Unless you have been on a silent retreat for the past year, you will have almost certainly heard the rumors — that the COVID-19 pandemic is an elaborate hoax, or that the novel coronavirus was created as a Chinese weapon, or that dangerous elites are trying to kill off elderly people and to establish a new world order, or that the symptoms are caused by 5G.
It is troubling enough to see these ideas on social media.
However, when you are hearing them from your family, your friends, or a casual acquaintance, it is even harder to know how to respond. You are going to struggle to convince the most committed believers, of course, but what about people who are only flirting with the ideas?
Illustration: Mountain People
These difficult conversations are only set to increase now that a COVID-19 vaccine is on the horizon. Certain niches of Internet are already rife with the “ plandemic “theory, which alleges that the spread of the virus has been designed to create big bucks for pharmaceutical companies and the philanthropist Bill Gates, whose charity is funding many of the efforts.
The idea has been debunked numerous times, whereas there is good evidence that conspiracy theorists, such as David Icke, are themselves reaping huge profits from spreading misinformation. The danger, of course, is that their ideas will discourage people from taking the vaccine, leaving them vulnerable to the actual disease.
Since many conspiracy theories arise from feelings of uncertainty and fear, an angry debate would only cement the ideas, and open ridicule is even less constructive.
Instead, research shows that you should try to focus on the rhetorical devices and tricks of persuasion that have been used to spread the ideas in the first instance.
“People seem receptive to you exposing the ways in which they may have been manipulated,” said Sander van der Linden at Cambridge University, who has pioneered research into the spread of misinformation and the ways to stop it.
Fortunately, the exponents of these conspiracy theories often use the same rhetorical devices, and a familiarity with these arguments would help you to politely articulate the faulty reasoning behind many different forms of misinformation.
Read on to discover the five most common fallacies favored by conspiracy theorists, and the best ways to respond.
1. HUNTING AN INVISIBLE DRAGON
In a memorable thought experiment, the astrophysicist and writer Carl Sagan described taking a visitor to see a fire-breathing dragon in his garage. Upon entering, the visitor was surprised to find an empty space — but Sagan replied that he had simply forgotten to mention that the dragon was invisible.
The visitor then decides to throw a bag of flour on the floor to trace its outline — only to find out that it will be of no use because the dragon hovers off the ground. When the visitor suggests using an infrared camera, he is told that the dragon’s flames are heatless. There is no way, in other words, to either prove or falsify its existence.
This kind of argument is known as special pleading; you essentially move the goal posts whenever someone asks for evidence to prove your point — a tactic that is commonly used in many conspiracy theories.
With scientific results, it is usual for new findings to be presented to other researchers to scrutinize the methods and results before they are presented in a journal like Nature, the Lancet, etc — a process known as peer review.
However, if you, for example, were to ask why there is no credible research proving the dangers of vaccines, the link between 5G networks and COVID-19 symptoms in humans, you might be told that there is a concerted effort to prevent such evidence from being released.
Indeed, the absence of reliable evidence is itself taken as a proof of this conspiracy. The fact that major scientific institutions across the globe support the “mainstream” view only shows how good the cover-up has been.
Like Sagan’s invisible, heatless, incorporeal dragon, this special pleading means that this misinformation can never be falsified in the eyes of the conspiracy theorist.
If you are faced with this kind of reasoning, you might question the probability of arranging such a widespread conspiracy across so many organizations in so many countries without leaving any traces.
Many people, after all, could benefit from exposing the plot — if it was supported by good evidence. For a journal or newspaper, it would be the biggest scoop since Watergate — a truly world-changing piece of investigative journalism.
It might also be worth asking what kind of evidence would lead your acquaintance to change their mind — a simple prompt that could help to highlight the fact that the theory is essentially unfalsifiable.
2. FAKE AUTHORITY
If they cannot present any solid scientific evidence, conspiracy theorists might name impressive-sounding witnesses who apparently endorse their worldview.
A quick Google search would reveal that many of these names — or their supposed credentials — are completely fake. Alternatively, the talking head might be a real person with some expertise, but not within the relevant field — yet their opinions are painted as the authoritative take.
A conspiracy theorist might be able to find a general practitioner or a surgeon, say, who is willing to argue that the virus is a hoax for a few minutes of notoriety.
