How to deal with an intelligent conspiracy theorist friend?
March 19, 2008 9:19 PM   Subscribe

A friend of mine, who is highly educated (married with two kids, accomplished medical researcher), is absolutely convinced that September 11 was a huge conspiracy initiated by members of the US government. She has a detailed complex explanation for everything. She takes it deeply personally when I scoff at her, telling me I should read the evidence before forming an opinion. I see her as gullible and she sees me as ignorant. Is there an analysis available comprehensively somewhere addressing the conspiracy theorists to the satisfaction of the leading academics in the relevant areas (material engineering, aerodynamics, media relations, architecture etc)? How do you deal with people like this?

For example, she says that there is no rational explanation for the WTC7 failure and shows me extensively documented websites showing 300 architects who concur giving their explanations. She believes the Pentagon was never hit by a plane and again cites detailed analysis "proving" it could not have been so. Furthermore she believes (more tentatively in this case) that the media was complicit in the conspiracy and faked the images of the planes flying into the WTC buildings using CGI. Apparently the motive was to induce war for various revenue purposes. It's driving me nuts. It strongly offends my own sense of reality. She has an "explanation" for everything and has spent many hundreds of hours researching this. After discussing it with her, she ends up resenting me deeply and I end up feeling sorry for her which makes her resent me even more.
posted by vizsla to Human Relations (62 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Agree to disagree.
posted by pompomtom at 9:25 PM on March 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

How do you deal with people like this?

You don't. People like this don't believe conspiracies because they're convinced by the evidence, they believe them because the conspiracy fulfills a psychological need they have. It's not that different from religion, and you're going to have about as much success proving that 9/11 wasn't a conspiracy as you would be proving that communion isn't the body of Christ.

The few friends I've had who have become conspiracy theorist (or evangelicals), I've dealt with by telling them that I'm not interested in discussions about conspiracy (or religion), and that if they're not willing to respect my boundaries, there's no room for a friendship.

More often than not, the fascination with the religion/conspiracy/cult/whatever passes, and our friendship returns to normal. Sometimes it doesn't.
posted by Jairus at 9:27 PM on March 19, 2008 [9 favorites]

A few relevant threads that might be helpful.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:31 PM on March 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have always told people with whom I am in contact that have the same opinion regarding 9/11/01 as your friend's two things. First, Rationally, based on experience, there is no way our government is capable of pulling off such an elaborate detailed sophisticated conspiracy without screwing it up. There is no way our government could keep a secret. We are just too incompetent to pull it off. George Bush and his crew have proven in the 6.5 years since that no amount of desire to do something like this could be overcome by sheer stupidity and incompetence.

Second, if the planes did not hit, where is my friend who was on the AA flight? How did his dna end up in a pile of rubble in NYC if the flight onto which he checked and boarded (verifiable based on computer and video records) did not crash into the towers?

I do not think any amount of logic, website, articles, first hand accounts or anything else for that matter will change this person's mind. Do not engage in the discussion about it with her.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:36 PM on March 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

I don't believe the conspiracies, but I wonder why you find her gullible when she has actually done extensive research and you haven't. If you look at it completely objectively, who would you find ignorant: someone who has done hundreds of hours of research or someone who hasn't done any research but has deep convictions? Who would you find gullible: someone who has come to a conclusion based on on conducting hundreds of hours of research or someone who holds an opinion based on mainstream thought? Now, all this isn't to say that she's not gullible and doesn't have psychological issues, because I think people like this do. (Disclaimer: I haven't done hundreds of hours of research on psychological disorders, so this is based on pop psychology that I am pulling directly from my ass.) But you should agree to disagree because you both are experiencing cognitive dissonance and neither of you will ever change your opinion.
posted by HotPatatta at 9:39 PM on March 19, 2008 [11 favorites]

Try these on:

"Loose Change" is a fictional film based on most of the ridiculous conspiracy theories that your friend believes in.

With that said, don't make it a point of contention with your friend. Pompomtom's got it right - just agree to disagree. In the less contentious or heated times of the discussion, bring up some of the facts listed in these sites, but not at the expense of your friendship. Unless, of course, she's willing to throw away the friendship over this, which should tell you all you need to know about her 9/11 ideas.
posted by Detuned Radio at 9:40 PM on March 19, 2008

I would reverse positions and agree with her completely... for maybe a month. For the second month I would convincingly act like I never heard of 9/11 events and make her tell you about what happened and then tell her that you're quite sure the World Trade Center is still standing and that all the web sites that say otherwise are just conspiring with Ashton Kutcher to get Punk'd back on the air.

You never know. She might just come around when you're suddenly the fucked-up friend with no connection to reality and desperately needing some counseling.
posted by Rafaelloello at 9:41 PM on March 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

Perspective helps. I have noticed, for example, that 'debates' over this are a lot like red state / blue state arguments where nobody's really listening and everyone's just pigeonholing everyone else with talking points. I'm sure people will respond here with advice suitable for 'these conspiracy people' or 'those crazy conspiracy theorists' as if they're all one bunch. It's the same steps by which everyone with any liberal views is labeled an 'extreme leftist' so that they can then be ignored by the 'mainstream.'

Something worth respecting is that there have almost certainly been many coverups and shady deals and whatnot since and concerning the events of 9/11... by many different actors, for many different reasons, some of which probably do include profiteering but most of which (the air traffic control tapes, for example) are probably just sloppy attempts to cover up incompetence. And it's not a very far-out conspiracy to believe that 9/11 was manipulated, post facto, in a 'conspiratorial' way to justify a war and/or manipulate oil markets. In fact I think that's (now) the conventional interpretation of history, though it was crazy to suggest a few yrs ago.

