Dr. John Cook discusses the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking and how conspiracy theories are immune to evidence.

Producer: Lauren Shields
11/11/2020 • 12:45 PM EST

Dr. John Cook, research assistant professor of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, discusses seven traits of conspiratorial thinking and their relation to the video Plandemic, which promotes a grand conspiracy around the COVID-19 pandemic. Among these traits, he highlights how conspiracy believers tend to have an unshakeable suspicion for any and all official accounts of events and a sense of heroic victimhood. He also discusses how conspiracy theories are immune to evidence, since any lack of evidence to prove a conspiracy theory can always be interpreted as more proof of how well the conspiracy was executed.

0:00: Lauren Shields:

With us today, we have Dr. John Cook, research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. He's going to talk to us today about conspiracy theories and the thinking that makes them so hard to dislodge. Dr. John Cook, thanks so much for joining us.

0:14: Dr. John Cook:

Thanks for having me, Lauren.

0:17: Lauren Shields:

Can you start out by briefly explaining to us the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking as you've defined them?

0:23: Dr. John Cook:

Yeah, so I wrote The Conspiracy Theory Handbook and co-authored with Stephan Lewandowsky and together we have documented these seven traits of conspiratorial thinking. And because I'm obsessed with acronyms as a way to remember things. It was a long flight from Australia to the US, I had the seven traits and I've tried to figure out an acronym to help me remember it. I started with tinfoil, but I couldn't quite crack the L. So, I ended up going with conspire.

So the seven traits, (1) Contradictory. Because the main thing conspiracy theorists are interested in is just disbelieving the official account of whatever. But they don't have any problem with believing contradictory ideas, as long as those different ideas contradict the official account.

Conspiratorial thinking involves (2) Overriding suspicion. So, it means that they're very distrustful of information, facts, or data, scientific data that comes from institutions, whether it's CDC data about COVID-19, climate information coming from NASA, they just have this overriding suspicion towards any information that contradicts their conspiracy theory.

So that's C, O, N stands for (3) Nefarious intent. I'm always mispronounce it. Which involves distrusting the motives of conspirators. You almost never have a situation where people in a conspiracy have good motives, except maybe planning a surprise birthday party. Other than that, they always assume that the conspirators have an evil motive, whether it's political motives or wanting to implant chips in our bodies or, you know, control the population in some way.

C, O, N, so S stands for (4) Something must be wrong. Within conspiracy theories they always believe that the official account must be wrong, and you might present evidence that shows that part of their theory is untenable, it can't be true. And they might even accept that part of the theory now. Okay, well, let's just jettison that, but they're unshaken belief that something must be wrong, still holds. So they want to jettison, I guess shuffle around different aspects of their theory, that the ultimate conclusion that the official account is false and part of the conspiracy still holds.

The next trait of conspiratorial thinking is (5) Persecuted victimhood. Conspiracy theorists see themselves as victims of, persecuted victims of the conspiracy. So, the conspirators persecuting them in some way of trying to control them, trying to deceive them, trying to manipulate or oppress them in some way. At the same time, they also see themselves as heroes. They're fighting against the conspiracy theories, but a persecuted victim and hero at the same time.

The next thing is (6) Immunity to evidence. Any information that you present that proves that the conspiracy theory is false, they assume, or re-interpret that evidence as being part of the conspiracy. A good example is in climate change, there was this conspiracy theory that scientists were faking the climate data, based on some stolen emails. When there were a number of investigations into the emails, every investigation concluded there's no actual evidence that scientists were doing anything wrong. The conspiracy theorists concluded that the investigators must be part of the conspiracy as well, and they're trying to whitewash it or hide the conspiracy. The conspiracy just kept getting bigger and bigger with each investigation.

I think the last one then is (7) Reinterpreting randomness. All humans are pattern detectors. We're hardwired to detect patterns and that's kept humans alive in the past. And you see a rustling in the bushes and think, wow, there might be a predator in that random kind of noise. And that has saved our lives in the past. Now it's actually dangerous, because people are seeing random disparate events or happenings and assuming that they're connected in some way. COVID-19 started in Wuhan. There's a lab in Wuhan. Well, that can't be a coincidence. These are two unrelated things, but when people join the dots and form conspiracies around it, that has dangerous implications. In the case of COVID-19, when people start disbelieving the mainstream accounts or the, you know, the explanations from institutions like the CDC, then that has very dangerous health implications.

So conspire, CONSPIR, those are the seven trends of conspiratorial thinking. I think I need to have a lie down after all that.

5:40: Lauren Shields:

Awesome, nice job. That is a great answer. I feel like we should have a graphic on the side where the, the letters appear as you explained them, you know, like Sesame street. Okay.

5:51: Dr. John Cook:

We need a song or a jingle, that would be a good way to remember it.

5:55: Lauren Shields:

We'll hire somebody. All right. In your video 'Plandemic' and the Seven Traits of Conspiratorial Thinking, you examine the conspiracy documentary Plandemic, in which you repeatedly debunked molecular biologists' claims that COVID is a global conspiracy, designed to line the pockets of billionaires. Why did you choose to examine this film in particular?

6:16: Dr. John Cook:

The reason why we looked at Plandemic was two-fold. Firstly, because it went super-viral. By coincidence, our Conspiracy Theory Handbook came out like the same week that the Plandemic video was posted online. And so we published the Conspiracy Theory Handbook, and then I noticed "conspiracy theory" was trending on Twitter. And I was like, Oh wow, we're trending on Twitter. Go us, you know. Turns out it wasn't us, it was Plandemic. But the timing was kind of, you know, well, if you believe in coincidence, it was quite coincidental that this video was getting millions of downloads. And the videos were getting taken down as soon as they got published on Facebook or YouTube.