However, it is worth questioning whether that rogue figure is as credible as the thousands of trained virologists who have studied its structure or the epidemiologists examining its spread.
You might see articles by Vernon Coleman, for instance. As a former general practitioner he would seem to have some credentials, yet he has a history of supporting pseudoscientific ideas, including misinformation about the causes of AIDS.
Meanwhile, Icke has hosted videos by Barrie Trower, an alleged expert on 5G who is, in reality, a secondary school teacher.
British weather forecaster and businessman Piers Corbyn cites reports by the Centre for Research on Globalisation, which sounds impressive, but was founded by a Sept. 11, 2001, conspiracy theorist.
Finally, some conspiracy theorists greatly exaggerate debates among experts themselves. Not all epidemiologists would agree on the best measures to reduce the spread of the virus, but this disagreement should not be used to justify the idea that the whole pandemic has been engineered by the government for some nefarious end.
Consider the so-called Great Barrington Declaration, an online document that argues that we should aim for herd immunity, while protecting vulnerable people from infection.
The authors of the original are three scientists, but the declaration was accompanied by a petition that did not verify the credentials of the signers, many of whom used false names or are real people with no expertise in the area.
In reality, the document represents a fringe view, which is unsupported by most epidemiological research, and thousands of other researchers have rejected the basic premise of their argument that herd immunity is achievable without a vaccine.
The declaration certainly does not reveal widespread dissent among real experts, yet it is often cited by professional conspiracy theorists such as Icke and “lockdown skeptics” such as British commentators Toby Young and Allison Pearson.
The tobacco industry used these tactics to great effect in the 1970s, with adverts that quoted fake experts and rogue scientists who questioned the harms of smoking.
“It’s a really persuasive form of misinformation,” said John Cook, an expert in “science denial” at George Mason University in Virginia.
Fortunately, he has found that educating people about the history of this common deceptive tactic can make people more skeptical of other fake experts at a later point.
3. COINCIDENCE OR COVERT OPERATIONS?
In September, the former Republican US congressional candidate DeAnna Lorraine had a frightening epiphany.
“I find it very interesting how the show The Masked Singer hit America in January 2019, a little bit over a year before they started forcing us all into masks. It’s almost like they were beginning to condition the public that masks were ‘normal’ and ‘cool,’” she wrote on Twitter. “The media is demonic.”
Most people had the good sense to dismiss Lorraine’s theory, but this tendency to claim some kind of causal connection from a random coincidence has given birth to many other unfounded ideas.
“Conspiracy theorists tend to take a grain of truth, then cast another narrative around it,” Van der Linden said.
The fact that 5G arrived at about the same time as the novel coronavirus, for instance, is not evidence that its electromagnetic waves caused the disease.
As Cook said, the character Baby Yoda also arrived late last year — but who would claim that he had caused widespread illness?
The problem of over-reading coincidences might explain why many people still believe that the MMR vaccine can lead to autism.
We now know that former British physician Andrew Wakefield’s original paper proposing the link was fraudulent and based on fabricated data.
The problem is that the typical signs of autism often become more apparent in a child’s second year, at about the same time they receive the vaccine. This is just a coincidence, but some people believe it offers evidence for the theory — despite the fact that large studies have repeatedly shown that autism is no more common among vaccinated children than unvaccinated children.
Similarly, you might be given reports of Gates discussing the possibility of a global pandemic long before this year — which some, like Corbyn, have taken as evidence for the “plandemic” theory.
In reality, the risk of a novel disease entering circulation has been a serious concern for many years, and many organizations, not just Gates’ charities, had been preparing for the eventuality.
In this case, you could just as easily point to the 2011 film Contagion and argue that director Steven Soderbergh has been plotting the whole thing.
4. FALSE EQUIVALENCE
When you hear an analogy between two separate scenarios, be aware that you might be comparing apples and oranges.
You might have heard the argument that “we have thousands of deaths from car crashes each year — yet we don’t shut down the country to prevent those.”
The problem, of course, is that car crashes are not contagious, whereas a virus is, meaning that the number of infected people can grow exponentially until it overwhelms the health service.
