How to Handle a Conspiracy Theorist

by Emily Sabbey

Do you know how to spot a conspiracy theorist? Some people use a checklist. Tin foil hats? Check. Bunkers full of gold and guns? Check. Tirades against the government? Double check. Except, there’s a flaw in this approach. None of these boxes apply to my mother. With straight brown hair, almond-shaped brown eyes, and a medium build, she naturally blends into any crowd. She is smart, sophisticated, and social, but just mention the 1969 “moon landing” and brace yourself for a debate. She is a true conspiracy theorist in disguise; she eats with the tennis ladies by day, but  stays up with the internet crazies by night. 

If you haven’t argued with her, you’re missing out on the pleasure of fighting tooth and nail over even the most mundane topics. Simply commenting on the weather can result in a heated argument over the government’s intent to profit from global warming. Mentioning a favorite TV show could result in  duct-taping anything vaguely resembling a microphone to the back of the television set. Having grown up in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, my mother is critical of anything and everything tied to the government, and this background is probably the reason that the 1969 moon landing remains  one of her most passionate arguments. Her evidence includes incriminating images and videos, suspicious circumstances of astronauts dying, and “faked” moon rock samples; the extent of her conviction in the hoax is impressive. 

Now, my mother isn’t uneducated. Drawn to outrageous internet claims because of her impressionability with the radical, she is just naturally distrusting and curious for the truth. She recognizes connections where most people would see coincidence and challenges even the most conventional wisdom. She asks the kinds of questions that people brush off as obvious because to her there is always an ulterior motive. And because I don’t usually agree with her, the process of disputing her extremist views with my purely scientific ones is what sparked my passion for reading and debating. 

In the beginning, I wasn’t very good. Many debates  involved my mother repeating the same point to each of my attempted counters– just a little louder than before. I found arguing with somebody who cherry-picked scientific understandings as if they were hors d’oeuvres at Sunday brunch harder than debating in front of a hundred people at Model United Nations. She would twist scientific understandings for her own personal use, disregarding what didn’t support her argument.Worse,  when she didn’t have one, she would say “it’s a cover-up” or “that’s what they want you to believe”. A typical argument would begin with me saying, “It’s definitely a coincidence that ___ happened,” or, “There’s no way that a politician could do that,” and she would quickly respond, “There’s no such thing as coincidences when the government is involved–you must look past the endless propaganda they feed you to see the real truth.” 

To debate with a person like this I needed to become adept at proving my point, leaving no loophole or angle undiscovered– an ironclad argument that she couldn’t poke holes in. And so, although I had very little interest in the non-fiction genre before, I soon started picking up books at the library and reading online articles in order to disprove her wildest theories. Reading was my way of research; I couldn’t create my own lunar soil or melt solid steel beams in my garage, so I had to find other ways to investigate the contexts of conspiracy theories. 

I read about the properties of momentum in vacuum conditions and the reflective nature of lunar regolith when debating the topic of the 1969 moon landing. I learned about the natural interactions of jet exhausts with our atmosphere in the form of contrails when discussing the topic of chemtrails, and the structure of steel and its properties at different temperatures when debating the topic of the government’s involvement in 9/11. I felt like a member of MythBusters, using scientific journals and articles to counter whatever controversial event she had last read on Alex Jones’ Twitter. 

Opening up Scientific American from the bookmarks bar on my computer soon became an unconscious motion. However, one source–even a really good one–wasn’t nearly enough to support a point against my formidable opponent. To branch my search for the best arguments, I could be found in the non-fiction section of my local library, two thick reusable grocery bags laying beside me to take home the books that I wouldn’t manage to read before it closed. However, I still didn’t consider reading one of my passions. I wouldn’t have said I even enjoyed it. I simply saw it as a way to combat my mother. 

I spent a lot of time in the library, convincing myself I was only there for research purposes. I didn’t realize that my love for reading had morphed into something greater than just proving my mother wrong. It became a way for me to explore important ideas and come up with my own interpretation of the truth, which I guess is a little similar to what a conspiracy theorist does. 

But does “truth” even exist? I believed that through scientific experimentation and validation, through reading textbooks and published journals, I was finding the truth behind the myth. I thought that knowledge existed in the form of formulae, equations, and laws.That logic could be applied to organize all life, no matter the scale. 

That was, at least, until I came across an American history book in the library, published by a well-known and respected historian, and the story differed like night and day to what I had learned in my British school and from my British textbooks. The book was about the Boston Tea Party, and it portrayed the protest as heroic, patriotic, and as overthrowing and overcoming British Imperialism. However, I learned in school that is was an event borne out of selfishness and juvenile rebellion. Somehow I was reading about the same event, but it was a different story. 

The “facts” of this event opposed each other based on which perspective I read, something that, by definition, facts couldn’t be. This made me think of my mother and how she was so surely set in her own truth. When I was researching her evidence, I believed there was only one answer and it lay purely in science. I didn’t consider different perspectives on the matter or how personal backgrounds would affect the way someone perceives an event. My mother grew up in a propagandistic society and had been lied to her whole life. It was ‘“truth” to her that the government couldn’t be trusted. 

I began thinking that maybe the truth isn’t so one-dimensional. Rather, it’s  situational and can be applied in one instance but not another. When we look at an event we make approximations that are true in a certain context, and we don’t question the things that are considered ‘“obvious”. Conspiracy theorists do. They take into account the situation and atmosphere at the time, the government’s motives, ability, and sphere of influence to make a judgment that may seem outrageous but is founded in its own evidence. 

It was  through reading different perspectives and researching as much as I could, that I realized there is always more to understand. I thought that the scientific journal I was reading on the experiments done on lunar soil to prove how it could, in fact, hold a human boot imprint, was strong evidence to counter the conspiracy theorists’ claims  that the photos of the astronauts footprints were faked, because the soil doesn’t have enough moisture to hold a print. 

But using the perspective of a conspiracy theorist, I thought “how did they know they were testing true lunar soil?” Diving deeper, I found that NASA provided the so-called “lunar rock” samples. Any experiment performed on a sample that was given by the company in question is meaningless. I thought that because an article was peer-reviewed or a non-fiction book was professionally published,  it couldn’t be wrong. In this case, the science was correct, but it failed as a good source because I hadn’t considered its context and had missed the conspicuous money trail behind it. 

This very lengthy process led me to come to terms with what it means to be a conspiracy theorist. My mother’s claims, that I used to roll my eyes at or say, “No way is that possible,” are not so black and white anymore. I’ve realized that you can never fully understand something until you open your eyes and trade perspectives with somebody else. My mother knew this from the beginning. I couldn’t be more proud of her willingness to challenge authority and common beliefs. Therefore, step one of handling a conspiracy theorist is: become one.