How to Talk with a Conspiracy Theorist: What the Experts Recommend

Why do people pledge allegiance to views that seem fundamentally hostile to reality? Maybe believers in shadowy, evil forces and secret cabals fall prey to motivated reasoning. Truth for them is what they need to believe in order to get what they want. Their certainty in the justness of a cause can feel as comforting as a warm blanket on a winter’s night. But conspiracy theories go farther than private delusions of grandeur. They have spilled into the streets, into the halls of the U.S. Capitol building and various statehouses. Conspiracy theories about a “stolen” 2020 election are out for blood.

As distressing as such recent public spectacles seem at present, they hardly come near the harm accomplished by propaganda like Plandemic—a short film that claims the COVID-19 crisis is a sinister plot—part of a wave of disinformation that has sent infection and death rates soaring into the hundreds of thousands.

We may never know the numbers of people who have infected others by refusing to take precautions for themselves, but we do know that the number of people in the U.S. who believe conspiracy theories is alarmingly high.

A Pew Research survey of adults in the U.S. “found that 36% thought that these conspiracy theories” about the election and the pandemic “were probably or definitely true,” Tanya Basu writes at the MIT Technology Review. “Perhaps some of these people are your family, your friends, your neighbors.” Maybe you are conspiracy theorist yourself. After all, “it’s very human and normal to believe in conspiracy theories…. No one is above [them]—not even you.” We all resist facts, as Cass Sunstein (author of Conspiracy Theories and Other Dangerous Ideas) says in the Vox video above, that contradict cherished beliefs and the communities of people who hold them.

So how do we distinguish between reality-based views and conspiracy theories if we’re all so prone to the latter? Standards of logical reasoning and evidence still help separate truth from falsehood in laboratories. When it comes to the human mind, emotions are just as important as data. “Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they have some sort of control over the world,” says Daniel Romer, a psychologist and research director at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center. They’re airtight, as Wired shows below, and it can be useless to argue.

Basu spoke with experts like Romer and the moderators of Reddit’s r/ChangeMyView community to find out how to approach others who hold beliefs that cause harm and have no basis in fact. The consensus recommends proceeding with kindness, finding some common ground, and applying a degree of restraint, which includes dropping or pausing the conversation if things get heated. We need to recognize competing motivations: “some people don’t want to change, no matter the facts.”

Unregulated emotions can and do undermine our ability to reason all the time. We cannot ignore or dismiss them; they can be clear indications something has gone wrong with our thinking and perhaps with our mental and physical health. We are all subjected, though not equally, to incredible amounts of heightened stress under our current conditions, which allows bad actors like the still-current U.S. President to more easily exploit universal human vulnerabilities and “weaponize motivated reasoning,” as University of California, Irvine social psychologist Peter Ditto observes.

To help counter these tendencies in some small way, we present the resources above. In Bill Nye’s Big Think answer to a video question from a viewer named Daniel, the longtime science communicator talks about the discomfort of cognitive dissonance. “The way to overcome that,” he says, is with the attitude, “we’re all in this together. Let’s learn about this together.”

We can perhaps best approach those who embrace harmful conspiracy theories by not immediately telling them that we know more than they do. It’s a conversation that requires some intellectual humility and acknowledgement that change is hard and it feels really scary not to know what’s going on. Below, see an abridged version of MIT Technology Review’s ten tips for reasoning with a conspiracy theorist, and read Basu’s full article here.

  1. Always, always speak respectfully: “Without respect, compassion, and empathy, no one will open their mind or heart to you. No one will listen.”
  2. Go private: Using direct messages when online “prevents discussion from getting embarrassing for the poster, and it implies a genuine compassion and interest in conversation rather than a desire for public shaming.”
  3. Test the waters first: “You can ask what it would take to change their mind, and if they say they will never change their mind, then you should take them at their word and not bother engaging.”
  4. Agree: “Conspiracy theories often feature elements that everyone can agree on.”
  5. Try the “truth sandwich”: “Use the fact-fallacy-fact approach, a method first proposed by linguist George Lakoff.”
  6. Or use the Socratic method: This “challenges people to come up with sources and defend their position themselves.”
  7. Be very careful with loved ones: “Biting your tongue and picking your battles can help your mental health.”
  8. Realize that some people don’t want to change, no matter the facts.
  9. If it gets bad, stop: “One r/ChangeMyView moderator suggested ‘IRL calming down’: shutting off your phone or computer and going for a walk.”
  10. Every little bit helps. “One conversation will probably not change a person’s mind, and that’s okay.”