But the post-9/11 coverups and/or funny business, no matter how tangentially related to the attack itself, fuels the flame for conspiracy hunters. Speaking as a fiction writer, here, it sure makes it easy to 'bend' things to fit into the framework of a Master Evil Conspiracy if that's what one sets out to do, consciously or (as Jairus suggests) subconsciously. Human animals are pattern-finders, after all, and there are about nine thousand dots to connect any way one wishes when it comes to everything '9/11' is about, historically.

The word 'conspiracy' is itself loaded, too, of course, and has been tainted a lot via JFK, UFOs etc. Rejecting all possible conspiracies is misuse of a very broad brush in the same league as buying into all of them. Watergate was a conspiracy, after all, as are most anti-trust convictions.

Are there any non-crazy parts of what your friend believes that you'll concede to her are possible, or even likely? Even a small one would give you credibility to say "This makes sense, because here's the falsifiable evidence. But THAT, that is crazy-talk."

I guess I'm suggesting finding some middle ground. It probably exists.

I don't think I'm a wacko, but I'm open minded.
posted by rokusan at 9:47 PM on March 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

but I wonder why you find her gullible when she has actually done extensive research and you haven't

Because her extensive research seems to nearly all be into crap, much like someone who had done "extensive research" into Danikenite or Velikoskian nonsense.

The person who's never read any Danikenite tracts about how aliens built the Pyramids or Fallingwater or whatever has a better handle on the truth than someone who's deeply familiar with the arguments and "evidence" offered by the Danikenites.

How you deal with it:

(1) It's nice proof that smarts in one area doesn't translate to overall smarts or a lack of gullibility.

(2) Don't bring it up with her, and if she does, ask her to change the topic, along the lines that jairus said. Her crazy beliefs don't break your leg or pick your pocket; hell, they don't even hurt her, so there's no need for you to save her from them.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:57 PM on March 19, 2008

It's driving me nuts. It strongly offends my own sense of reality.
What does this mean? Are you doubting your own political views? Then read some more and come to your own conclusion. Does her "absurd" view somehow offend you? I have plenty of friends with disagreeable opinions, but I don't argue with them, and it doesn't offend my sense of reality. Look, you've already discussed 9/11 with her, I don't think she's going to suddenly change her mind.
After discussing it with her, she ends up resenting me deeply and I end up feeling sorry for her which makes her resent me even more.
A lot of people have trouble discussing politics without breaking into a full-blown argument. It's often best to just avoid the topic altogether, especially if the debates are hurting your friendship.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 10:14 PM on March 19, 2008

Oh one thing I probably should have mentioned earlier relates to her medical research. For years she has been telling me that there is no scientific basis for concluding that Prozac has any greater benefits to all but the most severely depressed patients, than a placebo. Even in the most severe cases, 80% of the effects is explainable by placebo. She claims that experimental bias related to the ommission of certain types of survey data deemed to be unreliable or irrelevants led to claims Prozac had any benefits of all. I told her that I considered a conspiracy by the drug companies and government authorities to promote a useless drug would have been exposed by now given that it has been in use for almost 40 years.

Well it turns out that she appears to have been correct on this matter all along. Don't get me wrong. She is a highly rational and meticulously careful person. I have to acknowledge my mistake on my assumption about drug companies. However the 9-11 conspiracies are in a whole different class of improbability. You can imagine how skeptically she views my skepticism now however.
posted by vizsla at 10:22 PM on March 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

when I scoff at her

Try not doing that.

(I'm not saying she's right--of course she's not. But can't you talk about movies or something?)
posted by staggernation at 10:23 PM on March 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

People like this don't believe conspiracies because they're convinced by the evidence, they believe them because the conspiracy fulfills a psychological need they have. It's not that different from religion, and you're going to have about as much success proving that 9/11 wasn't a conspiracy as you would be proving that communion isn't the body of Christ.

I hear you, and I agree that this is an excellent analysis of a full-blown conspiracy nut. I will admit to this, though.... while I recognize that the whole "9/11 truth" scene is offensive and wrong, I have seen "Loose Change" and I completely understand how a person who isn't an engineer, an historian, etc., would find it compelling. (I'm not either of those things, either, which is why you can lie to me outright about melting points and beams and why smoke might puff out of windows and I'll believe you because I don't know anything about it). I don't know what your friend's deal is - but I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that anyone who supports these views is necessarily an unreachable lunatic.

One documentary you (and she) might enjoy is this BBC special, which tackles "Loose Change" and the team behind it head on. I like it because it's an orderly examination of the claims made in the film, as opposed to some other debunkings that don't address the all of the compelling "evidence" that 9/11 truthers carry around.

Another suggestion you might make is that she check these people out. For example, world class batshit Alex Jones is the executive producer of the latest version of Loose Change. As a medical researcher, she might be interested to learn that when you scratch a 9/11 truther (Dylan Avery included), you invariably find an anti-vaccine AIDS denialist.
posted by moxiedoll at 10:31 PM on March 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Talking about 9/11 causes in normal conversation is about as fruitful as talking about Kennedy assassination theories. Neither of you will be able to verify the truth for yourselves and the people are still dead...just drop it and move on if you value her company.
posted by Burhanistan at 10:32 PM on March 19, 2008

Not talking about is probably wisest. But...
If you *want* to have the discussion, because you're friends and you like to talk about the things that interest you, you might want to talk not about the actual physical events of September 11, or try to 'convince' her of anything, but instead talk about the significance of the way different people explain those events.
The "9/11 truth" argument is classically occultist; by which I mean that it centres on a need to see hidden significance and meaning in everyday prosaic events. If it satisfies people to explain the deaths of a great many people in terms of a secret sinister Government plan, it's because the alternative interpretation, that the attacks were tragically meaningless, except to those genuine conspirators who planned the hijackings, whose fundamentalist worldviews explained the attacks only in a way repugnant to most other people, is unacceptable. Your friend obviously feels very strongly about the 9/11 attacks, and wants to believe that there was more to it than the murderous politics of a small group of fanatics. That's only human.
Perhaps you could start a conversation with:
Let's agree to disagree about what has happened; both of us agree that the events, though our interpretations differ, were bad. What can we do to stop it happening again?
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 10:42 PM on March 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

It strongly offends my own sense of reality.

