The Con's Piracy
September 7, 2011 10:23 AM   Subscribe

How can I encourage someone to think more critically without coming off condescending?

My SO believes in a number of conspiracy theories that don't exactly pass critical evaluation. She's done a lot of reading on the subjects and is really enthusiastic about it.

I feel like a total buzzkill, though, whenever we discuss any of it. I can't get into a lot of it because of my skeptical nature, and I feel like I'm almost cross-examining her. ("According to who?", "If they don't know what's in it, how can they claim to know the motivations?", "Why hasn't the scientific community caught on to this?", etc.)

We were talking about chem trails one day, and she asked me point-blank if I thought it was all bullshit. I nodded, and it pretty much left a palpable stink in the air that lasted the rest of our day together.

I'd love to connect with her on everything, but I can't seem to submit on this. Ideally, I could persuade her to be a little more discriminating and critical with information, but I don't want to come off as condescending.

My strategy so far has been to listen first and foremost, then ask questions. But that has only gotten me so far before she gets frustrated with me and the subject changes.

I feel it's a pretty big part of her worldview, and my lack of acceptance puts a schism between us. Conversely, what I feel is her inability to think critically.

How can we reach middle ground?
posted by Christ, what an asshole to Human Relations (41 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
What would this middle ground of mutual acceptance be like? What of her beliefs would you accept or at least go-along with? What of your beliefs and practices would she have to accept?
posted by wobh at 10:32 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

My ex-gf sincerely believed she was abducted by aliens when she was a kid (and it was tied into some pretty rough stuff that happened to her when she was a kid, so it was kind of understandable as an escape mechanism) . I personally resolved it by never, ever talking about it with her. Other than that, she was completely rational and skeptical about nonsense, so it was kind of easy to ignore that one thing. If she were routinely gullible about stuff like that, we wouldn't have ever worked out.

Honestly, if you don't respect your SO's intelligence, then why are you with her? This isn't the kind of thing you can really fix without a lot of education about the way the world works.
posted by empath at 10:32 AM on September 7, 2011 [7 favorites]

Agree to disagree. You might also want to agree not to talk about things like this, if they're going to cause rifts.
posted by Solomon at 10:33 AM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Can you perhaps engage her by saying something like, "I don't believe a word of that theory, but it sure is fun to contemplate those ideas about black helicopters/Area 51/Bilderberg Group/Bohemian Grove" etc etc. I think lots of conspiracy theories are a form of entertainment, so when a person seems to believe in them, they are actually enjoying the possibility of them being true. It's a way of livening up one's staid, rational, boring existence. I enjoy listening to conspiracy radio programs like Coast to Coast and Alex Jones, and I've always suspected these hosts don't believe a damn thing they are presenting, but they are marketing to people who have a thirst for outrageous stories.

If you love her and otherwise have a nice relationship with her, let this go. She enjoys these theories, and they are harmless.
posted by jayder at 10:38 AM on September 7, 2011

Why should you find middle ground on this? She is wrong. If you don't want to argue about it then ask her not to bring it up anymore, otherwise I suggest moving on.
posted by BobbyDigital at 10:39 AM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Honestly, if you don't respect your SO's intelligence, then why are you with her? This isn't the kind of thing you can really fix without a lot of education about the way the world works.

Critical thinking is a skill, not a facet of intelligence. She's rather brilliant.

Am I naive to think that we should be able to connect on everything? Are loose ends 'OK' in a relationship?
posted by Christ, what an asshole at 10:39 AM on September 7, 2011

I think any sort of middle ground would be unacceptable to both of you. Detente is probably the better strategy: have an agreement just to never bring it up. It sounds like this will be more difficult for her.

Any sort of growth on her part will be a slow process. If you really want to encourage it, first ask her, "Do you want me to tell you why I think that's ridiculous?" If she is genuinely enthusiastic, then she should want to discuss the merits of her "theories". Otherwise, she's just gullible and ignorant.
posted by supercres at 10:42 AM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Am I naive to think that we should be able to connect on everything? Are loose ends 'OK' in a relationship?

Yes, loose ends are okay in a relationship, I think.

