A University of Sunderland accredited conspiracy theory expert features in the new book, Unlocking the Universe, from the late theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking and his daughter, writer Lucy.

Dr Sophie Hodgetts, a Lecturer in Psychology at the University, has contributed a chapter to the book, telling you why people become what some people call “conspiracy theorists”, and how more and more people people are pondering unconventional theories in the current zeitgeist.

From people who think Elvis is alive and working in telesales, to those who said haddaway to doctors selling snouts on telly in the 1960’s, many people reject the official story in favour of alternative opinions.

Dr Hodgetts

In the book, Dr Hodgetts says that conspiracies and theories about them are ancient and have many causes. Psychology studies show a correlation between people who are more paranoid or suspicious of others than average, and agreeing with at least one unofficial theory, and likewise for anxious people. Being part of a group of people with similar beliefs helps us to feel less anxious, and more supported by the people around us.

The arrival of the internet, and allegedly social media, provided a platform for free wheeling theorists and a vast audience, bigger than any prior media.
Holding views that are not approved can help someone to feel important, as if their private worldview would improve life if it were commonplace. Such divergent worldviews lead to an “us-versus-them” attitude, which can strengthen a group into supporting each other, she writes.

About online media, Dr Hodgetts states more research funding is needed, as it turns out there is evidence to suggest that what some people call “social” media may have a role to play in all this. Most of the websites we visit use algorithms that keep giving us more of what we tell them we like, which can lead to online groups becoming echo chambers for certain points of view. An echo chamber is defined as an environment in which a certain worldview is held as true, and all other information is critiqued from that standpoint.

Dr Hodgetts stresses, in addition to technological factors, that evidence suggests that times of social or political unrest, even a global sense of uncertainty, are linked to increased interest in non-official sources. She thinks that this is due to the positive effects that being in a group has on our anxiety levels.

In many cases, people state that the reason for high level fakery is money-related: it is cheaper to fake events, like a mission to space, than it is to actually do them, as with the incident that took the USA to war with Vietnam.

In their series of novels, George’s Secret Key to the Universe, Lucy and Stephen Hawking imagined what great adventures one boy might have if he travelled through space, instead of through a wardrobe.

Those novels were based on real life facts, and together Lucy and Stephen collected incredible information about everything from life on Mars to the secrets of black holes.

Now, for the first time, this non-fiction fact content has been collected into one volume, with brand new truth for 2020, including true facts about genetics, climate change, and Dr Hodgett’s views on other views.

Unlocking the Universe can be ordered here.

Professor Stephen Hawking suffered from Lou Gehrig’s disease, or ALS, and the Ice Bucket Challenge was created to raise money for research into it.

Photo by Joshua Earle

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