Being rational about conspiracy theories

11 May

Conspiracy theories can be a great way to introduce ideas about rational thinking, and as I’ve discovered this year also a way of getting students to evaluate competing theories.

At a very basic level it’s worth getting students to think about the practicalities of maintaining a conspiracy. My favourite example of this is the idea that the Americans faked the Apollo moon landings. The first thing I ask them to think about is ‘how many people would they have had to pay off to keep it quite for forty years’. I then show students the most recent photos of the moon’s surface that show the Apollo landing sites in detail. A few students usually suggest that these might be fake as well, but this leads on to a discussion of how the Americans might go about preventing the Russian or Chinese governments from exposing such an obvious fake (as you would assume that they too have the ability to photograph the lunar surface). This simple exercise is a nice way to demonstrate to students that they don’t need to be experts a particular field in order to think rationally about it. It’s possible to do this same exercise using Alien Landings as the example, with questions like ’why do they always land in the back woods of the USA’ and ’if they have the technology to get here why do they hide once they arrive’.

I’ve discovered this year that conspiracy theories can also be a good vehicle to get students to evaluate competing theories. I was inspired by a great article in The Psychologist to teach a lecture on the psychology of conspiracy theories, and found that students could readily see that whilst theory A might explain conspiracy theory B, it didn’t really fit with conspiracy theory C that was better explained by theory D. This also seemed like a way of introducing students to the idea that their might not be a definitive answer to a particular question yet.

One slightly worrying by product of this teaching was the realisation that lumps of history that I had assumed were common knowledge were far from it. I was genuinely surprised by the level of shock that a showing of the footage of Kennedy’s assassination produced.  In retrospect, it maybe isn’t so surprising that concepts like ‘Communism’ that might represent part of the ‘lived experience’ of a 45 year old academic might just be ancient history to an 18 year old. However it has made me think about how lack of understanding of context may hamper students understanding of particular behaviours, particularly in relation to Social Psychology. It makes me think that ‘historical context’ should be an explicit part of many more lectures than it currently is

I would offer one word of caution about using conspiracy theories as a vehicle for teaching. You may be surprised by how many students believe at least one conspiracy theory, and indeed I’ve come across one colleague who assures me that the Americans definitely faked the moon landings !

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