13 August 2013
You almost certainly know that it’s a waste of time to argue with wing-nuts. If not, you’ll soon learn, but there is actually solid scientific evidence that not only does it not do any good, it actually makes the conspiracy lover even more certain of their belief. It’s called the “back-fire” effect.
The Misconception: When your beliefs are challenged with facts, you alter your opinions and incorporate the new information into your thinking.
The Truth: When your deepest convictions are challenged by contradictory evidence, your beliefs get stronger.
Physicist John Cook (who writes the excellent blog Skeptical Science about climate change myths) wrote about the back-fire effect in his Debunking Handbook. Over the last couple of days alone, I’ve seen at least three crazy internet posts about HAARP, chemtrails, and watched a congressman declare climate change as a giant hoax. Oh, and I’ll let you read about Donald Trump on ABC Sunday.
So, now that you are likely convinced that trying to argue with crazy is crazy, you might want to know what you should do. John Cook’s handbook has great ideas, but one thing you should think about is preventing others from taking a course in WING-NUT 101. Newspaper editors long ago figured out that they did not have an obligation to publish every nutty letter to the editor, and you will not get your letter published in any major newspaper I know of without a valid name and address. Editing a blog means you get to be the one who decides what comments are worthwhile, and I exercise that as responsibly as I can here and on my social media pages.
Are some people more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories? It’s not fool-proof but a big defense from what I’ve seen can be summed up in one word: EDUCATION. There is evidence to support this from the research of Dr. Bob Altemeyer on authoritarian personalities. In the meantime, don’t waste your time arguing with wing-nuts, but keep in mind that you can do your part to make sure they are not contagious! Once someone is caught in the conspiracy information bubble, the back-fire effect makes it unlikely they will escape. Telling someone they are losing touch with reality may be mean spirited, but making it socially unacceptable to profess crazy beliefs is probably a powerful deterrent to others.
One last thing. WE ALL suffer from the back-fire effect. Knowing that is at least some defense from it. Scientific method is of course the greatest defense. It always eventually finds the truth because it relies only on observation, experiment and testable theories. It truly is mankind’s greatest invention.