Cory Doctorow is an author, journalist and activist. For many years, the Canadian was the co-editor of the successful blog "Boing Boing". In his contributions, Doctorow often deals with the digital world and its effects on society. One topic that has been bothering him for some time is conspiracy theories. In the interview, he explains why, in his opinion, belief in conspiracies goes hand in hand with dwindling trust in institutions and what role platforms like Facebook play.

ZEIT ONLINE : Mr. Doctorow, in your lecture at this year's re: publica you dealt with conspiracy theories. Why is the corona crisis fueling so many absurd thoughts?

Cory Doctorow : With Covid-19 we are in a kind of vacuum. We still don't know much about the virus and disease, its origins, possible medicines and vaccines. With this ignorance and uncertainty, it is easier to believe in certain explanations - why should one theory that someone proposes be more correct or wrong than another? This view is also due to the fact that many people do not know how science works. We teach our children at school: You have to believe in science! We don't teach them why. 

ZEIT ONLINE : How does science work?

Doctorow : Science always means to refute existing hypotheses, to contradict each other until you get to the point where you can speak of a truth. You would actually have to teach people a lot more epistemology, so explain to them how knowledge arises. 

ZEIT ONLINE : In this country, it was initially said that a face mask would not help contain the virus. It is now recommended to wear it in public as often as possible. This change has irritated many people.

Doctorow : This is a good example. Those who do not understand the decision-making processes behind it hear apparently contradictory statements and come to the conclusion that science has no idea. In this uncertainty you start to look for your own truths. 

ZEIT ONLINE : That means, sooner or later you end up with conspiracy theories?

Doctorow : Not necessarily. Conspiracy theories primarily attract two types of people. On the one hand, there are people who already know a lot about real conspiracies. Those who believe in the existence of UFOs can usually tell you a lot about real spy satellites and secret collusion between the government and the military. Vaccine opponents often know astonishingly well about the opioid crisis and the role of pharmaceutical companies. And on the other hand, people who have experienced personal trauma. My grandmother survived the pogrom in Poland. Years later she believed that the next one was just around the corner. And if you lost your home in the financial crisis, you probably have a deep distrust of the banking system.

ZEIT ONLINE : Now a certain distrust is quite useful in a democracy. Where does healthy critical thinking stop and where do conspiracy theories begin? 

Doctorow : Conspiracy theorists always say that you shouldn't believe everything you read and hear, but simply do your research. "Find out for yourself!" is their battle cry. That's true. Unfortunately, they do not know what good research means, how to check facts and sources. I think that those who believe in conspiracies are not lost per se. Many just turned wrong at the last moment of the search for truth. And unfortunately, these days you can't always rely on the institutions to help you differentiate between good and bad research. 

ZEIT ONLINE : What do you mean by that? 

Doctorow : We traditionally trust institutions such as politics and science to find truths. In the best case, we can rely on the truth-finding processes to be fair and transparent. In fact, the truth is becoming an auction more and more, especially when market power is concentrated. We see this in different areas: Why isn't everyone aware of the urgency of climate change? Because there are still influential players with a lot of money who claim the opposite. Why did the Boeing 737 Max fall from the sky? Because the aeronautical regulator has not fulfilled its duty. Why does the quality of the peer review process decrease in science? Because few publishers have monopolized the market and have thus become the gatekeepers of science. All of these developments ensure that trust in the institutions continues to decline. 

Unfortunately, nowadays people cannot always rely on the institutions that are supposed to help them differentiate between good and bad research. Cory Doctorow

ZEIT ONLINE: Instead, citizens increasingly believe people "who only sound as if they know what they're talking about", as you once described in an article. Does this also explain why celebrities are currently increasingly sharing conspiracy myths?

Doctorow : The methodology of conspirators doesn't just show a sense of belonging, knowledge and power. You can also earn a lot of money from it. Many conspirators now live from giving lectures, writing books, running blogs or YouTube channels. Conspiracy theories do not produce truth, but other tangible goods do.