douglas argues. ‘People will always believe in them. These theories are just part of the way people think. But since some theories are quite damaging, it is important to have a dialogue about what’s true and what’s not.’
With December’s conference, Sarampalis hopes to start a discussion about how to share scientific truths with the public. ‘Clearly there is something wrong when decades and decades of talking about the dangers of climate change have not been sufficient to change people’s opinions. We are still not rebelling for climate measures at the scale I think we should be.’
The registration for Nothing But The Truth is closed. However, if you want to join the waiting list, you can still send an email. There are still tickets available for the My Truth is Your Truth? debate. The symposium is aimed at the whole scientific community.