Think very carefully before you challenge a conspiracy theorist to a public debate. Some of the points to ponder include:
  • publicity is the "jet fuel" of the conspiracy theory business. If you can deprive them of an audience then you're probably doing more good than you can ever hope to achieve during a debate (even if you win).

  • remember that the conspiracy theorist can "win" simply by making sure that she/he doesn't lose the debate badly. In order for you to "win", you have to defeat your opponent TOTALLY.

  • if you defeat your opponent TOTALLY then you run the risk of your opponent winning the "sympathy vote" (i.e. even if you win, you might still lose).

  • any good conspiracy theorist knows all the tricks of the trade including:

    • asking questions that don't have "sound bite" answers
    • ignoring the question if they don't like it and "answering" some other unasked question
    • providing "sound bite" almost-answers to questions that don't have "sound bite" answers
    • looking at you like you're "one of them" or "a fool to believe that"
    • playing to the audience's emotions
    • knowing where there are likely to be holes in the audience's knowledge and filling the holes in with "perfect" lies
    • disagreeing with absolutely everything you say (remember - they only need to "not lose badly" and you need to "win TOTALLY")

    (this is NOT a complete list)

  • the conspiracy theorist doesn't really care about what you have to say. After all, they're main goal in being there is to get publicity (already done if you're having a public debate) and attract more devotees.

  • agreeing to debate a conspiracy theorist gives them instant credibility as it essentially proves that you think that their theory is worth debating (i.e. they have identified a legitimate point of dispute). See below for more on this point.

  • agreeing to debate a point which is not a legitimate point of dispute hurts your credibility beyond the realm of the debate (i.e. it suggests that you have poor judgement).

  • losing or appearing to lose (they are the same thing) a debate over a point that isn't worthy of debate reflects quite badly on you and could be used by the conspiracy theorist as proof or at least evidence that they are right. In contrast, if you win then the conspiracy theorist will simply ignore the event.

  • Be very careful and aware of the subtleties of the "freedom of speech" right (the exact nuances of the "free speech" right vary from country to country). While it is true that everyone has a right to speak their opinions, nobody has a right to have their opinions heard by your audience! Unless you are denying someone the right to speak at all, refusing to provide someone with an opportunity to speak via your forum, web site, radio station, newspaper, etc. is not denying someone their "freedom of speech" rights. After all, they are free to find or build a forum, web site, radio station, newspaper, etc. that will carry their views. You are denying them their right to speak if you actively interfere with them when they are trying to speak (hecklers who try to disrupt someone speaking are denying the speaker the very right that they themselves are claiming gives them the right to heckle!).

  • Watch out for the "there's another side to every story" tactic. This notion has all sorts of problems:

    • there is no other side to the truth! i.e. there might be another side to every opinion but a fact is either true or false. There are facts which we can't judge the truth of - e.g. "intelligent life exists on other planets" but the statement is either true or false (it is usually a waste of time to debate facts which can't be decided).
    • don't confuse the difference between opinion and belief or the difference between what you know and what you believe (a certainty of belief isn't the same thing as a knowledge of fact, no matter how strongly the conspiracy theorist might wish or believe that they were the same).
    • don't be afraid to know things (although it won't do you any good when debating a conspiracy theorist). For example, I know that the Earth orbits the Sun just like I know that the Holocaust happened (see below).
    • don't be afraid to make assumptions and treat them as facts that you know as long as, at some level, you realize that they are actually assumptions and not facts. For example, I know that my truck is parked outside. I might be wrong (trucks do get stolen from time to time) but I can't go through life worrying about every uncertainty so I know that my truck is parked outside.
    • understand the difference between reasonable doubt and unreasonable doubt. It isn't necessary to be presented with absolute proof of something before you're allowed to know that it is true. Reasonable doubt is exactly that - "reasonable".
    • you aren't obligated to give someone an opportunity to change your mind about anything and you definitely don't need to give someone an opportunity to brow beat you into agreeing with them!
    • while it is possible that President Kennedy was shot by a rogue CIA assassin, that doesn't mean that he was shot by a rogue CIA assassin. He might be still alive or he might have been killed by a death ray from Mars! The mere fact that a tiny bit of doubt exists doesn't make the question of whether or not President Kennedy was killed by a rogue CIA assassin a legitimate point of dispute.

    Although many topics of conspiracy theories might be subject to debate, a lot of conspiracy theories try to turn established facts (or falsehoods) into points of legitimate dispute.

    An example might be in order here: suppose that someone were to claim that Napoleon didn't invade Russia or that George Washington wasn't the first U.S. President. Does the existence of such an absurd claim mean that whether or not Napoleon invaded Russia or whether or not George Washington was the first U.S. President is now a question worth investigating? Don't confuse the legitimate desire to read things for yourself or to get to the bottom of things (e.g. was George Washington ever the President under the current U.S. Constitution?) with some sort of bogus obligation to prove to someone that they are wrong!

