How do I respond to 9/11 Conspiracy theorist friend?
April 14, 2007 9:13 PM   Subscribe

How do I respond to a friends who's advocating 9/11 conspiracy theories (specifically the " Loose Change" video).

I watched the movie, then did more research (obligatory
wikipedia page, a rebutting
youtube movie
, and a few other
pages), and I came to the conclusion that this is right up there with JFK and Roswell conspiracies - interesting facts and uestions raised, though nothing even close to substantiating what would be the biggest story of our time. Lord knows I want to keep him as a friend, though I'm not quite sure how to react.
Part of me wants to view this like a religious (Mac vs. PC, Creation vs. Evolution) discussion, we each have our sides and just agree to disagree, though as friend I curious as how he got to this point. We're both military officers, so I also am curious how he can continue to serve a country he believes killed 3,000 of its own citizens (though I won't go reporting him or anything crazy like that).

posted by aggienfo to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Technically, you've already "reported him" because once you put something online it's there forever and it's incredibly easy to find out someone's circle of friends. At least he'll be thinking that if he's true conspiracy nut.

That said, as long you don't think he's going to harm anyone, do you need to do anything? If you're tired of his nonsense, tell him you don't want to talk about that but you'll discuss other things. Books, movies, whatever. If he insists, you may consider dropping him as a friend or least seeing him less often.

As for his conflicting beliefs, humans are very good at handling cognitive dissonance.
posted by who squared at 9:35 PM on April 14, 2007

Pretend the subject never came up, it doesn't matter to you, etc. Smile and nod and change the subject if it ever comes up again. Some people are afraid of spiders, some people have religion, and some people believe Elvis never died--as long as he's quietly, safely crazy (as opposed to loudly, aggressively crazy) it's not your problem, and I find that "discussing" it leads to nothing pleasant. (I'm assuming that he does have other, useful topics of conversation, otherwise you wouldn't be so keen to keep him as a friend.)
posted by anaelith at 9:38 PM on April 14, 2007

Technically, you've already "reported him" because once you put something online it's there forever and it's incredibly easy to find out someone's circle of friends.

Well, he didn't name the guy. I mean how many military officers does this guy know? Not to mention it would be hearsay anyway.

Show him the counter evidence. That's really all you can do. If he choses to believe it it's his choice, dumb as it may be.
posted by delmoi at 9:39 PM on April 14, 2007

Yeah, you can buy him the excellent Popular Mechanics book on the subject, but it won't matter. If disproving conspiracy theories could make them go away, then ... well, there wouldn't be many, would there?
posted by Bookhouse at 9:40 PM on April 14, 2007

Hard to say since a bunch of stuff doesn't add up and our government has a history of creating situations to move the military and shift control at high levels.

I'm just sayin'

Good luck.
posted by squidfartz at 9:42 PM on April 14, 2007

Refute him calmly, once. Then, never talk about it again.
posted by !Jim at 9:54 PM on April 14, 2007

snopes, baby. finally stopped my boyfriend from repeating his "no plane ever hit the pentagon" story.

That and the fact that a friend of mine SAW it hit.
posted by fshgrl at 10:14 PM on April 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, you can buy him the excellent Popular Mechanics book on the subject...

The Popular Mechanics article (later a book) focused on the more far-out theories in order to discredit the real questions involving 9/11. Here's a page that looks at that aspect of the PM article. BTW, do you know the "Senior Researcher" for the Popular Mechanics propaganda piece? His name is Benjamin Chertoff, cousin of Michael Chertoff, head of the Department of Homeland Security. Just a coincidence, I'm sure.

To the OP, let your friend study and share what he thinks. We don't all have to walk in lock-step to serve our country. In fact, just a guess, but maybe the reason it's all so important to him is because he does love his country!
posted by Gerard Sorme at 10:41 PM on April 14, 2007

This page is helpful. on preview: "Here's the story, as best as I know: I'm not related to Michael Chertoff, at least in any way I can figure out. We might be distant relatives, 15 times removed, but then again, so might you and I. Bottom line is I've never met him, never communicated with him, and nobody I know in my family has ever met or communicated with him.

