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HomeVideoCan You Win an Argument with a Conspiracy Theorist?

Can You Win an Argument with a Conspiracy Theorist?

Why do some people believe in conspiracy theories? Can you change their minds?

TEACHERS: Get your students in the discussion on KQED Learn, a safe place for middle and high school students to investigate controversial topics and share their voices.

The Earth is flat. We never landed on the moon. Tupac is alive and well, living in Cuba and still releasing music to this day. Conspiracy theories are all over the internet. Why do some people believe in conspiracy theories, and can you change the mind of someone who believes in one?

ABOVE THE NOISE is a show that cuts through the hype and investigates the research behind controversial and trending topics in the news. Hosted by Myles Bess.


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Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but with the internet and the rise of social media, conspiracy theories are getting in front of a lot of eyeballs. After the Sandy Hook school shooting in late 2012, a term that started on underground blogs went mainstream — CRISIS ACTORS. Conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones started pushing a narrative that the school shooting never happened, and that that the victims weren’t students but instead were paid actors.

Sometimes, conspiracy theories can spill out into the real world and do actual damage — like when a man armed with a rifle entered a Washington DC-area pizzeria, convinced that the restaurant was involved in a sex trafficking operation masterminded by Hillary Clinton. He didn’t find anything but a bunch of now-freaked-out people eating pizza.

But have you ever sat down and tried to argue with someone who believes in a conspiracy theory? Can you change a conspiracy theorist’s mind?

What is a conspiracy theory?
A conspiracy theory is a belief that an organization is working in secret to achieve some sinister goal.

Are conspiracy theories always false?
Not always. They usually are false, but they can be true. For example, back in the 1950’s and 60’s, there was a conspiracy theory claiming that the CIA was using U.S. citizens to conduct secret mind control experiments. Surprisingly, that theory turned out to be true. The project was called MK Ultra, and it was indeed an experiment run by the CIA. Congressional testimony in the late 1970’s showed that it was real and did, in fact, happen.

What is illusory pattern perception?
Illusory pattern perception is when your brain perceives a pattern when one doesn’t actually exist. Humans are primed to see patterns, so this actually happens more often than you probably realize.

Survey of conspiracy theory beliefs in the U.S.

Project MK Ultra congressional testimony

The psychology of conspiracy theories

Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural

Lacking control increases illusory pattern perception

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About KQED
KQED, an NPR and PBS affiliate in San Francisco, CA, serves Northern California and beyond with a public-supported alternative to commercial TV, Radio, and web media. Funding for Above the Noise is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Silver Giving Foundation, Stuart Foundation, and William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.