  • Watch out for false or irrelevant controversies. This is a favourite tactic of "the Holocaust never happened" conspiracy theorists. Even though there is no doubt that the Holocaust happened (i.e. that it was a campaign of organized government sanctioned murder on an industrial scale that killed millions of people), there are areas of legitimate controversy. For example, "how many Jews were murdered (to the nearest million)?" and "how widespread was the knowledge of what was going on". The first question, "how many were murdered?", is used to cast doubt on whether or not more than a handful were murdered (as a bare minimum, at least a few million were murdered). The second ("how widespread was the knowledge?") is used in all sorts of creative ways although the worst is to suggest that Hitler wasn't "in the loop" - there is absolutely no rational reason to doubt that Hitler was behind and supported the Holocaust. Just read his book Mein Kampf if you have any doubt on where he stood or read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich or any other good history of the war if you have any illusions about how "in the loop" he might have been!

Check with a lawyer in your jurisdiction before you take my comments about free speech rights too seriously as you could land in legal trouble if you deprive someone of their rights.

Having been on both sides of this argument, I can say with a clean heart that most of what is said above is completely true. There are of course issues central to the notion of debating with a conspiracy theorist (publicity = oxygen) but in general, unless you are playing to a packed house, the mere act of debating rationally can in fact alleviate much of the illusion surrounding the so called conspiracy.

It is hard (it must be said) not to play to a packed house. Very few people want to attend such a debate except those who are usually quite inclined to the views of the conspiracy, and this has to be taken into account before confirming such a debate.

To begin with, consider first of all, your own chain of reasoning. Which of your beliefs on the topic at hand fall into the realm of absolute knowledge derivable provably from facts and axioms that one could not dispute without being insane?

This isn't as easy as it looks, and you may find that in this earnest process, many of the beliefs you held dear are cast to one side as you discover gaps in your knowledge, or indeed flaws in your own reasoning. Don't be shy, they ARE there, no one after all is perfect. The purpose here is NOT to collect ammunition for the debate itself, but to purge yourself of all points of weakness. Better to be in a small watertight dingy than a mile long sponge.

The next step is to consider the 'conspiracy' itself, how would you characterise it? What are the central tenets of the conspiracy. If you were thinking as a conspiracy theorist, what would you NEED to believe in order to maintain your faith, and what would you WANT to believe to do so? Most conspiracies centre around a small group of charismatic individuals, or organisations who have committed some act, or are in the process of committing acts which elicit a response of revulsion, fear, or outrage. Who, in short, are The Players? What is the setting? What is supposed to have occurred? What is the difference between what the conspiracy theorist believes, and what you believe?

And here's the clincher... Why do they believe it? Why do they value their interpretation above the one generally given?

Could they have economic, political, social reasons? Neo-nazi's, and Anti-Semites would obviously have a vested interest in proving that the holocaust didn't happen, as would some religious extremists. Whilst one can't change their natures entirely, one can certainly draw their attention to factors that may colour their own opinion. No one likes to believe they are biased, and an obvious cultural or other bias, if pointed out gently can go a long way towards ameliorating the situation.

Also accept the fact that many of these people have spent a lot of time looking up obscure facts relating to their field of study, and you are NOT likely to be able to match them at that level of dogma. So don't try. Don't close your mind either, many conspiracy theorists are quite intelligent open minded people, and sometimes, what may sound like the most badly concocted story, can in fact end up being true: Toxic Sludge is Good For You

Also accept the fact that most of these people are angry at 'the system'. And these groups, or people which play such a role in 'the system' are often symbols of the daily oppression in which many theorists believe they live. The CIA, the Jews, Area 51, all of these are gateways into the psyche of the individual, and reveal subtle but important facts about the way in which they see themselves. The CIA conspiracists often believe themselves to be more intelligent than average and are frustrated by their lack of recognition. The 'Jew' conspiracists usually have economic issues, as well as a likely static social background situation. The Area 51ers feel their inspiration is being crushed by the establishment... All these are failed forms of rebel, and often they are constantly licking their wounds from a thousand different battles daily against the system in which we all live. By being part of the bandaging process within the debate, and not attacking their wounds, as most people would do, you go a long way to levelling the playing field, and ensuring a rational response.

The only other thing I would add is that it is likely to be difficult to end the debate. Once people in the audience feel like they can be heard, you could be there for hours as literally each person who's held their tongue for what they feel is forever opens up. The way in which you or indeed your chairman handles this is very important, discretion, a sense that you are listening (without being patronizing), a collecting of all the similar points and acknowledgement under one umbrella will shorten the time taken by this process quite considerably. It's a good idea to take a moment between audience members to do this, otherwise they'll all run into each other. Also if you've done your homework and worked it well in your speech, you'll have touched on almost all the points they would want to cover so the questions should be limited, as will their need to speak. When closing, BE closing, and don't raise the opportunity to re-ignite the debate.

Oh, and good luck.

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