‘Escaping the Rabbit Hole’ sees hope for conspiracy theorists

Mick West’s 2018 book Escaping the Rabbit Hole promotes respectful dialogue with your friends and acquaintances who might happen to be in the grips of a conspiracy theory. People sucked into communities that promote elaborate false beliefs may “get out much quicker if they are helped by a friend,” West says.

The psychological need for a ‘conspiracy theory’

A conspiracy theory is a false set of ideas, but it may seem appealing for various reasons. It may relieve the stress of unanswered questions; it may make a person feel clever or important because it tells them that they have privileged information or a higher state of awareness; or it may take hold in their lack of education or their extreme political beliefs.

Current events tend to breed strange stories to “explain” new developments. West classifies the subtypes of event-based conspiracy theories “in increasing order of implausibility”: (1) The conspirators didn’t cause the event but are pleased that it happened and will exploit it for their own ends. (2) The conspirators were aware that something would happen and they allowed it to happen. (3) The conspirators took action to cause the event. (4) The media has faked the entire event, and anyone supposedly affected is an actor. (This four-part classification feels almost theological to me—as if it were a parallel to types of theodicy?)

West discusses four specific conspiracy theories in detail: chemtrails; the notion that the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center was a controlled demolition; the suspicion that various violent incidents (like mass shootings) are “staged” as “false flags” to place blame on one’s enemies; and the claim that the Earth is flat.

How to intervene

Some conspiracy theories can be burst by focusing on a single salient feature. So, for example, an early timestamp on a breaking-news tweet might seem to indicate that an action was somehow known before it happened or was said to have happened, but a person won’t draw this conclusion if they’re aware that a tweet’s timestamp displays differently in different timezones. Or a person might be startled to hear of the toxic content of everything that surrounds them, until they learn that basically all chemicals have “chemical safety data sheets” because anything can be toxic depending on the amount and concentration.

Each conspiracy theorist typically has a “line of demarcation” between what they think is sensible skepticism and what goes too far for their tastes. “Be clear,” West counsels, “that you are not trying to lump them in with people on the other side of their line. Tell them (honestly) that it’s good that they haven’t been sucked deeper in,” and do so in a way that doesn’t mock them. Question “the aspects of their belief that are very close to the line,” and ask them whether the authority figures in this community meet their standards of reasonableness.

Some people may, as West puts it, be “simply unaware” of the “conventional explanation” for why the world works a certain way. If they are provided with the accurate explanation in a digestible format, they may readily embrace it.

Normal recommendations for civil dialogue apply in these situations, including the recognition that you won’t be able to convince or change everyone.

Mick West. Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect. New York: Skyhorse, 2018.

When to wager that a conspiracy theory is false

Stories about conspiracies have different narrative structures depending on whether the stories are true or false. That gives us hope that we can learn to spot fake stories.

A UCLA study, published in June 2020, used “sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured” (according to a UCLA press release) to examine conspiracy theories.

A true story rests on a large number of facts. Various facts may come to light slowly—over years, even—as journalists ferret them out. If one fact is missing, discarded, forgotten, or even debunked, the rest of the story remains intact. Without knowing all the facts, it will take longer to tell a coherent version of the story and have confidence that we have learned the truth, but we can still approximate the story and get ever closer.

A false story, by contrast, often hangs on a single falsehood. The UCLA researchers examined so-called “Pizzagate” as a quintessential example of a fake conspiracy theory. (The Pizzagate story maintains that politicians in Washington, D.C. operated a child sex-trafficking ring in a network of caves under a pizzeria.) One of the researchers, Timothy Tangherlini, said they discovered “that if you take out Wikileaks as one of the elements in the story, the rest of the connections don’t hold up.” For the Pizzagate story, he said, the storytellers’ interpretation of Wikileaks material is “the only glue holding the conspiracy together.”

Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study. From an area labeled "Wikileaks," starting from points labeled "james_alefanti" and "handkerchief," lines radiate toward an area labeled "Satanism."
Detail of a diagram from the UCLA study.

[Novelists, take note: A fiction is stronger if its narrative threads do not all pass through a single hub. A good fiction probably should anchor to multiple believable spots.]

The study authors are not telling us how to write benign fiction, however, but rather how to identify harmful fiction so that we can reject it. If we can recognize that a certain story’s “narrative framework…has the hallmarks of a fictional conspiracy theory,” the authors write, we might thereby reduce our gullibility.

