As a skeptic, I often have an experience that many people will find familiar. I'm talking to someone. They tell me something I know to be wrong. I explain why they are wrong. They refuse to believe me. I continue to try, sometimes over days or weeks. They still won't get it, and sometimes their false belief becomes even stronger. What is wrong with them?
The inability of the true believer to see reason is a frustrating puzzle. One of the most common questions I get in interviews is, "why do people fall for conspiracy theories?" I explain that it's often just a chain of chance, circumstances, and being in an unsettled time in their life with too much spare time. But that's not the "why" the interviewer is looking for. They want to know what is wrong with the conspiracy theorist. Specifically what is mentally wrong with them.
A Desire to Pathologize
There seems to be a natural desire to pathologize unconventional beliefs. Many of these conspiracy theories seem so wrong that, for a lot of people, a belief in them can only make sense if there's some kind of mental illness involved. So they ask, "what is wrong with them."
Sometimes, of course, there is something wrong with them. Aspects of mental illness, specifically paranoia or delusional disorder, can lead to belief in conspiracy theories. In addition, ordinary mental quirks such as narcissism or a tendency toward attribution errors (assuming things have deliberate or at least non-random causes) have a statistical correlation with conspiracism.
But most conspiracists are essentially ordinary people who just hold some mistaken beliefs. They have been persuaded by deceptive media (usually videos) that a particular event or situation is best explained as being the result of a conspiracy by a small group of powerful people acting for nefarious purposes. Once they come to this false realization, it can be difficult for them to un-realize it because they have become epistemologically unmoored and have difficulty trusting any source.
This reluctance to accept any contradictory evidence can seem very puzzling to people unfamiliar with the conspiracy world. So it is straightforward to leap to the conclusion that there's some mental illness there. We pathologize their misunderstanding.
A Symmetry of Perception
But something I have learned, often by painful experience, is that with conspiracy theorists, there is a symmetry of perception. You think they are wrong, and they think you are wrong. You think they have been misled by YouTube videos, while they think the mainstream media or government education has brainwashed you. You are frustrated that they don't listen to reason; they are angry you refuse to listen to Alex Jones.
You think there's something wrong with them. They think there's something wrong with you.
If I interact with a conspiracist for long enough, I often see their perceptions of me go through a trajectory. First, they are friendly, and eager to share the knowledge of their theory with me, thinking I'm simply unfamiliar with it. Later they see I continue to be unpersuaded and so conclude that I must be either stupid or a government shill (a misperception with a whole set of problems of its own.)
Good conversation will generally show them I am not stupid. More time and effort will lead them to realize I'm not a government shill and that I genuinely believe what I am saying is correct. Since they "know" their beliefs to be correct, cognitive dissonance forces them into one remaining logical conclusion: that I am mentally ill or I have psychological factors that prevent me from seeing the truth.
Rationalizing Demolition Denial
In 2012, a decade after the events of 9/11/2001, the conspiracy group "Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth" was feeling this cognitive dissonance. Frustrated that their expertise and their evidence was not convincing people, they asked psychologists and other mental health professionals to help explain it. Of course, the mental health professionals they chose were that tiny fraction of the profession who also thought that the Twin Towers were demolished with pre-planted explosives. So the results were predictable yet still revealing.
9/11 Truth supporter and licensed clinical psychologist Robert Hopper, Ph.D., explained it:
“9/11 Truth [the conspiracy theory] challenges some of our most fundamental beliefs about our government and about our country. When beliefs are challenged or when two beliefs are inconsistent, cognitive dissonance is created. 9/11 Truth challenges [our] beliefs that our country protects and keeps us safe and that America is the ‘good guy.’ When this happens, fear and anxiety are created. In response, our psychological defenses kick in [to] protect us from these emotions."
So the reason given for people not believing in AE911Truth's explosive demolition theory is not that it is contrary to the evidence (to a ridiculous extent), but rather that our brains are accustomed to being kept safe by the government and we shut down if it is suggested this is not happening.
It is not lost on me that I just accused them of cognitive dissonance, then, in the very next paragraph, they said the exact thing about people like me. Their conclusion is just as seemingly valid in their epistemology as it is in mine. Again, there is a symmetry of perception.
Another 9/11 Truth supporter, Psychologist Fran Sure, M.A., had a similar take on people who disagreed with her take on the demolition theory:
"What is common to every one of them is the emotion of fear. People are afraid of being ostracized, they’re afraid of being alienated, and they’re afraid of being shunned. They’re afraid of feeling helpless and vulnerable, and they’re afraid that they won’t be able to handle the feelings that are coming up. They’re afraid of their lives being inconvenienced … of being confused… [and] of psychological deterioration. They’re afraid of feeling helpless and vulnerable.”
