Conspiracy theories are an insidious form of conceptual quicksand. A person who has sunk deep into the quagmire is often unable to extricate himself, and if a concerned bystander tries to toss a lifeline of rationality, a conspiratorialist is likely to cast it suspiciously aside.
Although conspiracy-theory susceptibility currently runs most strongly on the right, that wasn’t always so. The wellspring of modern conspiratorialism, the belief that the assassination of President Kennedy was the work of the mafia or the CIA or another cabal, once animated port-side precincts. So, too, did the notion that the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks were an inside job.
False beliefs fade only slowly. Further, the experts I’ve consulted say there’s little one can do to disabuse a hardcore adherent of a fallacious but favored narrative.
In part, that’s because conspiracy theories are based on non-falsifiable propositions, assertions that don’t exist in concrete enough form to be tested or disproved. In part, it’s because a conspiratorialist belief is sometimes a central pillar in a larger ideological edifice. If one believes, contra the evidence, that the November election was somehow stolen from Donald Trump, that person might also number among the one-quarter to one-third of Trump voters who approve of the storming of the Capitol or at least empathize with the ransacking mob. That renders it doubly difficult to abandon the premise of a purloined election, since doing so also requires recognizing Jan. 6 as a violent, unjustified assault on our democracy.
In such a situation, facts don’t render one skeptical of conspiracy theories; rather, conspiracy theories make one skeptical of facts.
But one expert on the matter, Jovan Byford, author of the indispensable “Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction” and a senior lecturer in psychology at Britain’s Open University, thinks it’s possible to help people who are only ankle-deep in conspiratorialist thinking, those who “might not treat conspiracy theories as the literal truth but are willing to consider that they might be ‘onto something,’ even if in a purely metaphorical way.”
The best approach isn’t necessarily to attack your friend or family member’s favored conspiracy theory head-on, but rather to make a broader observation about the demonstrated falseness of conspiracy theories over time, he said.
“One may want to point out that throughout history, conspiracy theories have come up short,” Byford recommended via e-mail. By doing so, one “just might encourage the person to direct their curiosity and skepticism to conspiracy theories themselves.”
For example, Byford said, “When talking to a COVID denialist or an anti-vaxxer, one might point out that the longstanding claims by AIDS denialists that antiretroviral drugs are more harmful than HIV were not only disproved, but that they [those false claims] also contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths in sub-Saharan Africa.”
Or take QAnon, the belief that Trump is covertly and heroically battling an elite global cabal of cannibalistic Satan-worshipping pedophiles who control both media and government.
With people inclined toward QAnon, Byford said, it’s worth explaining “the longer history of conspiracy theories, where tales of child abuse, ritual sacrifices, moral depravity, and so on have always been a regular ingredient and a way of weaving a narrative of a battle between good and evil, where the latter is always presented as violating all moral and sexual taboos.”
Further, he said, one should note that though many conspiracy theories predict an imminent showdown between good and evil, that moment of truth never actually arrives.
QAnon is ripe for such a critique. That hydra-headed fantasy said Trump would cruise to reelection. It then maintained that Trump’s various legal challenges would prevail and he would be inaugurated on Jan. 20. The belief next became that Trump would resume office on the pre-22nd Amendment inauguration date of March 4. And all that is to say nothing of the multiple arrests of cabal members that were supposed to occur. Further, we now have a good clue about who has been duping the faithful by posing as Q, a supposedly anonymous operative working to expose the evil cabal: Ron Watkins, the former operator of 8kun, where Q posts.
Don’t expect immediate success, but don’t give up. No, we can’t drain the entire conspiratorialist swamp, but we might be able to rescue some friends and family members before they sink too deeply in the morass.