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Zen and the Art of Talking to Conspiracy Theorists

Belief in a grand conspiracy theory can strain a relationship. Motorcycle maintenance can help.

Imagine if a close family member told you your romantic partner was a bad match for you. Not only is your loving partner being criticized, but you feel personally attacked as well. If your relative is right in their assessment, how likely are you to listen to them? Wouldn’t you rather fight back?

This is the analogy that Mike Kropveld, the director of Info-Cult in Montreal, used in an interview with Radio-Canada when discussing deeply rooted beliefs in grand conspiracy theories. Being told your favourite conspiracy theory is dumb, dangerous and nonsensical is unlikely to bring you to your senses. Them’s fighting words. Besides, breaking up with a conspiracy theory is, well, heartbreaking.

The Internet’s endless depths of information and opinions combined with the isolating and anxiety-generating effects of the pandemic have made it easier than ever to fall down the rabbit hole looking for answers. Are 5G telecommunications towers causing COVID-19? Are masks making us sick, or even worse, are they government-issued muzzles to keep the population in check? Is Bill Gates’ grand plan to inject us with trackers under the guise of beneficial inoculations? When the rest of us are confronted with these conspiratorial speculations, it’s very easy to resort to mockery, and when it happens to someone we know, the impulse to angrily shake them out of this nonsense can be hard to resist.

Ridiculing a close friend’s belief or calling them stupid and paranoid is unlikely to have the desired effect. So what works?

No magic bullet

First, a survey of the landscape. Not everyone who disagrees with us about the outside world is a conspiracy theorist. If you believe crunchy peanut butter is superior to smooth peanut butter (as you should), the opposing faction is not deserving of a tin foil hat. Then there are beliefs tied to alternative medicine and the paranormal (things like homeopathy and astrology), and while they often overlap with belief in a giant cover-up, they are not in and of themselves conspiracy theories. It’s also important to point out that there have been real cover-ups, notably the Watergate scandal, a smaller scale conspiracy that was ultimately exposed and well documented.

When we talk about grand conspiracy theories, we mean the claim that there exists a secret plot between a large number of powerful people or organizations, usually an entire industry or many large governments, to consistently deceive us in order to reach an often evil goal. The recent QAnon conspiracy theory serves as a perfect example: it’s the idea that a secret, liberal underground government made up of Satan-worshipping child molesters opposed Donald Trump, and that Trump and his allies would bring about the near-Biblical destruction of this deep state and usher in a paradise of peace and prosperity. For this theory to be true, countless people would need to be actively and competently suppressing the revelation of these vile acts over a long period of time, while the main whistleblower remains anonymous on a message board and posts mysterious pronouncements on par with Nostradamus. It doesn’t make sense.

We are all susceptible to buying into these grand conspiracy theories to one degree or another because our brain evolved to see patterns even where there are none, a useful trait to help us survive in the wild but a more problematic flaw when dealing with a nonstop news cycle. Attending a university program can help safeguard us against falling down the rabbit hole, but the doctors who loudly proclaim the COVID-19 pandemic was planned and that vaccines are part of a vast pharmaceutical conspiracy provide evidence that an advanced diploma is not always enough.

Some people flirt with conspiracy theories the way they chat with matches on Tinder; others are years into their unholy matrimony, with the house and the white picket fence. Obviously, the degree of investment in a grand conspiracy theory will influence how easy it will be for that person to get out, and how manageable your conversations with them will be when the alleged conspiracy is mentioned.

“You really have to tailor it to the individual, there’s no magic bullet that works for everybody,” Mick West told me. He’s the author of the book Escaping the Rabbit Hole and runs a few websites including Metabunk, referred to as “a polite forum of and about debunking.” He became interested in conspiracy theories when he was taking private pilot lessons and learning about contrails, the vapour trails left by airplanes in the sky like ski prints in the snow. Some people argue that contrails that stay in the sky for a long time cannot be due to condensation and must instead be made up of chemicals purposefully spread over the Earth for nefarious purposes: the infamous “chemtrails.”

As West tried to explain to believers why this theory was incorrect, he realized the science of contrails was more complicated than first appeared and that conspiracy theories were “resilient to being debunked and often evolve and change.” Providing a burst of facts for thirty seconds is unlikely to change someone’s mind on these issues.

What makes the conversation even harder is that we often forget what it’s like to be a conspiracy theorist and how we are perceived by them.

Patience and peace of mind

Having a chat with a conspiracy theorist can feel like sitting opposite them at a table and noticing just how nonsensical what they say is. And if you know the person to be smart, you can easily wonder in desperation how such an intelligent person could believe something so utterly divorced from reality. How could they be swayed by obvious misinformation and stop thinking for themselves?

