Conspiracy theories

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”You all know what they say: do not talk at family dinners about religion and politics, because you will not convince anyone. I would add conspiracy theories to that list. Try having two bottles of wine during Thanksgiving and asking someone about that. Good luck!,” said Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor at the University of Miami.

Uscinski has been researching conspiracy theories for 10 years. Sitting in his leather armchair, he shared some of his findings. What struck me was how skeptical he was about the ability of journalists to convince anyone.

Despite hundreds of articles debunking famous conspiracy theories, according to his research, 60 percent of Americans believe there was a secret plot to assasinate JFK. Twenty-five percent (mainly Republicans) are sure Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Revelations concerning vaccines seem credible for 20 percent, fluoride – 9 percent, moon landing – 6 percent, chemical trails – 5 percent, reptiles controlling the planet – 4 percent.

According to Uscinski, one can use all possible arguments, appeal to common sense, cite scientific data, but in many cases is still doomed to fail, because conspiracy theories shape our specific beliefs on other issues, just like partisanship. Talking about the latter, Uscinski gave the example of Obama’s supporters. Initially his spin doctors were concerned that Obama’s liberal views on gay rights may put off black voters, who are generally less likely to support them. But something different happened: instead of turning their backs on Obama, the voters simply changed their views on gay rights, becoming more open and supportive.

When Donald Trump’s supporters were asked by researchers whether the minimum wage should be lowered, kept on the same level or increased, they gave different answers depending on what they thought Trump supported.

Given the amount of work journalists do to provide the public with the best information from which the public can form their own opinions, Uscinski’s comments might have seemed a bit discouraging.

Although one could contrast that with conclusion from the New York dinner talks with a few former fellows. According to them, in the past many selected applicants were quite leftwing and anti-United States. After that many kept their left-wing inclinations, but became supportive of American democracy. It turns out sometimes people do change their minds!