How to stop a friend's slide into pseudoscientific belief?
May 15, 2013 6:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm afraid one of my best friends is going to start getting into full-on pseudoscience. Many of my friends are already interested in things like organic medicine, 9/11 truth movements, etc but they're easy to ignore since I don't see them much. I just avoid the topics and block them on Facebook. But now one of my closest, oldest friends has started linking to NaturalNews, a well-known medical crank site. I know he's already heavily into Robert Anton Wilson and Bill Hicks, and I'm worried he's going to start getting into full-on crankdom. How do I stop this before it happens, or deal with it when it does?
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants to Human Relations (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
How do I stop this before it happens, or deal with it when it does?

The same way you deal with other friends whose opinions you disagree with. Avoid the topics, engage in discussion/debate about them, agree to disagree, roll your eyes and laugh, plead desperately with them ... whatever you typically do when you respect the person but not the beliefs, do with this friend about topics you disagree with him about.
posted by headnsouth at 6:38 PM on May 15, 2013

Uh, when I got to Bill Hicks, the old Sesame Street song "One of these things is not like the other" started playing through my head.

And, in a way, I think you have to engage with it with that in mind. Are there problems with corporate healthcare? Yes. Steven Brill just wrote a hefty look at it in Bitter Pill. But just because something is wrong, doesn't make every criticism or alternative equally valid. People get into nonsense politics, like Abraham Simpson crankdom or 9/11 nonsense or weird health food fads because what they've been told feels wrong and the answers they've found in these various places feel more right. And sometimes they are more right, but still incorrect. The nonsense after 9/11 was "they did this because they hate our freedom," so some people rejecting that found 9/11 nonsense ("maybe they didn't do it...") before they found Chomsky et al. (We have a long history of ugly meddling around the world and a violent response, terrible and unacceptable, is bound to happen until we change our foreign policy...).
Similarly, corporate healthcare expensively rewards a culture of testing and technology, prizes violent surgeries over preventative action, and often won't pursue research and development into less profitable alternatives (and, it must be said, there are some expensive violent surgeries you can bet your bottom dollar I would employ in a moment if I needed to save my life). If your friend says this, by all means agree, but when it comes to colloidal silver and other nonsense, you need to come back with better critiques and alternatives. If something is wrong, you need to at least point to what is right.
I for one like Gabor Mate, Ina May Gaskin, Harriet Washington, Dr. Atul Gawande, Oliver Sacks, and Wendell Potter. You can go all over the place with your friend looking at criticisms and alternatives to the problems of modern medicine AND medical cranks, and help your friend find their way in the process. Good luck.

But Bill Hicks is funny and not a crazy crank (though he did have a weird jfk thing...).
posted by history is a weapon at 6:50 PM on May 15, 2013 [16 favorites]

The article Moon Landing Faked!!!—Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories on makes a number of points, but the part that best helped me understand my run-ins with cranks was

Since a number of studies have shown that belief in conspiracy theories is associated with feelings of powerlessness, uncertainty and a general lack of agency and control, a likely purpose of this bias is to help people “make sense of the world” by providing simple explanations for complex societal events — restoring a sense of control and predictability.

I associate kook beliefs with a lack of capital and the fear that tends to go along with a lack of (social, cultural, financial) capital. The world can be scary and oppressive when you lack what are perceived to be the prerequisites for participating in it, and my thinking (as kooky as the kooks'? Who knows) is that that creates a sort of constant low-level paranoia which makes rational inquiry seem beyond one's reach, and which makes one want to associate with others who seem to be (1) more like you, hence the tendency for common delusions rather than millions of highly differentiated delusions, (2) non-threatening -- that is, unlikely to challenge delusions. (The article mentions the tendency for beliefs in conspiracies to come as a set rather than as a single delusion.)

I relate this a bit to the idea of the misomusist: "But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it."

Tossing that patronising, paternalistic, and probably accurate view of crackpots around in my mind at least helps me. Your friend will probably be less irritating if you see him as somebody's child who is scared, rather than as some sort of agitator to be taken seriously, etc. There is a lot of ego wrapped up in quackery and it is usually very fragile ego.

