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Why Do We Love Conspiracy Theories? 7 Deep Dives…

conspiracy theory climate deniers anti-vaxxers flat earth psychology behaviour evolution trust truth lies

‘Conspiracy theories’, ‘doing your own research’, and ‘rabbit holes’ appear more influential than ever. Effective climate activists need to understand why

Conspiracy theories, once marginal, are approaching the mainstream. This article lists some trusted sources for understanding why. Not that you’d trust them if you’re a climate denier, anti-vaxxer or Flat-Earther… 

Why Climate Activists Should Listen To Conspiracy Theorists

Biff, Mock or Stat-blast?

Not cartoon characters, but the three standard responses to anyone who disagrees with you.

Imagine yourself on the receiving end. You express something you passionately believe to be true, prompting the following responses from your interlocutor:

  1. Biff: they assault you, and threaten to do so again if you repeat your belief
  2. Mock: they laugh at you, and get all their friends to join in
  3. Stat-blast: they firehose you with numbers people you don’t know or respect

The problem with Biff, Mock and Stat-blast is that when it comes to climate change they can claim some victories, but overall they’ve not, so far, worked, and show little prospect of changing things if repeated in isolation.

Whatever Biff, Mock and Stat-blast may do for the person dishing it out, they’re usually ineffective at converting you from opponent to ally. Indeed, such responses can be counterproductive, reinforcing your conviction, and prompting you to take more active countermeasures.

If these countermeasures mirror the same Biff, Mock and Stat-blast tactics, it follows that they’re likely to have the same impact, i.e. entrenching conflict, thereby reducing or delaying effective action in either direction.

Which would you prefer? Or more pragmatically, which would be more effective at changing your mind, or at least preventing you from risking repeating the experience?

Biffing, or some threat of physical violence, can be an effective mode of repression in the short and medium term, but tends not to outlive ‘the will of the people’ in the long term.

Mockery is only wounding if you aspire to be part of the group mocking you. The Internet has made sticks and stones even less effective. It’s removed the physical proximity that enables bone-breaking, and enabled anyone online not only to broadcast their opinion, but to find a appreciative, sympathetic and supportive audience.

Stat-blasting is useless if whoever you’re trying to convince doesn’t respect the sources of your numbers, or agree on the context and methodology by which they were gathered. 

Climate activists, like See Through News, or anyone else seeking to move large numbers of people from inaction to action on a particular topic, might find alternative approaches to Biff, Mock and Stat-blast more effective.

A sensible starting point to any alternative would be to understand why anyone believes anything about anything.

This is a big topic. To keep things manageable, here are seven deep dives into this question. 

Most of them reference academic studies, mostly of behavioural and evolutionary psychology, but we’ve chosen these interpreters rather than the sources for their accessibility.

The list is not exhaustive – you’re welcome to add your own candidates in the Comments –  but these seven books, podcasts and films share an engaging, articulate and accessible tone, wearing their academic research lightly. 

What they share is a possibly alternative approach to Biff, Mock and Stat-blast. 

But first, in no particular order, let’s meet the contestants…

Origin Story: Climate Change Denial

Origin Story is a podcast hosted by articulate, occasionally potty-mouthed, 40-something Brits Ian Dunt and Dorian Lynskey.

They set themselves the task of uncovering ‘the real stories behind the most misunderstood and abused ideas in politics’. They read widely and deeply on the topic, and share their conclusions with each other (and us) via lively dialogue. 

Their tone can be entertainingly, and self-consciously, frivolous, with occasionally lapses into the profoundly serious demanded by their subject matter – genocide, Zionism, Neoliberalism, culture wars. 

Origin Story’s 2-part series on Climate Denial (Science Friction and Fuelling the Flames) is typically broad-ranging and well-researched, but what’s particularly interesting about Origin Story is the way so many of their topics overlap, intermingle, and cross-pollinate.

Dunt and Lynskey are adept at  pointing out the connections, and recurring characters, between their deep dives into climate denial and their other podcasts on conspiracy theory, anti-vaxxers, anti-woke, the Illuminati and culture war movements.

Thinking activists should find their deft links between small stories and big ones, and between big stories, illuminating.

One example – their explanation of a pilot scheme that trained GPs and nursing staff on the island of Jersey to adopt a science-based but non-confrontational, empathetic explanation of COVID and other vaccines, convincing many ‘vaccine hesitants’ into changing their minds.

Naomi Klein: This Changes Everything

From her first bestseller, No Logo (2000), Klein has been at the forefront of academia-activism, dancing between the worlds of research and campaigning. 

Ever since, in a series of books that articulate the academic research conducted between publications, Klein’s clear-eyed analysis of how we’ve shaped our world has steadily moved from the more abstract aspects of capitalism to its real-world impact on planetary climate.

