This is Scientific American's 60-second Science, I'm Julia Rosen.
Along with COVID-19, something else is spreading across America: conspiracy theories. In the dark alleys of the Internet, people have concocted a dizzying array of unfounded explanations for the pandemic.
The phenomenon doesn't surprise John Cook, a cognitive scientist at George Mason University.
"When people feel threatened, when they feel out of control, when they feel like random events are sweeping over them, they are more vulnerable or likely to gravitate toward conspiracy theories, because it gives people a sense of control. We're just uncomfortable with randomness. Humans are pattern detectors. We need meaning; we need control; we need to know that there is a system—there's an order to how the world works."
Cook's expertise is studying climate denial, and he sees many similarities with COVID conspiracies. Both play on distrust of science and the tension between personal liberty and the need to protect society as a whole. The difference, Cook says, is the sheer number of COVID myths and how fast they're spreading.
"I feel like I'm trying to scoop up floodwater with a spoon."
He and colleagues hope to build a dam by alerting the public to the prevalence of misinformation. They recently released a guide called How to Spot COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories. Cook is also producing a series of YouTube videos.
The key is to identify the hallmarks of conspiratorial thinking. Telltale signs include holding contradictory beliefs, seeing signs of nefarious intent at work and reinterpreting random events as proof of a hidden scheme. For example, some have tried to link the coronavirus outbreak to 5G wireless, which also rolled out in 2019.
"That can't be coincidence, right? Actually, yes, it is coincidence. Baby Yoda came out in 2019, but Baby Yoda didn't cause COVID."
Cook says it can be hard to dislodge a conspiracy theory once it's taken hold. People often discredit conflicting information by simply expanding the scale of the plot: those behind the new evidence must be in on it, too.
A better approach, Cook says, is to inoculate people against misinformation by explaining what to look for in advance.
"When someone throws an argument at you, if you see these red flags, then be wary that it could be a baseless conspiracy theory."
Cook's research has shown that inoculation helps prevent people from falling for climate conspiracies. Until there's a COVID vaccine, perhaps it can at least provide protection from coronavirus quackery.
Thanks for listening for Scientific American's 60-second Science. I'm Julia Rosen.