There is a well-known professor of philosophy, James Fetzer, who happens to be a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. His critical thinking bona fides should be without question. Sometimes people who are intelligent believe conspiracy theories. It doesn't make them untouchables or undatable.
posted by jayder at 10:45 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

In other words, the more worrying issue is that she doesn't want to discuss anything. I don't think you're being condescending. Her not being willing to engage on the topic is the mark of intellectual incuriosity, not the fact that she believes in these theories.
posted by supercres at 10:48 AM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Are loose ends 'OK' in a relationship?

They're not "OK", they're absolutely inevitable. If she's otherwise, as you say, brilliant and not making any major life decisions based on the fact that the royal family are actually lizard people, you can treat this as a hobby and not a belief structure. If she's hanging up newspapers clippings and connecting them with string in her free time, whatever, people do weirder stuff.

From a certain angle, this isn't too different than an atheist being in a relationship with a person of faith. If both have a "let it be" relationship and don't impose on the other, it can work just fine.

Don't talk to her about it and unless she, for instance, starts pushing you to move to a cabin in the middle of the woods to get away from the mind control rays, just let it go. I'd suggest against even actively discouraging it unless it affecting her or your quality of life.
posted by griphus at 10:53 AM on September 7, 2011 [18 favorites]

Just as a thought experiment, what is her (or your) view on religion? Is dating someone who believes in conspiracy theories any different than dating someone who thinks Jesus loves them? If so, why? If not, why not?

Could you date someone who, though "rather brilliant" had a different religious perspective than you?

In a way, these are just tenets of faith and reason at odds with each other.

Personally, I could not date someone with a different perspective on these issues than mine--they seem too fundamental to me for disagreement in a fulfilling relationship. Others may disagree. I don't think you're naive to believe you two should connect over everything (at least these big things), but you may be naive to believe you or she can change.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:55 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

My view is that relationships can withstand a lot of things, but if the respect falters, things are not meant to be. Pretty unlikely that you'll be able to find a way to respect this sort of magical thinking, and it doesn't seem that this is the sort of deal where simply offering additional information will fill in a missing piece and the person will be able to sort it out.

I don't think you can 'agree to disagree'; the 'palpable stink' will always be there, particularly with the 'done a lot of reading on the subjects and is really enthusiastic' part. It's not healthy to have an intimate relationship with somebody you secretly think is a little bit stupid and/or a little bit nuts. You don't buy into woo; there isn't a middle ground to be found here.

My mind always goes to this bit of Milan Kundera's when I encounter the sort of person who does not want new information; “To be without a feeling for art is no disaster. A person can live in peace without reading Proust or listening to Schubert. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it.”

You don't need to connect on everything, but this represents a rather fundamental disconnect; you not only disagree with her worldview (and one thinks of couples whose religious beliefs differ, and the usual answer there that mutual respect is key in that sort of pairing) but you do not respect her worldview.

Critical thinking may be a skill but to say it is not also a facet of intelligence sounds like you are making apologies for a child or teen. She'll get there as soon as she learns it, etc. You undoubtedly feel very warmly towards this person, but to be able to note an inability to think critically and to want to persuade her, etc -- you're not on equal footing here; this isn't a mutually respectful adult relationship. Which sounds very harsh, but, look at what you've laid out here: you think of this part of her as a bit stunted. Which is not to suggest that you are in the wrong, just that this doesn't sound like a good match.
posted by kmennie at 10:55 AM on September 7, 2011 [10 favorites]

It doesn't sound like she's unable to think critically, or that it's just a skill she's lacking. It sounds to me like she doesn't WANT to think critically. It sounds like she WANTS to believe in these things.

I think if she lacked critical thinking ability, she wouldn't get annoyed and frustrated with you for questioning her. Because your questioning would have no effect on her thinking. I think she gets annoyed with your questioning because it makes it harder for her to keep suspending her disbelief. Her critical thinking is working fine.

