Understanding conspiracy theories

Climate change denial is generally based on the idea that climate change is not true, but is a global conspiracy of thousands of scientists from hundreds of organisations and scores of countries. It is important to understand how conspiracy theories work.

What is a conspiracy theory?

A conspiracy theory is a generally mistaken belief that some covert but influential organisation or individual is responsible for an unexplained and harmful event or movement.

Influential conspiracy theories in recent times include:

In all of these, there is little or no genuine evidence to support the theory. Most of what is offered as evidence is distortion or misrepresentation. But they are believed by many.

Conspiracy theories can be harmful

Conspiracy theories can cause people to vote differently and to behave differently.

Some can be deadly, for example, anti-vaccination and Covid conspiracy theories can lead people to expose themselves or their children to life-threatening diseases.

Others can be dangerous to others, for example the pizza parlour child sex ring conspiracy led a man to fire a high powered rifle in the pizza shop and could easily have killed someone.

There are real conspiracies

Sometimes, conspiracies are real, and the conspirators are found out, often by journalists. For example:

  •  The tobacco companies really did suppress their knowledge of the smoking-cancer links for decades, according to a US judge.
  • Sometimes it is governments that conspire to make gains not legally allowed to them. An example is “the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s, when senior US officials conspired to sell weapons to Iran – then under an arms embargo – and channel the proceeds to rebels trying to oust Nicaragua’s socialist government.”

But most conspiracy theories turn out to be false.

How they start

It seems that conspiracy theories start in one of two ways.

(1) As a suspicion.

Someone thinks they can see how a conspirator could benefit from an event or situation, and they then interpret any evidence to fit this theory.

(2) Quite deliberately

Someone has a reason to invent a conspiracy.

  • Maybe a politician seeking to discredit their opposition, as in Donald Trump’s claims of a conspiracy to steal the election.
  • A country seeks to discredit another country. For example, China, Russia and USA have all used conspiracy theories to discredit each other over the coronavirus pandemic.
  • A company or politician wants to oppose a view without evidence, as is happening with the fossil fuel companies (and groups they fund) accusing thousands of scientists of conspiring about climate change.
  • It may be someone doing it as a joke.
  • Or maybe someone thinks they can make money out of a scam.

If the person starting a conspiracy theory can claim to be an insider or an expert, their claims can have greater credence.

How they grow

The crucial thing isn’t how a conspiracy theory starts, but how it grows. To have an impact, it must spread widely so that it gains an aura of truth even if it has no real basis.

Conspiracy theories thrive in difficult times

“There’s good evidence that conspiracy theories flourish during times of crisis,” says psychiatrist Joseph Pierre. 2020 has been a crisis for many people – bushfires, climate change, a global pandemic, loss of jobs and temporary loss of freedoms for many, terrorism fears, an unstable US presidency and election, etc, so it is unsurprising that conspiracy theories are thriving at present.

“Conspiracy theories are born out of the murky feeling that not all is being revealed to us, that the truth is still in shadow, and someone else is pulling the strings.” (SMH, April 2020)

People drive it

Studies have shown that a conspiracy theory can start small, sometimes from just one source, but they get traction if influential people spread them.

  • People with ideologies and worldviews that support conspiracy thinking can spread a new theory just because it reinforces their suspicion and makes them feel justified in their views.
  • Networks of like-minded conspiracy thinkers, some of them with sinister anti-government or antisocial agendas, can spring into action quickly and spread a new theory virally.
  • Politicians and celebrities can give a conspiracy theory credibility with an incautious remark, or more deliberately.
  • Increasingly, politicians who can see an advantage will tap into a theory that they think will benefit them. We can see this in the US when Donald Trump alleged massive election fraud, and many Republican party representatives got on board because (presumably) they could see a possible advantage for them, possibly a way to reverse the election result.

Some of this is somewhat random, but much of it is very deliberate. “Dark forces are still at work on the internet during major events. They seek to spread a fake news agenda and change the way events are perceived and constructed in dangerous ways.”

Fake news can spread much quicker than genuine news because it is simplistic and doesn’t rely on facts but on vague allegations.

Social media

It is no surprise that conspiracy theories can spread very quickly on social media, often aided by social media bots. Social media networks link millions of people and information is passed around very quickly in a convenient form (a video, a short post or a meme). No matter how diligent a social media platform is, videos and posts with false allegations can be shared millions of times before they can be taken down.

Experts say that many people believe what they see on their favoured social media channels without serious question or any fact checking.

Conspiracy theories grow and change

Conspiracy theories can mutate as they spread. A person who believes one conspiracy theory is more likely to also believe others. So the supposed facts about a particular supposed conspiracy can easily be expanded with ideas from other conspiracies.