See also my previous posts for this blog: “The effect of conspiracy theories” and “Is a ‘political lie’ different from a garden variety lie?”

‘Agnotology’: The study of ignorance

Prof. Robert Proctor, who teaches History of Science at Stanford University, is the co-editor of Agnotology: The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance. He coined this term for “the study of ignorance.” On July 8, 2020, he was a guest on Alie Ward’s “Ologies” podcast (episode: 1 hour, 8 minutes).

“Ologies with Alie Ward” podcast, July 8, 2020 episode with Robert Proctor.

In this interview, Proctor explains: We begin in ignorance when we are born. Then—because human eyes are focused, and for any number of other reasons—“we ignore almost everything. We have the focus of a predator and not the eternal watchfulness of prey.” Most of what we do notice, we must forget; that is the only way we can absorb and remember the most important information. And some kinds of ignorance are “virtuous” in their intent—for example, when a person means to protect privacy or maintain neutrality in an appropriate situation—while, by contrast, people have often practiced willful ignorance regarding the causes and effects of forms of social oppression including racism and sexism.

Outright brainwashing is one way to foster ignorance, but “misdirection campaigns” are more “subtle” and “clever” strategies to manipulate others’ thought. Big Tobacco, for example, “knew that cigarettes cause cancer,” Proctor says. “And their whole goal was to create ignorance, to stave off people learning the truth, by creating doubt, by throwing up a smokescreen, by throwing sand in the gears. And they were able to instrumentalize science by doing that. By funding genetics, by funding the study of viruses, they created all these blind alleys and false etiologies” to deflect from the fact that certain diseases were really caused by tobacco. Through trade groups, such industry agendas coordinate to become “engines of uncertainty, engines of ignorance.” Proctor studies “how science itself can become corrupted.”

“I think we live in the Golden Age of Ignorance,” he said. “Ignorance spreads at the speed of light now, and—with the rise of conspiracy theories, with the rise of denial campaigns, with the siloing of people into reinforcing ‘like’ communities through Facebook or whatever—it’s easy to find self-reinforcing bubble worlds, and that’s a huge problem.” He continued: “That democratization has also been a kind of a dumbing-down. I think a lot of media is very easy to circulate. If everyone can pop off anything they want on Twitter, and that’s all you read—there’s no quality control there.”

Proctor cited the “commercialization” and politicization of Christianity as a problem, as well as its theological exclusivity (especially in the United States, where it is uncommon—as contrasted with India—for people to claim multiple religious identities). This exclusivity limits people from examining and choosing what might be good from other religions.

“We’re going to have to rethink our metaphors,” he said, regarding how we can persuade people away from science-denialism having to do with, for example, climate change. “We’ve got to think much more creatively about how to bond people in the stories we tell—the allegories—the stories we tell about why we need to act differently from how we’ve acted in the past.”

Empathy allows us to see that much ignorance is driven by fear. To begin addressing situations in which people are acting fearfully, Proctor recommends that we take a step back and ask: “What is at stake? Who benefits? What are the alternatives?”

Puzzles, Paradox, and Discovery

English: Russell's Teapot Español: Tetera de R...
English: Russell’s Teapot Español: Tetera de Russell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– from 6 years ago; proving that the Philosophers’ Cafe is a tradition!


The Philosophers’ Cafe, a forum for intellectual discussion and enlightenment, held at Mrs. Riches Dinner Club in Nanaimo on Monday, began like no other; it began with a test!

Bob Lane, the speaker for the evening, was in fine form, asking his audience to digest more than their dinners.

After an energetic and colourful introduction, Bob told us to forget everything the moderator had just said; he then introduced the theme for his discussion: Paradox and Discovery, and began to administer his test.

“No talking,” Bob said. “And each question on the test will be asked once and only once.” As a former student of Bob’s, I was dreading what I thought would come next: “And wrongs will be subtracted from rights” I was waiting for him say; but he didn’t. The audience was up for the test – pens and paper came out – some used napkins – but we all began the same way: by trying to follow Bob’s deliberately twisted and convoluted tale of an airplane which goes off course, twice, and crashes on the Canada/US border. Question one: “Where do you bury the survivors?” Question two: “Who is closer to the baby bull – the mama bull or the papa bull?” Question three: “Draw a small cased “I” with a dot over it”. And finally number four began: “Imagine you are a bus driver…” Pens were heating up as the audience tried to keep track of the number of passengers getting on and off the bus, until, finally, Bob poses his question: “How old is the bus driver?”