As for what my mom said: When Chertoff was nominated to be head of homeland security it was the first I'd heard of him, and the same for my family (and, FYI, we'd already sent the 9/11 issue to the press by then!). My dad and I thought there might be some distant relation. When Chris Bollyn called and asked my mom if there was a relation (introducing himself as only "Chris"), she said "they might be distant cousins." Like much in the conspiracy world, this was taken WAY out of context. (Another case in point: Bollyn called me earlier and asked "Were you the senior researcher on the story?" I said, "I guess so," -- that's not a title I have ever used, nor is it at all common in magazine journalism, but I was the research editor at the time, so it kinda made sense.) Nonetheless, I was one of 9 reporters on the story, not counting editors, photo researchers, photo editors, copy editors, layout designers, production managers, fact-checkers, etc., etc., etc. who worked on this story."
posted by hortense at 10:51 PM on April 14, 2007 [3 favorites]

Here's the first of a series of videos of a debate between the "Loose Change" people and the editors of Popular Mechanics. The rest are linked in the "Related Videos" section.
posted by Mr. President Dr. Steve Elvis America at 10:54 PM on April 14, 2007 [1 favorite]

Okay, Chertoff relations aside, if his name was Benjamin Smith, he still researched a story that left out the truly hard questions that serious researchers have. By the way, most serious researchers don't include the "no plane hit the Pentagon" crowd. Seriously, one would have to be completely closed-minded to not see that there are valid questions that have no logical explanation and have never been answered.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 10:58 PM on April 14, 2007

People that are inclined to believe in conspiracy theories like the 9/11 conspiracy generally can't be convinced by rational arguments. It's always taken as a sign that "you just don't know the facts". Your best bet is to just ignore him when he tries to bring the subject up and clearly let him know that you don't want to hear about it. Eventually he'll get the point. If not, do you really want to be around this person?
posted by fishmasta at 11:09 PM on April 14, 2007

You also might keep in mind, before you dump your friend, that just because many conspiracy theories are wrong (and some ridiculous) does not mean there are never conspiracies. Don't write your friend off so fast. There were people in the nineteen thirties who said, in public, that FDR was in a wheelchair. The official response was that they were fomenting "conspiracy theories" and were generally written off as cranks. Today? All the history books reflect that FDR was in a wheelchair due to Polio. What might history books say fifty years from now - about September 11th, 2001?
posted by Gerard Sorme at 11:20 PM on April 14, 2007

Valid questions: The Coincidence Theorist's Guide to 9/11
posted by hortense at 11:22 PM on April 14, 2007

Thanks for that link (on preview, the first one), hortense, it's really excellent. I'm not sure if anything can help the OP, though. You know how when you look at a cloud and see a face, it's impossible not to see the face in the cloud afterwards? That's how conspiracy theories seem to work. Once you see them, you can't unsee them.

And Gerard, thanks for proving everyone's points.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:27 PM on April 14, 2007

Bookhouse, That WP article is hogwash. The History Channel is right. The fundamental disagreement between the revisionists (like the WP article) and real history is that while people were, indeed, told (infrequently) that FDR wore braces; the issue is the WHEELCHAIR. Those photos were never released until after FDR had died. The White House position was to DENY use of a wheelchair and said those that claimed so were fomenting "conspiracy theories." So, I haven't proved anyone's point. Some conspiracy theories ARE RIGHT! Sorry.
posted by Gerard Sorme at 11:38 PM on April 14, 2007

Chomsky has a pretty good analysis.
posted by luckypozzo at 11:48 PM on April 14, 2007

The White House position was to DENY use of a wheelchair and said those that claimed so were fomenting "conspiracy theories." So, I haven't proved anyone's point. Some conspiracy theories ARE RIGHT! Sorry.

