Conspiracy theorists aren’t "mad" they just have certain “intellectual character traits” that make them believe certain things, a professor has said.
Quassim Cassam, a professor of philosophy at the University of Warwick, has launched a new study into what makes people believe in certain theories – and why such theories could push people to extremes such as joining Isis.
He believes that some people are more vulnerable to “intellectual vices” such as dogmatism, gullibility and close mindedness and this in turn makes them more likely to listen to extreme "alternative" sources of information.
He told The Independent: “The other explanation is that that these people are literally mad or mentally ill but I don’t really go for that theory.
“For example take 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Why do they hold onto their conspiracy theory despite the fact that there seems to be overwhelming evidence that it wasn’t an American government conspiracy to bring down the towers?
“The answer is they are overwhelmingly receptive to certain kinds of evidence for instance of website and they are overly dismissive of other types of evidence such as engineers’ reports on the towers.”
Professor Cassam explains that psychologists have developed a theory of a “conspiracy mentality” which explains why people are more likely to be taken in by certain types of rhetoric or information that go against received wisdom.
Now he is trying to explore that idea in more depth and study the generic character traits which underpin that mentality.
In the case of terrorism and Isis, he questioned why is it that some 18 or 19 year olds can be convinced by Isis recruiters to believe their interpretation of Islam despite the people around them telling them differently.
He explained: “For example, I don’t know much about Islam but I do know that there is an absolute clear bar in Islam on suicide. So people who are told it is acceptable to be suicide bombers are ending up believing something which on the face has no foundation at all.”
He said he was not trying to prove that these character traits were the sole reason for people believing these things but they are “part of the package”.
Professor Cassam’s study, which is funded by the Arts and Humanity Research Council, will start in April 2016 and run for 18 months.
He hopes that his findings will help understand the irrational decisions made by some and be a step forward towards combating and challenging them.