This way of thinking was gratefully adopted by the rank-and-file followers of the conspiracy theory. Finally, they had a way of understanding their friends and relatives who somehow seemed immune to reason, who refused to watch their YouTube videos. They were simply afraid! Rather than the troubling reality that someone might be disagreeing with them because of science and logic, they were able to feel superior, and even take pity on the poor people around them who were too afraid to face their "reality.
First Impressions Matter
This is not restricted to 9/11 Truth. A few years ago, a popular promoter of the "Chemtrails" conspiracy theory described meeting me (paraphrasing)
"I met that debunker, Mick West. He was all over the place, he couldn't complete a sentence. He could not look me in the eye. He seemed frantic. I think there was something mentally wrong with him."
I remember that meeting well. It was at a chemtrail conference in Los Angeles. I was the only non-believer there that I knew of. At one point I started talking to a small group, and I explained who I was. They grew angry, and surrounded me, asking me how I could live with myself as a government shill. While there was no immediate threat of physical violence, it was a rather nerve-wracking experience. I explained my interest, and eventually had a halfway rational chat with one of them.
Later, I went to talk to the promoter. Still rather shaken, I hesitated to interrupt his conversation and hovered nearby for a while, uncertain what to do with myself. Then I did actually talk to him, and my nerves must have shown. I don't really remember it as such, but years later his suspicious mind interpreted my nervous glances as indications of guilt, and my hesitations to choose the right words as evidence of mental illness.
The lesson I learned from this encounter (and the later way he characterized it) is the age-old one that first impressions matter. This is especially true when the person receiving their first impression of you is apt to interpret every nuance in a particular way that fits their worldview. It can be very difficult, but the impression you want to get across is neutral, friendly, and honest. The simplest way to give that impression is to actually be those things. Be yourself, be polite, and try to relax!
My Childhood Alien "Trauma"
More recently, a paragraph in the New Yorker about me was gleefully seized upon by UFO enthusiasts who were confused and angry with me for spending so much time investigating and then debunking UFO videos. In reality, I do that because enjoy the challenge of figuring out what is often a complex 3D puzzle mixed with fascinating detective work. But what they found instead was:
He used to lie in bed at night, as he wrote in his book, “Escaping the Rabbit Hole,” “literally trembling with the thought that some alien could enter my room and spirit me away to perform experiments on me.” Of particular cause for terror was the “Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter,” a 1955 case in which a Kentucky farmhouse was said to have come under attack by little green men.
This is true, a scary story had frightened me for a few weeks, over 40 years ago. My discovery that these old cases often had solutions was indeed part of my motivation for debunking. Once you figure one thing out, it's fun to figure other similar things out. But some UFO fans took this story to mean that I have a pathological fear of aliens and that I now spend time debunking them to convince myself they were not real, even though I secretly think they are.
The reality is that my childhood fears are long gone. I don't have nightmares about aliens. In fact, I grew to love the idea of aliens by reading comics like the Silver Surfer or 2000AD, watching films like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and especially endless reading of science fiction that often involved aliens. Some old favorites still resonate with me: Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama, Larry Niven's Ringworld, Philip K. Dick's Galactic Pot Healer, and Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg. My favorite author now is the late Iain M. Banks, whose Culture novels describe an inspirational future universe with a diverse and fascinating array of alien civilizations.
Yet I now get my childhood fears repeated back to me on a weekly basis. Sometimes in the most convoluted ways, for example:
The most hardcore [UFO skeptics] shared something in common and I mean all of them. They used to be hardcore believers. They were ashamed of themselves at one point and became obsessed with debunking UFO cases. [...] You did not get into UFO debunkings earlier on in your life because you felt reassured by the work of other skeptics. You then were too busy with THPS and enjoying the American Dream and I can only thank you and congratulate you for that. Then your love for aviation led you to debunking chemtrails conspiracy theories [...] Then chemtrails naturally led you to your ancient trauma...aliens. so UFOs are the closest thing to aliens
Polite Honesty is the Best Policy
What to do when someone thinks your arguments are founded only on your accidentally recovered "ancient trauma?" The most important thing is to be aware that this is going to happen. If you persist in skeptical investigations or expositions, then some people are going to think you are irrational - and possibly even publicly accuse you of some mental illness or pathological obsession.
Then when this happens, don't get angry - because that will just be interpreted as an irrational denial. Calmly but firmly explain yourself, then move on. Don't give the accusations oxygen or dignify them with any debate. Note that they are false, show some context, and talk about something else.
Above all, understand that these accusations are often coming from a genuine place. Viewing you as mentally ill might be the only way of viewing you that makes any sense to them. Try to figure out why that is. What do they believe, and why? What is it about what you are saying that is so incompatible with their worldview that it seems (to them) literally crazy? If you can get past any hurt feelings and show them that your thoughts on the topic are (from your perspective) actually rational, fact-based, and well-meaning, then the conversation will be a lot more productive.
A version of this article first appeared in SKEPTIC magazine, Volume 26, issue3, Summer 2021