If you figure out why she wants to believe in these things, you might be able to come up with a better solution in your relationship.
posted by Ashley801 at 10:55 AM on September 7, 2011 [5 favorites]

Connect with doesn't necessarily mean agree with. If you're coming from a diametrically opposed situation with another person, then it takes a willingness on both of your parts to find a middle ground. If only one of you is on the middle ground, then you will never meet.
posted by Solomon at 10:56 AM on September 7, 2011

Christ, what an asshole: Am I naive to think that we should be able to connect on everything? Are loose ends 'OK' in a relationship?

You can't date yourself, so there'll always be some "loose ends." Even if you could date yourself, you and you-prime would probably have off-synch days. In short: it's how you deal with the mis-matches that make the relationship work.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:56 AM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

As for criticism, kmennie has it: without respect, you have a strained relationship at best. If you wish to challenge her thinking, you have do so from a place of respect. Spend some time with her, reading and finding out more. Instead of saying "this is bullshit" because it clearly rings untrue to you, ask her (and yourself) why it might be right, and then counter with your own, detailed thinking. Do not come from a place of absolutes, because it would likely become a battle of your Truths vs her Truths.

And if you cannot discuss conspiracy theories with her without getting livid or dismissive, skip those conversations. My wife and I share some tastes media at large, and we have some disconnects. We don't discuss the disconnects, because it would be a one-sided discussion.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:01 AM on September 7, 2011

How can we reach middle ground?

The middle ground here is for you to figure out what it is that your SO gets out of these conspiracy theories, make your peace with it, and when the subject comes up become skilled at directing your conversation in an orthogonal direction that satisfies whatever itch she has while not directly addressing the particulars of any conspiracy theory.

I doubt the issue is that she lacks critical thinking skills; it's much more likely that she is disinclined to apply those skills to a subject that is giving her some sort of emotional satisfaction. (As a side note, I'd be shocked if there's not some area in your life where you do the exact same thing. It's just that some of us are disinclined to practice critical thinking in areas where others are very unlikely to challenge us, like our views of our friends/family members or our perception of our own intrinsic aptitudes and talents.)

It's hard to bring this down to the concrete level without knowing exactly what your girlfriend is getting out of these conversations. When one of my parents--who is heavily, heavily into all manners of crackpot health theories as a way to deal with their anxiety and distress about getting older--starts to talk about the latest miracle substance that cures cancer and MS plus makes you feel 10 years younger, I know that it's only going to upset them if I start poking holes in the claims about goji berry drink or whatever. Plus, knowing WHY it is they get so invested in this stuff, I'd feel like a real asshole doing so. Instead, I kind of "uh huh" a tiny bit--just enough to not cut them off--and then ask about whether the pilates class they're taking is helping with the knee problems. Or whether they've tried glucosamine supplements, because I just read a really interesting Cochrane review about it and it looks like the clinical evidence is starting to really support it as a good way to relieve joint pain. (Made up example, I have no idea if that's an actual review.) Sometimes I just give 'em a hug and say something like, "You're never gonna get cancer though, you have the best organic diet of anyone I've ever met" which isn't exactly (or at all) square with my beliefs about why people get cancer but ultimately, if they're feeling anxious about it on some level, is a comforting thing to say that doesn't really hurt.

I think it's very, very normal in a relationship to have a partner with some manner of "comforting beliefs" (whether that's in the power of prayer or that their parents really are good people who love them or whatever) that you don't really believe in. As kmennie says above, respect is essential; I guess for me it comes down to being able to love someone enough to feel tenderly towards their magical thinking and the need it is addressing rather than feeling like I need to correct it or I'll lose respect for them.
posted by iminurmefi at 11:10 AM on September 7, 2011 [20 favorites]

If you don't find these subjects interesting, ask her to stop talking about them. If you enjoy confrontation, feel free to bombard her with facts until she's beaten into submission. Is that what you do though? I'm surely not the first one here to wonder who's the one not thinking critically in all this. Do you bombard her with facts to bolster your scorn and ridicule or do you take the easy and infuriating way out by holding your hand up to her face and telling her she's talking nonsense without bothering to explain why? Can you explain why? Or are you as emotional as you claim she is?

