How to tell the difference between a conspiracy theory and a theory about a conspiracy

Young-jin Choi
8 min readDec 1, 2020


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Part 5/5: What can be done to reduce the prevalence of conspiratorial thinking?

Perhaps the first measure to reduce the prevalence of conspiratorial thinking that comes to mind is the restoration of public trust in science, public accounts, and professional journalism. Ultimately, this monumental task requires large-scale systemic transformations that not only would reliably regulate corporate and government propaganda (e.g. through independent, impartial institutions in the public service), but also would effectively address the societal challenges (including the climate crisis, human suffering, the lack of equality and social justice, the lack of direct political and economic participation etc.) and the failed promises that have led to the evolution of anger and frustration into conspiratorial thinking in the first place. This represents a difficult long-term endeavour, which requires the mobilization of a critical mass of changemaking social agents, many of which will need to have adopted the very same complex, differentiated worldviews and the rational/scientific epistemology that the systemic transformation itself is intended to promote. As an interim step, simpler solutions are needed. Given that conspiratorial thinking is based on epistemic agents being trapped by the combination of a simplistic, distrustful worldview with a non-rational/nihilistic epistemology, we may ask ourselves: how can they be enabled to develop more complex and differentiated worldviews by themselves?

How to escape the echo chamber

In an essay titled “Escape the echo chamberC Thi Nguyen explains why it is as difficult to escape from an echo chamber as it is to escape from a cult: the community that constitutes the echo chamber has collectively determined the categorical invalidity of outside sources — regardless of the actual quality of their content. Therefore, any pieces of contrarian information, data and arguments that may slip through the “filter bubble”, are automatically rejected or ignored. Nguyen suggests that the only way to escape this extreme manifestation of an epistemic trap might be a complete Cartesian turn. Following the example of Descartes who was acutely aware about the possibility of self-deception and the limited reliability of subjective truth-claims and famously proclaimed “I think, therefore I am” as the most fundamental certainty, a radical skeptic is first required to question everything, including identity-forming worldview assumptions, in order to be able to build a new worldview based on an impartial, unbiased assessment of the most well-established rational truth-claims. In practice, this means that individual life experiences will need to be discounted as random small-sample data points, for example. It follows that a successful Cartesian turn requires not only the capacity and willingness to deconstruct and rebuild one’s worldview in its entirety but also the application of a rational/scientific epistemology based on which a more complex, differentiated worldview can be established. In order to promote rational/scientific epistemologies and complex, differentiated worldviews, the final sections examine potential solutions in terms of communication strategies, education and cultural entertainment.

Communication strategies to contain conspiratorial thinking

In order to reduce the spread of conspiracy theories, the authors of the conspiracy theory handbook suggest four communication strategies addressing the general public:

  1. preventing/slowing down the spreading of conspiracy theories (e.g. by encouraging people to ask themselves four simple questions before sharing a post: Do I recognize the news organization that posted the story? Does the information in the post seem believable? Is the post written in a style that I expect from a professional news organization? Is the post politically motivated?),
  2. preventively “inoculating” the public against the techniques of science denial (”prebunking”) by creating awareness about the risk of misinformation and,
  3. debunking conspiracy theories by refuting weak pieces evidence, and by exposing unjustified/unreasonable beliefs as well as logical/factual incoherences (e.g. through fact checking, source analysis etc), and
  4. cognitively empowering people to think more rationally rather than relying on their intuition. This strategy requires more substantial interventions in terms of education and culture, which are examined in subsequent sections.

In general, trying to get through to committed conspiracy theorists with facts or rational/scientific findings is far more challenging and resource-consuming than convincing someone who has not fallen into the epistemic trap yet. In addition, “Brandolini’s law” suggests that it generally takes substantially more time and effort to refute misinformation and falsehoods than to produce it. Among the most effective interventions to discourage conspiratorial thinking at its source we can therefore find regulatory measures that assign clear responsibilities and liabilities for the negative consequences of creating and spreading misinformation. Such measures would clarify that freedoms and rights are necessarily preconditioned by corresponding duties and responsibilities. In the absence of regulation and given limited resources, it should be more resource-efficient to primarily address those parts of the population which are still responsive to facts and rational/scientific findings. In this sense Phil Williamson argues that publicly refuting misinformation is generally worth the effort, although usually more for the benefit of other audiences than for the benefit of the misinforming person. However, in some cases it might still be worthwhile to focus directly on influencers who function as pandemic “super-spreaders” of conspiracy theories. Drawing from experiences with deradicalization and exit counseling, the conspiracy theory handbook suggests three communication strategies that are effective in liberating members from politically extremist groups as well as religious cults:

  1. Using trusted messengers, for instance former community members or social peers who are considered to be particularly trustworthy.
  2. Affirming critical thinking: Conspiracy theorists often see themselves as critical thinkers, and sometimes their critical thinking skills can be redirected towards the conspiracy theory itself.
  3. Avoiding ridicule and showing empathy — building trust through a respectful, empathic relationship and leading by example. This approach also includes ensuring that those willing to leave their echo chambers are not feeling left alone. The fear and the emotional costs of breaking with the social relationships that ideological communities may have provided can represent a powerful obstacle.

