How do I (gently) debunk some myths held by a family member?
February 7, 2017 4:02 AM   Subscribe

I have a family member (by marriage) who appears to have fallen for many of the weirder (and in my opinion potentially harmful) conspiracy theories, including: flat earth, MMR and autism, evolution is religion in disguise, feminism was created by the CIA, and so on.

How can I gently provide some resources to persuade her otherwise (or at least to read a little more widely) without upsetting her? She has sent some (to my mind) ill-informed info for which she is waiting for a response from me. Although not a bad person, she can be quite volatile and I don't want to get in a spat with her, but I don't want to ignore her or pretend that she has a point.
posted by Myeral to Education (26 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Someone who is able to believe so many kooky conspiracy theories is unlikely to have their mind changed through logic and reason. I wouldn't even make the attempt - this person sounds too far gone. I mean, push back if you feel you have to, but don't expect it to make any meaningful difference.
posted by peacheater at 4:27 AM on February 7, 2017 [19 favorites]

“Feminism was created by the CIA.” Not heard that one before.

How can I gently provide some resources to persuade her otherwise (or at least to read a little more widely) without upsetting her?

Honestly? You probably can’t. You can say that you don’t believe these things are true & that some of them are stories spread by bad people, but if you try and challenge her ideas head on, you’re just going to make her dig in. Facts don’t change people’s minds unfortunately.
posted by pharm at 4:28 AM on February 7, 2017 [12 favorites]

You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason into.

You could challenge her statements on the basis of unfalsifiability or debunked evidence or empirical verifiability, depending on which flavor of goofy woo we're talking about. It mght be more interesting to try and figure out what makes her want to believe stupid things. Honestly, though, I would just say, "Well, I guess people will believe what they want to," and talk about the weather.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:36 AM on February 7, 2017 [8 favorites]

Best answer: People who have a need to believe in conspiracies can't easily be dissuaded by facts, because ignoring the established facts is how they got to where they are. Maybe you could approach this from the angle of providing new conspiracies for old, because there are very real things going on in the world (voter suppression, election hacking, Steve Bannon) that ought to be a red rag to the conspiracy theorist mindset. If you can't prevent the behaviour, perhaps you could steer it in a more productive direction.
posted by pipeski at 4:53 AM on February 7, 2017 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: “Feminism was created by the CIA.” Not heard that one before.

I think it's something about Gloria Steinem and the CIA infiltrating some of the feminist groups she was involved with.
posted by Myeral at 5:39 AM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

You might try just asking questions (in a non-confrontational manner) to get her to explain why she believes what she believes. In a perfect world, she will eventually recognize the holes in the story, do more research, and see the light.

But, I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for this to happen.
posted by she's not there at 5:41 AM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks (so far) for the suggestions.

I wish I could believe that a difference could be made, because I think this way of thinking is (one of) the problems we face in this crazy situation we call life. Much of the stuff she espouses is down to a lack of education, and that will only change if she starts to learn
posted by Myeral at 5:43 AM on February 7, 2017

Usually, this would be something to ignore to the extent possible, beyond letting her know that you don't agree. But "She has sent some (to my mind) ill-informed info for which she is waiting for a response from me."

In that case, I would respond with something like, "As you probably know, I don't believe that is accurate. If you'd like, I could try to explain why, or if you prefer, we could just agree to disagree."
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 6:09 AM on February 7, 2017 [10 favorites]

I have a brother who is very much into conspiracies. He also is perpetually suffering from ailments and talks about his health and diet incessantly. I don't understand where this is coming from except maybe it helps him feel more in control of his world. Being in agreement with popular or scientifically-based opinion seems to make him feel like he's not special, but I really don't know. I never contradict him but instead just ask questions so that he isn't confronted with needing to be defensive about his opinions. For my sanity I limit my interaction time with him because he bogarts the entire conversation and will behave as if he's not heard anything I have said that would challenge him. He's definitely not interested in my opinion. So I don't think you need to ignore her or pretend she has a point but it's OK not to try and teach her anything either.
posted by waving at 6:19 AM on February 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

I agree that “find the conspiracy within the conspiracy” can sometimes be helpful with these people, whereas actual facts can’t.

So, for anti-vaxxers, I have sometimes asked them to consider who is pushing anti-vaccination. It looks something like this—

“You know, I get being suspicious of Big Pharma. But producing vaccinations actually loses them money— they have to do it for PR and legal reasons, but they hate it. These companies will sue at the drop of a hat, but do you ever wonder why they don’t sue anti-vaxxers? My guess is that they know they will be able to make billions once all those diseases come back. Preventing measles doesn’t make a profit, but treating it will be a goldmine. People who watch one of their children die of whooping cough will pay anything to save the others.

