Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Arguing with a conspiracy theorist is like throwing rocks at the moon

with 2 comments

Interesting interview in which Justin Elliott of Salon talks with the Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay, who spent two years researching trutherism. From the interview:

Did you ever have success disabusing anyone of their conspiracy theory?

Not once. The reason is that when you debate a conspiracy theorist it’s like challenging an NFL football team to a game. Because conspiracy theorists have spent their lives memorizing every single detail necessary to win an argument. Even if you have the facts on your side in an abstract way, you’re not going to win an argument if you have to go look at Google or go to the library to rebut every single point. They have hundreds of little confusing bits of information that they can throw at you. Even if you bat away 99 of them, the 100th, if you don’t repute it immediately, they’ll say, “Ah ha! There’s an anomaly that you can’t explain.” The way they define the terms of the debate is that they just have to get you on one point, and then they have destroyed the validity of the conventional narrative.

The second thing is, it’s a cult. And you can’t disabuse a cult member of their beliefs, because it’s central to their identity. Hardcore conspiracy theorists are attached to their conspiracy theories with the same force of conviction that religious adherents are attached to their religions. You can’t rationally convince someone not to be a Christian or a Scientologist. That’s their identity, that’s who they are.

I blogged a few days ago on this general topic.

UPDATE: Here’s an earlier post (at Grist) that explains a major difference in how the two mindsets view explanations:

Those who refuse to accept things like global warming view the argument in favor of it as a house of cards: if you can find one incorrect assertion (pull out one card), the whole thing collapses. Scientists and others who accept the truth of global warming view the argument in favor of it as a jigsaw puzzle: even though some pieces are still missing, and some pieces might not quite fit, the overall picture is quite clear.

Of course, the conspiracy theorists don’t view their own arguments in this way. No matter how many errors you point out in their assertions, they never feel that the point(s) you refute are all that central. But if they find even one incorrect assertion in arguments against them, that invalidates everything: the entire body of knowledge can be dismissed because one scientist had an error in one paper. It’s how they think.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 April 2011 at 9:24 am

Posted in Daily life

2 Responses

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  1. This is absolutely true, but is not limited to conspiracy theorists. My brother in law, God bless him, works at a NYC sewage treatment plant, and of course he’s union.
    He’s a sweet man and he’s not stupid, but he’s not the smartest person in the world either. Challenge him on anything regarding unions, however, and it’s like playing ping-pong against a wall, and trying to get one past him. I would put him up against Hannity/OReilly/Beck on this topic and would love to see their frustration.


    1 May 2011 at 8:39 am

  2. I also have observed that enthusiasts sort of mop up and absorb an amazing amount of information about (and justification for) their interest. Talk to a gun enthusiast about guns and gun laws, or to an Esperantist about foreign languages and language instruction, or an italic penman about handwriting, or … well, it’s a long list, and I’m certainly included with respect to some topics (as regular readers have already long since realized).

    However, that amassed information can be enormously valuable in a constructive discussion, in which each party is truly listening to (and trying to understand) what the other is saying, and each listens to and answers fully objections from the other, with even the objector working to find solutions. That’s the model that my undergraduate seminars aimed to follow, and when it works, it’s quite wonderful.


    1 May 2011 at 9:15 am

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