Sounds as though she might be doing you a favor. Maybe consider it in that light. I mean, what is the basis for your certainty? Consensus? The position you take is understandable, but from a logical perspective it is fundamentally unreasonable, regardless of this issue. You scoff, you refuse to evaluate (potential) evidence, you have pre-judged, you seek to find persuasive material after forming your opinion.

Alternatively, you could try a compassionate approach. As a meticulous, careful person, she might prefer to avoid bigger, more disturbing issues. Maybe this obsession is a coping mechanism for a larger uneasiness with the state of the world that she perceives but is not able to address. Instead, she marks off one small corner of recent history and gnaws at it: a terrible event, shoddy news reporting, confusion, grief, corruption, coincidence, spectacle, a totally inadequate official explanation--it's got everything to keep her mind off other things.

Failing that, you can acknowledge those things that are persuasive in her theory--the holes in the consensus view--without agreeing to her speculations about actors and motives. It sounds to me as though the two of you are bright enough to frustrate the hell out of each other. Having people like that in your life is good. So don't get entrenched, let your reasonableness be an example.
posted by Phred182 at 10:52 PM on March 19, 2008 [3 favorites]

You scoff, you refuse to evaluate (potential) evidence, you have pre-judged, you seek to find persuasive material after forming your opinion.

This is the crux of the problem. You and your friend are both intractable about your views ("It strongly offends my own sense of reality").

There are simply too many unknowns with historical moments (including 9/11) to assume that any one view can be canonical. If this wasn't true, we wouldn't need many historians and archeologists.

Healthy skepticism about all interpretations of an event, including the official one, might go a long way towards having a discussion with each other, as opposed to lecturing each other. When you stop lecturing each other and forgo the psychological need to be correct at all costs, you may once again be able to enjoy each other's friendship, if you value this.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:03 PM on March 19, 2008 [2 favorites]

JohnnyGunn: "Second, if the planes did not hit, where is my friend who was on the AA flight? How did his dna end up in a pile of rubble in NYC if the flight onto which he checked and boarded (verifiable based on computer and video records) did not crash into the towers?"

Please don't let her explanation offend you or the memory of your friend, but her explanation is that small passenger planes were flown into WTC by remote control (part of the government conspiracy). However the plane crashes were provided as a distraction by the government for the complete controlled demoltion of the buildings. She also claims that there are very few credible witnesses who saw large passenger planes hit the towers.
posted by vizsla at 11:05 PM on March 19, 2008

Detuned Radio: "Try these on:

"Loose Change" is a fictional film based on most of the ridiculous conspiracy theories that your friend believes in.

Unfortunately she believes that the documentary Loose Change was produced to ultimately discredit the "truth seekers" and is itself part of the conspiracy. See how difficult it is to argue with this logic?
posted by vizsla at 11:08 PM on March 19, 2008

I completely understand your frustration. When smart people believe crazy things (and, I'm sorry, but this is crazy for a lot of reasons), it can make you wonder about the nature of truth, intelligence, etc. It can also make you wonder how people can possibly get along when you can't even count on the educated ones to see the world as you do.

I think there are two pieces to this (either of which might make you feel better): (1) coming to terms with her views and/or (2) persuading her to revise or reevaluate her conclusions.

(1) This should be fairly easy. You need to just recognize that she may be educated in her field, but that doesn't mean you should expect her to have any particular expertise in evaluating or investigating questions outside of her field. This is certainly not medical research. Remember James Watson's comments on race? Brilliant researcher who made foolish statements about a field in which he lacked real expertise. This happens all the time, and you shouldn't confuse education and competence in one field with authority to speak intelligently in others. (A slightly different point, but note you are falling into the conspiracy theorists' trap on the Prozac theory. The fact that a meta-analysis of earlier studies found problems in the data does not verify her assertions of a conspiracy among drug manufacturers, the FDA, psychiatrists, etc. The problem with conspiracy theories is not that there are no facts that support them, it's that their adherents see all the facts as supporting them. Even contrary evidence is treated by the conspiracy theorist as evidence that there must be a conspiracy).

(2) Unlike some of the others her, I see absolutely nothing wrong with your trying to convince your friend that she is wrong. You'll probably fail, but you've already had these conversations without jeopardizing your friendship, so why not try? I would bring her back to her roots in the scientific method. Ask her whether certain facts would persuade her that she is wrong. It's great if some are actual facts, but they can all be hypothetical (as long as you don't lie). Get progressively more extreme with the contrary evidence. If you start with documents from the hijackers, she might say they were doctored. Videotaped claim of responsibility by Bin Laden? Doctored. And so on. Eventually, you will need to ask what hypothetical fact could persuade her that she is wrong. If she can't think of one, she should recognize that she's got a problem. Let that stew for a few weeks. If she has internalized the scientific method, maybe she'll be troubled enough to take another look at the facts. It's a longshot, but can't hurt. [On preview -- maybe follow up with moxiedoll's advice about where to send her]
posted by lionelhutz5 at 11:10 PM on March 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

Have a look at these 9-11 myths, there are links to screwloosechange at the very bottom of 'whats new'
posted by hortense at 11:20 PM on March 19, 2008

Why don't you take up flying saucers as a hobby? Read a website or book or two about the thousands of sightings (some by trustworthy people) and bring up the subject with her? It might give her something to take her mind off 9/11 (which I really think she needs to do -- she sounds pretty obsessive to me) and, who knows, you might have a fun time agreeing.
posted by exphysicist345 at 11:31 PM on March 19, 2008

Unfortunately she believes that the documentary Loose Change was produced to ultimately discredit the "truth seekers" and is itself part of the conspiracy. See how difficult it is to argue with this logic?

