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How to Think about COVID Conspiracy Theories

By Mark Clark - June 5, 2020
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By Mark T. Clark

 

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous conspiracy theories have arisen about SARS-CoV-2’s origins and its alleged uses by governments or people for different or malign purposes. Some people have been keeping track of the variety of novel theories about the pandemic and updating them regularly on a new Wikipedia page.1 Explanations include provocative ideas such as:

  • China created a biological weapon and unleashed it on the world.
  • Bill Gates created the virus to make money off the vaccine.
  • The Jews originated it as a biological weapon to kill Muslims or sterilize them with the cure.
  • 5G technology makes humans more susceptible to COVID-19.

And on and on it goes.

Given the political polarization we see today in Western nations and the active disinformation and propaganda campaigns by states (nations) hostile to us, the information environment we face requires us to be more discerning than ever to understand what’s true and what’s false.

While people do indeed conspire and real conspiracies have existed, I tend to treat them with care because they can hurt one’s credibility should they prove untrue. I do so for at least three reasons: the methodological, the psychological, and the spiritual. I’ll explain each and will also offer an alternative approach for dealing with novel conspiracy theories that may help maintain our witness for Christ.

Methodological: Assumptions

All people employ assumptions when making sense out of incomplete, fragmentary, and sometimes contradictory information. For example, imagine a person lying in the gutter. What’s the first thing you think of? Two different people will look at the same “fact” but will do so likely from a different assumption2 that they may be unconsciously aware of:

Good Citizen AGood Samaritan B
Situation: Man lying in the gutterSituation: Man lying in the gutter
Infers: That man’s a bumInfers: That man needs help
Assumes: Only bums lie in guttersAssumes: Anyone lying in the gutter needs help

Notice that the two different people look at the same “fact” but infer different conclusions. The single fact of a man lying in a gutter fails to explain the reason why he is there. Though simple, it illustrates how assumptions help us make sense of incomplete or fragmentary bits of information. We assume things that really are beliefs we hold, consciously or unconsciously, about other people and the world around us.

Many conspiracy theorists hold unstated assumptions as axiomatic (that is, unchallengeable), allowing them to make inferences that they claim are necessarily true about what’s going on. For example, consider the assumption that China, or Bill Gates, or some other actor, would be capable of and desires to unleash a biological weapon. The data don’t drive theorists’ interpretations, their assumptions do. They then either ignore, downplay, or discredit discordant and contradictory information.

Psychological

Psychological research helps us to understand the origins, belief systems, and psychology of conspiracy theorists. Recently, researchers have analyzed the conditions that allow for the “receptivity” of conspiracy theories. Researchers found that conspiracy theories tend to be believed by more people under conditions of stress and anxiety, which the pandemic has brought on all of us. Such theories become especially attractive in an information environment suggestive of conspiracies and when the theories comport with the audience’s political beliefs.3 Once accepted, people tend to retain these theories despite disconfirming evidence.

Spiritual

Conspiracy theories tend to reveal spiritual problems, which should give Christians cause for concern. Psychological researchers have demonstrated that many “out groups,” most frequently the Jews, get targeted by conspiracy theories.4 In addition, such research posits a possible link between interest in the paranormal, the occult and other strange phenomena, and conspiracy theories.5 Hugh Ross, Kenneth Samples, and I explore the spiritual problems of UFOs and extraterrestrials in our book, Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men.

Alternative Approach

With my background in national security, I prefer a more modest intellectual approach to conspiracy theories. I analyze each new “theory” as a hypothesis to be tested through a form of abductive reasoning. In the intelligence community, analysts use a particular form of abductive reasoning called an Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH). They use this strategy to evaluate all the evidence against the different hypotheses, including confirming, disconfirming, and contradictory evidence. I use the ACH to help me avoid my own “hypothesis-confirming bias” by not only evaluating evidence that confirms my preferred understanding, but also considering ambiguous and disconfirming evidence. The best explanation doesn’t necessarily have to be the hypothesis with the most supporting evidence, but the one with the least disconfirming evidence.

Biological Weapon?

For those concerned that China or other governments developed SARS-CoV-2 as a biological weapon, I would suggest the following. Every state has enormous disincentives to use biological weapons against other states, for a couple of reasons:

1) No state (terrorists do not share this concern, so I would exclude them from this assessment) has figured out how to target only certain people; the weapon will always backfire and infect its own people.

2) It would be highly unlikely that a state actor could reasonably hide its state-sponsorship of developing a biological weapon. There are too many scientists worldwide that share data and research on viruses.

To clarify, chemical weapons are not biological weapons. Some states have used chemical weapons but generally against much weaker targets, such as Iraq did against its Kurds during the Iran/Iraq war, and Syria has done against its domestic opponents in the current civil war. Since World War I, no state has used chemical or biological weapons against another state.

A Call for Discernment

A prudent mindset for Christians entails that we decline to wholeheartedly embrace the claims of conspiracy theories. God calls us to make disciples as a first, overriding priority. Should we accept and propagate a particular theory dogmatically, we could lose our credibility with the truth claims of the gospel when the theory proves false. It would be better to entertain each new theory as a possible hypothesis that purports to explain what happened while waiting for the evidence to confirm or disconfirm it. Such a cautious approach helps us retain our “light” in a nonbelieving world.

Resources

For other thoughtful pieces on conspiracies, please see these articles by Kenneth Samples:

Endnotes
  1. “Misinformation Related to the COVID-19 Pandemic,” Wikipedia, accessed May 15, 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misinformation_related_to_the_COVID-19_pandemic.
  2. “Distinguishing between Inferences and Assumptions,” The Foundation for Critical Thinking, accessed January 14, 2018, http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/critical-thinking-distinguishing-between-inferences-and-assumptions/484.
  3. Joseph Uscinski, “Placing Conspiratorial Motives in Context: The Role of Predispositions and Threat, a Comment on Bost and Prunier,” Psychological Reports: Sociocultural Issues in Psychology 115, no. 2 (October 1, 2014): 612–17, doi:10.2466/17.04.PR0.115c19z2.
  4. Monika Grzesiak-Feldman, “The Effect of High Anxiety Situations on Conspiracy Thinking,” Current Psychology, vol. 32, no. 1 (March 2013): 101, doi:10.1007/s12144-013-9165-6.
  5. Hannah Darwin, Nick Neave, and Joni Holmes, “Belief in Conspiracy Theories. The Role of Paranormal Belief, Paranoid Ideation and Schizotypy,” Personality and Individual Differences 50, no. 8 (June 2011): 1289–93, doi:10.1016/j.paid.2011.02.027.

Category
  • Abductive Reasoning
Tags
  • covid-19
  • Conspiracy theories
  • Blogs

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