The development of a conspiracy theory

Interesting post today at, showing the evolution of a conspiracy theory akin to a game of telephone. Interestingly, it starts with an article in Wired by author (and former Scienceblogger) Johah Lehrer. Lehrer wrote an article on the effects of chronic stress on health outcomes, and one researcher's work to develop something akin to a vaccine to mitigate the stress effects. Sounds reasonable, no?

Next, the Daily Mail picked up the article, and focused on the "stress vaccine" angle.

Finally, the folks at Alex Jones' Prison Planet--who've never met a conspiracy theory they didn't like--took the Daily Mail story and morphed it into a discussion of "brain eating vaccines," and a government conspiracy to eliminate all emotions from an unknowing public (follow-up here, and they even have a third article bashing Lehrer. Impressive!

Now, I'm not necessarily blaming the Daily Mail as the intermediate in this. Yes, their story was certainly more sensational and less nuanced than the original Wired piece, but PrisonPlanet could also take the most innocuous story on any scientific breakthrough and make it out to be some kind of vast governmental-scientific-pharmaceutical plot. However, it does emphasize again the need to be aware of what's going on out there in these corners of the internets--look how they encouraged their readers to manipulate Google so that "brain-eating vaccines" would trend on the site. This kind of thing is their bread-and-butter, and the fact is that "the facts" don't always win converts to any scientific argument.

Addendum: several on Twitter pointed out this PhD comic, which succinctly summarizes the cycle.

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Would you allow a stranger to come into your house and say, "I'm going to add Lithium, Prozac, and Flouride to your water"? No! Most prudent people would kick him out! But when the government wants to do this, many have no problem with it... some even defend it! Those darn conspiracy kooks always ignoring what is right in front of their face... willful ignorance! If they would just realize that there is nothing to fear and that the government of the United States (much like governments thoughout history) is not parasitic and would never do anything to harm the people! Let it be known... Anyone who questions government is a whacko, conspiracy kook, tin-foil hat wearing, sick maniac! Sane people believe everything that the government tells them!

By Doublespeak (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

Very interesting. Wonder if any of the kooks will realise that this kind of thing can explain most of the rubbish theories they follow?

"I'm not necessarily blaming the Daily Mail as the intermediate in this"

You should, they're guilty of every other journalistic failing under the sun, may as well get them for this too.

Interesting post Tara, and a prime example of how crazy ideas get out there into the intertubes. It is fascinating how they are taking the term "denialism" and trying to appropriate it for their ends to conflate "denialism" with "conspiracy denialism". Some folks will fall for anything.

Good to see you posting again.

Huh. It is interesting to watch these develop in real-time now. I wish there was a vaccine for that....

But this intrigued me--that in fact infection may be a real problem in brain development. I'd love you to take a look at this, Tara, and maybe write about it:


Isn't it conceivable that those prone to conspiracy theory effectively seek out fodder for them, and can (as you show) convert the most innocuous material into a full-blown case?

Saying, "don't give the whack-jobs material to make conspiracy theories out of" seems to be like telling a woman to do none of the things (pants, shoes, smiling at people, avoiding their eyes, walking like they have hips, wearing clothing that hints that there may be breasts underneath, wearing their hair out where it's visible, traveling unaccompanied, ...) that rapists use as "she was asking for it!" excuses.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

The Daily Mail is the kind of newspaper useful on a nail in the smallest room outside an Ozark cabin. It does cater to the lumpen mass of the chauvinist class and has, as science writers, folk whose ethical probity is on a par with their scientific illiteracy. Needless to say it is very popular.


You seem to be assuming that if someone thinks the stress "vaccine" talked about sounds good, that someone will be okay with the government adding lithium to the drinking water.

By Matthew Cline (not verified) on 05 Aug 2010 #permalink

Isn't it conceivable that those prone to conspiracy theory effectively seek out fodder for them, and can (as you show) convert the most innocuous material into a full-blown case?

I don't know if this was directed at me, but absolutely. I don't think it's possible to stop them from using this tactic--I think we need awareness of it, especially in academic circles. I know Lehrer has come back against the PrisonPlanet article, but I've not seen a response from the scientist, for example.

Having read some of the links I have to say I am amused that someone could think Robert Sapolsky of all people could be behind some government conspiracy. Having read some of his pop science work I got the distinct impression he was no fan of 'the man' himself; of course this was no doubt part of the deception ;)

Fascinating to see how these things evolve. The slightly scary part of all this is the sheer unpredictability of what ends up as a conspiracy theory. As academics I don't think it is possible to guard against this as almost anything can be spun in such a way. One moment you are an academic idly pondering a theory in a speculative article, The next you are a NWO shill.

By Richard D (not verified) on 06 Aug 2010 #permalink