Related Content: 

Constantly Wrong: Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson Makes the Case Against Conspiracy Theories

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Antonio Gramsci Writes a Column, “I Hate New Year’s Day” (January 1, 1916)

I want every morning to be a new year’s for me. Every day I want to reckon with myself, and every day I want to renew myself. No day set aside for rest. I choose my pauses myself, when I feel drunk with the intensity of life and I want to plunge into animality to draw from it new vigour.

“Everyday is like Sunday,” sang the singer of our mopey adolescence, “In the seaside town that they forgot to bomb.” Somehow I could feel the grey malaise of post-industrial Britain waft across the ocean when I heard these words… the dreary sameness of the days, the desire for a conflagration to wipe it all away….

The call for total annihilation is not the sole province of supervillains and heads of state. It is the same desire Andrew Marvell wrote of centuries earlier in “The Garden.” The mind, he observed, “withdraws into its happiness” and creates “Far other worlds, and other seas; Annihilating all that’s made / To a green thought in a green shade.”

Is not annihilation what we seek each year on New Year’s Eve? To collectively wipe away the bad past by fiat, with fireworks? To welcome a better future in the morning, because an arbitrary record keeping system put in place before Marvell was born tells us we can? The problem with this, argued Italian Marxist party pooper and theorist Antonio Gramsci, is the problem with dates in general. We don’t get to schedule our apocalypses.

On January 1st, 1916, Gramsci published a column titled “I Hate New Year’s Day” in the Italian Socialist Party’s official paper Avanti!, which he began co-editing that year.

Every morning, when I wake again under the pall of the sky, I feel that for me it is New Year’s day.

That’s why I hate these New Year’s that fall like fixed maturities, which turn life and human spirit into a commercial concern with its neat final balance, its outstanding amounts, its budget for the new management. They make us lose the continuity of life and spirit. You end up seriously thinking that between one year and the next there is a break, that a new history is beginning; you make resolutions, and you regret your irresolution, and so on, and so forth. This is generally what’s wrong with dates.

The dates we keep, he says, are forms of “spiritual time-serving” imposed on us from without by “our silly ancestors.” They have become “invasive and fossilizing,” forcing life into repeating series of “mandatory collective rhythms” and forced vacations. But that is not how life should work, according to Gramsci.

Whether or not we find merit in his cranky pronouncements, or in his desire for socialism to “hurl into the trash all of these dates with have no resonance in our spirit,” we can all take one thing away from Gramsci’s critique of dates, and maybe make another resolution today: to make every morning New Year’s, to reckon with and renew ourselves daily, no matter what the calendar tells us to do. Read a full translation of Gramsci’s column at Viewpoint Magazine.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The UN’s World Happiness Report Ranks “Socialist Friendly” Countries like Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland & Sweden as Among the Happiest in the World

One of the most pernicious, “dangerous, anti-human and soul-crushing” myths in the business world, writes Liz Ryan at Forbes, is the “idiotic nostrum” that has also crept into government and charitable work: “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” The received wisdom is sometimes phrased more cynically as “if you can’t measure it, it didn’t happen,” or more positively as “if you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.”

But “the important stuff can’t be measured,” says Ryan. Don’t we all want to believe that? “Can’t Buy Me Love” and so forth. Maybe it’s not that simple, either. Take happiness, for example. We might say we disagree about its relative importance, but we all go about the business of trying to buy happiness anyway. In our hearts of hearts, it’s a more or less an unquestionable good. So why does it seem so scarce and seem to cost so much?  Maybe the problem is not that happiness can’t be measured but that it can’t be commodified.

Buddhist economies like Bhutan, for example, run on a GHI (Gross National Happiness) index instead of GDP, and pose the question of whether the issue of national happiness is one of priorities. In other words, “you get what you measure.” In March, Laura Begley Bloom cited the 20 happiest countries in the world at Forbes, using the UN’s 2020 World Happiness Report, “a landmark survey of the state of global happiness,” as the report’s website describes it, “that ranks 156 countries by how happy their citizens perceive themselves to be.”

Happiness is measured across urban and rural environments and according to environmental quality and sustainable development metrics. The report uses six rubrics to assess happiness—levels of GDP, life expectancy, generosity, social support, freedom and corruption, and income. Their assessment relied on self-reporting, to give “a direct voice to the population as opposed the more top-down approach of deciding ex-ante what ought to matter.”  The last chapter attempts to account for the so-called “Nordic Exception,” or the puzzling fact that “Nordic countries are constantly among the happiest in the world.”

