Conspiracy theories have been gaining publicity in recent months. When we see them in a tweet or receive an email forwarded from a “dear uncle,” most of us dismiss them as uninformed and irrelevant. But what do you do if someone you know and respect cites and uses one in a discussion with you to buttress his or her point of view?
Challenging conspiracy theories usually fails to work. Asking someone to provide evidence rarely bears fruit because the person repeating the story already believes it to be true and may not recall where she heard it (and almost certainly has no knowledge of the presumed source). Your colleague may not feel the need to cite facts and employ logic because she believes the argument itself is persuasive. The conspiracy theory confirms her “intuition” and biases—and that must make it true! Trying to validate the sources of the theory is a route few will pursue.
Rather than needling your friend for the facts, try something new: do not challenge the statement, but agree it may well be true. The fun comes with your next sentence: If your statement is accurate, then what do you expect will happen in the next three months (or some other appropriate period of time) as a result? Ask the propagator of the theory what behavior an observer should expect to see that would confirm the validity of the theory. Ideally, challenge her to prepare a list of Indicators that both of you can keep that will demonstrate in a short period of time how prescient they may well be.
Once the list of Indicators is drafted and several weeks or months go by, take out the list and see if any of the predicted behavior has occurred. If most of the Indicators “light up,” then you probably should admit that you were unnecessarily skeptical. If few or none come to pass, then you can make a solid case that your colleague’s theory is unsupported or, at best, might require more time to play out.
By using Indicators in this way, you can turn an emotional argument into a more rigorous analytic dialogue. If your colleague is a rational thinker, you may have spurred her to think more carefully about the issue. If your colleague is an ideologue, you probably had little impact on her thinking, but you did have fun demonstrating the power of rational thought!
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You can learn more about how to construct and monitor Indicators in the Analyst’s Guide to Indicators by Randolph H. Pherson and John Pyrik (available in our Analyst’s Bookshop.)
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