Certitude

The human brain is hard-wired to seek certitude, which often is an indication of power and confidence. More importantly, beliefs held with high certainty are more durable than low-certainty beliefs. One recent study showed that greater perception of certainty is associated with greater stability.28 This perception of certainty in one’s attitudes (characteristic of conspiracists) leads to more impact and increases advocacy for one’s attitude.

The factual world often does not bend to our clear-cut models and conceptualisations. Real-world phenomena, especially those in biological organisms and human society that are the subject of many conspiracy theories, are often chaotic and full of randomness. In addition, our knowledge of these phenomena is partial and subject to change. Since scientific and evidence-based endeavours are constrained by their commitment to facts and evidence, they are expressed in an intentionally modest tone. It is not uncommon in academic papers to use conditional forms and myriads of uncertainty markers such as ‘if such and such’, ‘within the scope of this study’, ‘with the margin of error’, ‘under these laboratory circumstances’, ‘may’, ‘might’. Extremist and conspiracist narratives, in contrast, make big claims in absolute terms and with certitude. Thus, narratives of conspiracism and extremism are naturally more appealing to our naïve minds. These factors point to an insurmountable problem for science communication in terms of reaching such minds, especially during perilous moments of a global pandemic. A sense of certitude about their beliefs reinforces emphaticalness, which means they are “less inclined to process or think carefully about attitude-relevant information”. So,

when people feel certain, they assume they have sufficient knowledge and thus see no need to process additional information carefully, if at all. When they feel uncertain, however, this signals a lack of complete knowledge, or insight, and the systematic processing of information can be an effective way to restore knowledge and feel more certain.29

Abundant sources have indicated that conspiracy theories rise during uncertain times. Likewise, scholars of violent extremism have confirmed “the contributions of threat perceptions to out-group hostility and violence across cultures”.30

Academic and scientific explanations have another major communicative constraint: they are subject to change. It is because our methodologies improve, our instruments and evaluations advance, and we learn and accumulate more knowledge over time, which often fine-tunes our previous explanations or rules them out altogether. Moreover, at least when it comes to more versatile contexts such as a biological organism or human society, even the objects of knowledge are constantly changing. Thus, scientific and academic explanations change through changes in input data, evidence and observations. They are not stories, ideological statements, or religious dogma detached from reality to remain the same forever. When new data, observations, and evidence emerge, scientists have to accommodate these in their explanations. These changes are often interpreted as signs of hesitation and weakness, and, thus, of the unreliability of science. What impression is produced when within less than a year, scientific theories about the origin of Covid-19, the mechanisms of its working, and the efficacy of its vaccines change several times? These modifications or corrections in the scientific literature, especially about a novel and sudden phenomenon, make it easy to find contradictions and complications and use them as a tool against science. Given the limited processing capacity of the brain, it values stable, enduring, and unalterable statements, and even more so when in the face of uncertainty and existential threats, such as a pandemic or major social disruption.

In contrast, conspiracism and extremism can offer explanations that do not react to changes in the environment. They are stories without hooks in reality. Strong attitudes that are change-proof are more appealing to our naïve brain. The reason why some extremist pundits and conspiracists can present these narratives as immutable truths is that they are neither verifiable nor falsifiable: they are expressed in such vague and broad terms that no fact, observation, or test can refute them.


[28] Andrew Luttrell, Richard E. Petty, and Pablo Briñol, “Ambivalence and certainty can interact to predict attitude stability over time”, Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 63 (2016): 56–68.

[29] Zakary L. Tormala and Derek D. Rucker, “Attitude certainty: Antecedents, consequences, and new directions”, Consumer Psychology Review 1.1 (2018): 72–89.

[30] Miles T. Armaly, David T. Buckley, and Adam M. Enders, “Christian nationalism and political violence: Victimhood, racial identity, conspiracy, and support for the Capitol attacks”, Political Behavior (2022): 1–24.

Executive Summary

Foreword

Introduction

Analysis

Conclusion