A few days ago, an old friend I haven’t seen for some time dropped by for a shoot-the-shit session. We’ve never been especially close, but always enjoyed hanging out and, in the old days, did some home brewing together. He’s a smart guy, an ex-Army officer, and fairly progressive politically.

It was late afternoon, approaching evening, with a deep blue sky overhead, with a jet streaking to the northwest leaving a lengthy contrail behind it, with both of us sitting in the shade around the back-patio table. We were about two beers in, and as the contrail spread out and drifted straight above us, I pointed to it and drawled, “Chem trails!” thinking we’d have some fun talking about conspiracy theories and pseudoscience.

I was wrong.

He proceeded to vigorously expound the chem-trail conspiracy theory, but couldn’t provide anything approaching coherent explanations of why? how? — what’s the purpose? how’s it work? — who’s doing it (the government, of course)? or how could “they” cover up a massive conspiracy over a period of decades?

It was like trying to nail mucilage to a door. He retreated into a cloud of ever-vaguer (hence harder to debunk) claims, and eventually withdrew to the ultimate conspiracy-theorist position: “You can’t prove I’m wrong. Prove it!” Never mind that the burden of proof is on those making claims, especially extraordinary claims.

I then asked him where he was getting his information from. Guess, just guess. It was all on the ‘net of course, and the first site he mentioned was — wait for it — Infowars. I took a deep breath and asked him, “You don’t look at The Guardian, CNN, NBC, New York Times, AP, Al Jazeera, El País [Madrid daily, which has a great online site], or any of the other normal news sites?” Nope. They’re part of the “cover up,” and he only trusts Infowars and other sites that are “consistently accurate.”

At that point, I said something to the effect of “You’re out of your goddamned mind!” “No you are!” etc., etc., until we decide to have another beer and switch topics, to something we could agree on, such as that Trump is a cancerous polyp lodged in the colon of humanity.

My pal’s immersed in an alternate-reality bubble that’s hermetically sealed, and that confirms his faith in the reality of “chem trails.” Oh dear! Sigh.

The chem trails “theory” (a bad misuse of the term “theory”) sounds fairly harmless, but it isn’t. Why? Once you abandon rationality and evidence-based decision making — i.e., the scientific method — in any area, you’re totally adrift, vulnerable to emotional appeals, and with no even remotely reliable means of determining the real from the imaginary.

Thus, medieval clerics believed that witches caused thunderstorms, contemporary religious fanatics insist that a mass of cells smaller than the head of a pin is a human being, others insist that the world is ruled by a cabal of Jewish bankers, and still others insist that a mean-spirited sexual predator and con man who’s never done a day’s work in his life and began receiving a $200,000-a-year allowance at the age of three, is somehow on the side of the working man.

All of these irrational beliefs and conspiracy theories have obvious, real-world consequences.

So, how do we debunk conspiracy theories? Critiquing them and presenting massive contrary evidence seems, by itself, to have no effect. Just look at the Trump personality cult. Trump openly bragged that he could murder someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and no one would care. It’s probably more extreme than that. As I’ve mentioned previously, Trump could probably strangle a puppy and then sodomize its corpse live on national TV, and his sycophants would excuse his behavior as “Trump being Trump,” “a different kind of president.”

Trump flaunts this immunity by resorting to ever more blatant lies, lies that a third-grader should understand as lies, and that demonstrate his hold over his followers. A recent example is his claim that China will pay the tariffs he imposed on Chinese goods. It would take an absolute moron or a totally subservient, brain-washed cultist to buy this obvious denial of reality. Yet, millions of people apparently do buy it.

So, what to do?

Regarding Trump’s goose-steppers, they’re only 26% of eligible voters (in 2016, Hillary got 28%, minor party candidates 5%, and fully 41% were so disgusted they didn’t even bother to vote), and once economic reality hits them in the face — especially the upcoming recession [my guess, mid to late 2020] and ever-increasing medical bills — some will abandon him. Most won’t, but some will.

In a broader sense, cultists are almost unreachable. Until physical reality smacks ’em in the face, they’re unreachable — and even then most will cling to their Glorious Leader and his scapegoating, turning their hate on the helpless and near-helpless.

We need to reach those who haven’t yet fallen into the clutches of cults and those who are wavering.

How?

One of the most important ways is the teaching of science and critical thinking skills in grade school and high school. Give people these tools early, and they’ll use them to safeguard themselves, their friends, and their families. (It’s no accident that the leading dissidents in the USSR were scientists.)

Another way is through ridicule. Irrational, cultist beliefs are invariably absurd, and often harmful, when held up to the light of day. Ridicule won’t reach brainwashed cultists, but it will reach the young and those with doubts. We need a legion of George Carlins and Christopher Hitchens to tell the scathing truth (honorable present-day shoutouts to Jim Jeffries, The Onion, and The Satanic Temple).

A third and important way is to present factual, well documented information. For decades, this was the only approach used by rationalist and atheist groups, and it’s clearly inadequate. But in combination with these other approaches, it’s invaluable.

There are probably other good ways to combat conspiracy-theory/cult beliefs, but these are the ones that immediately come to mind.

Please add your ideas in the comments section. I’d love to hear them.

 

 

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