C4FTEY 9-11 was an inside job conspiracy theory on T-shirt, London, UK © Alamy

Why you can’t argue with a conspiracy theorist

When it comes to challenging deep-seated beliefs, relying on scientific evidence won't cut any ice.

For Dr David Bell, a psychoanalyst and consultant psychiatrist at the Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, trying to convince conspiracy theorists that they are wrong is destined to end in failure: “What is demanded is a kind of ultimate proof, which there cannot be.” Trying to disprove a conspiracy theory by rational argument will not work, he says, because the premise is not based on rational argument, but on “a very intense emotional need to see the world in this way”.

Advertisement
Conspiracy theorist displaying JFK sign on Denver street corner © Alamy

Dr Harry Dyer explains that if you show a conspiracy theorist that science that can prove them wrong, they’ll often disregard it, attacking the institution it comes from as being part of the conspiracy. “They don’t trust the institutions, and therefore any ideas that come out of those institutions are invalid,” he says. “I’ve never had any success at arguing with people who believe conspiracy theories.”

When I spoke to Gary Heather, a passionate Flat Earther, he didn’t sound crazed or unhinged, as the stereotypical conspiracy theorist is supposed to. In fact, he pointed out that I was the one clinging to my belief that the Earth was round, even though I’d never really questioned the evidence I’d been presented with. I had the impression that, to him, I am blindly following my instinctive assumptions, whereas he sees himself as open-minded, taking a scientific approach, and receptive to seeing what the evidence proves. He didn’t make me question the shape of the Earth, but he did make me realise that even though we have opposing views on science, our assumptions about each other were very similar.

This is an extract from issue 326 of BBC Focus magazine.

Subscribe and get the full article delivered to your door, or download the BBC Focus app to read it on your smartphone or tablet. Find out more

326-cover square2

Advertisement

Follow Science Focus on TwitterFacebook, Instagram and Flipboard