While there might be a nuanced debate over the most effective ways to prevent that scenario, these kinds of false analogies are used to completely dismiss the need to prevent contagion, allowing the conspiracy theorist to assign a more sinister intent for any new measures.
Cook said that this is one of the most commonly used fallacies, but it is easy to identify.
“Look at the differences between the two things being compared, and if that difference is important for the conclusions, then it’s a false equivalence,” he said.
5. THE THOUGHT-TERMINATING CLICHE
I was recently discussing the contagion’s exponential growth with a member of my own family. He was skeptical.
“You can prove anything with data,” he told me. “It’s all lies, damned lies and statistics.”
This is known as a thought-terminating cliche, in which a proverb or saying is used to end further discussion of a point without addressing the argument itself.
At this point, it is probably time to leave the discussion for another day. As Van der Linden said, the important thing is to maintain the possibility of continued open dialogue.
“We need to have repeated conversations in an environment of mutual respect,” he said.
To quote another cliche; it is sometimes best to agree to disagree.
THE ART OF ‘PRE-SUASION’
If you want to change someone’s mind, you need to think about “pre-suasion “ — essentially, removing the reflexive mental blocks that might make them reject your arguments.
The first step is to establish empathy.
“Often, these people are very worried about something and this issue is important to them,” said Karen Douglas, a psychologist who studies conspiracy theories at the University of Kent. “It would not be constructive to go into the conversation in a hostile manner, because this delegitimizes their concerns and might alienate them even more.”
Douglas advises that you make the effort to understand the origins of their beliefs, a point of view that Cook also holds.
“You want someone to articulate what they’re thinking, and why they’re thinking it, in a non-confrontational way,” he said.
When describing the theories, they might have already noticed some of the contradictions and holes in the logic. If not, you would at least be in a more informed position to start a constructive discussion.
It might be worth acknowledging the fact that certain conspiracies — like Watergate — have occurred in the past, but they were supported by incontrovertible evidence rather than rumor and supposition.
“It can validate people’s worldview,” Van der Linden said.
And that might offer a “gateway” that would render them more open to your arguments, he said.
You might also talk about people within the “movement” who have since changed their views.
There are, for example, many reports of erstwhile COVID-19 deniers who have since contracted the disease and renounced their former beliefs — and their experiences might be more persuasive than your own opinions.
David Robson is a science writer.
For China observers, especially those in Taiwan, the past decade has brought awareness of an increasing obsession by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with control. It seeks to control not simply national policy, but all aspects of its citizens’ lives. Not a week passes without some new aspect of Chinese life being brought under CCP control. This forces obvious questions: Why this obsession? And what is driving it? When any one-party state, which already controls government, yet seeks to expand and tighten that control, it bodes ill. With a country the size of China, it bodes ill for Taiwan, Asia and the
On Wednesday, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, US President Joe Biden and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a news conference via video link to announce a major strategic defense partnership, dubbed “AUKUS.” In an indication of the sensitivity and strategic weight attached to the pact, discussions were kept under wraps, with the announcement taking even seasoned military analysts by surprise. AUKUS represents a significant escalation of the transatlantic strategic tilt to the Indo-Pacific and should bring wider security benefits to the region, including Taiwan. At the forefront of the trilateral partnership is a bold plan to transfer highly sensitive US and
Another year, and another UN General Assembly is convening without Taiwan. Today marks the opening of the assembly’s 76th session at the UN headquarters in New York City, with the option to attend remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which once again promises to be its main focus under the theme “Building resilience through hope.” As they do every year, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and overseas compatriot groups are organizing campaigns to call for Taiwan’s participation in the global body. However, unlike previous years, Taiwan seems to be riding a higher wave of support than usual. The pandemic has exposed countless shortcomings
In an op-ed on Friday, Chen Hung-hui (陳宏煇), a former university military instructor, applauded the government’s efforts to reduce the “supply, demand and harm of cannabis.” (“Cannabis use booms on campuses,” Sept. 10, page 8). Chen recounted a story of a boy who partied with the “wrong crowd,” smoked cannabis and died. This story cannot be true, because cannabis is not deadly. Consuming too much can feel mighty unpleasant, but it will not kill a person. This fact is not only backed up by science and statistics from the US Centers for Disease Control, but is well-known in countries where cannabis