Also of use: 5 Logical Fallacies That Make You Wrong More Than You Think
posted by kmennie at 7:07 PM on May 15, 2013 [27 favorites]

You deal with it by realizing that this is ultimately none of your business and that you can't control what other people believe. If you endeavor to save your friend from what you feel is quackery, you will likely insult them and drive them further into the things you most want to divest them of. Let them come to their own conclusions and decline to discuss the topics with them whenever they come up.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:10 PM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Consider that no one has the complete, infallible truth about everything.
posted by goethean at 7:23 PM on May 15, 2013 [10 favorites]

It might be useful to gently point out when a sequence of things he says amounts to an unfalsifiable theory. If he hasn't thought of that before and he has some appreciation of what the basic scientific method entails, and he can see that it's a problem when something is unfalsifiable even though that doesn't necessarily say anything about whether or not it's true, he may come to recognize that particular pattern in his thinking.
posted by XMLicious at 7:26 PM on May 15, 2013

How do I stop this before it happens

I think it already has. Belief in pseudoscience and quackery is usually the result of a Weltanschauung that's already fundamentally distorted. That's why debates with people who are heavily invested in e.g. quackery rapidly become an exercise in seeing just how far down the rabbit hole goes. An example:

A: "I read about X on [quackery site]. It seems really good."
B: "Well, there was actually a double-blind placebo-controlled study on X a couple of years ago that found that X was no more effective than placebo. It was published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Prestigious Medical Stuff."
A: [scoffing] "You actually believe those studies? They're all funded by Big Pharma!"
[Ignoring the fact that a study being funded by a pharmaceutical company doesn't necessarily mean that it can be disregarded, you go and look up the journal article and find that the study was actually funded by the National Institutes of Health]
B: "Actually, this particular study was funded by the NIH."
A: "That's even worse! ZOG is in bed with Big Pharma!"
B: "ZOG?"
A: "Zionist Occupied Government. You know, our Jew-controlled Federal Government?"

And down the rabbit hole we go.
posted by jingzuo at 7:35 PM on May 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

I think you pick your battles. One of my best friends is very liberal and sometimes we just disagree on stuff and I leave it alone, but when she said that fluoride is toxic, why is it in the water, I said, dude, whoa, hold up.

You also decide whether something is worth losing a friend over. My best friend would have to work hard to push me away. However, another friend was not as close and was being annoying so when she wrote on Facebook that the Armenian genocide was something reasonable people could disagree about, I said, I just finished reading Samantha Power, this is not up for debate. So you could say I dumped her over that but a more fair characterization would be that it was the last straw.
posted by kat518 at 7:35 PM on May 15, 2013

Uh, you go "come on, that's stupid, are you turning into a crank on me" when your friend brings those topics up (I assume you can speak frankly to him since he is a closest oldest friend and all) – but otherwise, it's not like he's about to join a cult or anything. At least, unless he's about to join a cult or something.

The internet is making you think You Have To Save Him Right Now and you don't.
posted by furiousthought at 7:36 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

2nding the above comment, you don't have to save him, we all have our peculiarities, and if he's not harming himself or others, let it go.

Pick your battles for when he is doing something harmful.
posted by Ndwright at 7:45 PM on May 15, 2013

I don't understand why someone researching or discussing alternative theories is in any way threatening or disturbing.

How does hearing about a new idea, perspective, or a new way of doing something hurt you?

Anyway, I think FB has tons of filters so you don't have to focus on every detail of everything folks float into the ether.
posted by jbenben at 8:24 PM on May 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: How does hearing about a new idea, perspective, or a new way of doing something hurt you?

The ideas aren't new. It starts with this, and ends with being unable to have a conversation with the person because they're always going on about Atlantis and Monsanto and Alex Jones. I've taken the 'avoid, ignore' strategy with most people, but I like to think my close friends deserve better than that.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 8:52 PM on May 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

The ideas aren't new. It starts with this, and ends with being unable to have a conversation with the person because they're always going on about Atlantis and Monsanto and Alex Jones. I've taken the 'avoid, ignore' strategy with most people, but I like to think my close friends deserve better than that.

