The truth is out there: the new Cambridge Conspiracy Theories Project

Dr Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
January 29, 2015, 5:32 PM GMT+0

The YouGov-Cambridge Programme launches a new study on European attitudes to conspiracy theories, in partnership with the “Conspiracy and Democracy” project at Cambridge University.

We are living in an age of conspiracy theories. Or is that just what they want you to think?

Last year, two academics from Miami University, Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, released a new book called “American Conspiracy Theories”, looking at when and why conspiracy theories have ebbed and flowed over the past 122 years of American politics, and whether the conspiracy theory is really in its heyday, or in decline. In the process, they gathered a unique set of data sources – some 120,000 letters to the New York Times and Chicago Tribune editors between 1890 and 2010; a two-wave survey from before and after the 2012 presidential election; and mountains of online discussion.

They also offered a number of conclusions about the American context: gender is no predictor of the tendency to believe, they say, while levels of education and affluence are; conspiracy theorising has apparently remained quite stable over the last two centuries, and even started to tail off since the 1960s; theorists themselves are more likely to see violence as a possible solution to society’s problems, while power asymmetries are the ultimate drivers behind the rise of conspiracy theories, with those at the bottom of power hierarchies even having a "strategic interest" in blaming those at the top.

Now as part of the YouGov-Cambridge Programme, a team of POLIS and YouGov researchers are setting out to test some of these ‘theories on conspiracy theories’ in the European context, and specifically how demographic profiles, trust in institutions and engagement with politics correlate with favourability towards a range of theories – on such things as the European Union, Islam, the environment, aliens, the illuminati, 9/11 and others.

The new study will be in support of a larger project, based at the Cambridge Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH) and funded by the Leverhulme Trust, entitled “Conspiracy and Democracy: History, Political Theory and Internet Research”.

Directed by Professor Sir Richard J Evans, Professor John Naughton and Professor David Runciman, the project aims to explore several questions including: what does the prevalence of conspiracy theories tell us about trust in democratic societies, and about the differences between cultures and societies? How have conspiracies and conspiracy theorising changed over the centuries and what, if any, is the relationship between them? Have conspiracy theories appeared at particular moments in history, and why? As the project statement also adds, it sets out not to debunk particular theories, but to provide a “natural history” of conspiracy theorising.

Updates and research highlights coming soon...

Meanwhile, see here for a summary of the CRASSH/YouGov collaboration on the newsfeed for the “Conspiracy and Democracy” project.