Ask LH: How Can I Disagree With Conspiracy Theories Without Starting A Fight?

Dear Lifehacker, I have several close friends who are intelligent, worldly and opened minded. I respect their opinions generally and we can comfortably debate where there is disagreement. However there is one big exception: conspiracy theories.

Now, I can say that I enjoy the odd bit of political intrigue and I've probably watched an X-files or two about a decade ago. What I struggle with is when someone produces an item of outlandish news -- something like a claim the Queen was spotted buying a jar of 'Dry Skin Be Gone For Space Reptiles' -- and then insists that everyone around the table believes the tale and the complicated supporting conspiracy behind it. Any attempt to raise the notion that the Queen may in fact not be a subterranean tyrant from a distant star is met with cries of "Can't you see the truth?" and "the evidence is overwhelming!" What strategies can I use to respectfully disagree with a respected friend or colleague on a topic that we completely disagree with, especially when that topic is commonly considered outrageous? Thanks, Patiently Sceptical

Secret picture from Shutterstock

Dear PS,

To paraphrase the Lord Humungus in Mad Max 2, our advice is to "just walk away". Getting a conspiracy theorist to see reason is an exercise in futility -- it's right up there with arguing about the nature God with a religious fundamentalist. You're wasting your breath and agitating yourself for no reason.

Indeed, I was once nearly physically assaulted by a female pal's boyfriend for daring to question the existence of a worldwide conspiracy to suppress water-fueled car engines. (Apparently, an amateur scientist died in suspicious circumstances after discovering tap water was a perfect substitute for petroleum.)

However, if you're determined to butt your head against their tin-foil hats, you can pick up a few tips in our guide to dealing with difficult people.

Do any readers have any conspiracy-diffusing tips of their own? We'd also love to hear what the weirdest conspiracy theory is that you've ever been told personally. Let the craziness fly in the comments section below!

Cheers Lifehacker

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Comments

    I say up the ante. The only response to crazy conspiracy theories is even crazier conspiracy theories. If the discussion turns into something resembling the Four Yorkshiremen sketch, you're doing it right.

    Bicycle helmets coming from a cabal of governments and industraliasts as the first step to overthrow democracy and install somekind of anti-bicycle oligarchy is my current favourite.

    Last edited 28/05/13 1:47 pm

      You've got it wrong. Bicycle helmets are a much grander conspiracy. First, they introduce mandatory helmet laws, conditioning the Australian people into wearing headgear as a matter of course. Then they invest in bicycle lanes and gradually raise the price of petrol and car insurance, encouraging people to take up cycling so they can 'be more fit' and less pollutive to the environment. The next step will involve the introduction of magnets and tracking chips into helmets under the guise of Australian safety standard certifications, and this technology will slowly evolve into a sophisticated method of influencing thought patterns by controlling blood flow in the brain with magnetic pulses (which interact with the iron in your blood) and a transmitter that uplinks to a central government facility. To facilitate the massive amount of data that needs to be moved around, they had to begin the construction of a nation-wide fibre-optic communications system, carefully disguised as an internet infrastructure project called the National Broadband Network. Except NBN doesn't really stand for National Broadband Network, it stands for National Brainscan Network.

      With all this accomplished, the government will finally have direct influence over everything, from your buying habits to your voting interests. From there it's only a matter of initiating a referendum to dissolve the parliamentary democracy we have and institute a single party hive regime where all members of the general populace behave as little more than drones in a bee colony, dedicating resources and units of work to benefit the uppermost levels of the new imperial hierarchy.

      How can you deny it, even with all this evidence in front of you?

      not only is it just as useful as refuting their crazy with logic, suddenly the conversation becomes a lot more fun.

    Yes, the best response is: "that's exactly what they WANT you to believe, the truth is far far worse"

    These people:
    http://theflatearthsociety.org
    Yes, they're serious.

      Thanks for making my day, that site was hilarious.

      Actually they are not serious. It's quiet easy to discern they are not.

      Last edited 28/05/13 3:13 pm

        Actually they are serious.
        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/10/29/flat-earth-society-psychology_n_2038198.html
        http://www.guardian.co.uk/global/2010/feb/23/flat-earth-society

          Given the relatively young age of the latest incarnation of the society, I have my suspicions that they're actually yet another troll group, in a similar vein to the GNAA (which I don't think I'd be allowed to spell out here).