It seems to me that these days 'conspiracy theorist' is a convenient slur to level at people who ask awkward questions, as if no government has ever lied to its people EVER. Are you serious? Isn't that more than a little naive? No, I don't believe in alien abductions, nor do I believe in faked lunar landings. But if you ask me whether I believe or not that there is often more than meets the eye when it comes to human events - that real life at the Whitehouse, for example, is rarely as clean-cut as the West Wing would have you believe - then, yes, I do believe that is the case.

You said yourself that your girlfriend has done a lot of reading on these subjects. How much reading have you done? Boris Johnson, London's mayor, declared a few days ago that there needs to be a "controlled demolition" of the kinds of paranoid conspiracy theories perpetuated by so-called 9/11 truthists. I don't know whether or not there was a conspiracy behind 9/11 but I find it intriguing when members of the very commission convened to investigate it are on record as saying that many worrying questions remain unanswered.

Your girlfriend might not know her head from her arse. She might very well be just parroting hearsay. That's not for us to decide. One things for sure, however: the world needs more people asking awkward questions.
posted by Zé Pequeno at 11:17 AM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

"Oh, come on. I don't think that's true."

Sometimes it's nice to start out with that. It's a good way to clear the air, disagree without impugning her overall ability to think, and raise the possibility of a critical discussion without forcing it.
posted by michaelh at 11:34 AM on September 7, 2011

My husband is Mr. Critical Thinking, and your wife sounds more like me. I agree with Ashley801 that part of the reason I'm interested in and sometimes inclined to believe unproven things is because I want to believe them. In other cases I'm willing to entertain certain notions because I don't believe that critical thinking HAS completely debunked them, even if my scenario is admittedly more of a stretch than his boring old Spock-logical explanation.

Good humor has kept this from being a problem in our relationship. I know he respects my intelligence in spite of my what he thinks are my farfetched ideas, and he doesn't lose any sleep over my being "wrong" because it's not hurting anything for me to believe that Mercury retrograde is the reason the printer, the microwave and the car all died in the same week (or whatever.) It's not like I'm going to start spending vast sums of money having our charts done or anything (although on the other hand, it's not like he's overly bothered by my spending a reasonable amount of money on stuff he considers woo-woo, either.)

It helps matters that we are not too far apart in our beliefs and values about most things... he might have a little more problem with my believing unsupported things if it led me to join the Tea Party, for example.

Bottom line is, we argue and debate for fun, we tease each other gently, and we just don't get too wound up about things that are not life-and-death important. Also, he doesn't do the whole "gently questioning" thing to lead me to think more critically... personally I would find that rather condescending. We just have lively, fun debates in which he explains his position, I argue why I don't think it is airtight, and in the end we usually agree to disagree.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 11:40 AM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I don't think there has to be a schism between you. The middle ground is that you love and respect her as a person even though she believes in conspiracy theories and that she loves and respects you as a person even though you think said theories are bunk. It's only a problem if you insist that she change or beliefs or if she insists that you share them. It's okay to have different beliefs.

You don't have to constantly challenge her beliefs or question them, but neither should you pretend that you agree with them. Just be honest without being confrontational. Save your ammo for when it matters. If she asks you whether you think chem trails are bullshit say yes, but don't get into an argument about it unless she's receptive to it. It's not your job to teach her and she does not want to be taught.

My wife recently wanted to get a pet psychic to talk to our cats. I let her know (as nicely as I could) that I thought it was horseshit and that the person was a con artist, but it wasn't that much money and I couldn't see any real harm coming out of it, so if she really wanted to, I wasn't going to fight about it. She was a little miffed that I wasn't going along with her fantasy (which comes from a well-meaning desire to communicate better with our pets) but there was just no need to fight about it.

(As it turns out, she didn't bother going through with it. It probably helped that everybody else she raised the subject with expressed the same beliefs I did.)

Even on important issues like religious differences, arguing directly is usually counterproductive. Pick your battles wisely and don't worry too much if your partner doesn't have the same beliefs. What matters is how those beliefs impact your lives together, and the impacts are negotiable.
posted by callmejay at 11:43 AM on September 7, 2011

The philosophical aspects of this have been covered, so let me give a few practical tips.