Maybe this fact is only puzzling if you begin with the assumption that wealthy capitalist economies promote happiness. But the top ten happiest countries are wealthy “socialist friendly” mixed economies, as Bill Maher jokes in the clip at the top, saying that in the U.S. “the right has a hard time understanding we don’t want long lines for bread socialism, we want that you don’t have to win the lotto to afford brain surgery socialism.” This is comedy, not trenchant geo-political analysis, but it alludes to another significant fact.

Most of the world’s unhappiest countries and cities are formerly colonized places whose economies, infrastructures, and supply chains have been destabilized by sanctions (which cause long bread lines), bombed out of existence by wealthier countries, and destroyed by climate catastrophes. The report does not fully explore the meaning of this data, focusing, understandably, on what makes populations happy. But an underlying theme is the suggestion that happiness is something we achieve in real, measurable economic relation with each other, not solely in the pursuit of individualist ideals.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Free Online Course from Yale University Explains How the World Lapsed into the Politics of Fear & Resentment

“How did we get from the huge euphoria that followed the fall of communism in the early 1990s to our present politics of fear and resentment, and what are the prospects going forward?” These questions and more get answered in Yale’s free course, “Power and Politics in Today’s World.”  Taught by Professor of Political Science Ian Shapiro, the course “provides an examination of political dynamics and institutions over this past tumultuous quarter century, and the implications of these changes for what comes next. Among the topics covered are the decline of trade unions and the enlarged role of business as political forces, changing attitudes towards parties and other political institutions amidst the growth of inequality and middle-class insecurity, the emergence of new forms of authoritarianism, and the character and durability of the unipolar international order that replaced the Cold War.”

You can watch the lectures on Youtube, or stream them all above. The syllabus and reading list can be found here.

“Power and Politics in Today’s World” will be added to our meta collection, 1,500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

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Constantly Wrong: Filmmaker Kirby Ferguson Makes the Case Against Conspiracy Theories

Discordian writer and prankster Robert Anton Wilson celebrated conspiracy theories as decentralized power incarnate. “Conspiracy is just another name for coalition,” he has a character say in The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles. According to Wilson, any sufficiently imaginative group of people can make a fiction real. Another statement of his sounds more ominous, read in the light of how we usually think about conspiracy theory: “Reality is what you can get away with.”

When historian Richard Hofstadter diagnosed what he called “the paranoid style in American politics,” he was quick to point out that it predated the “extreme right-wingers” of his time by several hundred years. Where Wilson thinks of conspiracy theory as a shining example of rational thought against a conspiracy of Kings and Popes, Hofstadter saw it as anti-Enlightenment, an extreme reaction in the U.S. to Illuminism, “a somewhat naive and utopian movement,” Hofstadter writes dismissively.

Perhaps the utopian and the paranoid style are not so easily distinguishable, in that they both “promise to deliver powerful insights, promise to transform how you see for the better,” says Kirby Ferguson, creator of the Everything is a Remix Series episode below. But no matter how dark or illuminated they may be, he suggests, all conspiracy theories share the common feature of being “constantly wrong.” Ferguson’s new film series, This is Not a Conspiracy Theory digs deeper into the “role of conspiracy theories in American culture,” he writes on his site.

Despite its ostensible subject, the project’s “ultimate purpose is to introduce people to the realms of systems science, which is where we can better understand the hidden forces that shape our lives.” Produced over eight years in an entertaining “conspiracy-like style,” the film champions skepticism and complexity over the certainty and pat, closed-circle narratives offered by conspiracists. Conspiracy theories—like the innumerable permutations of the JFK assassination, Chemtrails, or Roswell—are “too much like movies,” he says, to contain very much reality.

Ferguson’s vision of the world resembles Wilson’s, who wrote most of his work before the internet. Reality, he says, is a “massive, decentralized hive of activity.” Power and control exist, of course, but there is no man behind the curtain, no secret hierarchies. Just billions of people pulling their own levers to make things happen, creating a reality that is a sum, at any given moment, of all those lever-pulls. Are there no such thing as conspiracies? “To be sure,” as Michael Parenti argues, “conspiracy is a legitimate concept in law,” and actual conspiracies, like Watergate or Iran-Contra, “are a matter of public record.”

