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English Scholar Awarded Carnegie Fellowship for Conspiracy Theory Research

Elise Wang Receives $200,000 to Pen New Book on Identifying Dangerous Conspiracy Theories
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Elise Wang created a YouTube account and began tracing her steps. Within four clicks, she found herself overwhelmed with conspiracy theory content. 

That’s how easy it is to find conspiracy theories, even when you’re not looking for them, said Wang, a Cal State Fullerton assistant professor of English, comparative literature and linguistics

Although the internet and media have increased people’s access to conspiracy theories, they are not new. An expert in medieval literature, Wang said conspiracy theories can be traced back to the Middle Ages. Her upcoming project will investigate how these theories shape people’s belief systems.

For her academic excellence and dedication to understanding how conspiracy theories contribute to political polarization, Wang was selected as one of 28 scholars in the U.S. to further her study as part of the 2024 Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program

The fellowship supports high-caliber scholarship and research in the social sciences and humanities by providing researchers with a $200,000 stipend to fund a two-year project. Of the 28 scholars accepted from more than 360 nominations, Wang is one of six from California, and one of two within the California State University system. 

As a 2024 fellow, she will write a new book, “That’s What They Want You to Think: Identifying Dangerous Conspiracy Theories,” which will use narrative analysis to explore what makes conspiracy theories popular and likely to spread. 

“In Geoffrey Chaucer’s ‘The Prioress’ Tale,’ we see the conspiracy theory about blood libel. We also see stories about miracles and sainthood,” said Wang. “The way that people approached those stories is very similar to the way people approach conspiracy theories today.” 

She’ll start by looking at miracle stories in medieval texts before moving onto more recent theories, including ones about 9/11 and government scandals involving powerful politicians. 

“Conspiracy theories are stories that are created by people who have something to gain by spreading them,” said Wang. “They’re used to divide people because they take you out of this nonfiction realm and put you in the realm of belief and identity. Those belief structures cement divisions and keep people from coming back from them.”

Once people find a theory that fits their perspective, it can be extremely difficult to dissuade them, and radicalization of those beliefs can lead to increased violence, added Wang. 

“The more out of control we feel in our personal lives, in our work and in our world, the more we seek patterns to compensate. This preference for patterns over noise is so strong that if the facts don’t match our experience of things, we will find a story that does,” said Wang. 

Jumping Between Medieval and Modern Times

Throughout her career, Wang has studied medieval criminal procedure, the construction of felony, and morality and guilt, finding connections between medieval themes and contemporary issues. 

“Between the period that I study and now, there have been many changes, including the plague, that have had the opportunity to overturn society,” said Wang. “Yet, when it comes to our social contract, the way we relate to each other and our sense of justice, it’s all the same.” 

Her new project will be added to an accomplished cabinet of research, which includes her latest book, “The Making of Felony Procedure in Middle English Literature.” Published this year, the book explores criminal procedure in English law, focusing on the construction of felony and how that definition has shaped the current criminal justice system.

At CSUF, Wang has taught such courses as Chaucer and Medieval Literature. She said her favorite part about teaching these courses is helping students find connections between medieval texts and their own lived experiences. 

“Being able to reach back into the medieval period and find similarities is the best demonstration of how universal it is,” said Wang. “There are ideas and situations that we all understand, and medieval literature can teach you a lot about yourself if you’re open to seeing those connections.”

Taylor Arrey