Conspiracy Theories & Other Dangerous Ideas

>> Good afternoon. I'm David Ferriero, the Archivist of the United
States. It's a pleasure to welcome you here to the
William G. McGowan Theater. A special welcome to those of you joining
us by YouTube today. Today our guest is a man with some dangerous
ideas about some of the major issues of the day such as First Amendment rights, taxes,
the courts' role in interpreting laws, economics, and conspiracy theories. You agree with him or not, you'll probably
leave here today thinking about some of these things. Before we get to today's guest, I'd like to
tell you about several programs coming up this week. On Wednesday, September 10, at noon, our guest
will be historian Edward Baptist who will discuss his book, "The Half Has Never Been
Told." His book discusses how the expansion of slavery
in the early decades of this nation drove the evolution and modernization of the United
States. The South grew to become a cotton empire and
the United States grew into a modern industrial and capitalist economy, trying to find ways
to make slavery more profitable.

The book signing will follow this program. And on Friday, September 12, at noon, our
guest will be Lynne Cheney, former Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. She will discuss her latest book. Madison is often called the father of the
Constitution and his views as presented in "The Federalist Papers" helped shape the nation
we live in today. The book signing will follow that program
also. To learn more about these and all of our programs
and exhibits, consult our monthly calendar of events. There are copies in the lobby as well as signup
sheets. And another way to get more involved in the
National Archives is to become a member of the Foundation for The National Archives. The foundation supports all of our exhibits
and program activities.

There are applications also in the lobby. Cass Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University
Professor and Director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at the Harvard
Law School. After a distinguished career at the university,
Cass was nominated to head the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs;
nominated in January 2009 and finally confirmed in September of that year. If you want to get an up close and personal
look of what that confirmation looks like, see the book "Simpler." The office was established in the Paperwork
Reduction Act and is part of the Office of Management and Budget. The mandate expanded to enhance planning and
coordination with respect to both new and existing regulations to ensure integrity and
legitimacy of the regulatory review and oversight process and to make the process more accessible
and open to the public. It is accessibility and openness which was
the hallmark of Cass' time at all OIRA supporting efforts to on a personal note, Cass was one
of the first people in the administration I met with as I was preparing for my own confirmation
hearing. He clearly saw The National Archives as a
player in the administration's initiative and guiding force behind the President's memorandum
of records management which makes the point that you can't have open government with good

Cass left his position in 2012 to return to
teaching and research at Harvard. Last August he was tapped by President Obama
to serve on the Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technology. Cass is a prolific author: "After the Rights
Revolution," "Risk and Reason," "Republic.com," "Worst-Case Scenarios," "Nudge: Improving
Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness," "On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We
Believe Them and What Can Be Done," "Simpler," where Cass shares the three most important
things he learned during his time at the White House, and now "Conspiracy Theories and Other
Dangerous Ideas." Described by Glenn Beck as the most dangerous
man in America, Cass' new book is a compilation of 11 controversial thought pieces published
in academic journals which earned him that title, from animal rights to laws of happiness,
from progressivism to minimalism, to theories to trim and more. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Cass
Sunstein. [Applause]
>> Cass Sunstein: Thanks for coming. David has done a phenomenal job serving states. A good records management as we often have
thought and said is the backbone of open government.

It is actually a connection between that and
my topic today. Really hat's off to what happens under his
watch. I'll tell you the origins of this in some
ways unlikely project. In Colorado I worked with colleagues to try
to figure out what happens when people talk to each other. And what we did was we got people in Colorado
Springs, which is a pretty conservative place, to deliberate together in small groups about
climate change, about samesex unions, and about affirmative action. We recorded their views before they started
to talk anonymously. We had them deliberate to a group verdict
on those three issues to figure out what they thought as a group. And then to figure out what they thought to
ask them to speak anonymously about their views after deliberation. While we were doing this in a conservative
area in Colorado Springs, we were doing exactly the same thing in a liberal area, Boulder,
on the three issues, climate change, affirmative action, samesex unions.

What do you think would happen when the Colorado
people talked with one another in conservative groups and also in liberal groups? Here's what happened. The people in Colorado Springs started out
pretty conservative on the three issues but also there was a degree of diversity on the
issues. After they talked to one another in their
private, anonymous statements of view, they ended up much more extreme and much more cohesive
on all three issues. So while they were skeptical about affirmative
action, climate change, before they started to talk, after they started to talk they really
disliked affirmative action and they thought climate change should not be addressed through
international agreement.

