Since my last installment on denial movement tactics, a lot has happened in wacky conspiracyland. The denial movement surrounding the President's birth was then such a faint glimmer that I barely considered it.
But the breaking of birtherism into the media is an excellent opportunity to discuss a major misunderstanding about deniers, one that often fools the unwary debunker into aiding their cause: they may seem nuts, but it's intentional.
Again, a denial movement is an ideological effort to deny some well established scientific or historical event or fact. These include creationism, moon landing denial, holocaust denial, 9/11 trutherism, the "HIV doesn't cause AIDS" crowd, and now Obama Birtherism. [note: at least some of these conspiracy theories are banned from Daily Kos. Clearly this diary does not advocate, promote or otherwise aid them]
A denial movement is not quite the same thing as a conspiracy theory, although there is significant overlap. They often imply one another: if you attempt to deny something well established, you need a conspiracy theory to explain it. But here is the crucial difference: a conspiracy theory is a belief system. A denial movement is an ideological effort to push an idea on the populace. It's not something you believe, but something you spread.
This teensy little difference explains half of the insanity you see from conspiracy people. For example, consider Orly Taitz confiding in Lou Dobbs that nothing would convince her: if the "original birth certificate" were released, she still wouldn't believe. All around the Internet birthers are demanding the next document, having completely dismissed the last one. Release it and they'll just declare it counterfeit and start yelling for hospital records. If pressed, they cannot name a single thing that will change their minds, and yet they demand evidence anyway.
Does that sound schizophrenic to you? If so, then you don't understand the strategy: Orly Taitz does not actually want evidence. She wants to continually demand evidence, in order to give the impression of a cover-up. It's quite rational, even canny, and lots of people fall for this deception.
This is an example of a common tactic among deniers: the eternal request. Deniers pretend that all they want is one little thing, giving the impression that the corrupt establishment hasn't or cannot provide it. Examples:
- Creationists continually demand one single example of a transitional fossil. Many exist, but they simply ask for another.
- 9/11 truthers ask for a real, impartial investigation of WTC-7. After NIST investigates they simply ask again. By their own definition, nothing that actually happens is genuine or impartial.
- Holocaust deniers repeatedly ask for any evidence of a homicidal gas chamber. Even after the Irving trial, establishing these chambers and crematoria beyond a shadow of a doubt, they keep asking for a single shred of evidence, pretending they haven't gotten any yet.
- Birthers continually ask for one little piece of paper, although they have laundry lists of documents they are going to demand, one at a time, from Obama's kindergarten records to his college transcript.
The overall tactic is: ask for a specific piece of evidence, investigation, or even an open discussion of your claims. If you already got it, pretend you haven't. Suggest that your humble request should be super-easy to fulfill. "Obama could end this today," goes the common refrain on message boards. Therefore something must be wrong, right?
The important fact about this strategy is that it isn't really a sincere demand for evidence: it is a public relations tactic. You cannot fulfill the eternal request, and you cannot stop it with any evidence or argument. This is like stopping spammers, by convincing them that their boner pills don't really work. If you think you can do that, then you don't understand the business model.
Indeed, by engaging a denier in debate you often aid them: every inch of copy space is a small victory for these people. One of the most blatant examples of this is creationist Ken Ham, who challenges any biology professor to debate him on campus. Several gullible but well-meaning people take him up on this. They don't lose the debate, but in the process they let a creationist on campus to hold a little circus and hand out literature. An article lands in the student newspaper, a debate ensues. That's the point, to sneak your ideas into a legitimate institution. And after it's all over, regardless of how firmly you debunk Ken Ham, he simply repeats his open challenge for a debate. He's not going to stop because of your impeccable logic: his mission is simply to spread an idea.
How to deal with these people.
First and foremost, you need to fight deniers on their own turf, meaning off campus, and outside of major media outlets. Take them on the air even to debunk them and you lose. Remember that their goal is to reach an audience.
Second of all, remember that you're not going to convince them. This doesn't mean it's pointless to argue: it just means you aren't doing it for their sake. You debunk these people for the sake of anyone who may be watching, the zillion people who heard about this moon-landing stuff and want to know if it's legit or crazy. Your goal is to communicate with them---that implies that you shouldn't just abuse the deniers, as that provides no information and aids their whole innocent victim narrrative.
A good overall strategy is to force deniers to say crazy, stupid things. Some effective tactics include:
- Ask deniers to name a single piece of evidence that will change their minds, and get them to commit to that fact. Don't let them mumble that a birth certificate will "help."
- If deniers don't have an answer, ask them what business they have asking for evidence that will never change their minds.
- Ask them why you only hear their claims from internet people, rather than official sources. If there really were holes in evolution, wouldn't I hear about it from biologists rather than some dude?
There is a response to this---biologists are participating in a vast cover-up to protect their jobs, every single dang one of them---but make sure you get them to say this out loud. You want people to hear the daffy side of the denial movement, the part that deniers try to avoid writing.
- Maintain a list of urban legends, and expose them when used. Don't ridicule, just say, "this post contains the following false claims:" Remember, you're writing this for a third party who may be sitting on the fence between birtherism and sense. That person needs information, not snide one-liners.
- If possible, track a denier's writing over time. It's very effective to say, "you said the same thing last week, five people debunked it, you went quiet for a few days and now you're repeating it again. Why?"
- It doesn't hurt to ask deniers where they stand on other denial movements. You'd be surprised how much overlap there is between them. If I'm sitting on the fence about the moon landing and suddenly the moon landing denier starts ranting about the Jews, it really helps to make up my mind who the lunatic is.
To sum up, conspiracy theorists often have strategic goals that are completely orthogonal to yours. You wish to establish the facts; they want to broadcast their claims to as many people as possible. You may see a debate as a chance to settle the matter; they see it as a marketing opportunity, a platform for exposure.