Distrust and paranoia did not start with claims about genetically modified foods or vaccines. Concern about the motivations of government, secret societies and corporations has a long history. The belief in a conspiracy of elites fuels suspicion about all authorities and the claims they make. 

What is more of a puzzle is that the attraction of conspiracy theories is so strong that it leads people to endorse entirely contradictory beliefs, like how the government should make special regulations for genetically modified foods, though the government is supposedly dependent on lobbyist money and can't be trusted.

People who endorse conspiracy theories see authorities as fundamentally deceptive, they may just see it about different groups. Regardless, the conviction that the "official story" is untrue, be it about 9/11 or the Kennedy assassination or food, can lead people to believe several alternative theories-despite contradictions among them. 

"Any conspiracy theory that stands in opposition to the official narrative will gain some degree of endorsement from someone who holds a conpiracist worldview," according to Michael Wood, Karen Douglas and Robbie Sutton of the University of Kent, who co-authored an article on the willing contradictions of conspiracy believers.

To see if conspiracy views were strong enough to lead to inconsistencies, the researchers asked 137 college students about the death of Princess Diana. The more people thought there "was an official campaign by the intelligence service to assassinate Diana," the more they also believed that "Diana faked her own death to retreat into isolation."

How could they believe both?  She was a British woman, not an Austrian physicist's cat.   She can't be simultaneously dead and alive.

The researchers wanted to know if the contradictory beliefs were due to suspicion of authorities, so they asked 102 college students about the death of Osama bin Laden (OBL). People who believed that "when the raid took place, OBL was already dead," were significantly more likely to also believe that "OBL is still alive."

Since bin Laden is no more Schrödinger's cat than Diana was, he must be alive or dead. The researchers found that the belief that the "actions of the Obama administration indicate that they are hiding some important or damaging piece of information about the raid" was responsible for the connection between the two conspiracy theories. Conspiracy belief is so potent that it will lead to belief in completely inconsistent ideas.

"For conspiracy theorists, those in power are seen as deceptive-even malevolent-and so any official explanation is at a disadvantage, and any alternative explanation is more credible from the start," said the authors.

It is no surprise that fear, mistrust, and even paranoia can lead to muddled thinking; when distrust is engaged, careful reasoning can coast on by.

"Believing Osama is still alive," they write, 'is no obstacle to believing that he has been dead for years."

Or that scientists are out to save us regarding global warming and out to kill us about food.

Citation: Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas, and Robbie M. Sutton, 'Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories', Social Psychological and Personality Science, 1948550611434786, first published on January 25, 2012 doi: 10.1177/1948550611434786