With the help of funding from the National Science Foundation, Garrett and Weeks conducted three surveys asking around 700 people on average about their beliefs in well-known conspiracy theories, including doubts about John Harvey Oswald assassinating President John Kennedy and allegations that the British royal family killed Princess Diana.
They also asked respondents about the validity of climate change, the percentage of Muslims wanting to commit violence against the West, the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and the harmful side effects of vaccines.
Their study didn’t include percentages for the correlations between beliefs and truths. But they found that people who reached conclusions based on evidence were more likely to reject conspiracy theories and know that humans contribute to global warming, not all Muslims want to kill Westerners, nobody found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and vaccines do not cause autism and other disorders.
Survey respondents who answered yes to questions like “Facts are dictated by those in power” were most likely to embrace the conspiracy theories.
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Respondents who agreed with survey statements like “I trust my gut to tell me what’s true and what’s not” were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories compared to those who based their opinions on evidence.
But, interestingly, said Garrett, the same people who trusted their gut were not necessarily more or less liable to believe that vaccines caused autism and other false notions that reasonable people might entertain given the welter of misinformation available about those topics.
Instead, one’s political affiliation might be a better predictor of how people felt about those issues, said Garrett, citing other research. Liberals who trusted their gut would tend to seek out information that confirmed their beliefs about climate change, for example, while gut-trusting conservatives would do the opposite. The more time and energy they spent studying the subject, in fact, the less likely they were to change their minds on it.
“People who have expertise and who are careful in their thinking, they tend to be more biased,” he said.
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But survey respondents who agreed that a hunch needs to be confirmed with data were uniformly more likely to see the truth clearly. “Regardless of which side of the aisle you fall on, what you might be expected to believe, people who say they value and put emphasis on the evidence just tend to do better,” Garrett said.
The research suggested that people could listen to their gut and still overcome their political biases as long as they were prepared to accept evidence with an open mind, said Garrett.
“This is good news,” he added.
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