Plus, did you know Wakefield faked his research because he wanted to be able to sell his own products? He wasn’t trying to destroy them— he was trying to become one of them.”

Presenting data and evidence to these people doesn’t really work. But when I’ve taken this approach, I’ve often gotten a thoughtful “huh, I never thought of it that way.” (And, to be fair, I don’t think it’s actively untrue— it is just a different framing. I’ve read more than one reputable scientist pointing out that a litigious industry being oddly silent when people slander their products usually only happens when the slander will lead to greater profits down the line.)

These people are drawn to conspiracies, so the trick can be to say “ahhhh, but the TRUE conspiracy is even deeper!!!”
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:39 AM on February 7, 2017 [38 favorites]

i agree with a fiendish thingy. frame your points in the way that fits their pattern of thinking, that's your first step. my other initial suggestion is to discredit the source of information. everyone works on heuristics - you kinda need to recognise what's their logic/rationality shorthand.
posted by cendawanita at 7:11 AM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Agree you're not going to change anyone's mind, but you CAN protect your boundaries. When this relative starts with any of this, I would say, "I appreciate that you're trying to educate me, but I don't believe in this and I don't want to hear it. Anyway, have you seen the new 'Star Wars?'"
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 8:05 AM on February 7, 2017

Yeah, I'd just be replying to those emails with "unsubscribe". You aren't going to convince them and I'd make it clear that they are not going to convince you so they may as well stop trying.

I'm almost want to meet someone like this so I can sit in front of them and ask them questions, sit back and sip my wine saying mmmm "hmmmm, mmmmmm hmmmm".

I mean.... FLAT EARTH?!?!?! There are people, walking around out there that actually believe the Earth is flat!!! This is just fascinating! I once worked with a woman 20+ years ago who was of the religion that the Earth was 4,000 years old and dinosaurs and man roamed the Earth together. She actually brought me a propaganda book to try and convince me of her delusions.
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 9:35 AM on February 7, 2017

She actually brought me a propaganda book to try and convince me of her delusions.

Was that book . . . a Bible?
posted by a fiendish thingy at 9:44 AM on February 7, 2017 [3 favorites]

Was that book . . . a Bible?

LOL, no. It was some "educational" type book.... like something probably used in Sunday School and had pictures. It probably had Bible Verses and then illustrations "proving" how the Earth was only 4,000 years old.

(It was 20 years ago and I barely gave it any attention so I don't remember more specifics)
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 9:51 AM on February 7, 2017

Response by poster: I mean.... FLAT EARTH?!?!?!

Yes. I received a video of a rocket seeming to (well, kind of) bump into the glass dome around the top of the atmosphere
posted by Myeral at 10:50 AM on February 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

If you want to gain a better understanding of why people hang onto disproven beliefs, take a look at When Prophecy Never Fails.
posted by trinity8-director at 11:45 AM on February 7, 2017

I wish I could believe that a difference could be made, because I think this way of thinking is (one of) the problems we face in this crazy situation we call life. Much of the stuff she espouses is down to a lack of education, and that will only change if she starts to learn

Changing minds is a worthy goal and there must be literature documenting what approaches tend to be successful. I suspect that it takes saintly levels of patience to implement the techniques before lapsing into snark and exasperated sighs.

Deborah Tannen is my go-to source regarding communication. Most of her work addresses interpersonal relationships, but perhaps there's something in The Argument Culture: Stopping America's War of Words that could be applicable when dealing with conspiracy theroists. (I have not read this book.)

From what you've said here, however, you would need to address some significant education-related issues to get her to the point where she can critically evaluate evidence. How old is she, i.e., is enrolling in classes at the local community college an option?

Re flat earth: I've always assumed that this was a tongue-in-cheek philosophy—never in my wildest dreams did I think that modern day adults thought this was reality.
posted by she's not there at 12:25 PM on February 7, 2017

Your description makes me think of someone with a (somewhat) lower IQ. This might be the reason of "the lack of education" you mention. So if you're expecting things to change if she starts to learn, that might just not be very well possible. If she has a lower IQ then the conspiracy thinking could be a symptom of fear (and trying to make sense of things) and also generate fear. Because what if the earth is indeed flat and everyone, even you (who she looks to for some support or contact??), denies that reality! Also being emotionally volatile could match the lower IQ, because of the constant stress of not quite keeping up or grasping enough to get by. It could also be somewhat obsessive, but then again probably both an effort to reduce fear and generating fear at the same time.

You could try to have a gentle conversation, just asking her where she got the info. As if you were interested in a new hobby. Maybe she's on a certain type of Facebook pages, that post all those different conspiracies together? Maybe she's got some friends who influence her? Is this a new thing for her? (did it arise after she lost a hobby, or something else?) You could ask if she likes these things or if they sometimes scare her. If she doesn't like it, or if it gets to be to upsetting, she can opt out (on the logic that if it doesn't feel good for her, it just simply isn't).
More like talking about it, the how, and what it means to her, not actually getting deep in the subject itself.

