Believe it or not, you can use conspiracy theories as tools for teaching

When misinformation is a global risk, critical thinking skills are more vital than ever, writes Malcolm Schofield. Here, he offers techniques from parapsychology and belief studies that can make research and analysis more rigorous

Malcolm Schofield's avatar
University of Derby
24 Jan 2024
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Parapsychology and the psychology of belief in general are having a burst in popularity. The Uncanny podcast, The Enfield Poltergeist docudrama and conspiracy theories (such as those surrounding QAnon) are intriguing audiences. Meanwhile, disinformation and misinformation are a leading global risk, according to a 2024 World Economic Forum report.

In my research in parapsychology and belief, I am regularly (although less so over the past couple of years) asked by colleagues, among others: “What’s the point?” I usually respond that everybody believes (or disbelieves) in something. Belief is a weird, indefinable thing that sits between cognition and personality. I research different types of beliefs: paranormal, conspiracy and religious. I also look at the experiences associated with the beliefs, but I’ll leave that for another time. The questions that have always interested me are: why do people believe in that? Or why believe in this and not that? This can lead to broad psychological topics such as personality, cognition, development and biological aspects, and these can feed directly into how we teach.

How belief research can be used to teach critical thinking

So, how can educators use insight from belief research in teaching? At the University of Derby, where I work, we have a successful parapsychology module, and I lecture on modules that relate back to my research. A constant bit of feedback from students is that they didn’t really understand what critical thinking was until they took our parapsychology module. We use more outlandish ideas to teach them to think critically. They do this by learning about remote viewing, precognition and mediumship (communicating with the dead), how researchers have tested the phenomena, and the rigour that is required in these experiments. They then critique the approaches that a previous researcher has used and come up with their own ideas.

Our students learn a lot about research methods. We ask students in the paranormal module to design their own research and to critique each other’s designs (to test if someone can read minds, for example). This gets them thinking about study design, confounding variables and how to conduct studies that are ethical and which work in practice.

The same can be applied to the study of conspiracy beliefs. But these have a twist: some are demonstrably true. Take Watergate and, more recently, the Post Office scandal in the UK (yep, I think this was a conspiracy). Conspiracy beliefs can be harmful to individual and public health if you consider anti-vax movements and personal well-being in terms of psychological stress.

Prebunking and inoculation against misinformation

As well as using beliefs as teaching tools, as mentioned above, with paranormal beliefs, it is equally important to use conspiracy-type ideas to debunk false beliefs and prebunk ones we have not yet come across; in other words, give students the cognitive tools to spot misinformation and designations. Prebunking is considered a better option than debunking because beliefs can be difficult to shift once they become embedded. If conspiracy beliefs were just critical thinking gone haywire (you are so critical that you start to see everything as a conspiracy) then you would think that the problem should not be too hard to fix. Being critical and being able to evaluate information is a good thing, so a little bit of conspiracy-type thinking could be a good thing. But students (and the rest of us) need to be able to figure out how much is enough.

One way this could be done in a teaching setting is by using a resource such as the fake news game, developed by Jon Roozenbeek and Sander van der Linden from the University of Cambridge. This allows players to generate their own fake news on a social media simulation to get as many followers as they can. The idea is that getting students to generate their own fake content will make them more likely to be able to spot it. So, it’s a kind of inoculation.

Using conspiracy beliefs as a teaching aid could lead to prebunking behaviour. The best way to get rid of a belief that is harmful is not to believe in it in the first place.

Belief research is a vital teaching tool in psychology, covering research methods, critical thinking and argument-forming. With the rise of AI, debating issues and pulling ideas apart have a major role to play in how we teach, and these skills should be taken even more seriously in the public sphere. The use of belief as a teaching tool can inform research and lead to more effective ways to inculcate healthy critical thinking before it slides to the less healthy, consistorial side of critical thought that can have negative personal and social effects. If misinformation and disinformation have been recognised as serious global threats, surely, as psychologists and educators, we should be embedding critical thinking skills in the way we teach.

Malcolm Schofield is a lecturer in the School of Psychology at the University of Derby.

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