Believing in conspiracy theories is just the start. Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers
Believing in conspiracy theories is just the start. Photo by Joe Raedle/Newsmakers

A catch to Andrew Gelman for correcting an attempted but inaccurate catch by Alfred Moore, Joseph Parent and Joseph Uscinski, who thought they had caught Paul Krugman in an error on the always-fun topic of conspiracy theories. Not so!

Here’s Krugman’s original assertion:

Unlike the crazy conspiracy theories of the left — which do exist, but are supported only by a tiny fringe — the crazy conspiracy theories of the right are supported by important people: powerful politicians, television personalities with large audiences.

Moore, Parent and Uscinski take that quote and attack it on the basis that both liberals and conservatives are equally likely to believe in crazy conspiracy theories. That part, as Gelman agrees, is correct. Plenty of examples in both items for those liberals who are skeptical of it, but I’ll add one more anecdotal one: the belief among liberals in 2003 and 2004 that George W. Bush had dead Osama bin Laden on ice somewhere and was planning to drag him out just before the 2004 general election. I’ve never seen polling on it, but I’m fairly sure that one was widespread … and of course totally false.

However, as Gelman points out, Krugman explicitly endorsed the idea that both sides have nonsense; his assertion is that Republican elites have “supported” crazy conspiracy theories while Democratic ones have not.

And for that, the evidence is absolutely clear. Whatever the equivalent of climate change denial might be for liberals, there’s just zero support for it among Democratic politicians. One certainly cannot say that about Republican politicians and climate denial (and that’s without even getting to the Republican-aligned media). The fact that many rank-and-file Democratic voters believed nutty things about voting machines a decade ago had zero political importance now or then, while various nutty things Republican voters believed about climate change really did have important effects.

In other words, it takes more than research into cognitive biases and the susceptibility of various people to conspiracy theories to understand what’s going on; we also need to know about how partisans pick up their views from opinion leaders, and we need to understand a lot about the incentives driving party actors. We also need to have some practical understanding about what’s gone wrong with the Republican Party.

It’s good to be reminded that there’s nothing inherent in conservative thinking that traps people in conspiracy thinking, but it’s not the whole story. Not at all.

And so: Nice catch!

To contact the writer of this article: Jonathan Bernstein at Jbernstein62@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Kirsten Salyer at ksalyer@bloomberg.net.