This Changes Everything (2014), subtitled ‘Capitalism vs The Climate’, directly connects her research on economics and climate action. Her publisher describes This Changes Everything as ‘a brilliant explanation of why the climate crisis challenges us to abandon the core “free market” ideology of our time, restructure the global economy, and remake our political systems’. 

While based on the same academic rigour as her other work, This Changes Everything is a campaigning book, with overt calls to action for positive change.

As all climate activists know, the problem with urgent calls for action is what to do when they fail. Klein’s own response is introspective. The blurb for Klein’ latest book, Doppelganger advertises it as ‘her most personal book’, and a trip into the Mirror World where ‘conspiracy is reality, fiction is fact, left is right and you might not even recognise yourself’.

Klein’s decades-long investigation into why people can be persuaded to act against their self-interest has lead her to conclude that it’s all about the personal, the emotional, the human connection, manipulated for better or worse by the stories we’re told, and choose to believe..

As an accomplished storyteller herself, Klein is particularly well-placed to analyse the power of a good story in moving people to a particular conclusion, and inoculating them against any attempt to shift them from it.

George Marshall: Don’t Even Think About It

Marshall has been on a long journey from engaging in climate action, to analysing the causes of climate inaction, encapsulated in his book Don’t Even Think About It: ​​Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change (2014).

Marshall’s early career exposing rainforest deforestation corruption and defending indigenous rights lead him to realise the critical role played by storytelling.

In 2004, he co-founded Climate Outreach, a UK charity with the goal of increasing public engagement in climate-change related issues, and his trajectory lead him to his current role as climate communications specialist.

His years on the front line of climate activism still inform Marshall’s transformation into a leading thinker about climate inaction, lending his analysis a particular credibility. 

Don’t Even Think About It consolidates his views. Practising what it preaches, it’s written to engage, in short chapters making pithy points. Marshall has learned that advertising your academic research too prominently means fewer people will stop to examine your shop window.

Nonetheless, Don’t Even Think About It covers all the key behavioural psychology bases, like confirmation bias, availability bias, and pluralistic ignorance, you’ll find in academic tomes.

Marshall summarises the growing field of evolutionary psychology by succinctly distinguishing between the Rational Brain and the Emotional Brain, and emphasising the latter’s critical importance when it comes to changing minds. This is something economists have gradually discovered over time. Nobel Prizes used to be given to theorists who predicted behaviour based on logical self-interest. Now they’re awarded to researchers who demonstrate the opposite.

The dominance of the heart over the head explains why Stat-blasting doesn’t work, and Mockery only appeals to the converted. In her meteoric rise to global environmental figurehead, Greta Thunberg has tried both of these approaches. 

Citing IPCC data and demolishing political hypocrisy is highly effective at rallying the troops, must less so at overcoming opposition. In time, Greta might arrive at the same conclusions as Marshall, though as she’d point out, we don’t have time.

Amy Westervelt: Drilled

It’s hard to pick any single episode or even series from Drilled‘s impressive back catalogue of podcasts and investigations, as they all address the same target with equal rigour and high-quality storytelling.

Drilled identifies this target as ‘Climate accountability — investigating and understanding the various drivers of delay on climate action’, but this often involves unpacking widely-propagated conspiracy theories, and exposing how Big Oil’s PR proxies expertly manipulate them in their employer’s favour.  

Pick any Drilled podcast episode, and you’ll hear the world-weary drawl of its digger-in-chief Amy Westervelt forensically unpeeling another example of Big Oil’s dirty tricks catalogue. 

Westervelt may be investigating and deconstructing a Biff, Mock or Stat-Blast approach, but usually the oil & gas industry used more subtle means, like concealed funding of conspiracy theories that promote climate inaction.

Any analysis of the Three-Headed Beasts linking Government, Business and Media risks sounding like a conspiracy theory itself, but only if you’re predisposed to ignoring Westervelt’s dogged investigative reporting, and are immune to Drilled’s sophisticated storytelling and sound design.

The New York Times review nail’s the essence of Drilled’s success: “This rigorously reported investigative show, hosted by Amy Westervelt…tackles causes of climate change through the lens of the biggest podcast genre of all — true crime.”

Daniel J Clark: Behind the Curve

The documentary Behind the Curve (2018), strapline ‘See the world in a whole new shape’, follows, almost in real time, the growth of the Flat Earth theory from kooky online backwater to international conference.

Director Daniel J Clark studiously avoids mockery. His sincere goal of gleaning something profound from this particular, extreme example of mass irrationality is the key to the documentary’s power. 