The liberals in Boulder, Colorado, exactly
the same thing happened. As they started to talk with one another,
they became more extreme in their commitments, more confident, and more unified. So what happened and this was a surprise to
me, I confess is that while the people in Boulder and the people in Colorado Springs
were, on average, not that far off before they started to talk, after their internal
discussions among likeminded people, Colorado Springs went way to the right, Boulder way
to the left, and the groups were very far apart. Now, I think that is a microcosm, really,
for what is happening at least in some parts of the social media and the United States
every hour of every day: likeminded people speaking with one another and more cohesive,
more confident, and more extreme as a result of their internal discussions.

So that's one avenue into this. Another avenue into this is that the issue
of conspiracy theories?? and I'll say a little bit about this as we go on?? is not only of
interest in its own right; it tells us something about the formation of beliefs political and
otherwise in general. So if you take false conspiracy theories and,
of course, a number of them are true. But if you take false ones and you wonder
why do people believe these theories when they are intelligent and mentally stable,
you can have an inroad into the formation of beliefs generally. To get a little bit ahead of the story, many
of the things we believe; in fact, most of the things we believe, we lack direct sensory
knowledge of. We know that our house looks a certain way. We know that our family members are a certain
way. We know those things for sure.

But whether George Washington existed, whether
the earth is round, whether Mars is real, these are things which we don't have at least
direct sensory knowledge of. We know and we do know them as much as we
know most things because of credible reports from people whom we trust. And that is life, isn't it? Belief and disbelief in conspiracy theories
has a lot to do with that. Ok. This book has turned out to be more timely
than I anticipated. Conspiracy theories are indeed all around
us. A poll in 2013 found that a significant percentage
of people in the United States believe that climate change is a hoax and a product of
the thinking of conspiracyminded types. Significant numbers of people all over the
world believe that the 9/11 attacks were done by the United States or by Israel. We can think of examples involving prominent
political figures in the United States whether they're Republicans or Democrats, where hundreds
of thousands and possibly millions of people believe that they are behind or associated
with some terrible conspiracy.

Ok. Where do conspiracy theories come from? It's tempting. Now I'm going to turn to the text, if you
would, so I make at least fewer errors than I otherwise would. It's tempting to think that the conspiracy
theories come from some sort of emotional or other difficulty; maybe a lack of education,
maybe some kind of individual pathology. That's not really right.

We don't have a lot of evidence for that. We do find, however, that there are differences
in people's propensity to accept conspiracy theories. So the first point to emphasize is that some
people are conspiracists and others aren't. And probably a little internal introspection
can give you a quick signal about which one you are. In fact, the best predictor of whether a given
person is going to accept a conspiracy theory is whether they accept other conspiracy theories. People who think that the FBI killed Martin
Luther King are especially likely to think that climate change is a hoax. More striking, research suggests that the
tendency even extends to beliefs in mutually contradictory conspiracy theories so that
those who believe that Princess Diana faked her own death are also more likely to believe
that she was murdered. Those who believe that John Kennedy fell victim
to an organized conspiracy are also more likely to believe there was a conspiracy behind the
success of the Red Bull energy drink, a conspiracy theory that was invented purposely for the
purpose of a social psychology study.

So we do know that there are tendencies. But putting that to one side, I think we need
to get away from individual psychology and instead to how information travels. There's a brilliant paper by a psychologist
named Russell Hardin. A fancy name for a simple concept. The name is "The Crippled Epistemology of
Extremism." What Hardin urges is that when people know
things that are false and extreme, it's often because their epistemology, their knowledge
base, is crippled because everything they've heard goes in one direction and it's wrong. So when people hold extremist beliefs, Hardin
urges, and the extremist beliefs aren't consistent with reality, it's because they're subject
to an information flow which drives them in a notsogood direction. Now, turn, if you would, to the study with
which I began, our Colorado study involving climate change, samesex relations and affirmative
action, and give that a conspiracy theory twist and ask: Why is it that intelligent
people who don't have a particular propensity to believe conspiracy theories will end up
thinking something that's false and that puts a spotlight on actors who conspired together
to make something terrible happen? Ok.

