Have you ever tried to argue with a conspiracy theorist? It’s a tough job, for lots of reasons.
People who reject the official stories around JFK’s assassination, the 9/11 atrocities, or Area 51 often have much more ‘information’ at their fingertips than the rest of us. It’s characteristic of conspiracy theorists that they become absorbed in reading books and websites which reinforce their perspective. They seek deeper and deeper ‘insights’ into what really happened, and accumulate reams of supposed data.
And it’s not just quantity that makes this tricky. Conspiracy theorists have a distinctive way of rebutting any counter-evidence we can put to them. Normally when we’re puzzling over how best to explain something, we have a range of evidence pointing in different directions; perhaps some eyewitness testimony that supports one explanation, some forensic evidence that fits with a different explanation, historical records that suggest some third explanation. Our job is to weigh up all this evidence carefully, trying to find the best explanation overall.
But conspiracy theorists can systematically explain away any ‘counter-evidence’ we try to give them. After all, according to them, that’s exactly what we should expect – there was a conspiracy, a cover-up by powerful people, so of course, there will be misleading ‘counter-evidence.' That’s exactly what the government (or the Illuminati, or the Freemasons, or the Mafia) want you to think!
Once someone adopts the conspiracy mindset, anticipating that official sources of information are thoroughly misleading, we lose any kind of common ground from which we can debate. And conspiracy theories tend to sprawl and multiply, for the same reason. If there is no stable source of reliable information, then why believe any of the usual stories about how the world works? If the government can cover up a faked Moon landing, it can cover up anything it likes.
Arguing with someone who sees the world in this way can be a dizzying experience.
Philosopher Quassim Cassam recommends a different strategy for dealing with conspiracy theorists. In his recent research paper, "Vice Epistemology," he argues we should focus on the conspiratorial pattern of thinking, not the conspiracy theories themselves. Cassam shows how each of us has a distinctive intellectual character, a collection of positive and negative traits such as gullibility, open-mindedness, curiosity, diligence, or hastiness of thought. We can work on changing these traits, which are not set in stone, but they do guide us in our everyday inquiries, for better or for worse.
Cassam argues that people prone to believe in conspiracy theories typically have a range of damaging traits—or intellectual vices—which dominate their more positive inclinations, their intellectual virtues. Conspiratorial vices include a weird mixture of gullibility and cynicism, dogmatism and carelessness.
How does this help us think about how to engage with conspiracy theorists? Resorting to insults won’t help; no-one wants to hear that they are gullible or careless, perhaps even less than they want to hear that their favorite theory is mistaken. And a die-hard conspiracy theorist will not recognize himself in Cassam’s list of intellectual vices: after all, he thinks the rest of us are naïve and gullible in our reliance upon mainstream media and government data.
But talking and thinking about intellectual virtue and vice may be more useful in less extreme cases, where a friend or family member may be tempted towards conspiracy theories, yet is not too far gone down that path. Exploring together what it means to be naïve, cynical, or open-minded, can provide some common ground, a welcome respite from battling over the temperature of burning jet fuel, the angle from the grassy knoll, or strange lights in the sky.