How much effort should you expend debunking a conspiracy theory?

When someone gives you obvious misinformation, you are in a no-win situation.

You need to reject the information as false and possibly harmful. You need to tell the person you aren’t interested in joining their cult. You may feel ethically obligated to try to persuade that person, too, to abandon their idea, just as they believe it is important to persuade you to adopt it.

The problem is that, if it is even possible for you to demonstrate the nonsense and persuade the person to take another path, you’ll be working on that a very long time. Your day (and possibly your week or month) will be significantly disrupted. If the claim is something like “Aliens killed Julius Caesar,” how would you begin to explain why you don’t believe that? And why would you pause your important business to do so? On the other hand, if you blow it off and keep walking, the conspiracy theorist will believe they have “won.” It may not matter if they are pleased with themselves, but it does matter if they are emboldened to continue to misinform others. If their theory is harmful (racist, anti-science, etc.), this may be an undesirable outcome. if you have a real opportunity to educate them, you may want to seize it, difficult and annoying though this task may be.

Lily Simpson compares this interaction with misinformation to a farmer’s confrontation with a plague of locusts. You want to combat the locusts, but stomping one at a time is a losing strategy. The misinformer can pump out strings of nonsense words much faster than you can search and grab onto reality anchors.

Understanding the opponent

When Menachem Kaiser traveled to Poland to investigate the property that his grandfather had lost during World War II, he spoke to the treasure hunters of Nazi-era relics, and his initial inclination was to be quietly polite toward these people who were telling him about supposed Nazi time machines.

“Even to justify why I wan’t taking them seriously is in effect to take them seriously; I did believe and still do believe that it is a valid position not to engage the crazy. What would be the purpose? To methodically demonstrate the dubiousness of Nazi time travel? The conclusions we would eventually reach are the conclusions we have immediately reached.”

Menachem Kaiser, Plunder, Chapter 8

Not a single falsehood, but a structure of falsehoods

But here’s another level of the risk posed by nonsense ideas. A conspiracy theory is not a single, small piece of misinformation. When nurtured, it develops into a whole worldview.

Last year, I blogged for Episyllogism about this point, which a recent UCLA study had explored. Kaiser also mentions the general idea in Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure.

It turns out, Kaiser says, that Project Riese, which he was investigating, “is the epicenter, the catalyst, the cauldron for all sorts of fantastic, absurd, lunatic beliefs about the Nazis. Pull on any thread and very quickly you get to ancient civilizations; aliens; ancient alien civilizations; UFOs; Roswell…” These are not “standalone delusions,” but rather “systems of beliefs.” For example, if you believe the Nazis developed antigravity, eventually you have to assert a supporting worldview; for example, you might say that, since that time, world powers have concealed the Nazis’ scientific breakthrough and have successfully taught everyone (including today’s scientists) a fake version of physics. A conspiracy theory framework usually features “a special blend of skepticism and unskepticism, of irrationality and hyperrationality.”

These are not ‘standalone delusions,’ but rather ‘systems of beliefs.’

Though Kaiser’s first inclination was to dismiss the conspiracy theories as nonsense, he decided to research them to understand them better. When he learned, for example, that the false belief in “Die Glocke, the Nazis’ bell-shaped device that could manipulate time and gravity” was promoted by Igor Witkowski, he decided to speak to Witkowski to learn more. The people who say they believe these things “aren’t trolling”; in Kaiser’s assessment, they really believe.

And yet. And yet. He circled back to his starting point.

“To indulge the theories, even via mockery, is to grant them a power,” he concludes. This is a problem with Nazi-related conspiracy theories especially because they tend to be antisemitic: at least by downplaying the moral weight of the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews, if not by going further and suggesting that the Jews were responsible for secret cabals and cover-ups. Sometimes what is most needed is not to explore the illogic of the conspiracy theory but rather to object to it on ethical grounds. It would be “much more fun,” Kaiser says, “to discuss Nazi flying saucers. But there is a cost to laughing at what should be condemned.”

Condemning misinformation implies that you are asking the misinformer to stop speaking that way.

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