They are often subject to this phenomenon
of group polarization which is what happened in Colorado which, itself, has two mechanisms
behind it. In Boulder what happened, was the liberals
talking with one another were hearing a lot of things about the scariness of climate change
and the necessity for affirmative action. Now, bracket whether the question was justified
or not, there's informational skew in the pool of points that they were subject to. Yes? By definition. This was a liberal group. So they were going to be hearing a lot of
liberal arguments.

So in Colorado Springs there was an informational
skew in the sense that they were hearing a lot of points about why samesex unions weren't
a very good idea, potentially dangerous, and a lot of things about the evils of affirmative
action. If they're listening to one another, and human
beings do, then they will pick up on those arguments and those arguments are going to
move them in a direction that's more extreme. Now if we give this a twist to think of whether
climate change is a hoax, whether the 9/11 attacks actually happened, whether in some
nation that's unfriendly to the United States, it's accurate to think that their unfriendliness
is justified. If there's an initial disposition to hear
those things, they're going to be hearing a lot of arguments in favor of that position. And that will naturally move them in the direction
of more extreme belief. Yes? So this is basically an informational account
of how conspiracy theories spread. I want to add two wrinkles to the informational
account which is about group polarization, how people move toward a more extreme point
in line with their initial tendency.

And the first of these has to do with people's
concern for their own reputation. If you're in a group of people who are interacting
with one another, especially in person but potentially online also, you want to have
a good reputation. You want them to think well of you. And if the position in the group is pushing
hard in direction of hostility toward powerful actors, let's say, that suggest agreement
with that dominant tendency is going to be consistent with your reputational concern
and putting pressure on the dominant opinion in the group is going to weaken your position
within the group.

Won't it? So even if your concern is in part, for truth,
your presentation of what you think will be skewed by your concern for your own reputation. Now, there's a psychological ticker here that
I think puts the reputational point in bold letters. Here's the point. If you're talking to someone and they agree
with you, you will typically think that they are more likeable and more intelligent than
you did before they agreed with you. There's another that's a little more devastating,
I think, about the potential consequences of social interaction. If that person agrees with you, not only do
you think that they're more likeable and intelligent than you did before, you think that you, yourself,
are more intelligent and likeable than you did before. Now that suggests that the social interaction
in this person and online can push people in direction of agreement with a dominant
tendency with a group even if their initial disposition is skeptical and it can be lead
a group toward commitment to conspiracist thinking. Here's the third point behind the phenomenon
I'm describing. Within any interaction, if people are asked
their opinion on some issue that's technical and complicated, whether it's what brought
down an airliner or what nation is responsible for what bad thing, they will often speak
if they're not specialists with a degree of tentativeness.

They'll move to humility. Now suppose within that group their initial
tendency is corroborated by the agreement of seemingly credible others. The caution is softened by virtue of the fact
of corroboration and that weakens the moderating force of humility thus leading people towards
greater extremism. So my first suggestion is that conspiracist
thinking is often heightened as a result of group polarization phenomenon that we saw
in Boulder and Colorado Springs and all over the world when people are developing a commitment
to a belief that actually lacks credibility. Objective credibility. It's because likeminded people are talking
to one another and stirring each other up. Ok. There's another phenomenon that is related
and also has a kind of complicated name. The name is an informational cascade. Here's how the idea works. Suppose you have a group of people who are
talking with one another and they're in a kind of temporal queue, speaking in sequence. And let's suppose that the first person in
the group suggests a commitment to some fact. Let's say there's a hoax behind conspiracy
theory or that some terrible deed was done by the United Kingdom.

The second person in the queue then has a
choice: Do you agree with the person or not? Now, if the second person in the queue — and
I'm hoping this is mapping on to political or other discussions that are kind of familiar
from everyday life. The second person in the queue will think
either I'm going to agree with that person or I'm not. And if the person doesn't really know the
truth, that is, the person is either equipoise or facing the issue for first time, the likelihood
is that the person will find that original statement credible enough to justify assent.

And then there are two people in the temporal
group agreeing that the United Kingdom is responsible for something terrible. Then there's a third person. And this is a stylized example of what happens
all the time. A third person in the queue who is confronted
with the unified view of, let's say, Albert and Barbara which is accusing the United Kingdom
of something terrible. The third person now has some informational
pressure on his back. Doesn't he? That Albert and Barbara both think this thing. And then this third person, Charles, will
have to either have courage or knowledge to justify disagreement with them.