            Flat earthers are serious indeed. Check episode 2 of the be reasonable podcast . They recently reformed, hemce the new website etc http://www.merseysideskeptics.org.uk/category/podcast/be-reasonable-podcast/

              It's not something that can be proven. GNAA 'sounds' serious on many occasions, but they're anything but.

          I used to read those forums for a laugh. Once, there was a poster that argued for the round earth side, and he got fed up with something or other, and decided to switch sides just because he could. However, when he did, as part of his gripe, he claimed that the whole point of the site was so school age children could come on, and learn how to think critically and form constructive arguments (his gripe was that the behaviour of some posters was not conducive to this). No one from either side, not even the mods or admins, denied this claim, and only agreed that yes, their terrible behaviour was not achieving their goals.

          So I argue that no, they are not serious.

    conspiracy theories range from 911 was an inside job to mind control through fluoride in the water, some theories are plausible while some are downright absurd, so it really depends on what the other person believes in. I don't think it is fair to downright reject everything you hear because the media has labelled them as conspiracy theories.

      Yeah, I get that. Just after the 911 atrocity I was telling a friend how the Bush administration would leverage that as an excuse to invade Iraq, as well as how the chemical weapons stuff was obviously all fabricated. She called that a conspiracy theory.

        A few things happened just after 911 that people put down to massive conspiracy theories or false memory. I put it down to bad news reporting.

        I know for a fact I was watching the news and they reported that flight was shot down by a military jet that the terrorists were on, the one they said the passengers crashed the plane of. I also know an hour later, it was said there was no military jet, then an hour after that there was, then there wasn't. It was mass confusion for days.

        What I hate, are opportunists. I'm related to one. He claims it was all the government of america killing its own people blah blah. He once started telling me and started pointing out 'the explosive charges' etc etc. I sat there, looked at him and said 'I watched live on tv that night (their morning) as thousands of people lost their lives. People as young as your daughter over there. I watched live as a plane slammed into that building and destroyed it and you're gonna sit there and go Mulder on me with that 'truth is out there bullshit'.' I said it loud enough for others to hear, they started questioning what it was. When you get a large enough group of people hearing a crackpot talking, when they know one person at least has questioned their stupidity, sometimes the herd mentality can work in your favour. Long story short? From all the ridicule he got, he's never mentioned those theories again at a family event. lol

          I don't follow your reasoning?
          Just because you have strong emotions attached to that event, doesn't automatically mean the official story is true.

          There are many people in NY who lost family members in 9/11 who felt they never got an adequate explanation, and that the 9/11 commission left out certain things it didn't want to address. Some of the commissioners admit they were not allowed to do their work properly, which is a little strange considering 9/11 as one of the most significant events in history, but more money was spent investigating the whole Monica Lewinsky thing
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a0LBARGBupM

          I'm not going to discuss any further, but I hope you give this 5min video a chance
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yuC_4mGTs98

          And yes, the media does a pretty bad job at covering stories for major events
          The Osama Bin Laden assassination story changed like 10 times in 2 days
          The Boston story changed so many times it was hard to keep up

            I think is point is that many people watched it happen live. The whole controlled demolition/missile this is absolutely absurd because their were so many people witnessed it. Hell, I know two people who were in the building!

              IF, i am saying IF, people witnessed those controlled explosions, wouldn't you think the official story would be alot different and we wouldn't be calling it a conspiracy theory?
              and what is your point of knowing two people who were in the building? I am confused, unless they were magically in the building 1 second before the building collapsed and survived, their opinion of whether there were controlled demolition arent very useful.
              don't take offence, I am neutral on this but I just found your argument lacked logic.

              p.s. google world trade centre building 7 BBC for a piece of what conspiracy theorists called "evidence" that the press were given a script for what to report before things actually happened.

              People saying the planes slamming into the WTC are holograms or missiles or that the whole thing is CG could be disinfo agents putting out blatantly absurd info to discourage people from looking into the matter, it appears to have worked in your case.

              There are first responder eyewitness firemen who reported hearing explosions briefly before the towers came down, now they could be attributable to many things like pressure buildup, but I wouldn't disregard what they said just because 'their were so many people witnessed it'

              But there are many odd things about 9/11, the official story definitely has holes at the very least, and the proffered explanations do not fit those holes.

              Why could it not be that planes were hijacked and flown into the buildings AND simultaneously explosives were used to demolish the building. If you watch how the building collapsed so symmetrically and consider the testimony of thousands of qualified engineers, architects and demolition experts (many of which were submitted to the 911 inquiry but were not included or referred to in the final report) you cannot simply dismiss out of hand that there is more to it than the official story.

