This article was originally published in the May 2022 issue of the Sociological Review.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been interested in the nature of belief: how we arrive at the positions we hold most dear, how we justify our own beliefs, and how those beliefs are constructed. We all like to think that the ideas we hold to be true are based in reason and reality, but few of us ever spend any time really examining what we believe, why we believe it, and whether we might be mistaken – even when those beliefs are fringe, and entirely out of step with the rest of society.
It was this fascination with unusual beliefs that led me to becoming a full-time skeptical investigator, and these days I spend my time digging through extraordinary claims, unusual experiences, and elaborate conspiracy theories. It is also the reason I host a podcast, Be Reasonable, where I spend each episode in conversation with someone whose beliefs fly in the face of conventional logic.
Whose are the voices of reason?
Over the years, I’ve interviewed a man who believes that pterosaurs never went extinct, but that they continue to fly around the wooded areas of the USA. I spoke to someone who believed we can live without food or water (she was entirely sincere, even though she had – crucially – only come to this belief extremely recently). I met someone who was convinced that the moon was built by aliens as a way of communicating with mankind, and I met a man who believes aliens built vast pyramids under the hills of Bosnia. I’ve lost count of how many flat earthers I’ve spoken to.
While many of these beliefs are relatively harmless, other interviewees hold worldviews that have much more serious and even sinister implications – like the hollow earth proponent who seamlessly transitioned to explaining that the Holocaust was a myth; or the naturopath who mocked people who believed that AIDS was real; or the man who promoted industrial bleach as a cure for cancer and malaria. The latter confidently told me of the hundreds of thousands of seriously ill people he’s persuaded to drink his miracle cure, and during the course of the interview I couldn’t help but wonder how many of those patients have died as a result of eschewing conventional medicine in favour of swallowing bleach.
Even those many flat earthers would often, given the freedom to talk about their worldview, open up to me about a host of other things they’re convinced are true. One former guest – then a prominent figure in the UK flat earth scene – now spends his time editing and distributing an anti-vaccine newspaper with increasingly troubling ties to the far right.
Understanding what lies beneath
The purpose of these conversations is never to engage in debate, or to attempt to prove to my interviewee that they are wrong; instead, the aim is to understand as much as possible how people can justify the seemingly unjustifiable, what evidence they believe supports their position, and (often crucially) what rhetoric they deploy in order to persuade me. This is a very deliberate departure from many of the previous experiences my guests may have had in talking to skeptics; my aim is to get beyond the superficial challenges and their well-rehearsed rebuttals, and to try to get at what lies underneath.
As such, the show takes a collaborative, conversational approach, with the hope that by being less adversarial, my interviewees will be less likely to respond defensively. At its best, the conversation becomes a guided tour around the guest’s worldview, and where we’ve built up enough of a rapport, I can find opportune moments to encourage them to question and sense-check their beliefs for themselves. The most rewarding moments of the show are where the guest leads themselves to a contradiction or logical gap they had never previously realised was there, because they’d never been encouraged to examine their own beliefs too deeply.
In my opinion, those rare moments of introspection on the show are only possible if my interest in understanding their point of view is genuine – I need to be honestly present in the conversation, and not simply waiting for a moment to interject with a ‘gotcha’ question. But as we find ourselves in an age of conspiracy theory and misinformation, if we want to try to help people plot a path back out of their epistemic rabbit holes, it’s vital that we understand as much as possible what those beliefs consist of and what needs they fulfil.
In questioning those unusual beliefs, it’s also important to show compassion for the people behind the ideas: for many people, their path into a fringe or extreme belief began at a moment of personal crisis or extreme stress, leaving them open to answers they might otherwise dismiss. However, what we believe can quickly become part of how we self-identify, and part of the social bonds we form – or break – with others. If we want to help people move away from fringe beliefs that are potentially harmful, we need to do what we can make the social cost of that change of direction as low as possible.
Keeping your cool
Having spent so long engaging with people who hold fringe and extreme beliefs, I’m often asked the same questions. The first is always, inevitably: how can you keep your cool and avoid losing your temper when the person you’re talking to is straying so far from what the rest of us would agree is reality? And what is the best way to try to get through to someone whose model of the world seems so immune to evidence and reason?
The answer to the first question is a matter of goal-setting: it’s important to ask yourself, what do you want to get out of the exchange? If your aim is to make someone, over the course of a conversation, admit that you were right and that their worldview is wrong, such admissions are vanishingly rare, and so frustration is almost inevitable. Whereas, if the goal instead is to understand the other person’s position as much as possible, and to understand their motivations and values and the need that belief fulfils in their lives, it is quickly apparent that losing one’s temper is likely to be completely counter-productive.
As for the second question, of how best to help people check their beliefs, it’s best explained by analogy: if an asteroid is discovered to be on a collision course with Earth, the Hollywood solution to the problem would be to send up a team of miners, armed with nuclear devices, determined to blow it to pieces. However, in reality, that course of action might create an impressive explosion, but the majority of the mass that made up the asteroid would just carry on along the same disastrous Earth-bound trajectory. This is what happens when we try to meet people’s pseudoscientific beliefs head on, and try to ‘destroy them’ with evidence and reason: there’s a big explosion, an impressive confrontation, but no real shift in the trajectory. If the person in question is someone that we love, the explosion may even be enough to destroy our relationship, and it will almost certainly have little impact on their worldview.
Living with the opposition
So what can we do instead? Astrophysicists planning Earth’s response to such an asteroid suggest a better defence would be to send up an object of sufficient mass to fly alongside the asteroid at a close distance, with the small gravitational pull of that object able to slowly, over time, alter the trajectory of the asteroid. The influence may be slight, almost imperceptible, but given enough time the accumulation of each little gravitational tug will have shifted the path of the asteroid until it is no longer bound for disaster.
This, I believe, is a more productive way of reaching people – especially people we care about – who may otherwise seem lost to extreme beliefs: to be gentle, non-confrontational, present, and patient. And, like with the asteroid, don’t try to do too much all at once – instead, be the person they respect and trust, offer small challenges when you can, and make it clear that there’s no shame in changing one’s mind. Bear in mind that if you are successful in helping someone reassess their fringe belief, you may never hear about it: it is easier to quietly change our mind than it is to publicly admit that we were wrong, especially if we’ve been particularly vocal in those beliefs.
Finally, it is also important to examine what we believe, why we believe it, and how we justify our own beliefs, and to never close off the possibility that what we believe may also turn out to be wrong. And if parts of our own worldview fail those sense-checks or are disproven by sufficient evidence, we need to be strong enough to change our minds, adjust our beliefs accordingly, and accept that we are all capable of erring in our judgement.