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Is it worthwhile to debate a conspiracy theorist?

By Cole McCracken, January 23 2020—

Conspiracy theorists can be ridiculously frustrating to deal with — whether you are talking to one, hearing about one or just reading some ridiculous comment they decide to leave on your social media posts. Most of the time it’s so frustrating or stupid that it feels impossible not to respond to it. Is it really worth your time to respond to some random person who decides to take the time out of their day to try and convince you that climate change isn’t real? Well, it depends on a few things.

For starters, it’s important to remember who it is that you are seeing this conspiracy from. Are they important to you? A close friend or family member, a political figure who has a level of control over the things that influence you and your communities or just L1z4rdsF4k3dtheM00n420 in the YouTube comment section? Depending on how relevant the person is to you, to an issue you care about or to a position of power in any community you are a part of, the more or less worthwhile they would be to open a discourse to try and debate their conspiracy theory. This is especially true with the more control or influence a person has over your life or an issue you care about. If they are personally close to you, the more worthwhile it would be to debate and argue with this person. For people of influence this extends to all of their beliefs — conspiracy theory or otherwise — but is especially problematic on issues of conspiracy theories.

The next thing to consider is how harmful this person’s conspiracy is. How much does it impact you or the issue and people you care about, or even just other people generally? Will changing this person’s mind or debunking this conspiracy theory change the way this person acts, would allowing them to continue in their belief cause them to act in a way that is harmful to themselves or others?An anti-vaxxer at any age or level of influence is harmful to themselves and especially to vulnerable people around them — often to their own children, people who are immunocompromised such as the elderly or already sick, and to people who are allergic to vaccines. Anti-vaxxers are especially worth trying to change the minds of, as not only does their continued belief in the anti-vaxx conspiracy hurt people around them, but if you are successful in changing their perspective and actions, you can contribute to improving herd immunity.

These two factors can combine with who the conspiracy theorist is to you and how much influence they have on the topic of interest. A climate denier in public office is far more harmful than one who isn’t. I claim climate denialism as a conspiracy theory here as climate change is an issue of science that has been researched extensively. 

These considerations are also useful in determining who is not worthwhile in debating with. If the person is a complete stranger who is not in a position of influence and has a conspiracy that does not change how they might act in the world, then they are probably not really worth your time. A friend of a friend of a friend who works in retail and believes that the world is flat might not be worth debating. 

I’m not going to tell you that it is wrong to debate with a stranger about whether or not there are lizard people in control of the government or whether  Betty White is secretly immortal. However, if you find yourself in a position where arguing with a conspiracy theorist could get in the way of your day, then consider if they are even worth your time at all. 

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