What is the Basis for Denial and Conspiracy Theories?

By | December 17, 2020

When in conversations with others on complex topics, I am frequently perplexed when what they say seems so illogical to me and incongruent with scientific data.  For instance, currently, in this pandemic, this occurrence could not be more befuddling. Throughout COVID, the amount of “anti-vaxxers,” “anti-maskers,” and those who genuinely believe this is a hoax, is frankly astounding. In confronting this situation, the first point we need to concede is that people genuinely believe in how they think. So the question is, why?

From a neurologic perspective, how the brain works in this same situation is observable in numerous neurodegenerative and psychiatric illnesses. Essentially, the brain receives distorted information that interferes with accurate information, and it lacks the “circuitry” to distinguish whether such information is true or false.

If confronted with two pieces of information, the complexity of such information is critical. For example, it is much easier to comprehend the personal economic impact that you are trying to close down my business versus explaining the importance of mitigating the risk of spreading a virus in which not much is known. As a country founded on the principle of individualism and the desire to escape from King George’s tyranny, we are steeped in the ideal of “don’t tread on me.”

Low science literacy plays a critical role in the denial of science. Data from a study done in 2015 of 11,000 12th grade students found that only 22% were proficient or better in science. Thus, we neither have the foundation necessary to understand the scientific process or even more complex situations. Though one might be “educated,” the understanding of basic scientific principles is critical. Additionally, logic is not a talent; it is a skilled base methodology of reasoning. It is a skill learned in our elementary school and high schools and later sharpened by problem-solving in work, college, and graduate school. If the honing of that process of comparing and contrasting issues and information doesn’t occur throughout one’s life, it becomes arduous and less effective during times of stress and crisis.

Our brains seek facts. Thus, if I have not trained my brain to work through complex questions throughout my educational process, I rely on easy-to-understand information, thereby defaulting to my emotions of fear that can turn into facts. Please let me be clear, this is a systems and physiologic problem, and not an admittance that people are evil or unintelligent.

Therefore, to solve this issue, we must think about addressing it as a systems-based issue. The medical community and our health departments must mount systematic efforts encompassing science education in an uncomplicated and straightforward manner. At present, we are attempting to solve the masking issue by playing on peoples’ emotions and basically saying, “If you do not mask, you are hurting me,” leading people to receive the message that they are uncaring individuals. And this methodology doesn’t work.

The most optimal time to influence someone occurs before their minds are fully formed and set in their ways. Therefore, we should use our educational systems to drive this change. I have always said that my most influential teachers are my children. Thus, I propose that Health Systems and Public Health Agencies create informational campaigns, partnering with our educational systems to provide the right information earlier. In combatting these false narratives, we must utilize the context of Neuropsychology, thus, creating solutions that follow the same contextual methodology.