Use Empathy Before Facts When Debating a Conspiracy Theorist

How do you go about debating an issue with a conspiracy theorist? Political scientists say facts will end the conversation before it even begins--empathize with them if you want a meaningful discussion.

People around the world subscribe to all kinds of conspiracy theories. There's a fascination to stories about the magic bullet and aliens crashing out in the desert. But we imagine people with tin hats, sitting on the outskirts of town when we think of the conspiracy theorist, but this image may only be a caricature of the truth.


Eric Oliver and Tom Wood, both political scientists at the University of Chicago, have been researching conspiracy theorists for eight years, sharing some of their insights in an article for New Scientist. They've found that half of Americans subscribe to at least one of the more common conspiracy theories out there. These beliefs are held across all political ideologies and education levels. Though, some more readily adopt these beliefs more than others.

Some conspiracies have a bent, which make them more appealing to one side or the other. For instance, Oliver and Wood say that more conservatives tend to believe Barak Obama's birth certificate was fabricated, while liberals tend to subscribe to the belief that 9/11 was an inside job by the government to rally the nation and start a war.

That brought them to wonder why these conspiracy theories affect so many of us—no matter our political leanings or socioeconomic status. They surmise it must be in our primal psychology. They write in their article for New Scientist:

“The brain did not evolve to process information about industrial economies, terrorism or medicine, but about survival in the wild. This includes a tendency to assume that unseen predators are lurking or that coincidental events are somehow related.”

The story our minds' weave are simple with a good guy and a bad guy. There's no misunderstandings or messy rivalries that could clutter up the narrative. Oliver and Wood say that these theories are all fine when it comes to aliens crashing in the desert. But when politicians are trying to talk about important issues that have an affect on the public, it's difficult to sustain a debate. The discussion ends before it even begins. Then the question becomes, how do you begin to have a meaningful discussion with a conspiracy theorist about these issues?

It all comes back to psychology. Oliver and Wood say that facts will not dissuade them, it will only shut down the discussion that much faster—instead empathize. It's true, other studies have shown people feel threatened when facts conflict with anyone's beliefs. People will throw back untested assertions—anything to defend the world they've come to understand. But when we understand and appreciate the emotional reasoning behind the belief, we may be better equipped talk about the issue in a way they'll comprehend.

Read more at New Scientist

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

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Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.