European academics call for statist social-psychological approach to silence public inquiry and dissent
Le Monde, 6 June 2016, p. 29
The Ministry of Education must test its pedagogical tools against conspiracy culture. The wrong cure might only serve to spread the disease.
Conspiracy theories are on many people’s minds and are the object of all kinds of initiatives, sometimes local, sometimes more ambitious. The French government is among them, evidenced by the collaboration between the Ministry of Education and France Télévisions to produce and diffuse a ‘video-kit’, available to all in the teaching profession (https ://vimeo.com/151519913). They also explore suitable responses to the worrying spread of these ‘theories’ by proposing, here and there, an intellectual defence or critical response. Ultimately, these associations come together to fight against this particular form of contemporary misinformation known as ‘conspiracism’.
As researchers and citizens concerned with the multiplication and dissemination of false information, errors in reason, even deliberate lies in a democracy that we would like to be more rigorous and rational, we welcome these steps and applaud the good intentions they represent. Conspiracism is indeed a problem that must be taken seriously, one which requires a proper response, and all the more quickly as it is on the rise, particularly in France these past few years.
The political reaction to the problem of the growth of conspiracy theories is not at all disproportionate, because it is essentially a major problem. However, the urgency of this reaction suggests undue haste, one which must give way to a reasoned political response that leans on solid scientific knowledge, and takes into account all of the facts available. One can question, for example, the scope and efficaciousness of the videos disseminated widely by the Ministry of Education: their effect, due to a lack of rigorous testing, is completely unknown. The laudable intention behind the creation of these films does not guarantee their effectiveness.
As a result, these tools, like many other educational initiatives, may turn out to be ineffective. Even worse, research in social psychology has shown that the fight against a belief can, paradoxically, serve to reinforce it by a ‘boomerang effect’, a phenomenon widely documented in studies of rumour and misinformation. It is therefore entirely possible that the actions of ministers and associations result in an effect that is the opposite of that desired for the target audience: a polarisation of beliefs and a growth in the conspiracist mindset. The communication’s source is not insignificant when viewed through a conspiratorial lens. If, for example, the government is suspected of active involvement in a conspiracy, its attempts at communication can, at best, be ineffective, and, at worst, increase suspicion.
Taking the time for scientific research, to reflect and to analyse before taking action, will often save time in the long run. It also avoids taking part in harmful activity. Drugs are not launched without rigorous testing; in the same way it is risky to launch educational recommendations without basing them on solid results and prior investigations. A responsible policy begins with research and takes into account the information already available. Furthermore, these more or less random campaigns are expensive, and this investment is automatically taken from more methodical studies of the phenomenon. It is therefore urgent that we launch widespread research programmes aimed at evaluating present educational initiatives rather than continuing to promote them.
Unanswered questions are still very common in conspiratorial thinking. Why is the hypercritical attitude of these adepts not extended to their own beliefs? This ‘confirmation bias’, which consists of favouring that which confirms our opinions and rejecting that which contradicts it, is well known, but has not yet been examined in the field of conspiracy theories. What is the role of the creative, entertaining component of these ‘theories’, which are often so imaginative? And must one distinguish between those who produce conspiracy theories and those who consume them?
To answer these questions is not simply to make advances towards the disengagement and suspicion that characterises conspiracism, but also to make progress in our understanding of belief mechanisms, social exchanges and ideological creativity.
Research into the psychological and social factors underlying the adherence to conspiracy theories is only the beginning. In the absence of solid scientific consensus on the question, we believe it necessary to recall that current attempts to remedy the problem will only be, for the moment, an improvisation.
Gérald Bronner, Sociologue, Université Paris-Diderot
Véronique Campion-Vincent, Sociologue, Maison des Sciences de l’Homme
Sylvain Delouvée, Chercheur en Psychologie Sociale, Université Rennes 2
Sebastian Dieguez, Neuropsychologue, Université de Fribourg
Karen Douglas, Chercheuse en Psychologie Sociale, University of Kent
Nicolas Gauvrit, Chercheur en Psychologie Cognitive, École Pratique des Hautes Études
Anthony Lantian, Chercheur en Psychologie Sociale, Université de Reims
Pascal Wagner-Egger, Chercheur en Psychologie Sociale, Université de Fribourg