To anyone watching the BBC’s recent REEL segment, The Psychology Behind Conspiracy Theories, it must soon have become apparent that the BBC was not dealing with science but had instead wandered into the realm of fantasy. Unfortunately, experimental psychology investigating alleged “conspiracy theory” has been disconnected from objectivity for many years.
While psychology itself has a solid empirical foundation, experimental psychology often falls short of basic scientific standards. In 2015, the Open Science Foundation found that, of 100 published experimental psychology papers, results could only be replicated in 39, and just 36 produced findings from which any meaning could be drawn.
Such a high degree of subjectivity frequently leads to woolly conclusions, promoted as scientific fact in the BBC’s REEL segment. Shortly after the introduction, we are given the expert psychologist opinion that so-called “conspiracy theorists” are likely both to be extreme narcissists and to hold “beliefs” driven by a sense of powerlessness.
Narcissists can be broadly characterised as people with a perceived, and potentially misplaced, sense of higher social status. They often have expectations that they should be treated more favourably as a result.
While narcissists possess delicate egos, they certainly don’t suffer from a sense of powerlessness. Quite the opposite: narcissists frequently have a grandiose sense of self-importance, and the expectations to go with it.
This prima facie mutual exclusion in the double definition of “conspiracy theorists” near the beginning of the BBC’s short report on the psychology of those it chose to call conspiracy theorists gave us an early clue as to the epistemological failure at the heart of nearly all academic research on the subject. In point of fact, when we look more closely at the research claiming to reveal the “psychological traits” of the alleged conspiracy theorists, we frequently encounter the worst kind of pseudo-scientific babble.