And if they're in a group that has some sort
of dynamic such that Charles has to say whether he agrees with Albert and Barbara, chances
are under not unreasonable assumptions that Charles will rationally say I think that,
too. We know that this happens from studies of
jury behavior where a third juror in a queue who has said privately, "I think the defendant
is innocent" will sometimes say when the Albert and Barbara have said guilty, "guilty." And then when asked why do you think that
afterwards, the person who switched his view simply by virtue of having heard the first
two speakers will say, "It's obvious, guilty," even though his own independent judgment was
otherwise. Now, once you have three people in the queue,
A, B, and C, all saying that the United Kingdom is responsible for something terrible, then
a third person, Doug, let's say, is under pressure to selfsilence. The informational cascade is often responsible
for the rise of conspiracy theories, especially when there's someone let's call it a conspiracy
entrepreneur who has started the conspiracy either because of some ideological commitment
or because of some personal goal which may be fame or attention, then you can get something
going like crazy.

If you followed me on group polarization,
the Colorado Springs/Boulder study which I'm mapping on to the conspiracy theory situation,
I think you'll be able to see that the informational cascade that I've described has a sibling,
which is the reputational cascade. It looks very similar to the informational
cascade except that the Barbaras, Charleses and Douglases of the world are responding
not to their own belief that the earlier speakers were right, that are responding to their own
fear that if they don't speak out in agreement with the emerging wisdom, so to speak, of
the group, they will face some reputational sanction which at the modest point would be
a little more dislike; at the less modest point would be actual physical threat which
often happens in groups that have conspiracy theories which are most dangerous and threatening
to the United States. In those groups, the third, fourth, and fifth
speakers are actors in a queue, selfsilence not because they actually agree or speak out
in accord with the conspiracy theory, not because they have much inside their heads
commitment to it, but because their personal risks are severe. Ok. So now we have group polarization as an explanatory

We have informational cascades as an explanatory
factor. And we have reputational cascades as an explanatory
factor, all parasitic on the understanding that some people have predispositions; just
a fact. I want to mention just one further point by
way of getting the mechanisms out, maybe one and a half. The full one point has to do with a psychological
mechanism which helped get Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize. It's called the availability heuristic. Maybe too jargony to be ideal, but the notion
is if people are asked to make a probability judgment, they often focus on whether an event
readily comes to mind. So if you're asked how many words on a random
page have the last three letters, ing, you might well say a large number because as soon
as you think of ing ending words. Asked how many words on the random page have
the second to last letter n, you might not say that many. A lot of people don't say that many because
it's a little cognitively trickier to come up with words that have the second to last
letter n so some people will say more ing words on a random page than n.

That can't be true. Right? Every ing is the second to last n word. And there are plenty of others of which one
is and itself. Ok. The ing words are available. More people tend to think that more people
die of homicide than suicide. The opposite is true. It's because homicide deaths are cognitively
available; suicide deaths typically less so. And availability can lead our minds astray
by making for probability judgments that aren't quite right. And the salience of a widely publicized event
can derive the mind of in particular actions. What I want to suggest here is that conspiracy
theories are often building on the availability meaning a salient event which triggers either
confusion or outrage or fear and whose outlet is a conspiracy theory. So if you have something terrible that's happened
either through human action or through random events, then the fixation on that thing needs
an outlet, which is often an explanation.

And that can initiate the process of informational
or reputational cascades. A little footnote referring to the fact that
often the terrible events that generate conspiracy theories really do have a randomness behind
them. The author of a book called a graphic novel
called "Watchmen," Alan Moore — those of you who are graphic novel fans, you will know
this as an iconic book. Alan Moore is the kind of genius of the modern
era of graphic novels. And he's I wouldn't describe him as a member
of the establishment. That's not how you describe him. He's, himself, iconic, classic in multiple
ways. He apparently spent a few years studying conspiracy
theories. And which you might think given his imagination,
he would be drawn to.

And his conclusion was that the conspiracy
theories just aren't right –I'm going to put it less eloquently than he did — because
conspiracy theories miss the extent of randomness and coincidence in the world which often drives
events. Ok. So there's availability meaning events which
trigger conspiracy thinking. I'll give you the half, the half of the final
little bit of conspiracy theories.