You can't win this. Your friend wants to believe on some level, and will, no matter what you say.

Accepting that and not approaching the subject is probably the best you can do here.
posted by Mikey-San at 11:48 PM on March 19, 2008

rokusan writes: Are there any non-crazy parts of what your friend believes that you'll concede to her are possible, or even likely? Even a small one would give you credibility to say "This makes sense, because here's the falsifiable evidence. But THAT, that is crazy-talk."

I guess I'm suggesting finding some middle ground. It probably exists.

I like to think of myself as an open-minded person, and the 9/11 conspiracy subject is one I'm firmly agnostic about (for now). Some of the theories are absurd and over the top, but in my mind there are some nagging questions that aren't answered by the official story, in my mind anyway. I'm not a "9/11 truther", but I think it's almost as absurd to not question the "official" story to some degree.

Also, there are those who dismiss "conspiracy nuts" as Jairus wrote earlier: "people don't believe conspiracies because they're convinced by the evidence, they believe them because the conspiracy fulfills a psychological need they have." Probably true in a lot of instances, but there's a flip side to that coin. People who unflinchingly and unquestioningly find no reason to disbelieve the consensus reality also have a psychological need for events to be simple and understandable. Incidentally, just as the conspiracy theorists do. In other words, it can be countered that those who scoff at the conspiracy whackjobs are afraid to alter their worldview, afraid to find out that there might really be some scheme beyond their control.

You say your friend upsets your sense of reality. No offense, but that's because your mind is closed. Don't feel bad, though, because it looks like your friend's mind is closed, too. Solution: have a discussion about this, not a debate with a winner and loser, and as rokusan wrote, find some common ground.
posted by zardoz at 12:08 AM on March 20, 2008 [6 favorites]

This book may help.
posted by Class Goat at 12:16 AM on March 20, 2008

I have friends that have this problem, and, as is the case in most of these situations, I try to keep the focus on the now.

"OK, Then you're going with me to the peace vigil on the anniversary of the war's start?"
"No, I don't think you're right, but those people are dead and they're not coming back and there are live people in Iraq, Darfur, and St.Louis that we can help, that we can keep alive, right now"

The point being that this person is, in Fiasco de Gama's words above, satisfying a need for some kind of internal order, and in my opinion, you can help excorcise this demon by directing their angst, their fervor, towards a viable, constructive, cause.

In any event, it can't hurt.
posted by eclectist at 1:02 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I understand your frustration very well. I have lost friendships with people who started to believe in occult shit about the hidden meanings of coincidences; it became too much for me to listen to and I lost respect for them. Friendship involves respect and sometimes people lose your respect. The best option would be for you to just not talk about it with her for the sake of the friendship; but if the friendship erodes, so be it, sometimes people part ways. I don't think you will change her mind; people assume beliefs like this for private psychological reasons and not based on objective consideration of the issue, but then they talk about it as if their opinion were objectively founded, this is what makes it so infuriating. If you wish to argue with her, then:

First of all, 9/11 was a conspiracy. It was a conspiracy by Bin Laden and his followers. Some people in the US government apparently knew that something of that sort was going to happen (see Condi Rice's memo, for example) and it might seem that no-one did very much to stop it. If her basic contention is that certain people in the US govt needed to engineer a war (for "revenue purposes" or for whatever reason), isn't it a much more plausible conspiracy theory to say that Bin Laden et al conspired to fly planes into the WTC and the Pentagon and the govt conspired to let it happen? This does not strain credulity and is in line with the facts as we know them. So she can have her conspiracy theory without straying into fantasy.

Second of all, the denial that there were planes crashing into New York on September 11th is like the denial of the Holocaust in the sense that, unless you were there, you have no direct evidence that it happened. All you have is a mountain of indirect evidence, i.e. witnesses, documentation, videos, etc. So you cannot "prove" these things to the exclusion of all other scenarios with a metaphysical level of certainty. Maybe, as Descartes noted, you're dreaming and don't know it, and if this is the case then both of you are wrong. Maybe you're like Jim Carrey in The Truman Show and the whole world is conspiring against you, in which case you're probably wrong about the WTC as well since you've been watching carefully doctored news. There are an endless number of alternative scenarios. The burden of proof is on the more implausible, far-fetched scenario. Her alternative scenario is what -- that no planes flew into any buildings on that day, it was all faked on TV? The question is: how big would the conspiracy have to be for this to be true? All journalists all over the country are involved in the conspiracy, or just some of them? Everyone in Manhattan is in on the conspiracy? The whole Pentagon, including secretaries, janitors, etc? All air-traffic controllers, or just some of them? All the physicists and engineers who have looked at the collapse of the buildings and do find it believable -- are they all in the conspiracy? Don't you know some of these people? Don't you personally know some journalists, physicists, etc? What threat would keep all these people in line and keep them from spilling the beans? You can threaten individual people into keeping quiet, but you can't exactly secretly threaten all of Manhattan with punishment, and one might think it's generally hard to keep journalists quiet. And why, exactly, are all the journalists in on the conspiracy? What do they get from it? Are they all getting paid off in secret? Is this why the Iraq War is so expensive -- because the govt is secretly bribing about 15 % of the country the whole time? Etc., etc.

