Never argue with a conspiracy theorist

You can’t work in the climate field without regularly talking to people who think organizing 99% of the world’s climatologists into a mass conspiracy of fake-consensus is no big deal. I can only assume that none of them have ever managed a project, or even tried to get a group of 12 people to agree on a restaurant for dinner. Dear Readers, let me tell you about the amount of time I’ve spent this week trying to get half a dozen well-intentioned adults who all want the same thing and agree on the goal to produce a logo slide that all could agree on.

Yet a good chunk of functional adults (between 10 & 20%, depending on how you define it) dismiss a scientific field over 150 years old that is directly pertinent to their and their children’s survival. It seems like “this could kill your kids” should make it salient, but no.

I’ve spent about a decade trying to figure this out. I’ve read psychology and neuroscience and sociology and anthropology and political science and cognitive science and communications studies and organizing theory and the history of other mass social movements and more.

What it is not about, is facts.

Lots of people assume that people get into conspiracy theory communities because of a lack of good information; and that, therefore, the thing to do is provide people with good data. Evidence, citations, references, facts, surveys, statistics, etc. If this doesn’t work, obviously the person is a lunatic, probably stupid, maybe never finished high school.

But no. It’s much weirder for people to respond to information that challenges their beliefs.

If you want to fall down a research rabbit hole, google Knowledge Deficit Model. You will find reams of data from almost every domain showing that providing facts and data does not alter opinions or behaviour, and a collective absolute failure to alter our own behaviour in light of it (maybe not surprising). I have been, in my own work, trying to get this point across for years now, and yet whenever a new issue or problem arises in the environmental space, the first thing that happens is someone pipes up with “We need an education campaign!”

No. We do not need an education campaign. We want to believe that people are logical and will reason their way through to an accurate conclusion based on information, but that almost never happens. Maybe–as the experts say–when a person has no pre-existing opinion or perspective, you can get them to form one based on the information you give them. Otherwise? No joy.

If it’s not about facts, what is it?


It’s not only about identity, but if you don’t grasp this part, nothing else adds up.

People adopt the beliefs and behaviours that are required for belonging to their community of choice.

Facts that are counter to beliefs espoused by the club aren’t just rejected, but actively resisted as an existential threat; encountering contrary facts, no matter how well-documented, further entrenches the conspiracy or other counter-factual belief, to hold on to an identity that has become central to their sense of self. Any contrary information is perceived as a hostile act.

(I mean, have you ever wondered why they all sound so angry? They are at war with everyone who has a contrary opinion.)

When someone leaves voluntarily, it’s because the cost of membership is too high. In The Cure for Hate, McAleer writes about how his abusive childhood led to his finding belonging in white supremacy, and the conspiracy theories he swallowed to maintain that belonging; he paid a very high price and continued to do so (obviously though not as high as the people and communities he targeted), and it wasn’t until he had children and became aware of the high price they were paying that he was motivated to step back.

Even then, it was hard; he had to leave his entire social circle, everyone who cared about him, and there was no one in wider society waiting to welcome him back besides his mother (for obvious reasons).

You cannot argue someone out of a conspiracy.

Yet here I am: trying to use data to convince you that you can’t use data to convince anyone of anything, if their identity requires them to hold on to their mistaken beliefs. Tell me: is it working?

By coincidence, while drafting this post, I was handed an ARC of Mark Jaccard’s The Citizen’s Guide to Climate Success. The introduction covers his recognition over time that data never convinces anyone to act on anything, even when you are a tenured professor of the field in question, and Chapter 2 is about the Climate Scientists are Conspirators meme. It’s unavoidable these days in climate work (though somehow, lots of people keep avoiding it).

In a 2012 episode of his Colbert Report TV show, comedian Stephen Colbert commended on the real-life response of the North Carolina politicians to a state agency’s prediction that sea levels will rise 39 inches by 2100 because of global warming.

“North Caroline Republicans have written a new bill that would immediately address the crisis predicted by these climate models–by outlawing the climate models!” (p. 53)

We are talking wealthy, well-connected, well-educated US politicians; these are not fringe weirdos living in their mothers’ basements who lack access to better information or the ability to interpret it. If providing information reliably caused people to alter their views, there would be no climate deniers anywhere, let alone in positions of power and authority.

Yet when presented with contrary information, these people outlawed the information.

Why? Because it threatens every part of their identity and world view. Because it threatens their membership in an institution, the Republican Party, that has taken climate denial as an article of faith, and which is central to their entire role and identity in the world. It’s not a simple singular fantasy or the feeling of being at war with systems of power–these dudes are the systems of power.

Polls have shown for years now that most North Americans are worried about climate change.

The same polls show that these same North Americans are convinced that no one cares about climate change. Why else would nothing be done?

But the reality is much stranger: almost everyone cares, a solid majority are worried, a significant minority are panicking, and no one is talking about it because our culture of political and social etiquette says it is rude to do so (Eliasoph, Avoiding Politics; and Norgaard, Living in Denial). This, too, is a form of denial, a kind of conspiracy theory; a conspiracy of silence. A conspiracy that says, We must all pretend very hard that nothing is happening. We must all carry on as if nothing terrifying looms on the horizon. We must only talk about sports and beer and television and movies and music and weekend plans. We must build our solitary prisons, we must guard our isolation with silence and false smiles.

