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Why Many People Are Drawn To Conspiracy Theories

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Republican National Convention featured a host of right-wing political personalities, but one speaker was pulled at the last minute. Mary Ann Mendoza, the mother of a police officer killed by an undocumented immigrant, retweeted an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory with ties to QAnon. She apologized, but it was too late. The high-profile Trump supporter was cut from the lineup.

EUGENIA CHENG: Mathematics is often thought of as being just about numbers and equations, but the kind I do is abstract math, and it's more about building arguments to justify certain positions. And that's exactly what this is about. Two people can be logical based on their own beliefs and come to very wildly opposing conclusions.

CORNISH: But can I say something? This isn't just about beliefs, right? I mean, a lot of us are saying this is about facts. There's even pushback on the term conspiracy theory because some say that adds undeserved weight to ideas that are false. So is it even wrong to call them theories?

CHENG: I think that conspiracy theory is a term that if we understand it, then it doesn't matter that it has the word theory in it. So conspiracy theories - the thing that I think makes them different is that they kind of start from the end, and I think I believe that people are so keen to believe in the conclusion that they gather anything they can to support it and basically ignore anything that doesn't support it because it's not the evidence that is causing them to believe the conclusion. It's something else.

CORNISH: Can you talk about that something else, why you think people are drawn to conspiracy theories in this moment?

CHENG: I think that there's some widely known research about cognitive dissonance where if someone really wants to believe something and then some information comes in contradicting it, that's kind of painful and uncomfortable. For example, as the pandemic has gone on, the evidence has become more and more clear that masks do help stop the spread of the virus. And so you have to find evidence that supports your belief in not wearing a mask. And as the rational scientific evidence builds up against you, the stuff that still supports you is going to become more and more extreme. The only way to find any way of backing up the thing that those people really want to believe is to cling to something very wild, like the idea that the nose wire in a mask is a 5G antenna.

CORNISH: What advice do you have for people who find themselves in a conversation or an argument where a conspiracy theory is brought up?

CHENG: Don't start by trying to change somebody's mind. And I think that changing someone's mind is like getting them to change their clothes. You know, we change our clothes, but we generally don't want to do it when someone's looking; whereas I think trying to understand why they think that is really important. When I teach students who are confused about math, if I just tell them they're wrong and show them my way of thinking, it won't help. Teachers always need to understand why someone is holding the position that they're holding. And with conspiracy theories, it's usually not anything to do with the evidence at all. It's because of some other reason that - to do with their life experience or their personal fears, which is why they want to hold onto that belief.

CORNISH: What concerns or what things are you going to be listening for going forward? - because we're at the point now where there are some people, some conspiracy theorists, who are running for Congress.

CHENG: What I'm hoping to find is more ways to have productive conversations rather than combative ones. I'm looking for conversations where we all learn something and work together to learn something. And it can seem hopeless because there are some people who are so sort of far gone and we'll never be able to reach them. And that's OK. If we talk to people who are a bit closer to us and come to an understanding with them first, then maybe eventually we can sort of, little by little, move things more in the direction of having good arguments and good evidence that backs up the things we believe in.

CORNISH: Dr. Eugenia Cheng is a mathematician and concert pianist and author. Her newest book is called "X Plus Y: A Mathematician's Manifesto For Rethinking Gender."

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CHENG: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.