I've tried to attribute conspiracy thinking
to information flows and reputational concerns within groups. But how do groups form and why don't they
have the requisite diversity? One reason often is a leader who is imposing
social sanctions on people who depart from the group's orthodoxy. That's clear. But one reason also has to do with selection
in and selection out. So as you get people selected into groups,
particularly dangerous but also groups that are harmless but obsessed, there are people
who are filtering in to groups and people who are selected out of groups either through
their own volition or involuntarily because they are in some respect infidels.

And that suggests that the process of group
polarization which is most intense if likeminded people are talking to one another, has a natural
fuel which is the process of selection in and selection out. As people who are skeptics or unsure leave
the group, then the social influence that moves groups toward more extremism are heightened. Aren't they? Because the people who aren't sure aren't
there anymore. And that creates a tight knot of believers. Ok. A couple of qualifications and then a concluding
note. I haven't said anything about what should
be done about conspiracy theories. The greatest safeguard against false conspiracy
theories is an open and democratic nation.

So there's something perfect about delivering
these remarks at the National Archives in so far as there are open processes and requirements
of transparency than the informational base for conspiracy theories is that that are false,
is severely compromised, which is why you see often in societies that are authoritarian
and unfree, where openness isn't, a flowering of conspiracy theories in the not from crazy
people but from people who rightly can't trust their government and don't know what's true
and develop a theory which is not less plausible than a range of other theories just because
they don't have an informational base on which to build. So the remedy number one for the rise of false
conspiracy theories has its roots in our First Amendment and the panoply of liberties that
the First Amendment is associated with. The other point is I haven't said anything
about particular conspiracy theories. I don't mean to say that any particular one
is right or wrong. I have my views on some of those, but that
is independent of the theory of the paper.

Ok. A few closing words. Here you go. The closing words of this particular chapter. Some people have a propensity to accept conspiracy
theories as reflected in the finding that people who tend to believe one are likely
to believe in another even if the two are in direct contradiction. Many people who accept conspiracy theories,
at least if they're false, suffer from a crippled epistemology. Their beliefs are a function of what they
hear, which is a way of saying they are fully rational, responsive to what they are hearing. For that reason, isolated social networks
are breeding grounds for conspiracy theories. In some cases the theories help to fuel violence
all over the world, and we are seeing it. To reduce the risk, it's indispensable first
to understand how those theories arise and why perfectly reasonable people not in any
deep sense different from others come to hold them even if they're palpably false.

Conspiracy theories that are false, objection,
an extreme case but an understanding of the mechanism that lie behind them help shed light
on the formation of political beliefs in general and on why some of those beliefs go wrong. Thanks. [Applause]
Questions and comments. >> My name's Jim. I wrote a book "Lies My Teacher Told Me,"
which is an analysis of American History textbooks. I read more than any other living person. >> Cass Sunstein: Bless you. >> I have a suggestion and then a question.

My suggestion is that our high school History
textbooks are a good petri dish to breed conspiracy thinking because they pretty much eschew any
discussion of causation. So things just kind of happen one after another. Certainly the government is never responsible
for anything bad, and, therefore, there's no solid thinking that goes on in response
to these textbooks: Social Studies, and History in high school, always the least liked course
in every survey in the country and seem to have no relevance to the present and no collective
influence, therefore, towards the kind of thinking that might dispel untoward acceptance
of conspiracy theories.

Just something to think about. My question is: Isn't the unqualified rejection
of conspiracy theories just as simpleminded as their unqualified acceptance? And this gets to, then, aren't there at least
a couple of conspiracy theories that we all should be thinking about seriously and maybe
believing? >> Cass Sunstein: I don't know if I would
say equivalence, but I do agree that an unqualified rejection of conspiracy theories would be
evidencefree thinking.

So everything depends on evidence. Watergate was a conspiracy. >> That's an easy one because we accept that. But I submit that a couple of ones that we
don't accept as a nation, at least as a government, such as perhaps the single-person murder of
Kennedy followed by the single-person murder of Oswald or the single-person murder of Martin
Luther King followed by that person from rural Arkansas' successful emigration to Belgium
and so on, that those are maybe things we all should be thinking
>> Cass Sunstein: One particular one, but say something that bares on your obvious knowledge
of at least some of the examples you describe. One thing I've noticed that's been fascinating
to me in talking about this book is that the people who believe in conspiracy theories,
whether or not they're warranted in the facts or bracketing that, tend to be extremely knowledgeable. They are information rich. So the people who come to me with, let's say,
plausible conspiracy theories and also truly bizarre conspiracy theories, they have a lot
of information.

