In the process the class confronts students head on with the logical fallacies, false promises and ethical pitfalls that dot the landscape of conspiracy. The hope is that it will make students more critical interpreters of information and offer them the tools for constructing a view of the world rooted in evidence-based methods of observation and analysis.

Yet, when it comes to conspiracy theorists themselves, Busey concedes, such hopes are easily dashed. Conspiracy theory believers continually defy any straightforward “fixes” or “cures.” In the six or so years he has been teaching the course, “There’s never been a magic moment where we say, “Aha, if you just did this or that, you could keep people out of that rabbit hole, if you had more education or more scientific method or more logical or critical thinking. People are gonna keep doing it. Even the flat earthers are trying to do science experiments. And they’re buying gyroscopes and measuring lasers on canals to try to see if the earth is flat.”

That such fixes aren’t easy to come by, however, likewise suggests why the course remains perpetually fresh and compelling.

1. Conspiracy believers . . .

Busey begins his three-unit course by focusing on characteristics of conspiracy believers and what motivates their beliefs: What are their personality traits, cognitive styles or values? Is there a lack of critical thinking? Do they value their own perceptions over the views of scientists or other so-called experts?

Some of the speculation on these questions comes out of existing research on the subject: “Extroversion is mildly correlated with believing in conspiracy theories, but narcissism has been shown to play a major role,” says Busey. “For some, it may be the lure of a strong community rather than the conspiracy itself that leads them to espouse certain beliefs. For others, it may be an element of close-mindedness and a high need for closure. Perhaps what connects some conspiracy theorists is that they start with a conclusion, such as the earth is flat, and work backwards to find evidence that supports that. “Science,” says Busey, “does the opposite. It says, ‘here’s some evidence, here’s some possible mechanisms. Let’s find out which one is more credible and go from there.’”

With this list of traits, Busey introduces the concept of “latent dimensions,” which students learn to apply throughout the course. The idea is that you can distill a large, complex range of data into a few overarching categories, placing the varied personality traits of conspiracy theory believers, for example, into such larger categories of extroversion, agreeableness or the need for closure. It “helps organize and summarize our observations of human behavior,” he explains.

Professor Busey addresses a question of one of his students in class. Photo by Jordan Morning

Motivations, too, are varied, but typically fall into three categories: existential, insofar as the theories address an issue that affects your way of life or its very existence; epistemic, in that they address questions we can’t answer; and social, insofar as they address the need for community. “Loneliness is as unhealthy as smoking, so community is important,” says Busey to emphasize this point. These motivations, he observes, also help to explain the proliferation of conspiracies in the time of Covid, “when science didn’t have all the answers and conspiracy theories filled the gap.”

Students complete the first unit of the course with a profile of a conspiracy theory believer. “Some fascinating essays,” he explains. “People who claim that the Middle Ages never happened; some who met a sad end, like the gunman at a D.C. pizzeria whose belief in a baseless conspiracy resulted in a four-year prison sentence; others, like RFK, Jr., who made millions of dollars as a crusader of anti-vaccine and public health misinformation; and then there are grifters, like Alex Jones (the far-right radio host and conspiracy theorist) who was making $1 million a day selling survival gear, among other things. But I won’t defame him. He might sue me.”

2 . . . their beliefs . . .

In Unit 2 the students turn toward the theories themselves and the characteristics that define them.

On Monday, February 12 the students in the Spring 2024 class engaged in a hands-on computer lab activity: mapping out a landscape of conspiracy theories, the second of their three major projects. Students in the 17-member class divide up into small groups, each making lists of conspiracy theories and of categories or dimensions into which these theories fall.

For the group that included students Esha Aras, Hayley Arick and Addy Banet, the lists looked like this:

harmful vs. unharmful; political vs. apolitical; historical vs. modern; personal v. other-oriented; religious vs. non-religious; old generations vs. young generations; niche vs. popular

Conspiracy theories
the earth is flat; explanations for the disappearance of Malaysian airlines flight 370; the moon landing was fake; aliens built the pyramids; Area 51 is the site of alien investigations; 5G is toxic; climate denialism; Lizard People live among us; Obama was not born in the U.S.; the Denver airport is the site of secret underground tunnels built for the post-apocalypse, among others about the airport; explanations for the identity and whereabouts of the body of “D. B. Cooper” after his hijacking and parachute jump in the Northwest; the 2020 election was rigged.

Students Esha, Hayley, and Addy work together to categorize conspiracy theories. Photo by Jordan Morning

Students then rank each theory on a scale according to each of these dimensions and plug the rankings into an open-source statistics program called JASP in order to calculate the relationships between the conspiracy theories across two dimensions. Like their analysis of personality traits, students conduct a “factor analysis” which reduces their list of categories into two summary dimensions more broadly encompassing the features in their list. For example, if the dimensions are degrees of harmfulness and government suspicion, QAnon (the network of far-right conspiracy purveyors and their theories) will appear high on both harmfulness and government suspicion; Princess Diana conspiracy theories will appear low on harmfulness but high on government suspicion; while Bigfoot will appear low along both dimensions. JASP enables the class to visually represent the degrees of similarity between all of the theories on the two axes of a graph.

3 . . . and correlations between the two

In Unit 3 students start to connect the believers in Unit 1 with the theories in Unit 2. For example, “If you’re a flat earther,” as Busey explains, “you probably also believe the moon landing was a fake. But if you believe that Canadian singer-songwriter Avril Lavigne was cloned, you probably don’t have an opinion on QAnon. Those are very different.”

Using Prolific, a data collection site, students then determine which personality characteristics are associated with which conspiracy theories. Which theory would you endorse, for example, given some measure of a personality trait like the need for closure, lack of critical thinking, or some other quality that the students might come up with to predict the correlation of certain people with certain beliefs.

Students use JASP to calculate the relationships between conspiracy theories. Photo by Jordan Morning

An inexhaustible topic

Ultimately, says Busey, “I think the reasons people believe conspiracy theories are as varied as the reasons people do anything. They have the same huge range and motivation that every other person has for doing their thing.”

At the same time, it seems to fascinate us more than a lot of other topics.

“Maybe because we all secretly enjoy the possibility that some of these things might be true,” he suggests.  “The most famous line from the Harry Potter movies is ‘Harry, you’re a wizard.’ Maybe this is the chance to have the secret knowledge, be the smart person in the room, the ‘Harry, you’re a wizard’ moment.”

Other avenues for speculation range widely across multiple topics – from the impact of social media on mental health to political disinformation to Taylor Swift, the FBI, and whether it's all about money and power or an opportunity to feel important. The list goes on.

“There’s no shortage of content,” says Busey. “It’s been super fun.”

And in the process students learn something about how psychologists understand and measure human behavior, as elusive as that behavior might be.


Science Writer