From flat-earthers to anti-vaxxers to climate deniers, conspiracy theorists are not often treated with compassion and respect. And honestly, why should they be? If you’re going to hold ridiculous positions, then you should expect to be ridiculed.
But still, we should all try to be understanding and empathetic of those with bizarre ideas. A perfect example of how to handle the balance there can be found in Carey Dunne’s piece in the Guardian on spending a month with chemtrail conspiracy theorists.
Dunne manages to avoid both outright mockery and patronizing infantilization, walking the line between being honest about a subject and treating them fairly. It’s worth the read, but one thing stood out: Dunne’s attempted debunking of the theory that the government is spraying us all with unknown but definitely bad chemicals emitted from everyday air travel.
Dunne showed the subjects of his story two different rebuttals to the chemtrail conspiracy. One was a 2016 peer reviewed study “Quantifying expert consensus against the existence of a secret, large-scale atmospheric spraying program” and the other was a straightforward video that points to pages in 70 years worth of textbooks to explain how chemtrails are just harmless contrails. While the husband remained resolute, the wife indicated that the video made her reconsider, and “put her ‘on the fence.’”
When it comes to climate denial, it’s easy enough to imagine a similar effort to expose deniers to rebuttals. One could provide them with the peer-reviewed study that quantifies the expert consensus on warming, or any number of videos that explain the basics.
For example, in part responding to a recent Dilbert comic, the latest Climate Crocks video features a number of experts, who describe the various ways we know climate’s changing. The video makes the point that despite the portrayal by Dilbert creator Scott Adams of climate change being totally reliant on models, it’s actually multiple independent lines of observations that underpin the consensus.
And as Bloomberg’s Faye Flam writes, a “scientific consensus is worth taking seriously.” While there have been scientific mistakes in the past, by and large these issues, particularly examples often raised by deniers (plate tectonics, flat Earth, geocentrism) don’t in any way reflect modern science and consensus positions.
So those that claim failed consensus claims of the past are wrong to do so. Can we make fun of them though?
Sure. Just...do it in a way that’s not too off-putting to those watching (so be funny, use a little ridicule, but don’t be a jerk about it.) Because, as the King of Consensus John Cook explains in a reddit AMA about how science does or doesn’t persuade the public, when you’re talking with a denier that you know isn’t going to change, you do so not for them, but for the audience watching from the sidelines.
So like the chemtrail-believing husband interviewed by Dunnes, deniers are going to flat-out reject any attempt to change their mind. But that doesn’t mean an effort to try is pointless. After all, as long as there are others who haven’t made up their mind looking too, you may yet prevent the conspiracy theory from taking hold, which would make it all worthwhile.
At least that’s what we’re telling ourselves, while nervously eyeing those suspicious looking clouds overhead...