So to argue for anyone in this room to argue
with them on the merits would be challenging. Not just because they're zealous; in fact
not mostly because they're zealous, because they know so much. And that's connected, isn't it, with the thesis
about the rise of conspiracy theories? So the focus of the remarks were on false
conspiracy theories and how they arise, but, of course, there are true some of the worst
events in the 20th Century are associated with conspiracy theories that are rooted in
something that actually happened. >> I'm going to leave but I feel a little
bit strange for being dismissed for having known too much. [Laughter]
>> Cass Sunstein: No. I apologize if that was I wasn't talking about
you in particular. I tried to say emphasis that you're right;
some conspiracy theories are true and people who propagate them, the true ones, they know
a lot. >> You know, I have to take borrow from your
talk this morning when you said conspiracy theories which are dangerous or threatening
to the United States.

You once coauthored a paper in which you advocated
infiltrated the 9/11 truth movement. As you stated correctly, there are thousands
of people in this country and around the world, many thousands, who don't believe the official
story of what happened on September 11. Even the 9/11 commission stated that they
were misled by the government. My question to you is: Do you still believe
what you stated there? To me it's difficult to understand how you
could in your book why societies need dissent and yet you called for the need to infiltrate
the 9/11 movement. While you were in the government, the Obama
Administration, did you endeavor to carry out that effort? >> Cass Sunstein: So none of the academic
writing I did on these topics had any connection with my work in the government. So my work in the government was on openness
and transparency, in part. It was a lot on paperwork reduction. And it was a lot on cost benefit analysis. So that was my work in government. This sort of thing was not related these issues
were not assessing, not related in any way.

I'll tell you what I think about the question
you raise. The term my coauthor and I use, and it's in
this book also, cognitive infiltration is not one I'm really excited about. I don't think it was a happy term. But the idea is more innocuous, I think, than
some readers have understood it. The way I understood it, as in this book and
in the article, is if you have people outside the United States, and that's the focus, who
are threatening to kill us, who believe things that are false and dangerous, then it's appropriate
just as it is domestically to correct the record either by having the United States
itself directly correct the record or by the United States working with people in those
countries who know the truth and who correct the record.

What [Inaudible] said in context of the First
Amendment law was the remedy for falsehood is more speech not in for silence. And the idea is basically more speech in an
isolated social networks that are getting very stirred up in a way that's potentially
damaging to the United States. As I say, this idea has zero relationship
to my Paperwork Reduction Act, cost benefit analysis job in the government. But the idea as a natural outgrowth of the
claim, but people in a nation, take your pick, are actually dangerous to the United States,
that they're often young people who are being stirred in most unfortunate directions for
them and for their people in their country.

It's a good idea to help them see that what
they're being told isn't actually true. And if you look at some of the threats the
United States is facing now and this is taking me afield from my areas of expertise, but
some of the threats the United States is facing now, to try to make sure that the threat doesn't
grow. And when it grows, it grows often on the basis
not only of intense emotions but also false beliefs about our nation. To cultivate friends rather than enemies to
try to turn the latter into the former, that's one of the things that free nations make themselves
safer by doing.

>> I would simply add that it's really to
myself and many others, the official story, whether it's this government or other governments,
the official story of vast number of key events in our history always turn out to be false. >> Cass Sunstein: I think they can't always
turn out to be false. It can't be that
>> They often turn out to be false. >> Cass Sunstein: I think 9/11 I don't think
what you think. But they sometimes turn out to be false, which
is one reason why freedom of speech is essential and openness and transparency are safeguards
against false conspiracy theories. And they also are — and I think you'll find
this. There are ways of bringing to light conspiracy
theories that actually turn out to be true. In Watergate, a system of free speech was
indispensable. >> Thank you. >> A question about how does that sort of
compare with your more specific look at conspiracy? And does the whole discussion of the wisdom
of crowd sort of give a [Inaudible] of acceptability because you now have a group saying we are
a group and we believe this and there are so many of us, you must be right? >> Cass Sunstein: Fantastic question.