Her anger and/or hurt about the chem trail thing might be more about the fact that you've been constantly dancing around the subject(s). She might also feel embarrassed that you've thought this for so long and she didn't realize it (or only suspected it).

I understand that you are trying to be gentle and tactful, but make sure you're up front about your skepticism. It seems like you beat around the bush a lot because you don't want to come out and say that you think she's wrong. Admirable, but no one likes to be humored when they are trying to have a serious conversation. It makes it seem like you think you are smarter than her, or like she is too delicate or naive to really have it out. It is also a waste of time if she thinks you are seriously considering something you're not considering.

Instead, be open about the fact that you think it's bullshit, as in "I don't think that's true", ASAP. She might welcome information from you, she might not, but at least you both know where you stand and can approach the conversation as equals.

My partner can be a bit credulous (okay, sometimes he can be REALLY credulous). However, because he is smart and curious, he tends to enjoy hearing why I think something is bullshit and learning more about it. It can be a bit of a buzzkill, but he gets irritated at the people saying ridiculous things, not at me.

I also make an effort to remind myself that EVERYONE believes irrational and illogical things, that it's perfectly normal, and that I don't have all the answers either.
posted by the young rope-rider at 11:49 AM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is there any slight possibility that her sources could turn out to be right about something --- anything --- and/or that your sources could turn out to be wrong about something?

If not, then your view is very black-and-white and you will have a very hard time having any respect for her worldview/ideology.

If yes, then you shouldn't really have any problems with having respect for her views in principle, even if in practice they mostly turn out to be wrong.
posted by goethean at 11:49 AM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I almost forgot--for exciting, positive things I mainly reflect the excitement. CURE FOR DIABETES = "I kinda doubt they cured it, but it's awesome that they're making progress. Can you send me the article? I want to see what those crazy scientists are up to!"

Then we can talk about gene therapy or make a joke about the stock photo they used for "diabetic" without him feeling embarrassed or like I think he's an idiot for being excited (I don't).
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:23 PM on September 7, 2011

Conspiracy theories come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the island where Elvis and Marilyn Monroe (and presumably Michael Jackson these days) are actually living their lives out of the public eye due to government interference, to the global corporation which aims to destroy our natural environment for their own ulterior (power, financial) motives. Some of them are clearly more inexplicable than others - I never understood quite what the attraction in the Elvis/Monroe island type of theories is (beyond the sheer entertainment value, as mentioned upthread).

There are other types though, much easier to understand, at least in terms of their genesis as conspiracy theories: a problem that is widely, if not generally, accepted as such, and you just move it from the passive to the active voice, as it were, inserting as agent the villain du jour. So, for instance, we have learned that many of the activities and preferences pertaining to our current lifestyle are potentially damaging to the environment, at least in discreet cases. This becomes "They" (the government, corporations, oil barons, the greedy and ruthless in general) are orchestrating events in such a way as to destroy the environment/rake in as much money as possible before the environment gets destroyed. And where the former approach/opinion would certainly not strike anyone as overly indebted to conspiration theories (other than the most knee-jerk denialists, I suppose), the second instinctively raises our heckles, unless we are similarly inclined.

Having quite a few conspiration theorists in my circle (and having done this myself at times), I've been wondering why the leap from problem to conspiration - initially, it seemed to me that little was gained by narrativising the issue in this way, and that it was actually doing a disservice to the idea these people were trying to promote. These are the explanations I came up with:

a. personifying impersonal situations, developments, events, or constellations of events which are terrifying, frustrating, disheartening, depressing, frightening and alarming gives you a handle on the world which at the very least allows you to have a coherent attitude. It is much easier to have a stance towards: "the powers to be are trying to poison us by adding addictive chemicals into our food" than to face the facelessness of a lot of individuals involved their more or less greedy decision making regarding food additives (which may or may not be "poisonous"), spread out over many different kinds of institutions/companies, etc. etc. etc. Blaming, for instance, is virtually impossible unless you have some agent involved.