There were a few “sharpies” in the audience who got all four questions right (me, included, but I had heard these puzzles previously in “Rhetoric and Reasoning” and epistemology classes, so I had a just a slight advantage over some of the others who were puzzling over these puzzles for the first time). The puzzles were just the warm-up, for what was to follow, however.

Bob suggested that we look at philosophy as a process of Paradox and Discovery. “Puzzles” he said, “are at the heart of philosophy and of science”. Then, he read us: “The Swirl” – a verbal paradox first suggested by pragmatist William James, in which we try to determine if, in circling a tree, we “go around” the squirrel, while the squirrel “goes around” the tree. Feeling a little dizzy? Puzzled perhaps? There’s more.

Following the warm-up puzzles, Bob poses another question; this one is not on the test: “How do you know that you are NOT a brain in a vat on Venus?” In an attempt to solve the puzzle, and remove some puzzled looks from puzzled faces, Bob reviewed DescartesMeditations on First Philosophy in which Descartes proposes puzzles of his own.

Suppose there’s an evil genius bent on deceiving you. Everything you thought to be true would be false. One member of the audience asked: “Does it matter that we can be deceived?” Bob’s answer, after a short clarification of what he meant by describing Descartes’ skepticism as “corrosive,” (the way in which Descartes systematically erodes every day beliefs) was a clear and succinct: “You can’t hold false beliefs”.

In attempt to to assist those who were truly puzzled, by this point in the discussion, moderator, and sometimes mediator,  reminded us of Neo, the hero of the sci-fi movie: The MATRIX, and his reality. “Our senses or perceptions are not the same for everybody” said one audience member. And, I think unbeknownst to himself, a Criminologist solved the philosophical problem of solipsism, by arguing that we have “shared experiences of reality, although our experiences are of different colours, shades, or hues”. “Truth corrodes – truth is arbitrary” said the same audience member who had earlier asked: “does it matter?”

Moderator’s answer: “It matters (at least sometimes) when we say: Truth, or Really”.

“Reality and truth turn the cranks of philosophers” Bob said.

And he closed with Russell’s Teapot:

“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

And in case we digested the discussion thus far, Bob offered us dessert by giving Richard Dawkins the last word:

“The reason organized religion merits outright hostility is that, unlike belief in Russell’s teapot, religion is powerful, influential, tax-exempt and systematically passed on to children too young to defend themselves. Children are not compelled to spend their formative years memorizing loony books about teapots. Government-subsidized schools don’t exclude children whose parents prefer the wrong shape of teapot. Teapot-believers don’t stone teapot-unbelievers, teapot-apostates, teapot-heretics and teapot-blasphemers to death. Mothers don’t warn their sons off marrying teapot-shiksas whose parents believe in three teapots rather than one. People who put the milk in first don’t knee-cap those who put the tea in first.”

I enjoyed much more than my tea at the Philosopher’s Cafe. But I’m still puzzled – and I guess, as a Philosopher (not a scientist), that’s the way it should be!!

Thanks, Bob. As usual, it was more than good; it was great!

[Photo credit:
Erik M. Lane, BS, BSc]

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Science and facts.

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration published a report Friday on climate change from its own scientists that left no doubt about its grim reality and its causes.

So now what? (multiple choice)

  1. Minds will change.
  2. Nothing will change.

Meanwhile in Canada:

One month into her new job as Canada’s Governor General, Julie Payette is taking on fake news and bogus science.

“Can you believe that still today in learned society, in houses of government, unfortunately, we’re still debating and still questioning whether humans have a role in the Earth warming up or whether even the Earth is warming up, period,” she asked, her voice incredulous.

“And we are still debating and still questioning whether life was a divine intervention or whether it was coming out of a natural process let alone, oh my goodness, a random process.”

Her statements were supported by our PM – which led the Conservative leader to opine:

“It is extremely disappointing that the prime minister will not support Indigenous peoples, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Christians and other faith groups who believe there is truth in their religion,” Scheer said in a statement posted to Facebook.

“Respect for diversity includes respect for the diversity of religious beliefs, and Justin Trudeau has offended millions of Canadians with his comments.”

An interactive report from the New York Times here.