Note: if you're interested in the philosophical discussion of these issues you might want to look at Wittgenstein's On Certainty.
posted by creasy boy at 1:16 AM on March 20, 2008 [5 favorites]

Here's one more book that might help: Why People Believe Weird Things.

It won't talk your friend out of her conspiracy theories, but it might help you understand her.

As for your issues and the fact that it "offends your sense of reality" -- I know exactly what you mean. You're not going to change her mind, though, so you have to decide whether keeping her around is worth the offense.

Personally, I'd probably break off all contact. I just wouldn't be able to stand it. But hopefully you're a better person than me and can "agree to disagree" for the sake of your friendship.
posted by mmoncur at 1:52 AM on March 20, 2008

Forget it. It's a lost cause in trying to find *evidence* supporting this POV or that without some detail not panning out 100%. The only way to explain this - is karma. It happened because it was supposed to happen - according to the law of cause and effect. Something - thought, word or action was sent out that acted as precursor for the events that transpired on 9/11. The outcome was in exact proportions to what was sent out. See also causality.
posted by watercarrier at 2:32 AM on March 20, 2008

It doesn't matter whether she is smart or not. She believes that now.

Would you seriously argue with a devout Catholic that the virginity of Mary is actually a Hebrew-to-Greek translation mistake that was turned into a dogma for very precise reasons, thus making the massive Catholic devotion to that very minor character of the gospel narratives essentially a hoax?

Would you try to convince an Orthodox Jew that there actually is no evidence whatsoever for Exodus, the foundation of their religion?

Would you try to convince a Creationist that the fossil record, among many things, make their beliefs simply absurd?

Would you try to convince a Muslim that their religion denies -- in a peculiarly adventure-novel manner -- what is very possibly the only reasonably solid fact of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, ie that he died on the cross?

I don't think you would.

If your friend actually thinks that the world media actually Photoshopped the images of the planes flying into the WTC she's beyond help. You cannot challenge her articles of faith.

Discuss other topics. If that's impossible for you, consider hanging out with her less.
posted by matteo at 2:57 AM on March 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

Ockham's Razor.

First, discuss something she scoffs at and illustrate how the simpler explanation is the most likely (the fake moon landing, Jesus coming back from the dead, whatever).

Then, discuss how "probable" her explanations are compared to simpler explanations.

Then, when discussing it, say "I have to go with the razor on this one."
posted by ewkpates at 3:45 AM on March 20, 2008

I highly recommend this Frontline episode - The Man Who Knew.
posted by louche mustachio at 4:25 AM on March 20, 2008

Would you seriously argue with a devout Catholic that the virginity of Mary is actually a Hebrew-to-Greek translation mistake that was turned into a dogma for very precise reasons, thus making the massive Catholic devotion to that very minor character of the gospel narratives essentially a hoax?

If they were smart enough to see the objections to their beliefs, and curious enough to want to debate them, then yes, yes I would. Why not? (If they were deeply entrenched behind a barrage of a priori assumptions, and didn't want to discuss them, then of course it would be a different matter. But not all religious believers, or even all conspiracy theorists, fall into that category.)

In the past I've sometimes been reluctant to enter into debate with conspiracy theorists, partly out of a sense of embarrassment at the sight of sensible people believing stupid things, and partly out of a fear that by taking them seriously I will only be giving them extra credibility. I've now changed my mind. Conspiracy theories have become so widespread that I think it's important to challenge them when they come up in conversation, rather than politely changing the subject. I try not to be rude or aggressive; instead, I try to be genuinely interested in other people's views and how they come to hold them. And when conspiracy theories are brought out into the light and held up for examination, it doesn't usually take long for the holes in the argument to become obvious. Magna est veritas et praevalebit.

In talking to conspiracy theorists, try not to get caught up in a discussion of the 'evidence', which they will probably know better than you and will use to knock you down ('how do you explain X? .. how do you explain Y?'). Instead, try to focus on the chain of reasoning, and you will almost always find a point where one improbability is used to explain another improbability ('But why didn't the media expose the conspiracy?' 'Oh, they were in on it too.'). Then politely point out that this weakens the argument rather than strengthening it.
posted by verstegan at 4:40 AM on March 20, 2008

There's a girl I used to go to school with a billion years ago. She recently found me on myspace. I would defriend her, but she keeps me in the roffles every day with her 3-5 bulletins explaining the TRUTH to us sheep.

She believes that no planes crashed into the wtc, she believes that no plane crashed into a field in PA. She says it landed in Ohio and was later sold at auction. She believes that airplane contrails are the government spraying radioactive passivity drugs onto us, and that airplane routes are strategically designed to maximize dispersal of this drug. She believes the government puts mercury into vaccines because they WANT everyone to have autism, and she believes that FEMA staffs empty concentration camps 24/7 so that they can herd us up and take us all in at any given time. She also believes that the north american whatever treaty will see us absorbing canada and mexico into our supercountry, at which point our constitution and bill of rights will suddenly cease to be. She also believes that Ron Paul is going to be elected president.

She offends me too on most of her rants and raves, and over the last couple months she's literally slipped further and further from anything that even makes sense. (She also believes now that eating is bad for you, some governmentally controlled thing, and that everyone who's smart is anorexic. Interestingly she's also a swinger and an escort.) I don't know if she's sick, or just gullible, or whatever, but she's caught up in all this tripe and it's now defined who she is. I keep her on my list because she's like a bad carwreck---but I've certainly moved away from her as a "friend." Perhaps you should do the same.

