How to talk to a conspiracy theorist -- and still be kind

I think it’s usually the other way around. They sense that the world is threatening with a lot wrong with people either cynically profiting from making things worse or rationalizing parasitic behavior, and the irrational belief in conspiracy theories provides a false but comforting narrative. Which is why it’s extremely difficult and often unproductive to try to show them where the narrative breaks down, and why doing so tends to trigger reactionary defense mechanisms of denial.

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As my mom likes to say about those kinds of folks “my mind is made up, don’t try to confuse me with facts!” and “believing is seeing.”

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One reason that I don’t bother engaging with conspiracy theories is that, for at least a portion of any given believer community, they all eventually end up tending toward the idea that “da Jooos are behind it”. Modern conspiracy theories are so structurally rooted in “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”* that the villains from their ur-text continue to re-appear in them no matter what the subject.

[* itself a plagiarism of an earlier work, re-purposed for anti-Semitism and made more popular than its source as a result]

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I see a lot of responses here about this not being worth the time, who some people are just agitating and don’t actually listen, and about how you just can’t reason with some people. I have a few thoughts on those, bust first I think it’s really important to distinguish between people who believe weird things that are wrong (covid-19-Bill-Gates-microchips, flat earth, fake moon landing) and people who say things that are unacceptable (age old slanders of Jewish people, stereotypes about non-white people, gender essentialism). I used to take calls on a crisis hotline (e.g. suicidal thoughts). When someone threatened me, screamed at me, or said something racist, I would say, “I’m sorry but that’s unacceptable, if you keep doing that I’m going to end the call.” If someone’s behaviour is unacceptable, you let them know it’s unacceptable, you don’t gently persuade or debate. I’m guilty on this front, but I’m trying to get better.

But on the other stuff:

I think if this isn’t worth your time then it isn’t worth your time. I don’t mean that to say anything negative about anyone. We’re talking about putting serious time and energy into helping a single person. The idea you’d do this for someone who disagrees with you in youtube comments is absurd. But if for some reason it is worth your time, I think the advice here is good.

Regarding people who are 100% determined not to listen, there are plenty them. The article links to a list of warning signs you’re dealing with them. If someone moves the goalposts, don’t keep trying to score, just point out what happened and say you don’t have any interest in continuing. I think the “take it private” advice is a good way to root these people out (if for some reason you are really interested in doing so) as well, because it shows a well-meaning person you are well-meaning, but people looking for a soap box don’t get one from that.

Finally, if you are saying “you just can’t reason with some people” I think you are accidentally agreeing with the article. Debate, argument, reasoning… they don’t work for changing a person’s mind (I don’t mean this as universal, but people who will actually stop in the middle of a yelling argument and say, “Oh, you’re right” are few).

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I think the important thing is not really about the other person and/or their beliefs. It’s about what kind of person we want to be. It’s about how do we maintain our own ability to be kind whether things go the way we want them to or not.

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I strongly disagree. Ignoring them allowed them to fester and grow in communities online. Our survival depends on figuring out how to reach these people.

This is the completely buried lede in this entire thing. That reddit is very specifically a self-selected group interested in listening. That describes virtually no conspiracy theorists.

I know there are many fellow skeptical movement participants here on BB, and we talk about this stuff a lot because it’s basically our mission statement- how to convince people to correctly identify reality. The advice offered by this MIT study is patently useless. The one thing that does not work is dropping truth bombs. People are not swayed by facts in these moments. More on this below.

Luckily, none of that is correct in the long term. Our default position is certainly to take an emotional position and defend it, and yes there is a short term backfire effect, but peoples’ minds are changed every day. It’s very possible, and our survival as a species depends on it.

First and foremost, to everyone giving up at the idea of convincing anyone, I understand. However, you need to stop being defeatist about it, because our civilization depends on learning how to speak to people like this.

As I said at the top, the skeptical community has done a lot in this area, and there is plenty of science to back up the approach. First and foremost, you must learn about the person. People believe silly things for a reason. When you get to know them, maybe you find out they believe in alien abductions because they suffer from sleep hypnogogia but didn’t know that was a thing many people experience. Or perhaps they believe in ghosts because the loss of their mom hit them really hard and this is their way of coping. Or they believe in flat earth because all their friends do and it makes them feel loved and special. You must approach with empathy. If you go in determined to “fix stupid” with “facts” you will 100% fail and drive people away.

Instead, give up on the idea that you can convince people in the moment. That never happens, but people think success is impossible because of that. Untrue! Skeptics talk about “planting the seed”. Make a personal connection with someone and then nudge them in the right direction with open good faith questions like “how do you suppose we could check if ghosts are real?”. You will not convince them in the moment, but you have planted a seed. Years later, when they are emotionally ready to let go of that belief which has helped them cope with the world, your seed is in there and they’ll come around on their own. Not before.