                I think the molten steel found in WTC1, WTC2, WTC7 are big red flags that it was not a conventional collapse, people should check that out.

                It's pretty hard to believe someone who failed his cessna flight classes was able to pilot a 737, many commercial airline pilots agree it's very difficult to maneuver the planes the way the terrorists did on 9/11 even for trained pilots.

                I think the MASSIVE put options put on American Airlines shortly before 9/11 is a big red flag, also it was never investigated who had that advance knowledge and why they decided to profit from it, nor was the funding to the terrorist hijackers ever investigated because it is of 'little practical significance' (actual wording from the commission report)

                Also there have been a bunch of ex-military/ex-government people who have said it is impossible for the gov to screw up as badly as it did on 9/11 because they have strict procedures to deal with these kinds of scenarios, it introduces the possibility that someone inside intentionally let their guard down. Distracting NORAD with a plane hijacking drill running at the exact same time as the actual attacks would do that, and what a coincidence it would be. There are TOO many coincidences and red flags like this.

                I agree, the truth is somewhere in the middle, yes there is al quada, and the 9/11 official story has certain things deliberately changed because nobody wants to tell the public that flight 93 was actually shot down, but the official story is much more heroic, empowering and easy to swallow.

                I think the official story was changed to cover up incompetence, and maybe to hide the fact that there are rogues within the gov that allowed it to happen for their own reasons (but it would be terrible PR for the gov to ever admit to the public), but the entire government is not responsible.

    People believing in conspiracies isn't what bothers me as much as the "Can't you see the truth!" or "My god! You're all such sheep!" Sceptics, in my experience, aren't anywhere near as hostile as believers. If you want to debate conspiracies with people, a little hostility or anger goes with the territory, I think.

    I think it is always worthwhile challenging conspiracy theories, especially the more callous ones. You mightn't make that person change their mind then and there (people rarely like to admit they were wrong about something they've believed for years) but you just may put a few cracks in the foundation and they'll go and investigate for themselves.

      Skeptics can be obnoxiously smug however -- especially when debunking urban myths.

        Pfft. If you bothered to do your research, Chris, you'd find that the notion of sceptics being smug was disproven by a team at the University of NSW in the 1980s. I don't have a link, but obviously if you were interested in educating yourself, you could find it with basic internet search skills.

        *snootyface*

          LOL! Made my rainy afternoon

        I guess after being called a blind idiot or "close minded" by a conspiracy theorist, it's hard to avoid being smug after you've exposed who the real blind idiot is. ;-)

    This has been discussed many times within Skeptics circles, and ultimately it more often than not comes down to something along the lines of - if it's loved ones & family, be the bigger person and just let it go. Family & loved ones are more valuable than being right. Try to move the conversation on to a different direction and maybe (if they'll take it ok) let them know their conspiracies are tiresome.

      Yes. This is the correct approach. You'll never agree, so why damage the relationship over something that doesn't matter. Just have a laugh about it with someone else.

    33 Conspiracy Theories That Turned Out To Be True, What Every Person Should Know
    http://www.infowars.com/33-conspiracy-theories-that-turned-out-to-be-true-what-every-person-should-know/

    Conspiracies are a fact of life, open any history book and you will find plenty of them, and they were hidden from the people of their time and denied until their veils came off, to think you live in the one period of time where conspiracies don't exist is absurd.

    I can imagine that if you lived in 1940s Poland and said they were gassing jews, you'd be called a nut because it is so outlandish, despite being true. Years ago, if you said the government was reading your emails, you'll get strange looks, but now we know that does happen. I've had people call me a conspiracy theorist because they thought facebook pictures would never be used for face recognition, but it is. The same pattern persists, people are unaware (or stay willfully and blissfully ignorant) to the hidden forces operating within their time and do not learn from history.

    That is not to say every conspiracy theory is equally valid, but the whole 'tinfoil hat' stigma needs to die. There are organised coverups/media blackouts, there are political agendas, there are covert operations that will never be publicly acknowledged, there is junk science to defend financial interests, but to uncover them you have to do the exploring on your own, you have to wade through a LOT of disinformation and half baked internet speculation, but don't let that discourage you into dismissing everything unofficial. It is easy to dismiss any idea without thorough investigation, but that is how things stay hidden, and such is the very nature of conspiracy.

    George Carlin on Conspiracy Theorists
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bO0-u900OG4

    Keep an open mind, admit you don't know everything, suspend judgement, listen to everyone, believe nothing, because the evidence will allow you to KNOW the truth, not just believe in it.

