Good long-form resources for debunking conspiracy theories?
October 1, 2014 3:03 AM   Subscribe

I'm soon to mentor a friend through a period of personal reflective study. An area I'd like to touch on is that he persistently clings to conspiracy theories, such as those of Leonard Horowitz. It is not my place to impose my own beliefs, but as he has limited exposure to contrasting material I would like him to balance these views with the "other side" and draw his own conclusions.

As such, what are some of the best resources for debunking or explaining conspiracy theories? Ideally long-form, ie books, documentaries, and the more "general" (perhaps even relating to the psychology of conspiracy) the better. Snopes is taken as read. Novels/movies where the protagonist believes their destiny is being orchestrated/manipulated, only to learn it was all just coincidence would also be useful.

I don't want to make him feel belittled, but as he's read/watched the "best" the conspiracy world has to offer, I'd like him to also see some of the best skeptics can put forward, particularly in relation to things like medicine and the "Illuminati".
posted by tzb to Human Relations (7 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
This is a lost cause. Presenting him with contrasting material is actually more likely to make him dig in deeper in his belief in conspiracy theories than to actually change his mind.

Of course, now that I've presented you with evidence that it's a lost cause, you're probably even more convinced of your ability to change your friend's mind. :)
posted by Jacqueline at 3:20 AM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

I don't read it, but 'In the pipeline' has separate sections on drug development and snake oil.

You may want to appeal to venality: "The drug companies want to make lots of money, and researching/sitting on a cure for X isn't in their best interests, because Y." For example.
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:23 AM on October 1, 2014

I can't link to it at the moment, but The Demon Haunted World, a book by Carl Sagan, is an amazing read. It's about honing critical thinking skills especially in regards to woo and UFO type stuff. It's excellent.
posted by SpecialSpaghettiBowl at 3:33 AM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Jacqueline and SpecialSpaghettiBowl - I will show him your resources in tandem I think.
posted by tzb at 4:01 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Kirby Ferguson's This is Not A Cospiracy Theory explores the phenomenon of conspiracy theories.
posted by at at 8:27 AM on October 1, 2014

IME the belief in conspiracy theories is mostly an emotional response, specifically to anxiety and a desire to maintain a sense of control in a world that constantly defies human control. Think of any major social problem/threat, and consider two possibilities for its cause: 1) a cabal of malevolently powerful and secretive individuals/organizations are, through their intentions and subsequent actions, causing all or most or the most critical component(s) of the threat at hand, or: 2) a complex interaction among cultural norms, individual/group intentions, material constraints, and god knows what else that is not only not intentionally controlled by human actors, but isn't even understood by them. Which seems scarier? Easier to resolve? Easier to resolve so that you'll personally benefit?

Framed this way, I think it's apparent how the phenomenon described by Jacqueline occurs: contradictory evidence threatens the integrity of their conspiracy theory, which is meeting an important emotional need for these folks. I suppose from this angle, anything you could do to make the world feel less threatening would go a lot farther than rigorous counter-evidence, but your ability to do so will be strongly constrained by the quality of your existing relationship with your friend, as well as his other relationships/social circles. Part of it though might involve his personality - IIRC conspiracy theorists tend towards greater authoritarianism in their personality structures. If they dispositionally gravitate towards that sort of anxiety and response-to-anxiety, I don't know that there's any magical bullets.
posted by obliterati at 10:04 AM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Watch the Skies is about debunking UFO myths, but it's tremendously riveting as an example of how there's often both mistakes and deliberate, malicious intent behind conspiracy theories. It could be a good compare/contrast.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:14 PM on October 1, 2014

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