Do you have any citation of this? That the white house spesifically used the word "Conspiracy theory" to describe people who said he was in a wheelchair?
posted by delmoi at 12:00 AM on April 15, 2007

The chomsky thing is great.
posted by delmoi at 12:09 AM on April 15, 2007

posted by game warden to the events rhino at 12:10 AM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Okay, Chertoff relations aside, if his name was Benjamin Smith, he still researched a story that left out the truly hard questions that serious researchers have.

Aggienfo, this is a beautiful example of why you should drop it and move on.

Because even if you demonstrate to your friend that one plank of their theory is simply untrue, they probably won't acknowledge it and will simply shift the goalposts to some other aspect of the conspiracy theory which 'proves' their version of events, and it will be as if your correction never happened.
posted by reynir at 1:55 AM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Honestly, you can't. You can refute their arguments with actual hard evidence and peer-reviewed science all you like: the minute you come up with an explanation of anything they can't refute without turning to the stock phrases and "evidence" of the "truth movement", you will either be accused of a) being a puppet for the government or b) a sheep, blind to the truth.

The BBC made an edition of their series The Conspiracy Files focusing on this issue which very calmly answered the claims of the "truthers", who did not come well out of it. It's floating around the internet in various forms. The programme-makers were accused of being part of the conspiracy, of course. There's a good article on the programme pages about the psychology of conspiracy theories. There's a few psychologists investigating the phenomenon, but they're generally accused of trying to discredit the conspiracy theorists and it's very hard to gain their trust enough to offer any real insight.

The only time I have managed to shut a 9/11 conspiracy theorist up (who responded to any attempt at reasoning with the smug smile of the truly enlightened) was to explain the same points that George Monbiot has made: by accepting all this nonsense as fact, you are essentially saying that we're powerless, that the Bush administration is capable of planning and covering up the deaths of 3000 innocent people and we can't do a damn thing about it except endlessly dissect the "evidence" on the internet. We just discuss the weather now.
posted by terrynutkins at 3:11 AM on April 15, 2007

Written in response to the Penn and Teller episode about conspiracy theories:

On what basis can we as individuals accept or refute conspiracy theories? Let’s take some examples that Penn and Teller raise: the reality of the moon landings, the nature of the JFK assassination, and the nature of the September 11th attacks. It should be noted that this is the worst episode of theirs I have ever seen. It relies largely upon arguments based on emotion, backed by the testimony of people to whom Penn and Teller accord expert status, rather than a logical or empirical demonstration of why these theories should be considered false.

Normally, our understanding of such phenomena is mediated through experts. When someone credible makes a statement about the nature of what took place, it provides some evidence for believing it. Penn and Teller amply demonstrate that there are lots of crazy and disreputable people who believe that the moon landing was faked, some strange conspiracy led to the death of JFK, and CIA controlled drones and explosives were used to carry out the September 11th attacks. That said, it hardly disproves those things. Plenty of certifiably insane people believe that the universe is expanding, that humans and viruses have a common biological ancestor, and that any whole number can be generated by adding powers of two (365 = 2^8 + 2^6 + 2^5 + 2^3 +2^2 + 2^0). That doesn’t make any of those things false.

We really have three mechanisms to work with:

1. Empirical evidence
2. Logical reasoning
3. Heuristic methods

As individuals confronted with questions like those above, we almost always use the third. While those with a powerful telescope and the right coordinates could pick out all the junk we left on the moon, most people lack the means. Likewise, those with a rifle, a melon, and some time can learn the physics behind why Kennedy moved the way he did when he was shot, despite Oliver Stone’s theories to the contrary. Finally, someone with some steel beams, jet fuel, and mathematical and engineering knowledge can model the collapse of the twin towers as induced by heat related weakening of steel to their heart’s content. Normally, however, we must rely upon experts to make these kinds of judgements for us, whether on the basis of sound technique or not.

