Argue from the top down

More thoughts on conversing with conspiracists. Sorry.

Often you’ll find that what conspiracy theorists try to do is to find a coherent, consistent position which is precisely calibrated to support their view.

I think of a friend of mine who said that his conspiracy theory wasn’t really a conspiracy theory, and wasn’t like other conspiracy theories, because there are credentialed experts who believe it.

If you asked him out of nowhere, with no context, whether he believes that a conspiracy theory that is supported by at least one credentialed expert should be treated as intellectually respectable, he would probably say no, or that it is a strangely specific question that is hard to evaluate. However, if this is the position he has to hold on order to feel that his view is not patently ridiculous, then he will believe it as self-evident truth and it might be very hard to find exceptions or to show why this theory of the case is not workable by focusing on the set of rules he has come up with to justify his way of seeing things.

What if, then, we started from a higher level of abstraction and worked our way down from there instead?

My friend might think that his conspiracy theory is entitled to the same rights and the same respect as any other way of seeing the world. If other people can have their views without being treated like they are dangerous or easily dismissed, shouldn’t he have the same treatment? It is a free country, a pluralistic country, after all, and we are all supposed to be equal to each other and to be treated fairly, aren’t we?

Rather than starting off zoomed in on his particular rules of engagement, what if we started out by stepping back and thinking more broadly, and seeing if we can coherently work our way back down to his very specific set of assertions? Let’s start off by recognizing that freedom, pluralism, equality, fairness, expertise, credentials, can never be treated as absolute. Freedom doesn’t mean you can murder someone without consequences, for instance; there have to be limits on these things, or they lose all meaning. So then let’s think about what we can agree on as limitations on those things, and work our way toward our particular topic of discussion. We might find it rather difficult to justify his very specific way of seeing things, following that procedure, as will become apparent very quickly.

Why not give that a try as a way of thinking these sorts of things through?

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