For example, some people have long believed that big drug companies have been holding out on a cure for cancer. It is then very easy for them to believe a new conspiracy theory that the drug companies have exaggerated the coronavirus in order to sell more vaccines at an inflated price.

Why people believe in conspiracy theories

Personality type

Some people are innately more likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

  • mistrustful or overly suspicious, especially towards elites and experts;
  • intuitive rather than analytical – dependent more on personal experience and other people’s opinions than objective evidence;
  • anxiety – they feel distressed by uncertainty and feel the need for security and control;
  • self-focused, with a need to feel special;
  • likely to think meaningless statements are profound, and to infer meaning and motive where others don’t.

Response to the external world

When faced with difficult or distressing information, some people:

  • see patterns and links that may not be real;
  • listen mainly to one source of information (confirmation bias);
  • feel disturbed by major disappointments or challenges to their thinking (cognitive dissonance) and need to explain it;
  • find comfort in explaining “big” events in a chaotic world;
  • gravitate towards conspiracy theories that affirm their own views.

Finding a place in the group

People want to belong and have self esteem. Sometimes this leads to a greater openness to conspiracy theories, because:

  • being part of a group that “sees” the conspiracy that others can’t see can make a person feel special and knowledgeable, and so maintains self image;
  • a conspiracy means blame can be attributed to others, not us;
  • a small group of like-minded people, especially on social media, can reinforce each other and make each other feel better by repeating the “truths” that they know and outsiders don’t.

If you read the comments on Craig Kelly’s Facebook page, you can easily see many of these motivations.

How to recognise a conspiracy theory

The most obvious way is to check the information for yourself.

Check the source

  • Check whether the author is expert, and if they have an obvious bias (such as who pays them).
  • Check if the claimed facts are actually true.
  • Particularly check if the facts are cherry-picked from among other evidence that supports a different conclusion. (This is one of the most common features of conspiracy theories.)
  • Check if the references are reliable sources and actually say what is claimed.
  • If the author writes emotively rather than factually, they may have an agenda.
  • If the author asks lots of rhetorical questions without offering actual evidence, it may be that they have no evidence and are using the questions to raise unfounded doubts. (This is another common feature of conspiracy thinking.)

Check other sources

  • Use Google to check as many other sources as you can find. Give most credence to reliable sources.
  • See what recognised experts say.
  • See who else supports the conspiracy theory and who doesn’t.

Quick assessment

There are also ways to get a quick assessment. For example, it is well known that the more people are part of a conspiracy, the quicker the truth leaks out and the conspiracy is laid bare. So if a lot of people are involved and their story remains plausible, then it’s less likely to be a conspiracy.

Climate change is the perfect example. For this to be a conspiracy, thousands upon thousands of scientists have to be part of it, and to keep on lying. The fact that their science has stood up to scrutiny for several decades is an indication that the science is genuine.

Responding to conspiracy theories

Most of us will want to help people recognise conspiracy theories for what they are, and to learn the truth. But some responses are known to be counter productive. Here is a summary of the experts’ advice (from The Conversation, the European Commission and the Sydney Morning Herald).


  • Recognise the emotional dimensions and show empathy.
  • Try to establish common ground (values you both hold).
  • Avoid ridicule. Some people say it can help break the hold of a conspiracy theory, but most say that it only reinforces the theorist’s view that the world is against them, and so drives them further into dependence on the conspiracy community.
  • Don’t push too far or too fast. Give people time to think and draw their own conclusions.
  • It helps if you are seen as being competent in the matter under discussion.
  • Make sure you are well informed yourself.
  • Be prepared for the possibility that your scientific explanation and the experts you quote may be seen as part of the conspiracy.


  • Try to focus on facts as much as possible, not the conspiracy theory itself. When you do mention the theory, always say that it is wrong, so it isn’t reinforced via repetition.
  • Target the source of the theory, not the person you are discussing with.
  • Ask questions about their beliefs about the conspiracy to ensure you are addressing the issue important to them.
  • Ask “Socratic questions” which require them to explain what in fact may not be at all clear, either to them, or in the original theory (which is likely irrational at some point).
  • Go step by step with simple facts that challenge the theory, not complex explanations. Don’t overwhelm with information.
  • Provide fact-based alternative explanations of the facts supposedly explained by the conspiracy theory.

Get used to disappointment!

Many (most?) conspiracy theorists are unlikely to change their minds quickly, if at all. Don’t get anxious or lose your cool. As the man in black said: “Get used to disappointment!”

Our main aim is to win over those who are open to changing their minds or are still questioning both “sides”. Discussion with harder heads may serve that purpose as uncommitted people listen in on the discussion.


Photo: Chicago Man Flickr via Compfight, modified by Hughes Fact Check. The words on the signs are actual conspiracy theories, taken from the Facebook page of Craig Kelly MP.