Most scientists and normal rational folks make the mistake that thinking the problem is a lack of facts. “People don’t believe in climate change because they haven’t seen enough line graphs”. That is demonstrably false and there’s research on that as well. It’s never an information gap. We are all swimming in information. You must instead reach and understand the person. Similarly, it is not all about misinformation. Fox News and the like are certainly pouring gas on the fire, but people would find excuses to keep believing what they do regardless. Flat Earth is the perfect data point in this- there’s probably no more irrational belief a person can have, and even Fox News isn’t trying to convince anyone of that.

All you cynics in this thread throwing up your hands, well, I get that it’s frustrating, but if we give up then the next Trump will be worse. Do. Not. Stop. Fighting. Join the skeptical movement (Skeptics Guide To The Universe is a good place to start) and learn how to talk to folks like this.

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To be fair, I’m not even sure that the “make lots of money” is the actual motivating factor. The spreadsheet that is driving the decisions doesn’t have any other way of keeping score, however, so it needs the number at the bottom of the main column to be (a) positive and (b) larger than the one in the previous column (for last year.) We just assign a value called ‘money’ to that number, and that may ultimately be a bit misleading as to motive.

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That’s a great GREAT response. Especially the use of “they”. I love it. But beyond this, it’s a waste of time. Their beliefs are not fact based any more than beliefs in mystical beings is fact based. Try convincing a Muslim that Mohammed may have never existed or a Christian that there’s no evidence that Jesus ever existed (probably the same for Jews and Moses). Waste of time.

Kind of a distinction without a difference. The fossil fuel industry wants to make lots of money. Back decades ago they discovered their strategy for doing so was destroying the climate, and they ran with it anyway, opting instead to try to stop people from doing anything about it. So they are trying to destroy everything, and that it’s as a means to another end doesn’t change that.

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Yes, that’s a thing. As long as you do your best. But note that if a listener becomes defensive, all bets are off. It’s tricky to give new/different information without triggering a defensive reaction. That’s the holy grail.

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Lest I give that impression, let me say that I think both the article and Fred Rogers offer effective advice. It’s just the mother of all uphill battles and everyone should be given space to choose their own battles (though in reality sometimes they’re deprived of that choice). So while I don’t truck with the notion that conspiracy theorists are beyond all hope, I definitely grok that sometimes people just can’t even, and that’s okay.

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A lot of this seems tribal. The article presupposes a conspiracy theorist who allows you to talk, and will listen while you do. There may be people in the conspiracy theory factions the you can touch with a reasoned argument. I fear the best you may get is “no, I don’t actually believe all of it, but they are an interesting crowd.” For the others, well, you are equally unlikely to convince an Arsenal or a Tottenham football supporter that the other side is, in fact, the better team, even if your spreadsheet and PowerPoint presentation is jolly convincing. They have chosen their side, and it is full of people who they get along with, and that is probably the end of it.

The only solution I can see is to turn out to vote in large numbers. It seems 30% of every country consists of gobshites, racists, dickheads, and wankers; but we outnumber them if we have a 61% turnout. That may at least show them that the truth may not belong to the one who shouts loudest.

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Hello, fellow technical writer! While I agree with the spirit of what you wrote (especially about condescension), I’ve found it best to avoid trying to talk someone out of an idiotic belief system after 3 tries.

They get 3 good faith attempts on my part to have a respectful conversation, and then I go find other ways to spend my time and energy.

It’s the belief system that is hard to get through. Sometimes the best you can do is plant a few seeds and then go on your merry way.

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Could not agree more!

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Oh I was never suggesting ignoring them.

It would be good to reinforce the conversation by saying, “In other words, it’s a huge truth sandwich, and we’re all gonna have to take a bite.

Looks at list, thinks, life’s too damned short, moves on.

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Liked for including the alt-text! (Without it, half of XKCD’s cartoons are missing the punch line!)

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My sentiments are that conspiracy theorists and the theories that they perpetuate shouldn’t be given the time of day, nor the space for their theories to fester (whether it be online or off) and that at this current juncture, people should focus their time and energy on themselves and people they know & love. Twitter recently banned the Q garbage and a ton of people who were knee-deep in it, and my first reaction was “Thank God” while my second reaction was “They should’ve done this fucking ages ago”.

I remember a good while ago reading a comment that said “If you want to get someone to stop being racist, invite them over to your house for dinner and talk to them. Then do that the next day. And the day after that. And then for three more years.” What I’m getting at is that, from what I’ve seen, conspiracy theorists and racists have similar mental feedback loops. Getting a conspiracy theorist to stop thinking that the Earth is flat, or that COVID-19 is a plot by Bill Gates & Co., or that some anonymous dude in the White House named Q is leaking facts about child trafficking rings is something that’s going to take considerable time and effort. And honestly, given everything that’s happening in the world right now, I think that those people are fucking lost causes.

Put time into a local co-op organization. Donate to a food bank. Help your family & friends weather the current combined chaos of the pandemic and the U.S. and its national institutions slowly falling apart at the seams like a soggy cardboard box in the rain.

Just don’t waste your time with flat-Earthers or people who think that the army’s gonna swoop in any day now and get the deep-state child-traffickers that they think secretly control the world.

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