You say, "I do not agree with your opinions, and in fact, I think you're wrong, based on X, Y, and Z evidence. I'm happy to 'agree to disagree,' but I don't want to debate this, and would rather spend time talking to you about things we can agree on, okay?"
posted by xingcat at 9:10 PM on May 15, 2013 [6 favorites]

xingcat has the best advice. All I want to add is to read "Why People Believe Weird Things" by Michael Shermer. It might help you cope. Also, you can bring it up to your friend, like, "Hey, I want your opinion on this book." Might work.
posted by blnkfrnk at 10:51 PM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've taken the 'avoid, ignore' strategy with most people, but I like to think my close friends deserve better than that.

I kind of think my close friends deserve better than me assuming my beliefs are right, and that what they are interested in is nonsense. But personally I love to hear opinions that are different than mine because, well, I already know my own beliefs so its interesting to hear new stuff. You can keep an eye out for ideas you like, set aside the ones you don't, and carry on your life no harm no foul.

If they actually get boring that's a different subject. Someone can believe exactly the same thing as you but if they witter on about it too much you switch off. So maybe your approach could be 'we've been talking about this for a while, can we change the subject?' rather than 'what you're talking about is crap'.
posted by billiebee at 2:00 AM on May 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've had two friends like this. I put up with it for a while, then when it got too much for me, I said words to the effect of "I don't believe the 9/11 attacks were organised by the US government. I believe man walked on the moon. I don't believe "chemtrails" are some government conspiracy. I think it's possible aliens exist and have visited our planet, but I have yet to see any compelling evidence. But one thing I truly believe is that Alex Jones is simply targeting his audience for ratings and advertising dollars, just like Oprah.'

One of them said "OK, fair enough. Let's talk about football."

The other, I've never spoken to since.
posted by Diag at 3:35 AM on May 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

Alienation and very real feelings of powerlessness in the modern world can make people susceptible to cults and conspiracy theories, but with some moderation, these feelings can also make people well-informed citizens who remain constantly curious about the story behind the story. Not wanting to be a "sheeple" and have some independent grasp on the workings of the world is a very common desire.

In the case of your friend, perhaps you can acknowledge that there is a lot of stuff about the world that is overwhelming and not easily explained, but you aren't really sure that XX has all the answers. Sometimes people just need to know that their anxiety is valid, instead of being told that the way they are trying to ease that anxiety is in someone else's category of nutso.

(Also, Monsanto and Atlantis and Bill Hicks and Robert Anton Wilson are each in such different categories of things...I would, perhaps, be mindful of the broad strokes you are employing.)
posted by whimsicalnymph at 6:53 AM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

You might benefit from watching this in terms of understanding why some people might go full evangelist and end up in the box
posted by Blasdelb at 7:47 AM on May 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

If a person has beliefs that are part of their life, but not driving their life, or at least not to the extent of proselytizing, and the belief is not harmful, then it's a personal belief that I can ignore. You're a Christian, Moslem, believer that JFK's assassination was a conspiracy, whatever. I can listen to you talking about why you enjoy your church, or why you take rescue remedy, or how the fortune teller was amazing. I'll keep my mouth shut until you don't just offer me rescue remedy, but insist I take it, insist I believe in your Jesus, insist I agree that the psychic was real, and that I would benefit from such services. I expect you to accept that I am an atheist and a skeptic, and may occasionally say so. I'll engage in a discussion of beliefs, as long as it's thoughtful and respectful. I've learned a lot by listening to people talk about their differing beliefs. Ask your friends to talk about their beliefs; you are likely to learn that they are passionate about causes, and in a few cases, you may learn that they have become cranks. Ideally, their crank beliefs will be temporary, sadly, not always. Maybe you could examine your level of being judgmental?
posted by theora55 at 8:21 AM on May 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

It must be horrible to be so sure of your beliefs that close friends can't hold other views without you getting upset. I think your choices are to be more moderate in your outlook or lose a friend. I find extremists annoying whatever their beliefs.
posted by BenPens at 6:45 AM on May 17, 2013

It must be horrible to be so sure of your beliefs that close friends can't hold other views without you getting upset.

Quite possibly horrible, but note that this would also describe someone who believes in equality living among racists or homophobes, or someone who is a pacifist or doesn't believe in the war of the moment living among jingoists. Being moderate for moderation's sake, or to maximize compatibility with current and potential friends, doesn't seem like much of a virtue to me.
posted by XMLicious at 12:35 PM on May 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

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