(Especially with Uncle Sam reading all her emails as she figures him out.)
posted by TomMelee at 5:20 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

That steaming jet engine that I saw in the intersection of Church St and Murray St looked pretty real to me.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:14 AM on March 20, 2008 [7 favorites]

I would treat her just as respectfully as I treat people who believe there is some sort of all-powerful god who loves them, and that they go to a magical heaven when they die.

In other words, the vast majority of humans harbor silly beliefs, and no one is ever going to change their minds, no matter what the evidence. Just don't talk about 9/11 with this person, the way I just don't talk about religion with, well, pretty much everyone.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 6:46 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

hows me extensively documented websites showing 300 architects who concur giving their explanations

I'd like to point out that architects know very little about structural engineering, but hey, that's neither here nor there.

This is an argument you can't win, because every time you counter one of her points, she's going to move the goalposts or google until she finds more "evidence" and the cycle will start all over again.

In my experience, conspiracy theorists aren't particularly interested in the truth, they're trying to fill some other need that possessing secret knowledge would entail. Makes life exciting, I guess, knowing the government is trying to silence you.
posted by electroboy at 6:49 AM on March 20, 2008

As others have said, these 9/11 conspiracies are offensive to anyone who was hurt by the events. Too many people died, and too many people were hurt by the deaths and were eye witnesses. Many of us personally know people who were eyewitnesses, and it IS offensive to have people tell you they are wrong.

Part of it is the desire to not want to believe that 19 nutjobs could cause all that destruction. It's somehow more comfortable to believe that it's a vast conspiracy. They'd rather believe our government has that kind of power than believe those dudes on the planes did.

There is also some kind of arrogance thing. These theorists believe they know more than experts. They use pseudo science to "prove" their insane conclusions. One of the more enraging things is using photos and tv screen captures to do spectral analysis on molten metals. They ignore all realities of photography, and then build on a wrong assumption.

Or the "why didn't it topple??" They see a tall thing hit near the top and can't fathom it not falling. They fail to account for the massive mass of the thing. They fail to realize that massive things behave differently, to the naked eye, than non massive things. That really hot fires behave differently.

I'm of a different opinion than many of the commenters here- unlike personal religious beliefs which are mostly harmless, these conspiracies MUST be challenged, because they are undeniably harmful to society. Everyone is allowed an opinion, but these people purport their rantings as fact. That's bad.

(The same thing applies to the Prozac study. 1- Prozac is meant to be a less powerful drug with fewer side effects. So it will not work as profoundly as the more classic drugs. So expecting it to work in all cases is silly. 2- Because it has fewer side effects, it can be prescribed more readily. 3- Not all doctors are perfect- if they misdiagnose or prescribe Prozac without treating the underlying causes, it won't appear to work. 4- Some patients want a magic pill to cure their ills. They demand Prozac and then when it doesn't work (because it wasn't the appropriate drug for their ailment), they are a data point in the negative column. 5- The conclusion that Prozac is a scam because it has such a high apparent non effective rate is wrong- it worked for those 20%. Therefore it does something. Solutions do not have to be universal to be useful.)
posted by gjc at 7:24 AM on March 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

I think that for a lot of people, it's easier to believe that our government is the enemy--full of evil doers and nefarious plots for the sole purpose of financial gain--than to countenance a largely nameless, faceless enemy who willingly martyr themselves to kill others, with no other reason than quasi-religious fervor and multi-directional rage. The latter, on the face of it, is bewildering.

If your friend doesn't want to believe, let her be. It's a damn shame and when or if she comes around, it will hit her incredibly hard. She's in denial, which is also part of the grieving process.
posted by gsh at 7:47 AM on March 20, 2008

Take her to a picnic on the grassy knoll.
posted by flabdablet at 7:52 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

unlike personal religious beliefs which are mostly harmless

Religion has done plenty of harm. If you believe the official 9/11 story, religious beliefs played a central role.

My argument is more that you can't change people's beliefs, no matter how irrational, or, as you argue, harmful they may be. There's no point trying to argue with a conspiracy theorist.
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 8:01 AM on March 20, 2008

You've got two options-

1. Agree to disagree

2. Do enough research to be able to debunk the conspiracy theories, and then have a calm and friendly debate on the topic. These conspiracy theories don't hold up to scrutiny, and you should be able to make this clear just by asking lots of questions of the form, "Okay, so let's suppose X happened. How do you explain Y?" Your friend is a scientist and this line should plant seeds of doubt in her mind, because this is the same way you tear apart any lousy scientific theory. That said, you need to avoid framing it as a personal confrontation, and you can't use common sense (e.g., occam's razor) as an axiom, because she is clearly immune to it.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 8:14 AM on March 20, 2008

3- Not all doctors are perfect- if they misdiagnose or prescribe Prozac without treating the underlying causes, it won't appear to work.

If they treat the underlying causes and the prescribe Prozac, it will "appear" to work when in fact the problem was treated by other means!

5- The conclusion that Prozac is a scam because it has such a high apparent non effective rate is wrong- it worked for those 20%. Therefore it does something. Solutions do not have to be universal to be useful.)

But what percentage does placebo work for?

sorry for derail. There is plenty of evidence she was reasonable about the drug co stuff.

THe 9/11 stuff is weird, as there is a faction of the "truth" movement devoted to just FBI foreknowledge of the plan - they don't alter the actual events of the day, but just the lead-up. They're focused on who at the FBI shut down investigations or the connections of the Bush family/ CIA to Al Quaida (eg, here, here). That stuff seems paranoid, sure, but not completely insane. It's just kind of impossible to know for sure, and it basically depends how trusting you are...