The example of Daryl Davis shows that it is possible for a (charismatic) person to cause profound worldview changes even among extreme racists by virtue of empathy and authentic friendship. In addition, the social interactions with Davis let extremists directly experience the incoherence between objective reality and the falsehoods on which their original worldview was built (in this case racial prejudices). Therefore another strategy can be added:

4. Facilitating the self-experience of an objective reality that is incoherent with simplistic, distrustful worldviews on the one hand and coherent with complex, differentiated worldviews on the other.

Finally, drawing from numerous suggestions by Anne Applebaum, it seems generally advisable to:

5. Identify and emphasize basic commonalities, such as shared memories and emotions, or — one might add — the existential hopes and fears, and the purpose and fulfilment we find in friendship, family and love, that continues to unite us as a human community, regardless of how much our subjective realities might have grown apart.

A new purpose for education

Considering the important enabling role that simplistic, distrustful worldviews and non-rational/nihilistic epistemologies play for conspiratorial thinking, the question arises how these factors might be positively influenced by virtue of education. In general, it is much easier to prevent narrow worldviews and epistemologies from taking root (e.g. by philosophically and psychologically informed early education and logical/critical/systems thinking training), instead of trying to expand a simplistic/distrustful worldview with an already crystallized core. In this context, we must conclude that the public education institutions of modern democracies have thus far tragically failed to successfully teach a majority of their citizens how to properly think for themselves. Amplified by the emerging practice of computational propaganda, we have only begun to see the negative impacts of a global pandemic of conspiratorial thinking on the functionality of utterly unprepared modern democratic societies. It has therefore become critical to protect today’s youth and children — who are nowadays growing up as social media content consumers and creators — from an unaccompanied exposure to misinformation and conspiratorial thinking. At least we are well advised to do so until they are equipped with the competencies and skills to see through misinformation themselves, and to build a complex, differentiated worldview on their own, based on a firm rational/scientific epistemology. The current shortcomings of our public education institutions urgently need to be recognized by policy makers, and addressed through effective interventions that enrich the educational purpose and the curricular content of public education institutions accordingly. At the same time, it is imperative to improve the educational reach and effectiveness of public science communication, with a view to expose science-skepticism, misinformation and conspiratorial thinking. Although we may have to learn to accept that the time to establish the cognitive preconditions that might be needed to mobilize broad support for radical climate action is running out, it is nevertheless imperative to save younger generations from falling into the same epistemic trap that is currently affecting parts of their parents’ generation. Hopefully, future generations will learn to respond to challenges and crises more effectively and responsibly than we did, guided as much by science and reason as by an expanded sense of human empathy (extending beyond individual lifetimes and national identities), instead of being driven by fear, anger and short-term self-interest.

A new purpose for cultural entertainment

It has become clear that if we want to limit the spread of conspiratorial thinking, additional resources need to be deployed with the goal to evolve worldviews and epistemologies towards greater complexity and rationality, respectively. To this end, we also need to rethink the purpose of cultural entertainment, the stories that we are telling through movies, plays, series, games, artworks, books, and social media content, for example. What are these stories intentionally or unintentionally trying to teach? What kind of worldviews and epistemologies are they questioning and reinforcing? After all, given the secular decline of religious faith, cultural entertainment may be among the few institutions remaining that can provide large populations of consumers with answers to an age-old question: How can we explain the existence of human suffering in the world? Are perhaps invisible, intentional forces at work — powerful nefarious conspiracies and criminal organizations? Or are — more often than not — human ignorance, greed, selfishness, structural/systemic flaws and tragic coincidence to blame? Do we have a role to play in a constant battle between good and evil forces? Or are we part of a common human destiny, each of us simultaneously improvising and trying to become the author of our own role in an unwritten play (undecided yet whether humanity’s history is going to be a tragedy or a reluctant hero’s journey)? Clearly, there is a collective responsibility for the questioning and reinforcing of different types of worldviews and epistemologies in everyday life that is bigger than many cultural entertainment producers may have realized until now. They are now confronted with the question how they might contribute to an evolution from simplistic magical thinking and Manichean narratives into more nuanced and differentiated examinations of a chaotic and multi-faceted world, from the hubris of intuitive “common sense” to a more humble and rational appreciation of the scientific enterprise. Perhaps this is among the greatest gifts that cultural entertainment (and education) can possibly give to humanity, one of the key features that distinguish great works from good ones: allowing generations of human beings to experience — and even teaching them to embrace — the full complexity of our physical and social reality.

How to tell the difference between a conspiracy theory and a theory about a conspiracy

Part 1/5: The problem with conspiracy theories
Part 2/5: A theory of theories
Part 3/5: What is driving conspiratorial thinking?
Part 4/5: The worldview and the epistemology behind conspiratorial thinking
Part 5/5: What can be done to reduce the prevalence of conspiratorial thinking?