What differentiates suspicion about events like these from what Parenti calls “wacko conspiracy theories”? Maybe a section Ferguson left out of his “Constantly Wrong” episode at the top will illuminate. A conspiracy theory, he writes, “is a claim of secret crimes by a hidden group, and this claim is driven by a community of amateurs” who are more eager to believe than to apply critical thinking. Learn more about Ferguson’s new film here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

When Louis Armstrong Stopped a Civil War in The Congo (1960)

When Louis Armstrong appeared in his hometown of New Orleans for the first time in nine years in 1965, it was, Ben Schwarz writes, “a low point for his critical estimation.” A younger generation saw his refusal to march on the front lines of the civil rights movement, risking life and limb, as a “racial cop-out,” as journalist Andrew Kopkind wrote at the time. Armstrong was seen as “a breezy entertainer with all the gravitas of a Jimmy Durante or Dean Martin.”

The criticism was unfair. Armstrong only played New Orleans in 1965 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, having boycotted the city in 1956 when it banned integrated bands. In 1957 after events in Little Rock, Arkansas, Armstrong refused a State Department-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union over Eisenhower’s handling of the situation. He spoke out forcefully, used words you can’t repeat on NPR, called governor Orval Faubus an “ignorant plowboy” and the president “two-faced.”

But he preferred touring and making money to marching, and was happy to play for the State Department and PepsiCo on a 1960 tour of the African continent to promote, ostensibly, the opening of five new bottling plants. When he arrived in Leopoldville, capital city of the Congo, in late October, he even stopped a civil war, managing “to call a brief intermission in a country that had been unstable before his arrival,” Jayson Overby writes at the West End Blog.

Unstable is an understatement. The newly-independent country’s first elected president, Patrice Lumumba, had just been deposed in a coup by anti-communist Joseph Mobutu, survived a “bizarre” assassination attempt by the C.I.A., and would soon be on his way to torture and execution after the UN turned its back on him. The country was coming apart when Armstrong arrived. Then, it stopped. As he put it in a later interview, “Man, they even declared peace in The Congo fighting the day I showed up in Leopoldville.”

“Just for that day,” writes Overby, “he blew his horn and played with his band the sweet sound of jazz for a large crowd. But no sooner after Louis departed, the war resumed.” This being a joint state/commerce operation during the Cold War, there is of course much more to the story, some which lends credence to criticism of Armstrong as a government pawn used during “goodwill” tours to test out various forms of cultural warfare. That was, at least, the official stance of Moscow, according to the AP newsreel at the top of the post.

The Soviets “blasted Armstrong’s visit as a diversionary tactic,” and it was. Ricky Riccardi at the Louis Armstrong House Museum covers the event in great detail, including highlighting several declassified State Department memos that show the planning. In one, from October 14th, the first U.S. ambassador to the country, Clare Hayes Timberlake, argues that “cooperation with private firm might soften propaganda implications.”

After the October 27th performance, Timberlake judged the appearance “highly successful from standpoint over-all psychological impact on this troubled city.” Clearly, the 10,000 Congolese who showed up to see Satchmo play needed the break. But the diplomats misread the audience reaction, thinking they didn’t like the music when they started to leave at dusk. “Given the climate in Leopoldville,” Riccardi writes, “one can’t blame the locals for not wanting to stay out longer than they had to.” But it was, nonetheless, the State Department declared, the “first happy event” in the city since the country’s independence.

via @ArmstrongHouse

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Ted Turner Asks Carl Sagan “Are You a Socialist?;” Sagan Responds Thoughtfully (1989)

Socialism should not be a scare word in the U.S. Were it not for socialists like Eugene V. Debs and the labor movements organized around his presidential campaigns in the early 20th century, reforms like the 8-hour workday, worker safety protections, women’s suffrage, minimum wage, the abolition of child labor, and vacation and sick time would likely never have made it into a major party’s platform. The legacy of this strain of socialism in the U.S. endured, Jill Lepore writes at The New Yorker, “in Progressive-era reforms, in the New Deal, and in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society,” all widely supported by self-described liberals.

Yet while socialist policies are broadly popular in the U.S., the word may as well be a writhing, high-voltage wire in mainstream discourse. The same was true in the Reagan 80s, when so many progressive reforms were undone: military spending ballooned, social spending was cut to the bone, and homelessness became a major crisis, exacerbated by the A.I.D.S. epidemic the administration mocked and ignored. In 1989, at the end of the president’s two terms, Ted Turner lobbed the charge of “socialism” at Carl Sagan in a CNN interview. The astrophysicist and famed science communicator refused to take the bait.

Rather than denouncing or distancing himself from socialists, he made it clear that the label was less important to him than the material conditions under which millions of people suffered as a result of deliberate policy choices that could be otherwise. “I’m not sure what a ‘socialist’ is… I’m talking about making people self-reliant, people able to take care of themselves,” he says, in an echo of Debs’ praise of the virtue of “sand.” But this sort of self-reliance is not the same thing as the kind of mythic, Old West rugged individualism of conservatism.