If we asked a large group of people how much
I weigh, the average answer is going to be extremely accurate. That's just an apparently magical truth about
crowds. One reason "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?,"
the old TV show which I gather will be a new TV show, if you ask the studio audience what
it thinks, the morality answer, the majority answer is scary good. Even though when you call your lifeline, who's
often like your expert friend, it's not scary good. It's pretty good. Now, what's going on there? And this is directly responsive to the question. There is some old arithmetic done by a social
theorist who said if you take a group of people whose average member is more likely to be
right than wrong, the likelihood that the majority of the group will be right grows
to 100% as the group gets bigger.

So if you take five people and the average
member is more likely to be right than wrong, the likelihood that the majority is right
is going to get arithmetically higher and if that group extends from five to 10 to 50
to 100, by the time there are 50,000, is each likely to be right, the likelihood the majority
will be right, gets really high. That's the kind of mechanism, the core of
the mechanism behind the wisdom of crowds. But what the French theorist noted was if
the average member of the group is more likely to be wrong than right, then the answer flips. Then the likelihood of the crowd gets it wrong
expands to 100% as the group gets bigger. So the wisdom of crowds depends on a number
of conditions, one of which have that they're either a majority or plurality of correctness
of the group at the beginning and also that their judgments are independent. So the mechanisms I was describing are ones
of social interaction which can move people in not good directions.

And once those social interactions are occurring
outside of the wisdom of crowd's framework, something else. And if the groups or members have a predisposition
to be wrong, then the whole account falls apart. It's in the mirror. So if you have a group of people who are likely
to make a mistake about whether Abraham Lincoln was the X number president or the Y number
president, then the group is just going to get it wrong.

So the words the wisdom of crowds, it's a
very gripping term but it's misleading because the mechanism behind crowd wisdom works only
on the basis of specified assumptions. >> So I wanted to come back to something that
you said at the very beginning. When we believe that Washington existed or
that Mars is there based on authority, I would like to say that my feeling now is that there
is tremendous cynicism about authority. I'm a physician scientist. And I can tell you over and over again I hear
people with real knowledge and authority speaking out on a subject and then I hear people who
search the internet speaking out on a subject. And when the arguments are presented in public,
the person who has internet credentials is given as much credence as somebody who spent
their life studying the subject.

And people do not respect authority anymore
the way they used to. And I think this has a huge impact on the
development of conspiracy ideas. >> Cass Sunstein: There's a lot there. There's undoubtedly considerable truth in
it. Let me underline where I'm sure you're right. As you talk about science, the thing about
vaccinations where a number of people think inconsistently with what I understand to be
the body of evidence that certain vaccines are very risky to take when it's more risky
not to take them and they're not trusting the science. So that's a point. There's another point for you. If people believe something very firmly and
then they are given an apparently incredible correction by a source that really should
have authority, not infrequently they will become more committed to their original belief. So this is the case of the backfire in correction
where if you put people's deeply held beliefs under greater pressure, not infrequently their
response will not be to say, oh, maybe I'm wrong but instead to believe it even more

And you can think of why this might be. It might be because emotional intensification,
when your identity in a way is on the line or it could be nonemotional, you just think
why would they deny if it's not true, which is in some circumstances a reasonable thing
to say and in some cases kind of wild. That's completely right. What I don't know is whether the level of
trust in scientific authority, for example, is lower than it was 20 years ago or 40 years
ago. So that's a scientific question, yes. And I just don't know the science on it. It is, undoubtedly, true that the internet
has the beautiful feature that you can find out what the experts think in a minute, but
you can also find out what apparent experts think not a minute, a second.

You can find out what apparent experts think
in the same second and you can see maybe some apparently credible person disagreeing with
another apparently credible person. I think that's what you're capturing. From the standpoint of the disbeliever in,
let's say, the true authority, probably they are in many cases just being rational given
what they know. So it's connected with the conspiracy theories. They're not experts in some scientific question. Then they read this and they read that and
both seem good. And it may be that their prior commitment
or something that is emotionally satisfying their priors are so important to whether things
are credible or not. Prior belief before you read the stuff where
it might be either, you know, you just have a judgment where one is consistent with it
and the other isn't and, of course, you're going to believe the thing that's consistent.