Logical reasoning is great, but when applied strictly cannot get us very far. Most of what people call ‘logic’ is actually probabalistic reasoning. Strict logic can tell us about things that are necessary and things that are impossible. If every senior member of the American administration is controlled by an alien slug entity, and all alien slug entitites compel their hosts to sing “Irish Eyes are Smiling” once a day, we can logically conclude that all members of the American administration sing “Irish Eyes are Smiling” every day. Likewise, if all bats are bugs, all non-bugs must be non-bats. Entirely logically valid, but not too useful.

A heuristic reasoning device says something along the lines of: “In the more forty years or so since the moon landing, nobody has brought forward credible evidence that they were faked. As such, it is likely that they were not.” Occam’s razor works on the same kind of principle. This is often the best kind of analysis we can manage as individuals, and it is exactly this that makes conspiracy theories so difficult to dislodge. Once you adopt a different logic of probability, for instance one where certain people will stop at nothing to keep the truth hidden, your probabilistic reasoning gets thrown out of whack.

How, then, should we deal with competing testimony from ‘experts’ of various sorts, and with the fallout of our imperfect ability to access and understand the world as individuals? If there was a pat and easy answer to this question, it would be enormously valuable. Alas, there is not, and we are left to try and reach judgments on the basis of our own, imperfect, capabilities.

Original location on my site, with links and comments.
posted by sindark at 3:31 AM on April 15, 2007

British journalist George Monbiot has also written a response to Loose Change.
posted by sindark at 4:00 AM on April 15, 2007

I came to the conclusion that this is right up there with JFK and Roswell conspiracies - interesting facts and uestions raised, though nothing even close to substantiating what would be the biggest story of our time. Lord knows I want to keep him as a friend, though I'm not quite sure how to react.

I think that about sums it up. Lots of weird things going on, certainly. Lots of big question marks. But I have yet to see a cohesive thesis that puts all these puzzle pieces together into an obvious picture. It's a bit like a J.J. Abrams TV show: lots of questions, and each answer only raises more questions.

Not only that, but a lot of the weird things, when you wrap a conspiracy theory around them, well, they tend to create wildly divergent conspiracy theories that don't play well with each other. I mean, right now you've got Bush behind the plot, but he's friends with the Saudis and Taliban, then you've got the developer of the WTC who took out a huge insurance policy a few days before the planes hit, so he must be in on it, too, and was there even a plane that hit, and what about the Penn. flight? Was it a crash, or did it land somewhere safely? If it did, where are those people? Gitmo? Ideally there would be a single theory that fit all these interesting factoids cleanly. That there's not would lead credence to the idea that Bush was not a mastermind (when has he ever been?) but merely a sadistic opportunist (far more likely).

I'd probably just give a pat, "Yeah, I dunno, man..." and kind-of trail off. This basically tells your friend, "I'm trying to keep an open mind, and there are a lot of interesting questions raised, but I don't think there's enough evidence to put together anything cohesive just yet. Get back to me when you've got something more concrete."
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:25 AM on April 15, 2007

I've found it helpful to point out that the same people implicated in unsubstantiated conspiracies surrounding 9/11 are already implicated in other entirely substantiated conspiracies, and for anyone interested in the public good, it makes more sense to focus on the provable cases.
posted by scottreynen at 6:38 AM on April 15, 2007

Just as a terminology note, it is easy to dismiss what could be called alternate or rival theories as “conspiracy” theories. It should be harder to do that in this case, since the accepted explanation relies on conspiracies (by al-Qaeda and others, who conspired to blow up WTC). The official story is a conspiracy theory. What’s one more?
posted by joeclark at 7:00 AM on April 15, 2007

I apologize for hijacking this thread, but I have a dumb question: Why is the film called "Loose Change"?

Is it a reference to the idea that when you add up all these little bits it can amount to a lot?
posted by Ike_Arumba at 7:05 AM on April 15, 2007

The official story is a conspiracy theory. What’s one more?