Sagan acknowledges the reality that self-reliance, and survival, are impossible without the basic necessities of life, and that the country has the means to ensure its citizens have them.

I believe the government has a responsibility to care for the people…. There are countries which are perfectly able to do that. The United States is an extremely rich country, it’s perfectly able to do that. It chooses not to. It chooses to have homeless people.

Sagan mentions the U.S. infant mortality rate, which then placed the country at “19th in the world” because of a refusal to spend the money on healthcare needed to save more infant lives. “I think it’s a disgrace,” he says. Instead, billions were allocated to the military, especially the Strategic Defense Initiative, called Star Wars: “They’ve already spent something like $20 billion dollars on it, if these guys are permitted to go ahead they will spend a trillion dollars on Star Wars.”

Is objecting to a vast waste of the country’s resources and human potential “socialism”? Sagan doesn’t care what it’s called—the word doesn’t scare him away from pointing to the facts of inequality. The problems have only worsened since then. Military spending has grown to an obscene amount—more than the next ten countries combined. The figure usually given, $705 billion, is actually more like $934 billion, as Kimberly Amadeo explains at The Balance.

“Monopolies have risen again,” writes Lepore, “and income inequality has spiked back up to where it was in Debs’ lifetime.” Newsweek reports that in 2018, “America’s Health Rankings found that the U.S. was ranked 33rd out of the 36 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development countries for infant mortality.” We have only just begun to reckon with the devastating policy outcomes exposed by the coronavirus. As Sagan would say, these problems are not accidental; they are the result of deliberate choices. We could have a very different society—one that invests its resources in people instead of weapons, in life instead of death. And we could call it whatever we wanted.

See the full Sagan-Turner interview here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Liberal Arts Can Make People Less Susceptible to Authoritarianism, a New Study Finds

“Correlation does not equal causation” isn’t always a fun thing to say at parties, but it is always a good phrase to keep in mind when approaching survey data. Does the study really show that? Might it show the opposite? Does it confirm pre-existing biases or fail to acknowledge valid counterevidence? A little bit of critical thinking can turn away a lot of trouble.

I’ll admit, a new study, “The Role of Education in Taming Authoritarian Attitudes,” confirms many of my own biases, suggesting that higher education, especially the liberal arts, reduces authoritarian attitudes around the world. The claim comes from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, which analyzed and aggregated data from World Values Surveys conducted between 1994 and 2016. The study takes it for granted that rising authoritarianism is not a social good, or at least that it poses a distinct threat to democratic republics, and it aims to show how “higher education can protect democracy.”

Authoritarianism—defined as enforcing “group conformity and strict allegiance to authority at the expense of personal freedoms”—seems vastly more prevalent among those with only a high school education. “Among college graduates,” Elizabeth Redden writes at Inside Higher Ed, “holders of liberal art degrees are less inclined to express authoritarian attitudes and preferences compared to individuals who hold degrees in business or science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.”

The “valuable bulwark” of the liberal arts seems more effective in the U.S. than in Europe, perhaps because “American higher education places a strong emphasis on a combination of specific and general education,” the full report speculates. “Such general education includes exposure to the liberal arts.” The U.S. ranks at a moderate level of authoritarianism compared to 51 other countries, on par with Chile and Uruguay, with Germany ranking the least authoritarian and India the most—a 6 on a scale of 0-6.

Higher education also correlates with higher economic status, suggesting to the study authors that economic security reduces authoritarianism, which is expressed in attitudes about parenting and in a “fundamental orientation” toward control over autonomy.

The full report does go into greater depth, but perhaps it raises more questions than it answers, leaving the intellectually curious to work through a dense bibliography of popular and academic sources. There is a significant amount of data and evidence to suggest that studying the liberal arts does help people to imagine other perspectives and to appreciate, rather than fear, different cultures, religions, etc. Liberal arts education encourages critical thinking, reading, and writing, and can equip students with tools they need to distinguish reportage from pure propaganda.

But we might ask whether these findings consistently obtain under actually existing authoritarianism, which “tends to arise under conditions of threat to social norms or personal security.” In the 2016 U.S. election, for example, the candidate espousing openly authoritarian attitudes and preferences, now the current U.S. president, was elected by a majority of voters who were well-educated and economically secure, subsequent research discovered, rather than stereotypically “working class” voters with low levels of education. How do such findings fit with the data Georgetown interprets in their report? Is it possible that those with higher education and social status learn better to hide controlling, intolerant attitudes in mixed company?

Learn more at this report summary page here and read and download the full report as a PDF here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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