This is not rational. It is based on identity, the need to belong to public spaces where the behavioural demand is to never introduce conflict and never bring up anything that makes people sad or afraid. If you “believe” in climate change, and you aren’t talking about it with your friends and family and colleagues in public and everywhere else, then you too are locked in a conspiracy theory. A culture that demands a set of performative behaviours that signal a belief in a set of social and political values that are not based on fact, and which you might not even yourself truly value or hold.

There’s more, of course. There’s terror management, and decades of campaigns confusing people about the economic feasibility of not killing ourselves, and the difficulty of prioritizing realities that we’ve been led to believe are decades away.

But we still need to reconcile the following:

  1. You very likely accept the science of global warming
  2. You very likely are at least concerned, and increasingly likely to be extremely scared, of it
  3. You want something to be done
  4. You avoid at all costs discussions of this outside of a few very careful very private conversations that can have no political consequences whatsoever and will never affect any kind of change
  5. Most likely because you believe that talking about climate change publicly is a social faux pas that will lead to your exclusion from social spaces (and as a person who’s been professionally butting her head against that taboo for over a decade or now–you are probably right)
  6. You have selected group identity over your personal interests, and over the established facts 
  7. It is friendlier than right-wing conspiracy communities, but at heart, quite destructive.

Yes, I know, #notallblogreaders. But most of you, statistically speaking. Less now than two years ago, which is encouraging, but still most.

My point is: you have also adopted beliefs and behaviours to belong to groups that are not factual and which you may not even fully support. This is not because you’re uniquely dumb or uneducated or nuts. It’s because you are a human being, and that’s what human beings do. Conspiracy theorists are different only for having selected groups that are farther out on the cultural fringe; their actual core behaviours are not that weird. And I mean, believing that the earth is flat is probably more harmless than pretending to believe in social contexts that climate change isn’t a catastrophic threat requiring urgent action.

But if you’re interested in countering disinformation, what do you do? If you want someone to leave a pernicious and poisonous identity based on anti-social lies behind, how do you intervene?

Here’s a short list of what the research shows works, at least sometimes:

  1. Impose consequences. People leave these groups when the costs of remaining in them outweigh the group identity benefits of belonging.
  2. Find messengers and spokespeople for facts who share key identity traits with the person or group you want to talk to. For example, ex-white-supremacists have an easier time of reaching current-white-supremacists. A pipeline fitter in Alberta whose entire economic identity is based on participation in the oil and gas sector is not going to listen to me, a feminist left-voting government bureaucrat from Ontario who gets paid for climate work. It doesn’t matter how right I am. I need to find an ex-pipeline-fitter who found a better job in a green industry.
  3. There needs to be a path back. If there is no way to rejoin society from beyond the pale, no one will try.
  4. Refuse to have the fight over facts. Focus on solutions, and how those solutions will in fact not upend or threaten their identity.
  5. Find shared values, and connect the issue to the values you share.  If I try to have a conversation with a group of conservative moms about climate change that starts with the importance of carbon taxes and emphasizes the social justice implications of climate vulnerability, we will get nowhere. If I want to have that conversation, it’s much more likely to be effective if we connect over love and concern for our kids.
  6. Relationships, face-to-face connection, and empathy are key. Not everyone is up to this, obviously. It would be grotesque to require or expect victimized communities to have empathy and conversation with their abusers. But I recently watched First Contact for a course at work, about six extremely racist white Canadians with pretty horrifying opinions about indigenous Canadians, who signed up to spend, I think, a month visiting different communities and reservations and learning about the history and culture, meeting people, and listening to stories of abuse and discrimination. I have to tell you, my expectations were low. I was frankly amazed by how many of them experienced profound transformations within such a short time, and I think the human connection was key. Not everyone changed, and those whose identities rested more strongly on an unthinking acceptance of existing social hierarchies were more resistant. (You can sign up for a five-day free trial through APTN and watch the first season for free.)
  7. With rare exceptions, this is not something you can do on the internet. Too many key ingredients are too hard to find in a disembodied conversation, and it’s too easy for people to rally the community that shares their perspective to shore it up in order to reaffirm a threatened identity.

If this sounds extremely difficult–well, yes.

I know. We all want Three Weird Tricks to Solve Conspiracy Theories. We would all like Five Techniques to Convince Idiots that Their Existing Beliefs are Dumb and Make Them Sound Bad. It’s not out there. There’s just the long-road, twisting-path of making connections, sharing values, being real, taking risks, having boundaries, and also recognizing where your own group identities are causing you to go along to get along and compromise your values and knowledge for the sake of membership. It has a high failure rate and it takes more time than we have, but there’s no way around it.

2 thoughts on “Never argue with a conspiracy theorist”

  1. This is a really useful article. I will share it. I guess I belong to the ever-growing group of climate change activists who speak out, change our behaviour, demonstrate, and support actions to lesson climate change. We welcome more joiners!

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