b. related to the above: value judgements can easily spread across unrelated content items: for instance, the fact that we know that certain food additives are in our food due to greed (negative value )- for enhanced flavour and colour etc. leading to more consumption, leaves us with negativity on our hands, which we then dish out throughout the situation - the additives themselves become "poison" leading to negative outcomes for ourselves (we get fat and sick).

c. conspiration theories have, to some extent, this very soothing fact going for them: they presuppose a fairly ordered and knowable version of reality. So, when people bungle, are inefficient, incompetent, when reality turns out to not have easy answers, when it becomes obvious that we have been working from faulty assumptions for years, decades, even centuries - well, the easiest way to deal with all this fuzzyness and ambiguity and indeterminacy is by positing a much clearer and more accessible sub-stratum to all this hash and an (obviously malvolent) intelligence obfuscating matters. By the way, conspiracy theorists share this certainty, or at least, yearning, for order and intelligibility in the world around them with those aces of critical thinking which were the philosophers of the Enlightenment (and some of whom were also masters of conspiracy theory re. the Church - but I suppose nobody here would want to take issue with that particular conspiracy theory).

d. some conspiracy theories are standing with one foot in the world of fact. It IS actually the case, at times, that such-and-such person, or group of interest, or whatnot is/are trying or have succeeded in using underhand methods for impure purposes. It also is the case that, on the whole, this is proven to be true of only a fraction of the situations on which conspiracy theories are based. However, it is not very difficult to see why other, much less clear-cut cases, are regarded in a similar light by those inclined to pay attention to the underside of things, as it were. In fact, I think this shows, on the whole, quite advanced intellectual abilities (unless, of course, all the other cases are gathered from other people's analysis or books): you have to dimantle a situation or sequence of events into its components, analyse them, derive some sort of mental map of the components and their interaction, identify other situations to which the resulting blueprint can apply etc. The problem here is not lack of intellectual ability, but rather lack of the scientific method, as it were, by over-eagerly applying a blueprint (or your hypothesis) to data, without first ascertaining whether or not your new data is similar enough to the old one.

e. this leands to confirmation bias. Once a conspiracy theory gets hold of you and you become entranced by its mechanism (they are out to get us), it is easy to only favour that information which fits the model. I have a suspicion that this is intellectually very pleasing as well, just like I remember from school - when I mastered a mathematical formula, I would actually get genuine pleasure each time I had the opportunity to apply it (especially if I had to unearth it from under a lot of noise - I think I am a closeted conspiration theorist!).

With this in mind, I think your problem is not so much that your partner lacks in critical thinking (maybe she does, but we certainly cannot conclude this from your intitial post), but rather that each of you subscribes to a very different view of what we call conspiration theory: she sounds all in, you sound all out. Since it is you asking the question, my thoughts are designed to fit your perspective:

a. as some people upthread have said, try to figure out what she is getting from her attachement to the theories, and what kind of theories is she upholding. Are they all the really entertaining, but ultimately purposeless Elvis island theories? Are there theories which might stem from her frustration with the status quo - we're messing with the environment, the rich are getting richer, those in power are shitting all over the small man, we are being poisoned via our food, or, on a meta-level, the pyramids were built by aliens aka there is extra-terrestrial life and I hope I get to be connected to it, if only vicariously? Try to figure out what is driving her, what emotion or complex of emotions is at the basis of her views, and maybe address that - is she bored? Do exciting stuff together - go explore caves, or mountains, or get into learning some long-dead language, have cuneiform-learning competitions etc. Is she frustrated, upset, angered by the state of the world? Could you maybe together do something about that - organise a volunteering recycling scheme, or art projects with recycled stuff, or whatever else.

b. read up yourself on some of the conspiration theories she is attached to, but first try to empty yourself of ALL prejudice. Be like a Kaspar Hauser - you've never heard any explanations for the things these theories try to explain, so you are considering them as seriously as you would the claim that the earth revolves around the sun. Read some of her books. Having done so, try to isolate where the fallacies are. Are they in the premises? Are they in subsequent stepts? Is the issue bad data, or is it a faulty evaluation/interpretation of the data, or else arriving at faulty conclusions on the basis of leaping sidewise or forwards to much, or discounting alternative explanations?

c. try to find related, but well argued (from your point of view) conspiracies. This will help show her that you do not discount the genre, as it were - rather you object to the less well documented or more extraordinary examples. In turn, this might relax her enough to be more critical of some of the notions whe currently holds (personally, I have been known to defend things I hadn't really formed an opinion on, or ideas I didn't really uphold, but which were sort of in the same category as those which I cherished, just because I felt under attack. Besieged people often defend all the eggs in their basket, even the rotten ones - and then take their own sweet time to deal with bad eggs once the attack is averted).