Listening to his Flat Earther protagonists, giving them the space and backstories for us to get to know them as individuals and form our own opinions on why they’re so determined to revert to a belief that even the Catholic Church has abandoned, distinguished behind the Curve as a high quality documentary. 

Fact is much stranger than fiction – you really couldn’t script some of the cognitive dissonance the Flat Earthers present as scientific scepticism, as they discover their tribe online, seek out others who affirm them, and even set out to evangelise the rest of us who still blindly ‘believe the scientists’ without doing our own research.

Clark’s greater purpose, and sincere desire to understand, gained him great access to its promoters during filming. More importantly, he maintained this objectivity during editing.

Reviewers who described Behind the Curve as ‘hilarious’ are betraying their own mocking instincts, not Clark’s more ambitious goal of understanding the appeal of conspiracy theories. Like other documentaries about other conspiracy theories that seek to understand, rather than mock, like Virulent: The Vaccine War, there’s a common factor. 

Just as people who believe in one conspiracy theory are pre-disposed to believe in another, understanding what drives believers in one conspiracy theory can inform you about others. This is why climate activists should watch documentaries about Flat Earthers.

As Clark told an interviewer “My dream would be that when people watch it, they take flat Eartherism as an analogy to something they believe in, because it’s so easy to demonise another group or another person for something they think but you’re kind of just as guilty if you do that’.

As Behind The Curve empathetically reveals, conspiracy theorists are driven either by an emotional search for a tribal identity, or to profit from those who do. Or both.  

Adam McKay: Don’t Look Up

Adam McKay’s background in comedy performance, writing and movie directing has granted him a different perspective, and practical experience, when it comes to interpreting human fascination with conspiracy theories. 

More precisely, MkKay specialises in exposing our determination to believe in beguiling lies even in the face of incontrovertible evidence of inconvenient truths.

McKay is probably best known for directing and writing The Big Short (2015), a ‘biographical crime comedy-drama’ based on Michael Lewis’s book unpicking the 2008 global financial crisis.

The Big Short used inventive storytelling to tell true stories, exposing how the vast majority of the world’s bankers partied as they profited from a shared mass delusion, while a handful of maverick truth-tellers foretold its inevitable collapse.

In Don’t Look Up (2021) McKay applies the same dark comedic touch to an incomparably bigger human-induced problem, with far more devastating consequences – climate change.

It does so indirectly, by hinging the plot on a more immediate proxy for climate change, an asteroid collision scientists know will happen, but the rest of us prefer to ignore, as it would interfere with our comfortable lives. 

‘Based on real events that haven’t happened yet’, Don’t Look Up applies a fictional plot, and a Hollywood movie with familiar stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, to place the kind of conspiracy-thinking fallbacks in the context of a disaster movie.

See Through News published its review of this Hollywood movie attempt to move the climate Inactive from passivity into action, and the irony of its reception by moviegoers and movie reviewers, who largely proved McKay’s point by missing his point. 

Tim Harford: Cautionary Tales

We could have picked any of Tim Harford’s  many platforms for expressing his calm, statistically-rigorous storytelling style, but have gone for one of the most accessible, his Cautionary Tales podcast.

Cautionary Tales is a longer-form series than his long-running BBC fact-checking series More of Less, recipient of a Royal Statistical Society award for statistical excellence in broadcast journalism.

Cautionary Tales takes a more artful storytelling approach, with high production values, sound design, and actors voicing various roles, but it shares the same basic approach as all of Harford’s output – subjecting well-circulated claims to factual scrutiny, often drawing contradictory or different conclusions. 

Cautionary Tales stories tend to link famous historical events with lesser-known ones, using parallel narratives to build a convincing case that either favours the nuanced over the  simplistic, or sometimes coming down in favour of the obvious over the over-reaching. 

Whether bringing life to historical stereotypes, challenging political canards or half-truth, or debunking out-and-out conspiracy theories, Harford has a knack for keeping it light.

By removing any sense of partisanship, and restraining any anger he might feel at the lethal consequences of political manipulations, Harford retains an authority that’s hard for conspiracy theorists to penetrate. 

Harford’s storytelling style appears to favour only facts, to respect the evidence wherever it may lead. 

Entrenched conspiracy theorists are oblivious to any nuance or contradiction of their champions’ assertions, but one would imagine that Harford’s measured, science-based style must be effective in swaying the conspiracy theory-hesitant, or conspiracy theory-curious, back onto the path of reason, logic and evidence.


What do all these different takes on conspiracy theories and the cognitive dissonance that drives them teach us about the nature of the climate action Problem, and an alternative Solutions to Biff, Mock and Stat-Blast?

What they all examine, from their different perspectives, is the issue of trust. Who do we trust, and why do we trust them?

