Does it feel like the last 12 years have been thoroughly dominated by conspiracy theories?

We’ve had President Barack Obama’s birth certificate conspiracy, Pizzagate, QAnon and now disproven theories that the election was stolen.

Before that, conspiracy theories about such events as the assassination of JFK, the moon landings and 9/11 became movie fodder

More recently, and because of President Donald Trump’s embrace, conspiracy theories have entered mainstream culture and politics. Elected members of Congress have adopted them while the media report on them. They appear to be the fuel behind the deadly attack on the Capitol building earlier this month and have continued to cause division and fighting between families and friends.

We’ve all read the heated exchanges on Twitter and Facebook and listened to them around the dinner table. The outcome is often that no one backs down. There is no winner and, for the sake of peace, future conversations and frustrations are suppressed. 

What can you do about that? How do you go about rationally understanding and talking to people who believe in conspiracy theories?

“You can’t just come guns blazing. It never works if you do,” said Dr. Geoff Dancy, an associate professor of political science at Tulane University who also teaches a class on political conspiracy theories.  

He gave Reckon some insight and advice that might help you talk to the ones you love about their unusual beliefs.

What’s a good strategy for talking about conspiracy theories with a family member or friends who believes in them?

There is no convincing somebody that is, say, your sworn enemy that you’re right about anything. It just doesn’t work, even if that person is in your family. I know families that have been kind of torn apart by politics over the last decade, and I’ve had some problems with certain members of my family too.

But what you try to do with your friends and family that you know and love is you try to get on the same footing as them somehow. Remind them that you’ve shared moments, that you aren’t different from the person that you used to be when you were camping together, or in my case, going to watch car races. So, if I’m going to talk to my uncle about some crazy stuff that he thinks then I start by talking about racing. That’s how you prepare the conversation. And then, and only then, can you kind of start to chip away or start to work on what they think.

Is it even worth coming armed with evidence that debunks the conspiracy?

They don’t care about it if you’re using it to dunk on them, as they say. If you make them look like idiots or humiliate them, of course, they become defensive and they’re not going to listen to what you’re saying. That’s kind of a human nature thing.

I think what you do, if you can, is you enter into the conversation as if you’re just a fellow curious traveler that’s trying to gather information. You might say, ‘I’ve seen a lot about this QAnon thing, and I’m not quite sure what it’s all about. Some of the claims that they make seem pretty out there to me.’ 

You kind of start from there and then once you’ve developed that level footing that you’re both just regular Joes in search of information, you ask what the theory is, what’s the evidence?

Be a skeptic. A lot of conspiracy theorists are skeptical, sometimes bordering on sinister cynicism. They naturally distrust information, at least as it’s presented to them. So, you do it back to them. Be skeptical. And then they’re like, ‘oh, I have to make a case here.’ And then it gets pretty hard for them.

Sometimes it’s like arguing with a Christian about whether Jesus really existed in real life. Are you really going to change your Christians mind by pointing out that the evidence is pretty flimsy? No. But I think that it can be productive, and I think that it helps them realize that they have to make a better case. And try to ask a question that kind of dismantles the theory from the very beginning without really even being hard on them. Just ask, what is this theory that this evidence supports? What is your theory? And they can’t explain it because there isn’t really a theory or any evidence.

Is there any hope that believers will eventually see through the conspiracy theory, and what has to happen for them to kind of get to the other side?

Conspiracy theory is propagated by people who are usually very curious, untrained thinkers. And all it takes is, if people are receptive, is a bit of training.

A lot of theories are built on bad evidence. So, learning what better evidentiary standards are would help. But you have to begin from a place, if possible, of levity. Make that personal connection then you can start kind of walking them through basic training and evidence.

Ask someone to tell you a short story about what they’re trying to tell you. When people are untrained and they’re starting their education, say their graduate careers, they can’t do that. They cannot tell you a short story about what they think is going on, because they’re not really thinking about that. They’re just thinking about scoring points in this imaginary conversation.

And we have to get people off of that. And sometimes with graduate students it takes me a year, a year and a half to get them to stop thinking that they’re boxing somebody and think about what story they’re trying to tell.

Are conspiracy theories more powerful now because of social media?

Social media is a kind of accelerant because people can find each other. It’s the networking that makes social media so effective, or such an effective way to communicate. I can talk to somebody in Anchorage, Alaska, about QAnon right now.

But conspiracies are definitely being spread more easily and sometimes the fable becomes reality, as we saw at the Capitol Building. 

Do conspiracy theories typically have a political leaning?

I see the tendency on both sides. I think often the right wing acts on conspiracies in a way that is more dangerous. QAnon is definitely a right-wing conspiracy theory. But if you go back just a short while ago to 9/11, that was very much a left-wing set of theories but there were certainly right wingers that believed it too, because if that’s true then it was the deep state.

So, it broadly evolves into anti-institutionalism. Because what you’re saying is that the institutions of our government are either complicit in this conspiracy, or they’ve been hijacked by conspirators. In either case, the institutions aren’t doing as much good.

And so, yeah, I think right now, what we’re seeing is that QAnon is in service of a right-wing coalition that supports Republicans, but that could swing in the other direction in the future. I don’t think it’s predetermined which side of the ideological spectrum is going to land on.

How do we get away from this kind of thinking?

My job is to evaluate theories. And part of that enterprise, and what we typically call the scientific enterprise, is built around doubt and uncertainty. My enemy, if I have one, isn’t the right or the left. It’s not a particular ideology. My enemy is certitude. It’s the enemy of productive thought because you’re already certain what the answers are and not interested in asking questions anymore.

My job as a professor, as an interlocutor with other people, as a friend, when I’m having political conversations, is to raise questions that might make people embrace uncertainty. And then I try to show people that you can inhabit a position of uncertainty without your position or argument falling apart. And that’s what I try to do with my students, that we don’t know most of this and we’re still trying to learn and that’s okay.

We don’t have to have all the answers right away. The way conspiracy theorists work is antithetical to my approach. They offer certainty and speed, they know the answer, and they know fast. I offer uncertainty in the gradual accumulation of knowledge. And that’s unfortunately not what people want right now. We’re moving very fast right now. And we need to slow it down.

And when is a good time just to walk away from a heated discussion?

I usually shut things down when it gets to personal insults. I’ll remind them that they don’t really know much about me and I don’t know much about them, and I’ve been polite this entire time. And I’ll say this isn’t productive conversation anymore.