Conspiracy theory doesn't mean what you think it means. It's an idiom that roughly means "nutjob alternative theory of an event without any meaningful evidence." Or at least that's what I can come up with this soon after waking up.

I'd even go as far as to argue that "conspiracy" is becoming a meaningless word in American english - who even uses it, outside of pairing it with "theory?"

As for calling what actually happened a "conspiracy theory," I've heard that argument before, and I'm not really buying it. You could just as easily say that the hijackers colluded in order to fly planes into buildings, or they toiled in secrecy. Neither one has quite the connotation that conspired has, but I don't think they're any less valid in describing the situation.

As for the original question, well.

You can't. People believe all sorts of stupid-ass bullshit, for all sorts of stupid-ass reasons. In addition, they don't want to change their minds. Sometimes, they'll dig in further, just to be contrary. By all means, educate yourself about 9/11, but spending your time trying to convince someone of something they don't want to hear is time wasted. (this is why I hardly ever comment in the blue...)

(I previously worked screening calls for an AM Talk station in a major market. We'd get 9/11 calls every day. EVERY DAY, and this was in 2005. It was exhausting.)

posted by god hates math at 7:24 AM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

the best page in the universe deals with this problem the best ive seen.
posted by complience at 7:26 AM on April 15, 2007

He thinks one thing. You think a different thing. You disagree. It is not necessary for you to agree for you to be friends. [Ask James Carville and Mary Matalin]

State your positions, then (a) move on, if the disagreement gets in the way of friendship; or (b) keep talking, if the discussion furthers friendship.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:32 AM on April 15, 2007

There was a guy in my squadron who believed the moon landings were faked. I'm the one who was always asking about WTC building #7.

Questioning your government does not make you any less of a soldier - it makes you a better one. Having the ability to recognize and understand the 'big picture' of what's going on around you leads to better decision-making, and in the long run makes you a better leader.

Your friend has a quirk. I think if he put any serious soul-searching into his beliefs he may change his stance on military service, but it sounds like he just likes the drama of conspiracy theories. Make fun of him and leave it at that.

My squadron-mate who is convinced the moon-landings were faked is still very much my friend, and he still manages to serve his country quite honorably.
posted by matty at 8:00 AM on April 15, 2007

god hates math: I think you're wrong about the word "conspiracy." It's often paired with "criminal" or used on it's own. The 9/11 attacks can obviously be described as a "conspiracy" as long as you make you're talking about Al Quaida.
posted by delmoi at 8:24 AM on April 15, 2007

Give him a copy of Richard Hofstadter's famous essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics."
posted by nasreddin at 9:17 AM on April 15, 2007

I don't really see the utility of debating whether or not 9/11 conspiracy theories are correct. That's not even the question on the table. The question is: how do you deal with someone who believes in something you don't? In this day and age this should be a skill we've all learned. You deal with it the same way you deal with people of different cultures and religions -- respect their right to believe as they choose. And never assume you are always in the right.
posted by loiseau at 7:12 PM on April 15, 2007 [1 favorite]

Tell him he must put this material aside, for now, because as a military officer he can do nothing to advance the discovery and disclosure of the truth, whatever it is, but he can and will destroy his career and even his ability to serve.

If you think he's getting involved in this stuff because he wants out, but can't admit it directly, perhaps to himself as well, tell him there are easier ways to quit; ways that won't wreck his life and jeopardize his friends like this will.
posted by jamjam at 10:26 AM on April 16, 2007

I agree with loiseau. If you don't want to debate the issue, then don't debate the issue. As you see in any 9/11 thread, there is a counter-argument for every argument.

Regarding 9/11, a good friend says "God, if I believed that, life would become very difficult." It ends the conversation, which is your goal.
posted by rakish_yet_centered at 1:14 PM on April 16, 2007

Your friend should not miss Mohamed Atta and the Venice Flying Circus
this is kinda the deep end of the conspiracy pool
posted by hortense at 9:55 PM on April 22, 2007

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