As surprising as it may sound, this person thinks the same of you. In a world filled with uncertainties and chance events, they have managed to grab hold of a thread, a tangible line, and they have followed it to this revelation that an evil cabal is secretly plotting against humanity but that the awakened can still rise up. It’s a simple story of good versus evil shared among friends, and the discovery of this narrative feels like top secret knowledge arrived at through critical thinking. What they cannot believe, as they metaphorically sit opposite you on this issue, is how an otherwise smart person like you can’t see the truth, how you can believe something so utterly wrong and be swayed by mainstream misinformation. Why can’t you start thinking for yourself?

A helpful first step to move beyond this face-off may be to imagine both you and the conspiracist in your life as sitting side by side. This is not a debate; it’s a conversation where two people are looking at what’s in front of them, trying to make sense of it. The second step is in learning the virtue of shutting up first. “Listen to them,” Mick West told me, a crucial tip I have heard from multiple people over the years and that I recommend myself. “They will listen to you if you listen to them, if you give them some kind of respect for the fact that they have ideas.” No one enjoys being perceived as foolish or less than human. You may disagree with someone’s perception of the world but invalidating who they are as people because they believe in a grand conspiracy theory will probably not bear fruit.

Once you have established some measure of mutual respect, you may want to ask questions as opposed to confronting with facts. If someone accuses me of being wrong, for example, I may take it personally, but if I am led to realize that I am wrong through answering a series of questions, I will be more inclined to correct my belief. Getting caught in a contradiction can make someone think back on why they believe what they believe.

If the believer is someone very close to you—your mom, your significant other, your son—you may feel like the relationship cannot be maintained, like it is crashing down in a mass of resentment. The most common advice I have seen for this situation from therapists, anti-cult resource centres, and long-time debunkers like Mick West is to prioritize the relationship. “You can tell the person, hey, I don’t share your beliefs but I really value our friendship,” West explained to me, “and I would like to try to maintain our relationship, and we have other things in common that we can talk about, and other shared things we used to do.” If they keep bringing up this grand theory, it may be best not to take the bait and simply state that the two of you should hold off on discussing this for a few weeks. Some people find polite ways of walking away from the conversation by saying they have something else to do. The important thing is to not let things escalate if possible, because the alienation between you and your relatives or close friends can have long-lasting consequences.

This therapist-like approach to dealing with conspiracists calls upon a certain disposition. Mick West was reminded of the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. “The main character is reading the motorcycle assembly manual for a bike he’s bought in parts from Japan and it says, ‘Assembly of Japanese bicycle require [sic] great peace of mind.’” Anyone who has assembled IKEA furniture will have fallen on one side or the other of this adage, and it applies to having long, difficult conversations with people who believe very strange things. “A lot of time,” West continued, “people fail in helping others because they don’t realize how long it takes.”

Ultimately, though, you are unlikely to single-handedly turn someone away from a grand conspiracy theory. They are more likely to see the light on their own, and that’s a moment that can be both painfully sobering and incredibly liberating.

It’s the believer who conjures up the exit

For some, the mental pressure of believing things that are contradictory or that don’t mesh with the observable world (a phenomenon known as cognitive dissonance) becomes too painful to bear. A relief valve is needed. And indeed, as Mick West related to me, many of the people who escape the conspiracy rabbit hole tell him they feel liberated: “When they finally realize that they were wrong, a lot of the time they will express it as being a great relief: the world actually seems like a better place.”

For others, fact-checking websites and humorous podcasts help them realize the absurdities of what the popular conspiracy-mongers are saying. Sometimes, these influencers will be caught saying something that flies in the face of a believer’s values, like a strong anti-Semitic sentiment, which will allow the believer to reevaluate what else these influencers have said that might be wrong. Some tell their story publicly in an attempt to fill in the rabbit hole to prevent anyone else from falling mindlessly into it.

But those are the people who have been vocal about their journey. Many more simply want to move on and never revisit this sad chapter in their lives, feeling a temporary loss in self-confidence. Importantly, there is no one way out of Wonderland; instead, there are personalized exits that rely on the believer’s ability to conjure them.

It doesn’t help, in my opinion, that so much American cinema and scripted television is devoted to stories filled with secret cabals and grand manipulators. Few movies conclude with the lesson that the bad stuff was actually due to incompetence and chance events. It would not feel as satisfying, but we need to remind ourselves that the world we live in is not a scripted story. We have to figure out effective ways to better accept uncertainty. Our survival depends on it. For me, studying science, getting involved in skepticism, and my own temperament were a big help.

Once the pandemic ends and the uncertainty around evolving public health measures and virus variants becomes more manageable, there is hope the recent conspiracy balloon might deflate quite a bit. In the meantime, remember that engaging with the conspiracy theorists in your life “require [sic] great peace of mind.”

Take-home message:
- There is no magic bullet to talking someone out of believing in a grand conspiracy theory
- Using empathy, avoiding confrontations, and keeping the dialogue going can help
- It is often the believer who decides on their own to stop embracing a grand conspiracy theory, and the feelings that follow can range from shame to relief


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