    Beware of fake skeptics wielding faulty logic and only adhering to official 'consensus' views, meanwhile having poor knowledge of the opposition's position.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0BJA1R8YIHk

      And if my comment is removed, I will assume Lifehacker is part of the grand conspiracy :P

      Blind rejection of something without valid evidence or reason is just as bad as blind acceptance of something without valid evidence or reason.

      I look down my nose at both types of people.

      One can form a preliminary judgment of the likelihood of a given theory though based on prior knowledge of the world. We know that government's sometimes falsify documents so it is easy to accept that someone was falsely convicted by a govt on purpose. It is harder to believe that that government is made up of lizard people.

        I dunno about the whole reptile thing, but Nestle's CEO definitely looks and sounds cold blooded
        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SEFL8ElXHaU
        Definitely not a regular person, but I don't think they eat bugs and shed their skins behind closed doors

        Come to think of it, Julia Gillard does look a bit like a goanna
        Does that put me on ASIO's watch list? :P

      Reading through those, he shoots himself square in the nuts by liberally mixing true scandals with blatant falsehoods proven to be untrue decades ago.

      You lost me at 'New World Order'. It wasn't bad up til then, some based in fact, some massively and grossly wrong, then the New World Order one sprung up and sorry but that ones just... its terrible. It's a mostly nice piece of conspiracist fiction though.

      Last edited 28/05/13 11:51 pm

        Care to list which ones you think are distorted or complete fiction and why?

    You do realise that now you have disclosed our plan of ultimate control to the general population we will need to accelerate the program. Luckily for you only the smartest 10% of Australia read this site - the other 90% are happy with Prisoner re-runs disguised as brand new drama on Channel 10!

    So we have a few months left to take over fully.

    Stage one will be suggesting that the Chinese have stolen our new national headquarter plans to obtain further government funding, which obviously we will use to roll the NBN out to your electorate first.

      I know you're joking, but I think making fun of conspiracy theories in this manner just helps hide the real ones by creating more camouflage.

      The easiest way to hide the truth is to ridicule it.

        Or by self sabotage by mixing it with untrue information like in the "33 conspiracies proven to be true", factual errors like for example the Rothschilds controlling half the world's wealth and openly funding both sides of conflicts in the Illuminati article. With old fashioned unresearched crap like that, of which that's not an isolated example, it calls all the rest of the info into question.

          The point was there are quite a lot of real ones, so people shouldn't dismiss conspiracies so easily.

          If you decide to doubt all of them because you don't agree with some on that list, I don't know what to tell you because a lot of them on that list are well documented, and the reason I linked is for people to do their own research, by no means is that list comprehensive or entirely accurate, but it's a starting point, unless you have a better list for me to use.

    You don't argue with the conspiracy theorist to change their mind. You do it to prevent their idea spreading to others in the group.

    Bill Hicks' amusing conspiracy about US presidents
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIiCjhCBDaM
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nXpdJLJqG9U

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    drowssap si tpyrced ot drowssap moc.tamotpyrc

    O_O THE TRUTH.... IS OUT....side. Seriously. Get off your PC and go outside.. It's fucking lovely out there.

      I didn't click, cause I don't like content delivery networks :P
      Yeah, you didn't get my details cause I know how to use internet

    I always make the point of "Look at our governments, look at who is running the place, you think these people could keep a secret that spans across generations and multiple government organisations? You're giving them far too much credit." (not an attack on our current gov, just pollies and government organisations in general)

    If you believe in conspiracies then you believe that governments are all powerful. I think the reality is much more anarchic than that.

      I've heard this argument before, that because the US Government couldn't keep watergate a secret and it was just four people who knew about it, that there can't be any grand secrets. You only know what has already been made public, and usually it's only the low level stuff that leaks, things involving politicians, diplomats, cables.

