Setting the record straight on Wood & Douglas, 2013

Our recently published Frontiers study on online communication, “What about Building 7?” A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories, has been the subject of some chatter on the Internet – but not quite in the way I had hoped. A story by Kevin Barrett on PressTV.ir has interpreted the study as showing that conspiracists are “more sane” than conventionalists, and, given that this is an appealing headline for long-suffering conspiracists, has been copy-pasted around the Internet in a highly uncritical fashion. I’m often guilty of this too – reading the headline and moving on – because who has the time to read every original source of every news story? In this case, of course, the paper says nothing of the sort and the article’s conclusions are based on misrepresentations of several critical findings.

How on earth did Barrett get the idea that the study makes some judgement that conspiracists are more well-adjusted than conventionalists? He first mentions the size of the comment sample and how it’s split between the two classes of comments:

The authors were surprised to discover that it is now more conventional to leave so-called conspiracist comments than conventionalist ones: “Of the 2174 comments collected, 1459 were coded as conspiracist and 715 as conventionalist.” In other words, among people who comment on news articles, those who disbelieve government accounts of such events as 9/11 and the JFK assassination outnumber believers by more than two to one. That means it is the pro-conspiracy commenters who are expressing what is now the conventional wisdom, while the anti-conspiracy commenters are becoming a small, beleaguered minority.

In writing this Barrett did not realise that these only include persuasive comments – comments that were written with the apparent intent to change somebody’s mind about the cause of 9/11. It doesn’t include comments that, for instance, take the conventional explanation for granted and just talk about something else; that complain about someone else’s post; that simply insult someone; and so on. So it’s totally baseless to conclude that conspiracist comments outnumber conventionalist comments – I did the data collection for this study and am positive that this is not the case. Probably it’s true of a few articles, but certainly not in general.

I pointed this out in the comments on the PressTV website (for which, hilariously, I was downvoted by the website’s readers) and Barrett responded:

Dear Dr. Wood, Thank you for the clarification. Something similar is going on in academic publishing. Of the scholarly books and articles that in some way or other argue for or against the official conspiracy theory (OCT) of 9/11, there seem to be far more anti-official-conspiracy articles than those that explicitly support the official story. In that sense, 9/11 truth rules in academia; so if this were like any other disputed issue, the academic community would agree that 9/11 was an inside job, based on the evidence in scholarly publications. But there are a large number of publications that simply take the OCT for granted, while there are not so many that take its falsity for granted. So the current situation, in which the OCT remains the default position, is the product of ignorance and complacency.

I could spend a long time picking apart this reasoning but suffice it to say that this a completely bogus interpretation, and the original error in the article still hasn’t been corrected despite Barrett’s obvious awareness of the problem.

 Next, Barrett turns to the actual findings of the study:

Perhaps because their supposedly mainstream views no longer represent the majority, the anti-conspiracy commenters often displayed anger and hostility: “The research… showed that people who favoured the official account of 9/11 were generally more hostile when trying to persuade their rivals.”

Additionally, it turned out that the anti-conspiracy people were not only hostile, but fanatically attached to their own conspiracy theories as well. According to them, their own theory of 9/11 – a conspiracy theory holding that 19 Arabs, none of whom could fly planes with any proficiency, pulled off the crime of the century under the direction of a guy on dialysis in a cave in Afghanistan – was indisputably true. The so-called conspiracists, on the other hand, did not pretend to have a theory that completely explained the events of 9/11: “For people who think 9/11 was a government conspiracy, the focus is not on promoting a specific rival theory, but in trying to debunk the official account.”

Apart from the reference to the earlier statistical debacle, this characterisation of the hostility finding is correct (ADDED 29/07: though we don’t attribute this to personality differences as Barrett seems to; see this post for further discussion). The interpretation of the other finding is unusual and perhaps overstates the case (there was no measure of “fanaticism” in the study, unless defending a position you agree with is inherently fanatical) but this isn’t an unreasonable interpretation otherwise – it’s a question of values I suppose.

Additionally, the study found that so-called conspiracists discuss historical context (such as viewing the JFK assassination as a precedent for 9/11) more than anti-conspiracists.

This, though, is just flat-out wrong. The finding it refers to is that conspiracists mentioned more unrelated conspiracy theories positively than conventionalists did – conspiracists were more likely to say something like “9/11 was an inside job, just like the JFK assassination” than conventionalists were to say something like “9/11 conspiracies are nonsense! Now the JFK assassination, there’s a real conspiracy.” However, the opposite was true of negative mentions of other conspiracy theories – it was more likely for conventionalists to say “9/11 conspiracies are nonsense, just like UFO coverups” than for conspiracists to say “9/11 was a real conspiracy, not like that UFO coverup stuff.” In other words, 9/11 conspiracists tend to believe other conspiracy theories as well and 9/11 conventionalists tend to disbelieve other conspiracy theories as well – it’s a replication of a classic finding with new archival methodology. The idea that this somehow demonstrates that that conspiracists “discuss historical context more” is a total misinterpretation and seems to willfully ignore half of the finding it refers to.

Anyway, the damage seems to have been done – the PressTV article has been reprinted on a lot of different websites, forums, and social media thanks to its sensationalised headline and smug triumphalism. I’m ambivalent about this – I like that my research is being recognised since I am inherently a media whore, but I’m less happy about the fact that it’s only seeing wide exposure after having been twisted and misinterpreted by an extremely biased article on Iranian state-run media. Still, the last article that we published was met with headlines like “Psychologists prove conspiracy theorists are all crazy!” (there’s no room for nuance on the Internet, is there?) so I suppose it all balances out. I just hope that some people will read the paper itself rather than taking PressTV’s word for what it says.

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