Did a Scientific Study Prove That “Conspiracists” Are “The Most Sane of All?”

A conspiracy theory website drew a series of baseless or incorrect conclusions from a study that looked at the online comments of 9/11 truthers.

Claim

A scientific study demonstrated that conspiracy theorists are generally more sane than other people.

Rating

Origin

Back in 2014, the decidedly pro-conspiracy website Natural News, whose founder Mike Adams sometimes serves as a guest host for Alex Jones’ Infowars, gleefully exclaimed that science had proved conspiracy theorists are generally “more sane” than people who hold more “conformist” views — as evidenced by their publication of an article headlined “Scientific Study Reveals Conspiracy Theorists the Most Sane of All.”

In point of fact, the study referenced in that article, whose sole dataset comprised comments left by readers of news articles that included the term “9/11” and similar keywords, did not make such a claim. That paper, titled “‘What About Building 7?’ A Social Psychological Study of Online Discussion of 9/11 Conspiracy Theories” made a series of qualitative observations based on 2,174 collected comments, as follows:

We found that conspiracist commenters were more likely to argue against the opposing interpretation and less likely to argue in favor of their own interpretation, while the opposite was true of conventionalist commenters.

Conspiracist comments were more likely to explicitly put forward an account than conventionalist comments were.

Conspiracists were more likely to express mistrust and made more positive and fewer negative references to other conspiracy theories.

Conspiracists were largely unwilling to apply the “conspiracy theory” label to their own beliefs and objected when others did so, lending support to the long-held suggestion that conspiracy belief carries a social stigma.

Conventionalist arguments tended to have a more hostile tone.

Natural News derived their assertion that “conspiracists” are “more sane” from combining the latter observation about tone with their own severely flawed understanding of sampling biases:

The researchers noted that they were surprised to find that it is now more conventional to leave so-called conspiracist comments than conventional ones. “Of the 2174 comments collected, 1459 were coded as conspiracist and 715 as conventionalist,” the researchers wrote …

That means the pro-conspiracy commenters are those who are now expressing what is considered conventional wisdom, while the anti-conspiracy commenters represent a small, beleaguered minority that is often scoffed at and shunned.

That inherently flawed interpretation relied on the somewhat terrifying assumption that the views expressed in the comments section of news articles about the September 11th terrorist attacks were a representative cross-section of the population as a whole, a rather harrowing notion. In fact, it should be unsurprising that the majority of the comments collected by the researchers were pro-conspiracy theory, as that is explicitly the kind of comment the researchers searched for:

For each article that resulted from these searches [of keywords such as “9/11”], the public comment sections were read, and from these, we extracted verbatim all relevant comments regarding the 9/11 conspiracy theories.

The study did not even capture a representative sample of the comments left on news stories about 9/11, much less the views of the broader population about 9/11. Therefore, the study cannot be used to make the claim that “pro-conspiracy commenters are those who are now expressing what is considered conventional wisdom.”

With regard to the tone of comments, it is unclear where Natural News got the idea that the hostile tone of a comment responding to a 9/11 conspiracy indicates a lack of sanity, but the study at no point makes any claim about comparative sanity levels.

The study did conclude, however, that “conspiracism is rooted in several higher-order beliefs such as an abiding mistrust of authority, the conviction that nothing is quite as it seems, and the belief that most of what we are told is a lie.” The study also noted that their results aligned with previous observations “that conspiracy theories rely heavily on ‘errant data’ rather than on crafting coherent alternative explanations.”

If a hostile tone betrays a lack of sanity, then Natural News — an outlet whose operator created an entire website named “Hoggwatch” dedicated to harassing Parkland school shooting survivor and gun control activist David Hogg — must be in desperate need of some rationality.

  • Heyes, J.D.   “Scientific Study Reveals Conspiracy Theorists the Most Sane of All.”
        Natural News.   8 October 2014.

  • Wood, Michael J. and Karen M Douglas.   “’What About Building 7?’ A Social Psychological Study of Online Discussion of 9/11 Conspiracy Theories.”
        Frontiers in Psychology.   8 July 2013.

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