      I'm sure when dealing with more sensitive things, it's a need to know basis, and only told to people who can be trusted (in other words, worked up the ranks for many years, have not leaked anything), you don't tell the kid on work experience about the secret cloning lab.
      And I'm pretty sure they give different levels of the gov different stories so if there's a leak, they can narrow down the weak link in the chain while still keeping the secret. There are loads of WW2 documents that are still classified and won't see the light of day anytime soon (or ever)

      The manhattan project was kept a total secret for four years, they built entire towns, didn't list them on any maps, and compartmentalization works wonders:
      A 1945 Life article estimated that before the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings "[p]robably no more than a few dozen men in the entire country knew the full meaning of the Manhattan Project, and perhaps only a thousand others even were aware that work on atoms was involved." The magazine wrote that the more than 100,000 others employed with the project "worked like moles in the dark". Warned that disclosing the project's secrets was punishable by 10 years in prison or a $10,000 ($128,000 today[1]) fine, they saw enormous quantities of raw materials enter factories with nothing coming out, and monitored "dials and switches while behind thick concrete walls mysterious reactions took place" without knowing the purpose of their jobs.
      Nowdays I think they just build deep underground bases/cities, and the personnel are under intense surveillance, kept in line with threats against family if they leak secrets depending on what they know.

      Are there long range agendas?
      Retired General Wesley Clark tells of how Middle East destabilization was planned as far back as 1991
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7NsXFnzJGw

      As for what secrets the Australian gov might have? I have no idea, but I wouldn't tell anyone if I did either. I doubt they tell the PM everything.

      Oh, and KFC manages to keep their recipe a secret from thousands of their own employees based worldwide. Just an example of a basic secret (not national security, geopolitical strategy or a secret technology) that has been kept for multiple gens, it's in complete public view and employs a vast variety of people. Only a handful of people (or less) know the actual recipe.

      It's amazing what you can do when you don't give everyone the entire picture of what they're working towards.

        I always thought the whole "11 secret herbs and spices" thing was just a marketing gimmick?

          The original recipe did appear to use 11 herbs and spices, since they got Colonel Sanders himself to make it with a regular pantry, he was very upset that he sold the franchise
          They've since changed the recipe to just mostly adding a buttload of MSG

          I wonder how different the original McDonalds food must've tasted like, before they cut corners

          A copy of the recipe, signed by Sanders, is kept in a safe inside a vault in KFC's Louisville headquarters, along with 11 vials containing the recipe's herbs and spices.[131][213] According to Yum! Brands, portions of the secret recipe are known by some of its executives, but only two people in the entire organization know it in its entirety, while a third executive knows the combination to the safe.[214][215] A limited number of KFC employees know the identities of the three executives, that latter of whom are not allowed to travel together on the same plane or in the same car for security reasons.[215] One of the two executives said that no one had come close to guessing the contents of the secret recipe, and added that the actual recipe would include some surprises.[158] To maintain the secrecy of the recipe, half of it is produced by one KFC supplier before it is given to McCormick, who add the second half.[212] A computerized process is then used to blend the mixture.[212]
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colonel%27s_secret_recipe#Secret_recipe

          Interesting stuff!

            Again, this all sounds like dubious marketing to me. Just because KFC says it has a special safe and divides the recipe between executives doesn't necessarily make it so.

              Could be, I can't verify so I can't rule it out
              But they're good at keeping it secret, because it's not common knowledge

              How would anyone verify any of the above without harming the secrecy of the recipe?
              Do you ask the executives? Will a picture of the safe open with a few vials inside suffice?
              Secrets are quite elusive to prove until they aren't secret

              Apple allegedly makes new employees work on fake products until they can be trusted to keep a secret.

          "That friggin' outfit ... They prostituted every goddamn thing I had! I had the greatest gravy in the world and those sons of bitches, they dragged it out and extended it and watered it down that I'm so goddamn mad."

          What have you done! Now I'm reading up more on Colonel Sanders and the KFC Corporation
          I've got work to do!

          I would have thought even the dumbest food scientist would be able to analyse a few samples and determine the ingredients and ratios.

            It's like encryption, once you've mixed stuff together in a complicated process (like cooking, which causes chemical reactions), it's hard to separate it out again

            Food scientists have tried reverse engineering the current KFC recipe, and they think they use a lot of MSG now. But I want the original pure recipe without all the crud they add in!

            I know for a fact they use paprika in their Hot n Spicy mix, because I know what paprika tastes like.

    I just don't engage in the conversation when it comes up about conspiracy theories. Some people are a little too...passionate about what they believe, and no amount of logic will change their minds, so I let them continue to believe what they believe. As long as they're not hurting anyone or forcing their views on others, then I'm fine with whatever people want to believe. Same thing goes for religion. Of course, I like conspiracy theorists because the really crackpot ones are funny. ;) May as well leave them be so the rest of us can have a good laugh.

    Lol, someone REALLY doesn't like conspiracies at all and downvoted everything I wrote
    Here's something for you: GROW UP :P

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