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Researchers found a psychological link between conspiracy theories and creationism

Researchers found a psychological link between conspiracy theories and creationism

Ask a three-year-old why they think it’s raining, and she may say “because the flowers are thirsty”. Her brother might also tell you that trees have leaves to provide shade for people and animals. These are instances of teleological thinking, the idea that things came into being and exist for a purpose.

Teleological explanations for natural phenomena are rejected by scientists because these explanations appeal to intentions. But trees do not grow leaves and rain clouds do not drop water with an outcome in mind. It rains because of physics. And those physics would apply equally if there were no flowers or any other life on the planet.

Take teleology one step further, and you get Donald Trump, who thinks global warming is an invention of the Chinese to make US manufacturing non-competitive. There is growing evidence that indulging in conspiracy theories predisposes people to reject scientific findings, from climate change to vaccinations, and AIDS.

And researchers have now found that teleological thinking also links beliefs in conspiracy theories and creationism.

Teleological and conspiratorial thought share a number of features in common. Core to both ways of thinking is the act of giving things a purpose. Flowers supposedly produce delightful perfume in order to attract pollinators, and climate scientists supposedly invent a hoax known as climate change at the behest of the “world government” or George Soros.

It’s this emphasis on assigning purpose that makes teleological thinking and conspiratorial thought so attractive. In everyday life, assigning intentions often makes perfect sense.

If someone asks you why your daughter turned on the TV, it may be perfectly accurate and appropriate to reply with “because her favorite show is on now”. But giving such a presumed purpose to trees, clouds and other natural phenomenon can produce false understanding.

There is much evidence that people are enthralled by teleological thinking and have difficulty leaving it behind. One study showed that even scientists, when put under time pressure, lapse into teleological thinking they would reject if given more time, being more likely to endorse statements such as “germs mutate in order to become drug resistant” (though still far less likely to do so than a community sample of participants).

Another study found that when students are put in a situation in which they lack control, they readily resort to perceiving conspiracies and developing superstitions.