It’s only fake-believe: how to deal with a conspiracy theorist

“Since many conspiracy theories arise from feelings of uncertainty and fear, an angry debate will only cement the ideas, and open ridicule is even less constructive. Instead, the research shows that you should try to focus on the rhetorical devices and tricks of persuasion that have been used to spread the ideas in the first instance. “People seem receptive to you exposing the ways in which they may have been manipulated,” explains Dr Sander van der Linden at Cambridge University, who has pioneered research into the spread of misinformation and the ways to stop it.

[..] five most common fallacies favoured by conspiracy theorists, and the best ways to respond.

  1. Hunting an invisible dragon – [..] There is no way [..] to either prove or falsify its existence.[..] This kind of argument is known as special pleading; you essentially move the goal posts whenever someone asks for evidence to prove your point – a tactic that is commonly used in many conspiracy theories.[..] If you are faced with this kind of reasoning, you might question the probability of arranging such a widespread conspiracy across so many organisations in so many countries without leaving any traces.
  2. Fake authority – [..] The tobacco industry used these tactics to great effect in the 1970s, with adverts that quoted fake experts and rogue scientists who questioned the harms of smoking.“It’s a really persuasive form of misinformation,” says Prof John Cook, an expert in “science denial” at George Mason University. Fortunately, he has found that educating people about the history of this common deceptive tactic can make people more sceptical of other fake experts at a later point.
  3. Coincidence or covert operations? – [..] The problem of over-reading coincidences might explain why many people still believe that the MMR vaccine can lead to autism. We now know that Andrew Wakefield’s original paper proposing the link was fraudulent, and based on fabricated data. The problem is that the typical signs of autism often become more apparent in a child’s second year, around the same time they receive the vaccine. This is just a coincidence, but some people believe it offers evidence for the theory – despite the fact that large studies have repeatedly shown that autism is no more common among vaccinated children than unvaccinated children.
  4. False equivalence – [..] You might have heard the argument that “we have thousands of deaths from car crashes each year – yet we don’t shut down the country to prevent those”. The problem, of course, is that car crashes are not contagious, whereas a virus is, meaning that the number of infected people can grow exponentially until it overwhelms the health service. While there may be a nuanced debate over the most effective ways to prevent that scenario, these kinds of false analogies are used to completely dismiss the need to prevent contagion, allowing the conspiracy theorist to assign a more sinister intent for any new measures.
  5. The thought-terminating cliche – [..] it’s probably time to leave the discussion for another day. As Van der Linden points out, the important thing is to maintain the possibility of continued open dialogue. “We need to have repeated conversations in an environment of mutual respect.” To quote another cliché, it is sometimes best to agree to disagree.

Full article, Robson D. The Guardian, 2020.11.29