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Consider conspiracy theories

Members of the Flat Earth Society believe that the earth is a disc, not a sphere, despite all evidence to the contrary. Images from space showing a blue ball are dismissed as the distortions of a wide-angle lens. Their maps show a wall of ice at the edge of a flattened projection of all known territory, as if Antarctica was the encircling edge of the world. Some flat-earthers claim that “the earth is flat because the Bible says it is flat, regardless of what science tells us.”

Despite live TV coverage, 1,000 pounds of recovered moon rock, and photos of the tracks made by the astronauts in the moon dust, 5% of Americans still believe that the Apollo 11 landing was faked. In 2001, forever-reliable Fox claimed NASA faked the landing to win the Space Race.

Some conspiracy theorists claim that the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre of little children was orchestrated by the U.S. government to promote stricter gun control laws. Alex Jones of InfoWars denied that the massacre even occurred, asserting that it was “completely fake.”

Holocaust deniers believe the Holocaust was a hoax designed to make the world sympathetic to the plight of Jews and advance the interests of Israel. Hundreds of news reports from the death camps and pictures, including one of Dwight Eisenhower at a just-liberated camp near the town of Gotha with stacks of corpses, are claimed to be doctored. Eisenhower said, “I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first-hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda.” More fake news, the theorists say.

On May 4, 2020, a slick video alleged that COVID-19 was a laboratory-manipulated virus deployed so a vaccine could be created for profit. These claims were thoroughly, repeatedly debunked, yet it went viral, getting liked on Facebook 2.5 million times. A third of Americans found these claims “probably or definitely true.”

The “Big Lie” claimed that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from Donald Trump due to widespread electoral fraud, even though unrelated election officials in different states and the Justice Department found no evidence of significant voting fraud, and the dozens of lawsuits filed by Trump and his proxies to challenge voting results failed. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said “The November 3rd election was the most secure in American history”.

Donald Trump was the source of the “Stop the Steal” hoax, but it was also pushed by far-right news organizations such as One America News Network (OANN), Newsmax, The Gateway Pundit, and Sean Hannity and other Fox News commentators. The conspiracy theory was then used to justify attempts to overturn the election, including the Jan. 6 storming of the United States Capitol.

What is it that lets intelligent people believe unsubstantiated, even whacko conspiracy theories like these? Psychologists list three reasons: the desire for understanding and certainty, the desire for control and security, and the desire to maintain a positive self-image. So we tend to embrace theories that fit our world view, if the alternative “truth” is threatening, of if a theory gives us a sense of community.

If our world view was that Trump was clearly the right man to lead us, that Joe Biden would destroy America, not make it great, and that tens of millions of other Americans cannot be wrong, then a stolen election might make sense to us. Caught up in the sense of betrayal and loss, we might suspend objective thought and take comfort in a belief that would not normally stand up to scrutiny. When you confront someone with these beliefs, they will dismiss the views of most Americans, the Justice Department, state election boards and over 60 independent courts, claiming that they are all part of “the steal.”

Psychologists claim that you are unlikely to succeed by offering counterevidence to get such a person to give up his or her conspiracy theories. This is because you are arguing facts, but the conspiracy theorist is defending a sense of security and a positive self-image. And the psychologists say that self-image trumps facts every time.

What to do to confront a conspiracy theorist? Experts say that without respect, compassion and empathy, no one will listen. Even then, communicating must be private, preventing discussion from getting embarrassing for the believer. Conspiracy theories often feature elements that everyone can agree on, and the expert advice is to agree on those to build trust, then state what is true, debunk the conspiracy theory, and state what is true again, pointing out where the conspiracy theory does not work. They suggest using questions to help probe the theorist’s own argument and see if it stands up.

But some people do not want to change, no matter the facts, so the earth is clearly flat, the moon landing was a hoax, and that election was definitely stolen.

Lee Keet lives in Saranac Lake.

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