How to Argue with a Crazy Person
By Wil Forbis
May 17th, 2020
Author's note: It seems I'm often writing pieces about how or why a person can or should do something but the articles just end up being more about the futility of even asking the question. This may turn out to be such piece.
We live---in these days of coronavirus*---surrounded by conspiracies. We hear stories about how the whole virus is a hoax, or that it was caused by 5G, or that it's a bioweapon attack from China or the USA. And, if you're like me, you see the people spreading these ideas, some of them old friends, and think, "who are these batshit crazy dimbulbs?" You may even fall to temptation and get into an argument with them. But you rather quickly see the argument go nowhere, with neither party budging an inch.
* I refuse to dignify the virus by capitalizing its name.
That's the nature of most arguments with crazy people, isn't it? They never resolve. Is it possible to have a productive argument with someone completely wedded to an absurd point of view? I confess I've largely given up trying, but these days of paranoia prompt me to think through why this is so.
First I should define what I mean by a crazy person. I think a rough definition would be: anyone who doesn't agree with me.
Some readers may request more depth to that answer. Well, people who believe in insane conspiracies strike me as crazy. But not all conspiracies are insane... let me categorize here.
CONSPIRACIES YOU HAVE TO BE GRADE-A BATSHIT CRAZY TO BELIEVE (If you see one of your pet theories here, well, try not to take it to personally.)
- Vaccinations cause autism or are some kind of plot for whatever reason
- The earth is flat (Ha ha---these nuts are like the Ewoks of crazy people. They're actually kind of cute.)
- 9/11 was a plot by the Bush administration
- The moon landing was fake (Seriously, who cares? Get a conspiracy theory with some heft to it.)
- Pretty much every one of these Covid-19 conspiracies
CONSPIRACIES I THINK ARE WRONG BUT NOT NECESSARILY CRAZY
- Climate change is made up
- JFK was murdered (I'm a bit on the fence on this one. Not that I think "maybe he was murdered" but in the sense that maybe these people are crazy.)
- Courtney killed Kurt (I've almost come around to believing this one.)
What's the difference between these two categories? In the latter, I'm willing to concede there is some intriguing evidence believers use to make their case, but not enough to outweigh the counter evidence.
I should note there are also some beliefs I personally find crazy ("Jesus Christ died for your sins") but I'm willing to concede that millions of perfectly normal, sane, rational people believe them.
(There are also beliefs I have that most people think are crazy. For example, I know the Kardashians are actually a family of centuries-old vampires.)
For this discussion, you really don't need to agree with me on any of this. You merely need to agree that there are people out there who have opinions that seem crazy to you. (Maybe I'm one of them.)
Now, you may have, over the course of your life, gotten interested in debunking these crazy ideas. (I did with the 9/11 one.) You may have spent untold hours studying the topic and finding the flaws in the conspiracy theorists arguments. (I learned more than I could ever care to know about the structural integrity of buildings and the melting temperature of steel.) And maybe you even got online and went a couple rounds with various conspiracy nuts. You may have even felt like you notched up some victories.
But here's what likely then happened. Life went on, you developed other interests and your anti-conspiracy fervor faded. Then, years later, you came across a person who was advocating for the particular crazy conspiracy you specialized in debunking. "Hoo boy," you said to yourself, "I'm going to let this guy have it!" You opened your mouth and... realized you'd forgotten pretty much everything you knew about the topic.
(This happened to me with climate change recently. Understanding and remembering that shit is hard!)
The reason for this has to do with the nature of arguments. They start with some person making an assertion based on a piece of evidence, believable or not. Another person alleges that evidence to be questionable or false. The first person comes up with another piece of evidence supporting their claim. That too is debunked. But then the first person chips away at the debunking argument. So the second person goes to another piece of evidence. That is called into question. And twenty years later the topic is a morass of meandering, rabbit-hole assertions and counter-assertions that a person would need a phd to fully keep track of.
Such is the nature of most arguments with conspiratorial nuts. Their ideas sound crazy, BUT they have an answer for every piece of argumentation you lay out because they've been studying this stuff for years whereas you just thought about it for five minutes.
We used to joke that the internet would solve this. When faced with conspiracy, folks could simply google* the needed facts and settle the argument. But a lot of argumentation is more about insinuation, so while google provides facts it also allows people quick access additional info that isn't necessarily proof but can cloud the issue. You throw an argument at someone and they respond with ten vaguely related observations that you have to sort through mentally. (I learned recently this technique is called the "Gish Gallup" after creationist** Duane Gish who used it to overwhelm interlocutors.)
* Like the coronavirus, I refuse to dignify google by capitalizing its name.
** Oh! Creationism! That's another conspiracy you have to be batshit crazy to believe.
So, how does someone as intelligent as myself know that the conspiracies listed above are FALSE? What is my reasoning? Have I thought through every argument and counter argument related to every single one of them? (Keep in mind, many of these conspiracy theories are themselves infected with confusing, offshoot sub-conspiracies. For instance, some people think George Bush arranged for planes to fly into the World Trade Center and then brought the buildings down with detonations while others think the planes themselves were holograms because... I forget the details.)
No, I haven't. I have a life you know. Rather I've developed a sense of what I think are "do-able" conspiracies and what are not. Conspiracies that require the silence of hundreds of people (if not whole professions) strike me as very unlikely. The anti-vax conspiracies require hundreds of thousands of medical professionals to either be in on it or such dupes they can't see what is obvious to some middled aged actress in Santa Monica with a YouTube channel. 9/11 required that substantial chunks of the military keep their mouth shut (even though they bore the brunt of its repercussions. George Bush was like, "Here's the deal: I'm going to kill a bunch of you in the Pentagon so I can then start war that will kill even more you. Everyone onboard?")
But that's not really hard evidence, is it? Saying something doesn't seem "do-able" is unlikely to convert people to your side. Thus, I have to concede that conspiracies do force us to ask a ponderous question: how do we know what we know? The flat earth theory is a great example. We all know the earth is round because... well, why do we? I've never flown into space and confirmed it. I'm simply taking the word of the people and culture around me. Even if I did fly into space, could I trust that my senses were giving me the correct information? For every piece of evidence, one can always introduce doubt. (Dammit! I knew I should've been a lawyer!)
The genius of the Matrix films was the idea that your entire existence could be a gigantic falsehood. Once you introduce the possibility that nothing is real, then no evidence can be absolute. (Unfortunately, a million conspiracy theorists now use the popularity of those movies to support whatever "truth" they are selling.)
￼There's a related pop culture narrative that jumps into my mind that, for some reason, speaks to me even more. It was an old Fantastic Four comic where we observe that Reed, Sue, Johnny and Ben---the indomitable superhero team--- are just regular people living in a small town. They have no memory of being superheroes and there's no indication they ever were. Everything we, the readers, thought we knew about the Fantastic Four is gone.
Eventually, Reed starts to suspect something is off. This leads him to cut himself open and realize that he is a clay puppet. And, in fact, they are all living puppets housing the minds of the real Fantastic Four (whose bodies are incapacitated somewhere) trapped by their old nemesis the Puppet Master. (If you care, I dug up a synopsis of the story, with a fair amount of comic art, here.)
How do we know what we know?
That question is a real sonofabitch.
What do you think? Leave your comments on the Guestbook!
Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email - firstname.lastname@example.org
Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.