Rules for reasonably discussing conspiracy theories

I’ll probably forget that I put this here, but I feel as if I’d like to have something like this on file somewhere, so that I can send a link to the next person who wants to convince me that the governments and universities and media corporations of the world are out to get us in one way or another. You really want to have a conversation about it? Okay, maybe I can be persuaded, but here’s what we need to agree on first.

Rule number one! Correlation does not mean causation. Can we agree on that much, to begin? From this starting point, we can ask good questions and ascend in quality of proof toward being increasingly more confident of causality in a given case. But without question, just because two things happen together that doesn’t mean we automatically know which one caused the other, or how, etc.

And the second one is like it. Anecdote isn’t evidence. Anecdote can be helpful when it illuminates what we know from evidence, or if it gets us asking good questions — but it’s not evidence. Why? See point number one.

The burden of proof is always on the scientific minority. Sorry, but that’s the rule. Maybe your guy really is the next Einstein, but until he’s able to do what Einstein did and prove his ideas to the scientific community, I will try to hold back my adulation. Certainly there are minority views that will turn out to be correct! And if they are mature, they will accept the rightful burden of proof and do unimpeachable work to satisfy it.

Unexplained isn’t unexplainable, and in particular, one’s own ignorance proves nothing at all. The fact that you don’t know something is impressive to absolutely nobody, so don’t go brandishing the fact around as if it means something. And the fact that scientists don’t yet know or agree on a thing is likewise proof of nothing, as you would surely know if you weren’t so invested in getting the answer you want at any price.

Seek out the best disproof of your own view, if you’re really confident in it. Scientific progress doesn’t happen by people looking for ways to confirm their ideas. It comes from looking for ways to disprove your argument and then seeing if you’re able to do so. If it turns out that your argument is designed to be unfalsifiable, then that’s maybe a clue about whether you’re engaging in science or in pseudoscience.

Ad hominem goes both ways. I admit it: you’re technically correct when you say that even though you got your information from really questionable sources, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrue. If we’re granting you that, though, you need to do the right thing and not reject out of hand everything from mainstream media and government sources and peer reviewed scholarship. The fact that it’s reputable and reliable doesn’t mean it’s necessarily false. Okay?

Argument between non-specialists might be fun but it amounts to nothing. Let’s keep in mind that at best in this argument we’re looking for victory, for convincing the other person or reducing the other person to incoherence. We are not the correct venue for judging the truth of the matter. Let’s not pretend we are. Who is victorious, won’t tell us anything about who is right. Make sure you understand these terms before you start your disputation, and think about whether it’s really worth it to you!

A proper discussion will probably have to play out slowly over months, and will involve both people agreeing to read carefully through a few of the best available resources, to discuss. If you’re not willing to put even that much effort in, you honestly have no business opining to anybody.

Anger actually does make you less smart, and usually the people around you too. It actually does. Try to be less angry. It’s not a good look. Don’t be too embarrassed to ask for a break to cool down, if you need; it makes you look grown up.

Bonus: If you really want to convince me and you’re as certain of your grasp of the evidence and the relevant field as you claim you are, then you should definitely stop wasting your energy talking to a moron like me and instead publish in a peer-reviewed journal and convince them, your true peers (or inferiors, to hear you tell it) in the scholarly community. Get them on side, which shouldn’t be at all difficult for someone as knowledgeable as you. I will be the first person in line to apologize and to thank you for your contribution to human knowledge. I mean that sincerely.

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