What is a conspiracy theory? Who believes in them? How can you begin to address conspiracy theories with science communication? Check out the full video and a recap of Lifeology’s webinar “Conspiracies vs. Science Communication” below.

On January 28, Cassidy Swanston and Zahra Marwan hosted “Conspiracies vs. Science Communication.” Cassidy Swanston is a science communicator at the University of Ottawa and host of SciComm School: the Podcast! Zahra H. Marwan is an award-winning artist currently living in New Mexico, U.S. Together, they created our course “How to Address Conspiracy Theories.”

Learn how to address conspiracy theories as a science communicator in “Conspiracies vs. Science Communication.” We’ve attached the full video of the webinar below for your viewing. You can also find a recap, including some main takeaways, below. 

What is a conspiracy theory? Cassidy offered a definition from a paper published by Charles Pigden in 2006. A conspiracy theory is “a secret plan on the part of a group to influence events in part by covert action.” 

Do you know someone who believes in a science conspiracy theory? Probably so! Most people believe in one or more conspiracy theories–and that’s because we are all susceptible to believing. 

Conspiracy theories are not always these big and crazy ideas that many people think about. Instead, they can be much smaller and they can even be legitimate; there have been conspiracy theories that have turned out to be true. However, some can be a bit out there. Cassidy talks about people who believe Earth is flat, but she cautions that not all conspiracy theories are so innocent. 

Additionally, just because someone has a belief that runs counter to what we currently know to be true in science, it does not mean that they subscribe to a conspiracy theory. There has to be an element of covert collaboration and secrecy within an organization to qualify. For example, someone who does not believe in evolution because of their beliefs and upbringing does not necessarily qualify as a conspiracy theorist. Instead, Cassidy offers some beliefs about vaccines that do qualify as conspiracy theories such as the government implanting chips, injecting poison, or taking part in mind control.

So why do people believe in conspiracy theories? Conspiracy theories:

  • Provide a framework for understanding
  • Help make sense of confusion, uncertain, or frightening situations
  • Grant agency and control
  • Gives one a sense of community
illustration from conspiracy theories scicomm course

Who is at risk for believing in conspiracy theories? Everyone! But some factors can make one at higher risk:

  • Experiencing isolation or feelings of wanting to fit in
  • Having existing distrust of institutions 
  • Being anti-elite or upset with the disparity of power in society

Education, intelligence level and mental stability are not risk factors. Instead, it has much more to do with emotions of wanting to belong to a group and seeking psychological comfort.

And conspiracy theories are more widespread than one may think; it’s not just fringe groups. The spread is only increasing with the digital world. It can be difficult to discern what is real and what is fake, resulting in misinformation. More and more people are reached–even people who are skeptical and try to share only good information.

illustration from conspiracy theories scicomm course

But there is good news! As scientists and science communicators, you can effectively counter and reason with people who believe in conspiracy theories: the key is to build relationships!

Remember, someone may be looking for a sense of community or belonging because they feel isolated. By building relationships with, truly listening to, and understanding their concerns, you may help soften beliefs. However, there is no quick fix or tried-and-true method for communicating with someone who believes in conspiracy theories. “The believer must be the one to initiate their exit,” Cassidy said.

You can, however, use these quick tips shared during the webinar:

  • Listen empathetically – Do not be condescending. Be open-minded. 
  • Ask questions sincerely – Try to understand where the beliefs come from, without judgment. Try to find common ground.
  • Prioritize the relationship – Don’t alienate or give up on people. 

For more information about conspiracy theories and how to address them, view the Lifeology course: “How to Address Conspiracy Theories.

During the webinar, Zahra also shared her own experiences with people who believe in conspiracy theories. Since working on the course, she has taken the lessons learned in the course to heart. She has tried to have an open mind instead of alienating the people in her life who believe in conspiracies. 

“I really believe in the effectiveness of art. I feel like we’re so engaged with visuals on a day-to-day basis that it can attract people or appeal to people in a way [that] engages people to think.” – Zahra

Additionally, Zahra talked about the creation of the course. There was an emphasis on not wanting to shine a negative light on the people who believe in conspiracy theories–through both the text and the illustration. Zahra explained how she tried to keep the color lights for the illustrations in the course. She also created a character, an egg, that was supposed to be cute and lovable–but that could swallow you up if you let it. This helped further emphasize the message that anyone is susceptible to conspiracy theories.

We release new courses and host webinars every month. Check out current course offerings and upcoming webinars.