Australians’ belief in health conspiracies ‘persistent’

Public Health

By Geir O'Rourke

26 Feb 2024

COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips, fluoride is added to the water to enable population control and Big Pharma has suppressed a cure for cancer: These are just a few of the health conspiracy theories held by significant numbers of Australians, according to a new study.

Also high on the list is a belief that COVID-19 was a Chinese bioweapon and that vaccines in general are harmful but this fact is being covered up by governments and industry.

Academics surveyed nearly 500 Australians and New Zealanders over the course of six months to determine whether people change their minds frequently or stick tenaciously to their beliefs, regardless of what evidence they come across.

The participants were presented with 12 theories related to claims about events that are ongoing or occurred this millennium including, the September 11 attacks ‘caused by controlled demolitions arranged by US government insiders’, the rollout of 5G telecommunications technology, chemtrails and the 2020 US Presidential election.

But among the most persistent and commonly held were conspiracy theories related to health, reported the researchers in Nature Scientific Reports (link here).

The study’s most popular unwarranted conspiracy theory was that ‘pharmaceutical companies have suppressed a cure for cancer to protect their profits’, with 18% of the sample group agreeing when first asked.

Only two per cent of the sample agreed that ‘COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips to monitor and control people’, resulting in the least popular theory.

This was despite the data collection occurring in 2021, during the tumultuous second year of the COVID pandemic, where lockdowns and mandates were still happening in both Australia and New Zealand and anti-government sentiment was building.

Other commonly held health conspiracies included:

  • COVID-19 is a Chinese bioweapon, 12%
  • Vaccine harms cover-up, 6%
  • 5G phone tower health risks, 12%

But perhaps reassuringly, there was little sign that beliefs were increasing on average over time despite contemporary concerns about a ‘pandemic of misinformation’, said the researchers.

“A small number of participants substantially revised their beliefs about a conspiracy theory during our study,” they wrote.

“Belief (or disbelief) in conspiracy theories is thus clearly not immutable. Yet the overall pattern observed in our study was very much one of stability, with much less variance in beliefs within persons than between persons.”

“People developing beliefs in a succession of conspiracy theories are often characterised as falling down a “rabbit hole”—a reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

“It seems that if conspiracy theorists do fall down a rabbit hole, it is typically one with a rather gradual slope.”

It was also important to note that the study had taken place during the COVID-19 pandemic, when vaccinations were just beginning and lockdowns were still being implemented, a time of social upheaval when it might be expected that public trust in authority would decline, the researchers said.

On the other hand, the data suggested such beliefs would not be going away anytime soon, they added.

“Our findings in this regard cohere with recent investigations of long-term trends in conspiracy theory beliefs,” they wrote.

“A notable finding of our within-person trajectories over time was that individuals who began agreeing with a specific conspiracy theory but later became neutral or disagreed (i.e., apostate), were more or less offset by an equal number of individuals who began disagreeing or neutral towards a specific conspiracy theory but later indicated agreement with it (i.e., convert).”

“This may help explain a lack of evidence for an average increase in beliefs in conspiracy theories over time, consistent with past research, alongside growing concerns of a visible increase in conspiracy theories.”

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