But I have never understood why anyone would go on from that into remote control planes and explosives & that sort of thing. That just doesn't make any kind of sense - there is just no need for alternative terrorist methods. A conspiring gov't would use pawns to do the actual dirty work. The head of the CIA is not going to plant bombs himself. So if there had been explosives they would have been tied back to islamic terrorists anyway! They would not have been covered up. The only part that can be claimed to be covered up is whether bin Laden was encouraged, funded, passively allowed or even actively set up to do what he did by members of the US gov't, and if so which ones. Then the question becomes how much was known and by how many.

But to imagine that they had a fake scenario to play to the public and real scenario to drop the buildings is just useless. What would the point of that be? Why not just have the terrorists bomb the buildings if they think that's the only way to do it?

Re: believing the planes didn't hit the buildings, have her come visit NY. A lot of us saw it from rooftops or windows. On top of which, CGI? really? they CGI'd all the freaking out reporters and screaming workers? I mean... that actually is really offensive. HOw old was she in 2001? Does she remember how there wasn't even television programming for almost a week because everyone was in a state of shock? Does she think the whole city was in on the con?
posted by mdn at 8:20 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I honestly find saying that the planes were CGI'd in so offensive and counter-intelligent it's exactly on par with saying something like the Holocaust never happened. I could not talk to someone who had those views. I'm not sure I could ignore it. This friendship might need to cool down.
posted by agregoli at 8:26 AM on March 20, 2008

I think you need to deal with the fact that your friend does not have a strong grip on reality, at least as it pertains to this particular situation. If your friend isn't budging on this, you're going to have to act accordingly - add a grain of salt to your interactions with her, as it were.

My buddy's wife was sipping her coffee that morning when suddenly she saw a plane disappear into the Pentagon. She wasn't the only one who saw it. There were plenty of civilian witnesses who all reported the same thing. That's just a fact.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:42 AM on March 20, 2008

Seriously. Is she calling all those eyewitnesses liars?
posted by agregoli at 8:46 AM on March 20, 2008

How do you deal with people like this?

Just ignore their asses. Why are you talking about 9/11 at all?
posted by chunking express at 8:49 AM on March 20, 2008

Why don't you just drop the whole subject? Is it really as important as your friendship that she agree with you/vice versa? Not to be insulting, but who cares what she believes? Why does it bother you so much? I have lots of different friends who have lots of different socio-political-religious-etc beliefs. If we seriously conflict on something, we let that go, our friendships have more foundation than discussing that one conflict.

If you can't get over the fact that she doesn't agree with you then maybe you shouldn't be friends with people who may think differently than you.
posted by nikksioux at 8:55 AM on March 20, 2008

Certain views DO bother certain people enough that they can't stop thinking about it. I wouldn't be friends with a Holocaust denier or a person who hated black people. This issue might be that important to the OP, and that's not wrong. We all make choices about who we want to associate with, and sometimes something gets thrown into the mix that throws you, so to speak.

That said, I have a friend who is the complete opposite of me in political views, including some things very important to me. To remain friends, we've agreed not to talk about those things. Ever. It works for us.
posted by agregoli at 9:07 AM on March 20, 2008

Bring her here, to New York City. On the anniversary of the attacks. Have her talk her stupid gullible shit to the families that lost somebody that day, to the people who were in the buildings, who were there. I guarantee she'll change her mind within an hour. I would be friends with a 9/11 denier any more than I'd be friends with a Holocaust denier.
posted by anildash at 9:14 AM on March 20, 2008

I live in Arlington, I was walking my dog when the fucking plane that had one of my dad's best friends and her whole family including young children on board flew overhead at a very low altitude and high speed and about 15 seconds later crashed into the pentagon.

It happened, I saw it, plenty of other people saw it, and in NYC there were thousands more wittinesses. You friend is probably a generally smart and reasonable person, but she is also a fucking nutcase.
posted by BobbyDigital at 9:43 AM on March 20, 2008

You cannot reason someone out from a belief they did not reason themselves into.

Fundamentally if she believes it (strongly enough) she will find a way to continue believing it; no amount of argument is going to be effective.

I know some people who have equally absurd beliefs in different directions. I don't participate in discussions where those topics are discussed and that's rarely a problem. As long as it's only a belief and not action that could affect me, I'm usually happy to let sleeping dogs lie. Unless they bring it up after I've had a beer or two, then all bets are off and I'll cheerfully bring my considerable pedantry into play.
posted by Skorgu at 9:52 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

It might be helpful to focus on the two basic pieces of wishful thinking which underly vulnerability to 9/11 conspiracy theory: (1) that there was no rational basis for al Qaeda to have planned and carried out the attack and (2) that it's not possible for the U.S. transport security infrastructure, intelligence/law enforcement systems, and WTC physical structure, to have been as weak as they were shown to be by the standard narrative of 9/11.

#1 is fairly easily dealt with. Among other things, Osama and his lieutenants believed that a direct strike on America would embolden Arab masses to step up resistance to their American-backed impious rulers and to increase pressure on American-backed Israel, thus working towards the long-term goal of a restored but more-fundamentalist-than-ever Caliphate. They also believed, based upon Clinton's failure effectively to retaliate for the Somalia defeat, Kobhar towers, the embassy bombings, and the Cole, that the American reaction to the attacks would ultimately be tolerably mild. While events proved these beliefs incorrect, they certainly were not irrational.

