Crazy conspiracies and how to deal with them

If you are vaguely sensible, it can be hard to fathom the belief driven craziness that is ricocheting around the world right now. Particularly, it is quite astounding to watch the United States dissolve into a virus infected bed of chaos fuelled by self-interest and scientific illiteracy. Suddenly masks are a political statement, rather than a piece of attire with proven survival benefits; the work of the devil (who for some reason wants to save lives) and some sort of political declaration about religious faith. This nation, once considered leader of the free world, is now the dubious world title holder in Covid19 infections and deaths; a shining example of how not to handle a pandemic.

Less amusing is seeing nonsensical, conspiracy laced ideology creep into the Australian landscape. According to a recent study, approximately one in eight Aussies link Covid19 to 5G towers or Bill Gates. Hot off the press are reports of over 10,000 Melbournians refusing to get tested because they fear the virus is a hoax.

How do people come to believe ideas that are categorically, demonstrably false? The idea that coronavirus is not really a thing, for example, when over half a million people lie in early graves? Or that 5G signals, a form of electromagnetic wave like light or radio waves, can somehow magic up a biological entity like a virus and spread it around like a Saharan dust storm - something patently impossible?

We are all susceptible to cognitive biases that influence how we evaluate information and what we believe, and we are all therefore susceptible to holding false beliefs. But conspiracy theories are a specific type of false belief. A central tenet is the belief that there are powerful, nefarious agents at work to hoodwink the greater population to their own end. There is a perceived intention to do harm, and a seemingly rational need to protect against it. Thus, being able to detect such a conspiracy (even where there isn’t one) empowers people and gives them a sense of control and perceived intellectual superiority.

Conspiracy theories aren’t a new phenomenon, but they do seem to be having a renaissance at the moment. Certainly, the current pandemic has seen a bourgeoning of new versions of conspiracy theories, rehashed narrative structures updated for modern times. Given that one of the key reasons people hold conspiracy theories is because it gives them a feeling of being in control, it makes sense that, in a pandemic, conspiracy theories might flourish. It doesn’t help that our trust in institutions has been significantly eroded over the past few decades. In fact, trust in our institutions is at an all-time low. Australians, perhaps unsurprisingly, do not see their government (or media) as either competent or ethical. If low trust is a necessary condition for dodgy thinking to take hold at a broader scale, we may be in trouble.

Ironically, while belief in conspiracy theories is driven by a desire to reclaim control, it has the opposite effect, creating instability and disrupting efforts to deal effectively with important issues. Particularly health related conspiracies such as anti-vax notions or those related to coronavirus directly leads to outbreaks of disease and unnecessary deaths. Believers and purveyors of conspiracy theories are, with large enough followings, dangerous to the fabric of our societies, making us all unsafe.

Although there are many things that can be done at a societal level to foster scientifically literate, socially cohesive citizens, how can we deal directly with the conspiracy whisperers in our own social circles?

You would think that the answer would be to call out the falsehoods that underpin these beliefs. But alarmingly research shows that doing this on social media may in fact inadvertently make the situation worse, raising the profile of debunked theories and making them seem valid for consideration. And using facts to arguing directly with people who hold strong beliefs is an exercise in pointless frustration. Worse, it probably entrenches them in their positions, and activates their defence mechanisms. In fact, brain scanning studies suggest that the brain areas that light up when physical safety is threatened are also activated when keystone beliefs are challenged – signalling danger and threat.

All human beings are belief driven. Despite the ability to rationalize we are seldom rational, often relying instead on heuristics and intuitions to make decisions. In particular, as Jonathan Haidt has eloquently shown, we use our capacity to rationalize to reinforce our existing beliefs. The reason why you can’t argue a believer out of his faith or why smart people believe crazy things is because of our rationalising capabilities, not despite them. In effect, we actively employ our rationality in defence of our beliefs.

The best advice seems to be to avoid conflict style confrontations, where the desire to win an argument or belittle the beliefs of the other person is the overarching objective. As difficult as it may be, using the power of empathy, connection and respect is arguably a more effective mechanism to changing an opinion. Megan Phelps-Roper, who famously managed to think her way out of the lifelong systematic indoctrination of the Westboro Baptist Church, credits just such positive engagements on Twitter as fundamental to shifting her thinking. Empathetic engagement means listening without judgement, seeking to understand by asking clarifying “why” style questions and posing gentle “what about” questions of your own. In effect, the aim is to, without judgement, point the way to threads that the believer themselves can pull of their own volition, until the whole jumper of belief unwinds.

Granted, this requires more patience and tolerance than perhaps is natural to many of us (certainly I speak for myself here). If this is the case, perhaps an alternative is to utilise the power of silence. As James Clear explains, “Silence is the death of ideas”. The more we repeat bad ideas, even to refute them, the more they thrive. So, the next time you feel compelled to engage with the egregious lunacy of your weird Uncle’s latest conspiracy theory, maybe just save yourself the trouble and find out how his day was instead.

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash