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Digital Subscriptions > Skeptical Inquirer > July August 2019 > Conspiring for the Common Good

Conspiring for the Common Good

Why have conspiracy theories become more prevalent in our political discourse than at any other time in recent history? According to opinion polls, conspiracy theories on the whole are very popular in the United States, and social scientists are trying to understand why.

I have been studying conspiracy theories for about ten years now. When I started, I did not expect that the topic would become as important as it has become, particularly from 2016 on. I would like to be able to say that I had the foresight to know that they would eventually come to dominate our political discourse, but I didn’t. In fact, I expected the exact opposite: that conspiracy theories would continue on a downward trend of losing importance over time. The data a colleague of mine and I gathered suggested that the United States was on such a trajectory since the 1960s, but unfortunately that data collection effort ended in 2010 (Uscinski and Parent 2014).

I would also like to be able to say that I had the idea to study conspiracy theories myself. But, alas, I have to give the credit to my colleague for that. As a political scientist, conspiracy theories were well off the beaten path of political science ten years ago, and there hadn’t been much research into them in other social science fields either. At the time, I wasn’t even sure what we would study, exactly. This may sound ironic now, but I didn’t think that conspiracy theories either affected or were affected by politics in any way. The only thought I had really given to conspiracy theories was in the early 1990s when the Oliver Stone movie JFK came out. So, when my friend and colleague Joseph Parent pitched me on the topic, I thought he was joking. I would have preferred to work together on something more mundane and was therefore inclined to turn him down. Looking back now from a career standpoint, it’s a good thing I did not.

When I began to gather the existing literature on conspiracy theories, I found very little in the social sciences. There were a few articles here and there, but no major research agendas had ever been undertaken. In psychology, there was a budding agenda that had started around 2007: Karen Douglas and her team in the United Kingdom started to look into the phenomenon of belief in conspiracy theories and were beginning to publish some very insightful papers (Douglas and Sutton 2008). Most of the work was historical and cultural in nature, and much of it either followed in the footsteps of Richard Hofstadter’s (1964) original take on conspiracy theories or was a response to it (Butter and Knight 2018). The lack of social science literature signaled a much bigger problem: there was not going to be any ready-made data for us to use.

To measure beliefs, one would typically use surveys. Some polls over the decades occasionally asked respondents about their belief in a conspiracy theory or two, but these questions were rarely repeated or asked consistently. Questions about belief in JFK conspiracy theories have been asked enough over time to get a feel for how many Americans believe that particular strand of theory, but that would only get us so far because to rely on that would be like relying on the stock price of General Motors to tell us about the performance of the stock market writ large. We wanted data “big” enough to generalize from. Our initial data collection effort took three years to complete and involved the analysis of 120,000 letters to the editor of The New York Times from 1890–2010. My assistants read all of the letters, looking for those that advocated or refuted a conspiracy theory, and then we coded those letters by who was being accused of conspiring. This was the first effort to capture the dynamics of conspiracy theories writ large over time in a systematic way. At the same time, we began an effort at national polling that I have continued.

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