I recently "sat down" over email with Julie Saetre to talk about my previous blog post, "Antivaxxers and the Plague of Science Denial," and more about vaccine hesitancy and conspiracy theories for her article "A Dangerous Debate" that appeared in the September 2019 issue of Kiwanis Magazine. Here's the full transcript of our interview:
It seems conspiracy theorists are thriving in the 21st century, with bizarre explanations for everything from 9/11 to the Sandy Hook shooting to “chem trails” and, now, vaccines.
Are people today more susceptible to the anti-vaccination message and other conspiracy theories than in the past? If so, why do you think that is?
We don’t have a lot of information about whether people today are more or less susceptible to conspiracies, but we do know that conspiracy theories have been around for a long, long time. We also know that belief in conspiracy theories is very common — around 50% of the US population believes in at least one, a prevalence that has held steady for at least several decades.
Political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent conducted a study of conspiracy theories over the past century, based on surveying letters to the editor written to the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune going back to 1890. They found that conspiracy theories elaborated in those letters occurred with ebbs and flows in an overall steady stream, with variations occurring in terms of what kinds of evil forces have been implicated within the conspiracy beliefs. Typically, the evil forces claimed by conspiracy theorists have been US political parties when in power or foreign governments during times of war.