If you look at the websites on the flat earth for example, they mention proofs that one after the other just defy any basic logic (even some elementary school level-logic). So she may just not be able to do that critical thinking (I mean, not just flat earth but a rocket bumping into a dome?!).
People who have (somewhat) lower IQ usually have to work pretty hard to fit in, keep up. She may be good at that in some ways she's been able to master.
It may be very hard for you to teach her anything if this is the reason, not in the least because you're thinking is just very different from hers. Hope this is of any help to you!
posted by Litehouse at 1:51 PM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

As Emperor SnooKloze said earlier, you can't reason someone out of a position they didn't use reason to arrive at.

The most important question you can ask someone who subscribes to any conspiracy theory is "What evidence would it take to change your mind?" Because often the answer is "None" and there really is nothing you can do to change their viewpoint. Lack of evidence for their position is proof of the conspiracy to hide the "truth" and evidence against their viewpoint is just part of the conspiracy.
posted by borkencode at 2:15 PM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Yes. I received a video of a rocket seeming to (well, kind of) bump into the glass dome around the top of the atmosphere

okay with this update i can say without a shadow of a doubt that any time spent discussing these things with this person is time 100% wasted. don't bother.
posted by poffin boffin at 3:16 PM on February 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

I Memailed, but for the greater audience...

It's not important what the difference is. Look deeper. This is evidence that EVERYONE knows something is wrong. Don't fall for the diviseness. Forget trying to argue facts or "facts."

Underneath, this is about those of us (all of us!) who have zero control over what happens to us via arguing...

What if we joined together in our feeling that SHIT IS WRONG and stopped focusing on particulars?

It's true we all fail if we are divided.

People are legit upset for actual reasons. We are past debunking. We are firmly in consensus building time. Think long term.
posted by jbenben at 11:25 PM on February 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: "...someone with a (somewhat) lower IQ..."

I don't believe this to be the case, but I do know that school was interrupted at a crucial stage by a personal tragedy. This (which I won't go into here) is in my opinion one of - if not the - main reasons for her 'beliefs' and her behaviour.
posted by Myeral at 3:49 AM on February 8, 2017

Somebody that deluded has already rejected facts in favor of "facts" and there is nothing you can do but subtly let her know that you think she is a good person but you want nothing to do with her "facts." I have someone in my life just like that and I really like her and I totally am her friend on Facebook and I totally have all her posts on Facebook blocked on my feed so I don't have to read about her nutty ideas on vaccinations and such. It allows me to be friends with her and like her. If you enjoy hopeless pursuits, you might have better luck taking down a brick wall with a teaspoon.
posted by Foam Pants at 3:31 PM on February 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Hi, just came across a newsarticle that refers to recent research on conspiracy theories (from the university I'm studying at now, coincidentally!). And the original.
It seems that education level (like you say) is an important factor as it provides multifaceted means of (cognitive) control over / grasp on things. Possibly similarly cognitive control and the lack there-off in lower IQ makes people more susceptible to psychosis. So lack of (cognitive) control over subjects without all the tools/knowledge transferred by environment before school and then during years of (quality) education will render us more inclined to believe in conspiracy theories (simpler solutions to complex problems).

Higher IQ and/or education can lead to control and the feeling of having control (also interestingly via "subjective social low class/a feeling of societal marginalization" and threat" and "lower self-esteem"). So it could be also a way of acting something out towards you, if your family-member feels in some way less compared to you.

A conclusion could be that the conspiracy theory believing and or sharing with you could have a function (to feel control or to act something out in order to gain more perceived control) and therefore to try to change something without knowing the function of it, would be hard and maybe ill-advised as to 'take it away' without replacing it with something more solid could make feelings of lack of control greater. And I wonder if she really wants to be educated? It would probably be hard to repair the lack of education in an adult if it conflicts with the conspiracy theories they've already found. Most learning ends when stress-levels rise too high. So if you notice that, that should be a sign to stop any discussion. Also, I wonder if trying to explain something to her, disagreeing, by someone who is verbally stronger and has a (much) higher education wouldn't simply trigger a possible subjective lower self-esteem too much, thereby again raising the stress-levels.
As with all learning it probably goes best when you follow where inclination leads her, meaning where she's still willing and interested to follow you. It's gentle but I'm not sure if it will actually get the debunking done!
posted by Litehouse at 3:26 PM on April 14, 2017

Or shorter: what jbenben said!
posted by Litehouse at 3:42 PM on April 14, 2017

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