One is emotionally calming or, you know, energizing. And calm and energizing are both good. And the other is disturbing or makes you feel
tired. You don't like either of those. So you go with the calm and the energizing
rather than the disturbing and tiring. That's more a motivated response. You're undoubtedly right. Now, what I don't know is the trend lines
on these things. It is true that we can think of cases, vaccination
is one, where among a nontrivial percentage of our fellow citizens the belief in the scientific
experts is weak. And whether it's an anecdote or a generalized
distrust that's driving their disbelief, that is literally dangerous not in the same sense
that we're discussing with people want to do harm to Americans, but they're not protecting
their children. >> Your academic analysis is impressive, but
it's where analysis are weak policy that is important.

We've lost trust in in this country. All the polls show that people trust government
less and less all the time. And I ask: What are who is in danger by, for
example, a quest by a conspiracy theory group for the truth when secrecy has become standard
to the greater extent, far greater extent, than ever before in government? Prior to your becoming engaged in policy you
had written this statement that it was a good idea to influence, infiltrate, and disrupt
perfectly legal groups that were seeking the truth in a time when coverups were selfevident. I mean, there was no investigation as a matter
of fact, the breaks were put on an investigation of 9/11 for 14 months until the widows forced
the door open. And then they tried to put Kissinger in, a
known war criminal who had to get out of it >> Cass Sunstein: What did they try to put
Kissinger in? >> As head of the 9/11 Commission before they
put in a known administration ally in as the head of it. So, yes, we've lost trust.

So we come up with theories as to what really
happened because secrets are being kept. Now, you were then put into a policy position
on the information of regulatory affairs thing. Information is critical. Right? And yet information is what has been hidden
in disruption of perfectly good groups looking for information and truth with something that
you proposed. Is it true that you're on the board or related
to the NSA in some way? [Laughter]
No. I just recently read that. >> Cass Sunstein: I was on the President's
review group on the surveillance.

We did a report which is publicly available. >> Ok. So, you know, I mean you know what we all
think about the NSA these days. Not a great deal of credibility there and
a lot of secrecy. So, you know, I'm kind of upset about
>> Cass Sunstein: I hear you didn't mind my previous article so much. I understand. >> I'm skeptical of the whole the idea that
conspiracies are dangerous, conspiracy theories are dangerous, the question is to who.

To the status quo? To the current situation which is empiricist,
which is militaristic all over the world, including in Gaza. I mean, we look at this stuff and we say:
Who are these people that are ruling us? >> Cass Sunstein: Ok, so probably the most
important thing about American democracy is freedom of speech. The kind of democratic thrust of your question
I completely endorse. In terms of what the concrete concern is,
I think your concrete concern is secrecy. I wouldn't say what you did about there being
more secrecy now than ever.

I'm not sure there's a metric in accordance
with that's true. But the idea that there should be less secrecy
in important areas than there has been, completely with you on that. And if you read the report of the NSA review
group, I was one of five members, that's actually a principal theme. So there's a big plea for much more disclosure
of much more stuff in that context than there had been before.

So the connection between submission and secrecy,
you're completely right on that. One more. One more because of time, not because of sensitivity. [Laughter]
>> On this whole internet thing, Google, and everything else, what is your opinion? Does this enormous amount of information that's
available to all of us, does that lead to either more conspiracy theories or less because
of all the openness and all the information? >> Cass Sunstein: I don't think we have data
on that. Probably a reasonable speculation is that
false conspiracy theories I think that's what you're thinking of. False conspiracy theories are more readily
corrected. And so a number of people who would be prone
to believe them just don't. Whereas false conspiracy theories are available
and people who are prone to believe them can find evidentiary base. I don't want to speculate without the data.

I do want to underline the point the previous
questioner asked, which is it isn't right to say conspiracy theories are dangerous,
period. That would not be true. Conspiracy theories can be dangerous if they
are part and parcel of an effort to protect, with protect in quotes, kids from getting
medicines that they need or if they're part of an effort to stir people up to violent
acts. The trend lines with respect to the internet,
I think we're going to know a lot more in the next five years both because we'll have
more data studied better, but the great promise is that corrections are easy to get. But there are credulous people who won't believe
the corrections. I think I'm being given the signal. Thank you all. [Applause]
[The presentation ended at 1:02 p.m.].