God, this is awfully long. Good luck. As people upthread have said, don't under any circumstances, disconsider her. Decide if you can live with this, in which case maybe see HOW critical thinking is applied to her conclusions (we all tend to believe that critical thinking inevitably leads us all to the same result - not true, at least not for such involved trains of thought, with multiple premises, multpile levels, with potential deviations/divergences in many many places), or else, if this is something you cannot live with... but I hope you can - it is exciting! Sorry again for the longwindedness.
posted by miorita at 1:08 PM on September 7, 2011 [3 favorites]

I'm with wobh. What exactly does a middle ground mean?

I'm not as extreme as Mayor West here but I'd suggest you pay attention to some of the questions raised by the best-answer you marked from iminurmefi. Many of us have irrational or poorly-based beliefs, but it's important to know where they come from and how far they go.

For example, if iminurmefi's parents do contract cancer and want to choose Laetrile over conventional treaments, well, that's more serious that spending too much money on acai juice. Or if your SO decides that the chem trails are the President's way of controlling our behavior and decides she needs to make it her life mission to stop them then that's going to have an impact on your joint finances.

So by all means, indulge your loved ones in their harmless foibles. But belief in far-ranging conspiracy theories is filling some sort of need in her life and I think it's relevant to understand what that is. Your lone example is one that revolves around hostile actors doing something to innocent citizens, including her. Personally I find it worrisome when someone thinks the whole world's out to get them, whether it be chem trails or Jewish control of banks.
posted by phearlez at 1:10 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well, I once knew an extremely articulate and creative-minded guy who was an encyclopedia of 9/11 conspiracy theories. He had a girlfriend who didn't mind, but was pleased when he eventually got embarrassed and moved on. They're married now, so happy ending and there's no possible way anything could go wrong for you in your personal situation.

Not to insult religion (except actually totally to do that, I guess), but a lot of atheist types put up with their SO's woo-woo spiritual ideas with good humor, and it seems the key is to just not take it too seriously, on your part but also on hers. Because it sounds like she's being pretty unreasonable about respecting your beliefs, and maybe that's the real problem.
posted by stoneandstar at 1:26 PM on September 7, 2011

Critical thinking is a skill, not a facet of intelligence. She's rather brilliant.

I don't mean to be alarmist, but if my "brilliant" SO/friend/relative started spouting about chemtrails, I would actually be worried about their mental health. Brilliance does not preclude mental health problems; in fact, it often goes hand and hand. I guess it's possible to have some level of subclinical paranoia or delusions or whatever, but I think you should tread carefully here. Does she interact rationally with other things in her life? Have her conspiracy theory beliefs grown more intense over time? This may not be a mere personality quirk or difference in belief systems.
posted by yarly at 1:45 PM on September 7, 2011

.. in other words, "lack of critical thinking" is not the same as "conspiracy theorist." Lack of critical thinking can mean, say, believing everything you see on TV. "Conspiracy theorist" implies a further reaching impulse to believe that the world is not what it seems, or believe things that are contrary to what the majority of human observers see.
posted by yarly at 1:48 PM on September 7, 2011

Ask yourself if you're cool with your kids being raised to believe in conspiracy theories. If the answer is yes, stay with her and don't talk about this stuff (or maybe invest in some books about basic physics). If it's no, break up with her.
posted by Dasein at 2:05 PM on September 7, 2011

"Conspiracy theorist" implies a further reaching impulse to believe that the world is not what it seems, or believe things that are contrary to what the majority of human observers see.