#2 is harder to deal with, but it can be. The simple facts are that even the greatest powers have always been extremely vulnerable to the first big attack in a new mode of warfare, and people always do a very poor of preparing for low-probability threats, even those which can be and were anticipated. We always knew that hijacked aircraft might be used as weapons, but it never appeared likely enough to justify spending money and effort to protect against the risk. Hurricane Katrina is a great non-9/11 (post-9/11!) example -- everyone knew that New Orleans was vulnerable to post-hurricane flooding (although the focus was more on Lake Ponchtrain overflow rather than canal breaches) and yet no one ever actually put in place plans to deal with it. Heck, even today -- who is actually planning for global warming, when most people profess to believe in it?

One thought exercise which I've used on this point -- not with 9/11 deniers, but with people who use 9/11 as an example of deliberate reckless negligence -- is to ask them (mostly New Yorkers) what they would have thought had Bush taken office in January 2001 and a few months later ordered regular armed fighter jet patrols of the Northeast, the installation of anti-aircraft missle batteries on the rooftops of skyscrapers, and much more aggressive searching of young Arab-looking men at airports?
posted by MattD at 9:54 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's driving me nuts. It strongly offends my own sense of reality.

"Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human
beings infinite distances continue to exist, a wonderful living side by
side can grow up, if they succeed in loving the distance between them
which makes it possible for each to see each other whole against the
posted by tkolar at 10:31 AM on March 20, 2008

Why is it so important to you to prove her wrong? When it comes right down to it, it's hard to be certain of anything, isn't it? None of us have all the facts... we have our opinions based on our personal and subjective experiences, and those opinions we believe strongly enough in we call beliefs, right?

Her POV differs from yours. You don't really know. She doesn't really know. What is the big deal? Listen to her POV with an open mind, acknowledge the research she's done, be a good friend.

Say stuff like, "I'm no expert but it seems to me..." And acknowledge her by saying, "Wow you've read a lot about this!", "I never thought of it that way!", "I would be surprised if THAT happened, but hell, anything's possible!!!"

When she's said her piece, she'll ask you what you think. Then you can tell her your side. She obviously feels passionately about this so she'll ask you why you're not convinced to her logic. Then simply say you don't know for sure because you weren't there, you don't work for the government, etc. etc. but anything's possible.

It's basically agreeing to disagree but in a non-confrontational way, IMHO, and keeping an open mind to other people's (especially intelligent other people's) opinions.
posted by blahtsk at 2:24 PM on March 20, 2008

Her POV differs from yours. You don't really know.

Except, that on certain points, she's wrong. The OP DOES really know that planes crashed where they crashed because, well, they did. Asserting otherwise is just completely wrong.
posted by agregoli at 2:41 PM on March 20, 2008

People like to complicate things. Expecially people doing conspiracies. The best conspiracies are kept small and done simply. If the government wanted to start a war, they wouldn't bother with cgi and missiles - cgi takes too long and all it takes is one newsguy with his own camera snapping pictures to blow it all away. They'd just smash the planes into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers - just like the terrorists did.

Bush did not want to go to war with the Taliban in Iraq, he wanted Saddam in Iraq. 9/11 delayed the war he wanted.

Have her read the report of the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) on the World Trade Center Disaster. Their faq and suppliment makes for interesting reading itself.

But above all else, anildash is right. Bring her to New York on 9/11/2008. Have her meet people who were there when the towers fell.
posted by Kioki-Silver at 2:45 PM on March 20, 2008

I've been passing on information to her that people here are relating. Some of it, the first-hand accounts in particular, I think they are having some impact on her. So thanks and sorry for any offence caused to your memories.
posted by vizsla at 3:33 PM on March 20, 2008

Also lionelhutz5's suggestion of posing a challenge (don't worry I did it very tactfully) to her of asking her to identify a fact which would convince her otherwise appears to have had some traction. She said that if I could tell her where Richard Gage was wrong, she would reevaluate. So I showed her this.

To those of you who think I shouldn't be trying to convince her, after thinking through people's replies, I do think, as a friend, I should try to help her see her error. It does feel like a borderline mental disorder sometimes. It's true I don't have an open mind on this issue and yes it is a matter of respect at this point.
posted by vizsla at 3:50 PM on March 20, 2008

Popular Mechanics magazine had an issue dedicated to debunking these myths a few years ago, if you have a way to get some back issues this would be nice to show your friend-I believe Popular Mechanics is a pretty trustworthy source.
posted by whiskey point at 6:35 PM on March 20, 2008

Vizsla, here's another personal anecdote. Not the most devastating story, but just as real. My best friend saw the plane go in to the Pentagon. And I was here in Chicago watching channel 9 as they had a live shot of the Sears Tower as an unnaccounted for plane was purportedly headed this direction. And I saw Air Force One take off live on TV, and it took off like a bat outta hell. They set that thing on 11 and it shot straight up into the sky like nothing I've ever seen before. (That was actually a violation of some kind of press agreement, the White House generally asks people not to broadcast things like that so people can't discern their defensive capabilities.)

9/11 was real.
posted by gjc at 7:56 PM on March 20, 2008

This post is a little late, but I feel compelled to add to it. As someone who was in New York that day, and lived only a few blocks above Canal Street and saw a lot of shit, I am deeply offended that somebody could hold such beliefs. (Then again, I am regularly shocked by the depths of stupidity and ignorance of my fellow man.) Could anybody who isn't wearing a tinfoil hat really believe that the WTC and Pentagon strikes were not totally real? One could feasibly debate about who's responsible for these heinous actions, but it takes a special leap of faith (i.e., fucked-up-in-the-head ness) to argue that it never happened, that it was all engineered by the guvmint.

I disagree that bringing her to lower Manhattan will change her mind about anything, but I guarantee you that if she comes to NY and opens her trap about her idiot notions, she will be reamed. And I'd personally love to sell tickets.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 5:42 PM on March 26, 2008 [2 favorites]

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