In 2014, the website Natural News, known for its pro-conspiracy stance, erroneously claimed that a scientific study had proven conspiracy theorists to be “more sane” than those with more conventional views. This assertion was based on a misinterpretation of a study titled “‘What About Building 7?’ A Social Psychological Study of Online Discussion of 9/11 Conspiracy Theories.” The study examined comments related to 9/11 and similar keywords, but it did not support the claim that conspiracy theorists are mentally healthier than others.
The study actually made several observations about the behavior of commenters discussing conspiracy theories. Conspiracist commenters tended to argue against opposing viewpoints rather than for their own interpretation. They were more likely to provide detailed accounts of their beliefs, express mistrust, and reference other conspiracy theories positively. Notably, they were reluctant to label their own beliefs as “conspiracy theories” due to the associated stigma. On the other hand, conventionalist comments often displayed a more hostile tone.
Natural News misinterpreted the study’s findings and drew unsupported conclusions. The assertion that “pro-conspiracy commenters” represented conventional wisdom while anti-conspiracy commenters were a marginalized minority was flawed due to the study’s limited scope, focusing solely on comments related to 9/11. The study did not provide a representative sample of public opinion. Furthermore, the study did not conclude that a hostile tone in comments indicated a lack of sanity; this was an unfounded interpretation.
The study did, however, emphasize that conspiracist tendencies stem from an underlying mistrust of authority, a belief that things are not as they seem, and a conviction that much of what people are told is false. It aligned with the idea that conspiracy theories often rely on “errant data” rather than coherent alternative explanations. The flawed interpretation by Natural News underscores the importance of accurate understanding and responsible reporting.