We all have to take certain things on trust. We can’t all be experts on everything. No one has the time or capacity to literally ‘do their own research’ on everything from atmospheric physics to MRA vaccine technology. 

Unless you decline to ‘take a view’ on anything on which you’re not a world expert, we all outsource our opinions, to some degree or other. Even a climate scientist on the IPCC panel might parrot a trusted expert’s opinion on, say, soccer’s offside rule, or the quality of MacDonald’s coffee.

The question is then not whether we outsource our opinions on certain matters, but to whom and on what basis. 

The Internet may have democratised the propagation of opinions, but this is not a new problem. For most of human history, and still for more than 80% of humanity today, religion has filled the ignorance gap, but the Big Five remain blinking in the headlights of this human-induced catastrophe. 

In descending order of popularity, Christianity (2.3Bn adherents), Islam (1.9Bn), Hinduism (1.2Bn)  and Buddhism (0.5Bn), and all the other smaller faiths, collectively and individually appear to have no answer to averting this catastrophe. Given that faith has historically had to concede ground to science, this is unsurprising.

Science v. Pseudo-Science

The real battleground for the ‘climate battle’ is between science and pseudo-science.

The scientific method is both asset and liability. Science requires constant scepticism (in its true sense), doubting, querying, quibbilng and questioning. That’s how it works, and how it builds a body of evidence on which to progress.

But science’s intrinsic inclusion of doubt also provides a rich source of ammunition for pseudo-science. One anomalous dataset. One ambiguous graph. One footnote expressing reservations. One missing step in logic. Any one of these can germinate a conspiracy theory.

Add to that the popular trope, celebrated in countless Hollywood movies, or heroic maverick whistleblowers standing up to bullying corporate consensus, and you have a perfect petri-dish for the conspiratorially minded, and all-you-can-tweet buffet for conspiracy theorists to feast on.

As soon as people start pitching Our Science against Your Science, and it gets amplified by the media into some sort of false equivalence, another battle is lost to the conspiracy theories. 

The irony is that conspiracy theories often accurately identify The Problem. Q-Anon and those who believe the world is run by the Illuminati, extraterrestrial lizards or other exclusive operators of the levers of power, would probably agree with the See Through News allegory of the Three-Headed Beasts:

Each Beast had a Government Head

To one side, a Business Head, to the other, a Media Head.

The Government Head could control the other two, but rarely did.

Below the neck, Heads were joined by Power.

Below the belly, Beast was joined to Beast.’ 

Identifying a complex Problem prompts the need for a Solution, and here the paths of science and pseudo-science diverge. 

Deniers simply deny there’s a Problem. 

Conspiracy theorists offer a single, simple, impossible-to-actually-implement answer that’s impervious to reason, but guarantees membership of their conspiracy theory tribe.

Science offers a range of solutions, each with its own costs and benefits – a battery of Difficult Choices.

It’s tempting to think that having travelled so far towards diagnosing the problem, conspiracy theorists should be easily diverted to more effective solutions, but this is to misunderstand the essential appeal of a conspiracy theory. 

If you see any resistance to scientific evidence as evidence of conspiracy theory, however, you’re missing a huge opportunity.

Plan D

It’s important to distinguish Unwilling Inactivists from Willing Inactivists

Unwilling Inactivists broadly accept the science and reality of human-induced climate change, but feel powerless to do anything about it. They are amenable to being moved from climate inaction to climate action, if told the right stories in the right way.

Willing Inactivists are deniers and denialists, often invoking conspiracy theories, who actively oppose any climate action to speed up carbon drawdown, and mitigate the worst effects of human-induced climate change. They are largely impervious to reason, however expertly delivered.

The seven sources listed in this article are full of many, varied examples of converting Unwilling Inactivists into Effective Activists. 

Origin Story cites the doctors and nurses whose patient, empathetic explanation of the statistics of vaccination convinced vaccine hesitants to set aside anti-vaxxers scaremongering, and protect their babies, and all other babies, from getting preventable diseases. Tim Harford is constantly celebrating victories of reason over irrationality.

Drilled documents multiple stories, from around the world, of local communities finding ways to stand up to Big Oil’s determination to drill, baby, drill.

Adam McKay and Daniel Clark have nudged some of their audience watching their films from the grasp of conspiracy theory, and towards the embrace of science.

George Marshall and Naomi Klein have influenced some decision-makers and power-brokers reading their books or attending their talks, towards actions that favour carbon drawdown over profit.

Enough? No. The right approach? Probably.

Better storytelling, told more empathetically, with clear carbon-reducing outcomes. This is the fourth alternative to Biff, Mock and Stat-Blast, and the direction taken by See Through News.

To join See Through’s global network of pro bono carbon-reduction activists, email: