Let The Best Ideas Win: Should Skeptics Engage Conspiracy Theorists Directly?

Mark Hoofnagle, the influential blogger who is one of the folks who came up with the concept of “denialism,” and who writes at National Geographic’s Science Blog on the topic, has an interesting post about what happens when conspiracy theorists turn their attention to those who theorize about conspiracy theorists. He reports on the paper by Stephan Lewandowsky et. al. in the journal Frontiers in Psychology about how conspiracy theorists react to being the focus of academic and journalistic scrutiny, coming up with new conspiracy theories in the process.

Lewandowsky, and his coauthors John Cook, Klaus Oberauer, Michael Hubble, studied how conspiracy theorists reacted to a previous paper that some of them authored on conspiracy theories, “NASA faked the moon landing|Therefore (Climate) Science is a Hoax: An Anatomy of the Motivated Rejection of Science“.They used Google searches and other methods to catalogue responses to the paper, and organized the responses into six categories. Responses demonstrated:

  1. an assumption of nefarious intent on the part of the authors of the paper
  2. delusions of persecution
  3. a “nihilistic degree of skepticism”, paranoia, what I’d call “hyper-skepticism”
  4. an inability to believe in mere coincidence
  5. a toleration of inconsistencies and contradictions in their own counter-hypotheses as long as they challenge the “official” version
  6. the incorporation of contrary evidence as further evidence of a conspiracy thus “self-sealing” their hypothesis

All six of these types of responses are the standard fare for any conspiracy theorist as he or she deals with scrutiny or criticism. These responses could easily turn into a Conspiracy Theory Bingo game to make listening to Alex Jones even more fun.

Hoofnagle summarizes the paper:

For the meat of the study, the authors then go through the evolution of reactions to their paper, and it’s fascinating. Starting with lots of allegations of “scamming” (must be wrong) and a smear to make them look like nutters (persecution victimization) the conspiracy theories then evolved about everything to whether or not the authors didn’t actually contact skeptic blogs (amazingly the blogs they did contact came out and appear to have lied about not being contacted), persecutorial delusions about the authors blocking individual skeptics IP addresses from accessing the paper (and further conspiracies that when they are being unblocked it’s just to make them look paranoid), conspiracies about it being a ploy by the Australian government (nefarious intent), and it gets crazier and crazier from there.

The most important part of this paper is when the authors explore the implications of their research on these conspiracy theorist responses to their previous paper for science communication in general. They essentially argue that because of the nature of conspiracy theories, and how they are seemingly immune to criticism and disconfirmatory evidence, that it is a waste of time for science educators to even engage them and treat them seriously. Hoofnagle seems to agree with Lewandowsky et. al. here. The argument goes that if conspiracy theorists are ridiculed and exposed as the “defective brains that they are,” to use Hoofnagle’s phrase, instead of directly challenging them “as if they’re honest brokers,” then their influence and numbers will wane.

This is not completely unlike the argument that scientists should not debate creationists, a position that leading science educators like National Center for Science Education‘s Eugenie Scott have made over the years, and that scientists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen J Gould have also expounded.

I guess I disagree, even while recognizing that Hoofnagle and Scott and Dawkins make some good points. Yes, debating denialists and peddlers of anti-science or conspiracy theories may seem to legitimize them. In the minds of a public undecided on the issues, whether we’re talking climate change or evolution or other consensus science challenged by the fringe, mainstream thinkers may lend credibility by giving them attention. But, indeed, I disagree that directly engaging the fringe is not useful. This is because, as a veteran of a few debates and a lot of direct engagement with creationists over the last 15+ years (and dozens of other debates and direct engagement on other interesting topics, like the proper role of religion in public schools, the existence of God, gay marriage, etc.), I have a pretty firm faith in public debate, in directly engaging my cultural competitors. I have to believe that the best ideas, argued well, will rise to the top. And shouldn’t science educators and science communicators and other professional truth-tellers be willing to engage their cultural competitors publicly, knowing that the best ideas will win if effectively communicated? Or should the destructive ideas of conspiracy theorists and others be ignored, ridiculed, or only addressed in the academy, unavailable to the wider, interested, low-information public.

Public argument and debate — direct engagement — even with the believing fringe, is an important antidote to the regrettable truth that throughout their lives, most people only interact with others who already share their central beliefs,whether about God, government, the paranormal, or issues like climate change, or important social issues. I used to run a program when I was at the Center for Inquiry called “Faith In College,” which were public events we put on at universities in cooperation with campus skeptics and freethought groups. These Faith in College events consisted essentially of panel discussions (often with much rigorous, if moderated, debate) among and by students of differing religious worldviews. It was always breathtaking to me to hear a student say publicly in front of an astonished audience that yes, he actually believed his good friend sitting next to him, well, was in fact going to burn in hell for eternity. Or to hear the atheist talk about why she lacked belief in God. Or to hear a Buddhist or Muslim or Sikh or Satanist share their experiences. Or to hear a secular humanist talk in front of the audience about where she gets her sense of right and wrong from, if not from God Almighty.

What was most spectacular, however, was to hear various perspectives rigorously challenged by other student panelists, in a public forum. That sort of direct scrutiny of belief happens far too infrequently, especially of fringe views.  I may be too optimistic but I believe audiences left these and other similar events we put on asking important questions about why they believe what they believe. And I think we owe the same opportunity to conspiracy theorists and denialists by challenging them directly, and talking to them, not just only ever about them.

It is I think a tad too fatalistic or defeatist to hear arguments that people of strongly different views, even on very important issues like climate change or the grand suspicions that fuel conspiracy theories, have insurmountable differences that cannot be bridged by direct debate and engagement. Such fatalism, such rejection of any attempt to directly challenge conspiracy theorists of all stripes in public debate, seems to foreclose any meaningful opportunity for mutual understanding, and seems too acquiescent to the view that those who have fringe and unsupportable views will never be able to change their minds. Instead, I say Let The Best Ideas Win.


8 Comments on “Let The Best Ideas Win: Should Skeptics Engage Conspiracy Theorists Directly?”

  1. cherryteresa says:

    For some, I think it would depend on the person(s) they are debating. Some evolutionary biologists may not be willing to argue with the likes of Ray Comfort or Kirk Cameron, but may possibly be more willing to debate with other creationists.

    Some skeptics may not want to argue with conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones or Kevin Trudeau, but may like to have a debate with someone like Joe Rogan.

  2. Max says:

    I’m pretty sure the concept of Holocaust denial existed before Mark Hoofnagle.

    Some ground rules for debating conspiracy theorists.
    1. Don’t debate conspiracists and theories that few people know; it only popularizes them.
    2. Professional scientists and historians should avoid public debates with deniers; it only elevates them.
    3. If you do debate conspiracy theorists, focus on convincing the fence-sitters, not the die-hards. Put the whack-jobs in their place.
    4. Be prepared to win. Don’t just play defense and let them make you explain anomalies and coincidences. Go on the offense, beat them over the head with the evidence, and make THEM explain it.

  3. “I’m pretty sure the concept of Holocaust denial existed before Mark Hoofnagle.”

    Of course it did, we expanded the concept to the general tactics used in anti-science to reject evidence. While the term “denialism” had been used multiple times before we came up with a definition, especially in regard to HIV/AIDS denialism, we set out to define the common characteristics of all denialist movements. The holocaust deniers are just one group in a long chain of refusal to believe the preponderance of evidence for historical facts or scientific theory, but the tactics they used are actually the same as have been used by tobacco/cancer denialists, HIV/AIDS denialists, Vaccine/autism cranks, etc. Conspiracy, cherry picking, false experts, moving goalposts, and logical fallacies, all employed to create the appearance of a debate, when actually there is none.

    Which brings me to my point. D.J., who wouldn’t you argue with? Is there any type of denialism that goes to far? Would you argue with and HIV/AIDS denialist? A holocaust denier? Isn’t there a certain point at which we should just dismiss a group because any additional attention is a boon?

    We’ve been debating the topic with other bloggers for years. The problem is that those that engage in denialism aren’t “honest brokers” as I call them. They’re not interested in the sharing of ideas to better elucidate some truth. They’re interested in banging their ideological hammer against any surface that resists them. They’ll lie, they’ll fabricate, they’ll use illogic and rhetorical tricks, and you know what? It works! It’s very difficult to debate denialists like Christopher Monckton, for instance, because without instant access to literature, and constrained to operating within the confines of fact and truth, an honest debater doesn’t have a chance. The audience doesn’t see that they’re being lied to, and they respond to the emotionally-appealing rhetoric of the denialists. There is a reason why the tactics work, and are used, they will fluster and frustrate an opponent that is confined to the realm of the real.

    You assume that with superior knowledge, a grasp of the literature etc., you’ll win these debates, but you wont. Although, armed with Max’s tactics, you may stand a better chance because his tactics start on the appropriate assumption that you’re facing a liar. The best tactic isn’t to engage them, because that’s what they want. They want access to your audience to repeat their lies with an air of legitimacy. They don’t want to discuss the data, the evidence, or find out the truth. They only seek validation of their fixed, false ideas. Don’t validate them with debate. Don’t give them a forum. Give them only contempt.

  4. [...] Let The Best Ideas Win: Should Skeptics Engage Conspiracy Theorists Directly? → [...]

  5. D. J., you are arguing that it can be worthwhile to debate conspiracy theorists, but the evidence you present to support your position is that forums with creationists and religiously superstitious people proved to be illuminating. Since people are often creationists and/or religiously superstitious without being conspiracy theorists, your evidence doesn’t support the argument you’re making.

  6. [...] With More Conspiracy Theories. He is reporting on the same paper that Conspiracy Check covered earlier this week, the paper by Stephan Lewandowsky and his colleagues that analyzed conspiracy theory reaction [...]

  7. [...] or anti-vaccinationists for public debate (such public engagement of conspiracy theorists has been discussed before on this site). I would argue that in the time it takes a science advocate to clear up a single distortion or [...]


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