I wouldn't be so tough on conspiracy theorists. In the real world, conspiracies are everywhere and in action all the time. It's not so easy to separate out the ones that are real from the ones that aren't.
posted by zipadee at 2:27 PM on September 7, 2011 [4 favorites]

It's not so easy to separate out the ones that are real from the ones that aren't.

You mean like global warming? It's one thing to be a skeptic; it's another to have an epistomological system at odds with how the majority of people gain knowledge.
posted by yarly at 2:57 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Loose ends are one thing, but wacko thinking is something else. I'd think long and hard about someone who decided against vaccines for kids, for example, because of the potential for disaster. Chem trails are sort of harmless, but does speak to a certain lack of sophisticated analysis, to my mind. And if you don't listen to her, is she going to start finding like-minded groups? Because so often, groups don't limit themselves to just 1 conspiracy--next thing you know, you're into grassy knolls and fluoridation up to you armpits.

What does she find so attractive about these alleged conspiracies? The feeling of being privy to knowledge that the rest of the masses are blind to? Superiority? Or does it feed a deeper sense of pessimism and alarm?
posted by Ideefixe at 3:37 PM on September 7, 2011

Is this the same girl? Or do you attract these types in clusters?
posted by Ideefixe at 3:39 PM on September 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have a friend who always tells me about her visits to a psychic, and gets angry if I don't validate her beliefs. But, she knows I don't believe that psychics are legit and/or accurate. So I asked her to respect my beliefs, told her I'd respect hers, and suggested we not go there. She just can't resist. So I just say, If you really have to tell me about your psychic stuff, you have to deal with my not having the response you want.

She asked you about your beliefs. You gave her an honest answer. I suspect you may be condescending to her without intending to. Ask her. Tell her you don't share her beliefs in a lot of things, but that you love her curiosity, and you recognize her intelligence. Ask her to respect your skepticism. Introduce her to the work of James Randi. Talk about how she sees the world, and try to understand why she sees things differently. Ask her to understand why you see things as you do.
posted by theora55 at 4:55 PM on September 7, 2011

"We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart." - H.L. Mencken

...but this approach only works if we are willing to roll our eyes as soon as the other fellow has left the room. Not a foundation for a partnership.

Seriously, reboot. Ikkyu's comment about dating only "humans" may be flippant, but it expresses an inescapable point: some people choose to use their minds exclusively as playthings and never as tools, and that choice makes it essentially impossible to engage with them in any meaningful or intellectual manner -- much less in a romantic manner.
posted by foursentences at 5:15 PM on September 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

One of the people I most respect and admire is a big believer and spreader in conspiracy theories. I just ignore them, and don't go to his conspiracy screenings. Simple.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 5:48 PM on September 7, 2011

1) If you want to play with critical thinking together, use topics that she doesn't have a strong emotional tie to. For example, if she doesn't have a huge stake in whether the US economy could best be helped by cutting the federal budget or by spending money to stimulate jobs and make sure the workforce is in good shape, then maybe you could talk about this over dinner and pick apart the arguments by both sides.

2) The collaborative board game Pandemic might be really interesting for you to play together. Interestingly, one sure way to lose is to try to cure the pandemic completely in one city at a time; you have to balance a lot of factors, and the outcome still has a lot to do with random chance. It can show you how smart people can sincerely try to solve a complex problem and still fail -- no conspiracy required.

Of course, if she's so brilliant that you both win the game all the time, this won't help your case :)
posted by amtho at 5:57 PM on September 7, 2011

I guess it depends on how rich you are. Fanciful thinking isn't only the realm of the ill, the desperate, or the maladjusted. Most of the nutty theories I hear are about far-off stuff with little concrete meaning more than thinking a soap opera is real. Does it impact decision making? Does it live in its own place in her mind?

Ask her what she wants. Does she want you to play a fanciful game with her? Does she need you to believe in the calvinball? We're talking about an adult here; if she can't produce insight into her behavior and needs you to play her game then maybe it's hopeless.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:01 PM on September 7, 2011

Too much certainty about any one paradigm, "conspiratorial" or otherwise, is bad for your mental health.
posted by gentian at 11:48 PM on September 7, 2011

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