But they were using that as - the man is trying to censor us, and urging everyone to download our videos to as many platforms as possible. They baked in the, you know, debunking the misinformation into their marketing campaign, which from a marketing point of view is quite clever. But when it's such a destructive video, that's quite dangerous as well. So on the one hand, it was getting a lot of attention. On the other hand, it was the perfect encapsulation of all the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking, because I think it was about a 30 minute video and they packed a lot of arguments in there. You could easily find the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking in there.

And my work is about building public resilience against misinformation. And the way you do that is explain the techniques used to mislead. And I've found in my own research that if you explain a misleading technique, even in a completely different topic, that can inoculate people across different topics, or across different examples of misinformation. So we thought, well, let's use Plandemic as a way to build public resilience and awareness of these techniques in conspiracy theories used to mislead. And hopefully that will help build public resilience against these techniques, not only in the case of Plandemic, but in the case of other conspiracy theories as well.

8:35: Lauren Shields:

In that same video, you explained that "misinformation spreads like a virus and conspiracy theories are especially contagious." Why is that?

8:44: Dr. John Cook:

Misinformation has a advantage over accurate information, because it's not bound by reality or the truth. It can be made as salacious or eye-catching or outrageous as you like. And outrageous, you know, factoids or stories that evoke an emotional response are more likely to be shared. So we see, like there's research that has shown that misinformation is more likely to be shared, clicked, liked, on social media then accurate information. It just has this inherent advantage because it is more emotive and shocking, eye-catching. And that makes it more viral. It's more like, virility is this unpredictable kind of factor and there's no way to predict whether something will go viral or not. But the more elements that a message has of virility, whether it's emotional or shocking or graphic, or tells a story, that increases the odds of it going viral. And so that's what we see with misinformation.

9:56: Lauren Shields:

You said that "it's so hard to change a conspiracy theorist's mind, because their theories are self-sealing. Even absence of evidence for a theory is evidence for a theory." What does that mean?

10:09: Dr. John Cook:

So you often hear conspiracy theorists say, or you might say, well, there's no evidence for that conspiracy theory that you're proposing. And they'll say, well, of course there's no evidence. The conspirators have done a really good job hiding that evidence. That just proves the conspiracy, like, because they're so good at conspiring. So, there being no evidence has no well, firstly, it's hard to change their mind with the argument that there's no evidence or it might even have them double down on their beliefs. And you tell them that there's no evidence. And then they immediately go to thinking how effective the conspirators are at engineering their conspiracy and hiding their deeds.

10:56: Lauren Shields:

Is there one element of conspiratorial thinking that you hear more often than others when it comes to climate change?

11:03: Dr. John Cook:

Yeah. So one thing I've been working on over the last few years is training a machine to detect and categorize climate misinformation. Training a machine involves you take a paragraph of misinformation and you tell the machine that text is this myth. And then just repeat that tens of thousands of times, it's kind of like, it's like training a child, that's a cat, that's a dog. And you just keep doing that until the machine gets it. And eventually after like a year or so of training the machine, we then gave it 20 years of climate misinformation and how to build a history of climate myths.

And the first thing that jumped out in the results was the most common form of climate misinformation by far, roughly equal to every other form of misinformation combined, was attacks on climate scientists and attacks on climate science. Saying you can't trust scientists, you can't trust the science. You can't trust the data. The temperature measurements are unreliable, the climate models are wrong. It was all about undermining climate science and reducing public trust in it. So, that's really like, it's a baked in element of climate denial and it really feeds from that overriding suspicion trade of conspiratorial thinking.

12:34: Michael Gordon:

So would you say John, that that's kind of an ad hominem attack where they're not attacking the actual claim, you're attacking the motives of those making the claim?

12:47: Dr. John Cook:

Exactly. And that's a really good point. Like separate to that research. I've also been working with a PhD student at George Mason University who is studying ad hominem attacks. That's his research focus, like he's created a whole lab about character assassination. And we looked at climate misinformation and the different types of ad hominem, whether they were bias attacks or competence attacks or attacks on people's consistency or hypocrisy. And yeah, and we see all those different flavors of ad hominems in this climate misinformation. And the challenge is, it's a very, I think the reason why this argument comes up so much is because it's a very easy argument to make.

It's a lot easier to say that scientist is biased, then to say, well, I think the greenhouse effect model is flawed because of the infrared bar and the carbon cycle, you know, like really technical items. Firstly, it's hard to make those arguments. And secondly, it is hard for people to understand them. So the most, I think, common or effective forms of climate misinformation are the simplest ones, whether it's attacking scientists or attacking science or simple arguments, like it's cold or climate has always changed. And those type of simple arguments tend to be the ones that we see the most.

14:20: Lauren Shields:

It looks like we're out of time for today. If you'd like to know more about Dr. John Cook's work, you can find him on skepticalscience.com. And you can pick up his new book, Cranky Uncle versus Climate Change from Citadel Press at crankyuncle.com. John, can we find you on Twitter or somewhere else?

14:38: Dr. John Cook:

Yeah. My Twitter handle is johnfocook.

14:42: Lauren Shields:

Great. Okay. Well thank you so much for joining us today.

14:35: Dr. John Cook:

Yeah, thanks. It was great talking to you.