Mick West might just be the consummate gentleman debunker.
After devoting the past fifteen years to online educational projects such as MorgellonsWatch.com, ContrailScience.com, and Metabunk.org, he has released a new book that gives much-needed hope in an area skeptics too often shy away from as hopeless. It’s easy to see conspiracy theorists as some kind of Alex Jones-type caricature—unreachable, unreasonable, and unredeemable. Phrases like “they drank the Kool-Aid” and “don’t wrestle with a pig” come to mind more readily than a desire to help.
West is here to help, not insult, and he offers this help on multiple levels. It can be self-help if the friend caught up in a rabbit hole is you, which West acknowledges with a wink and a nod (“I’m not trying to brainwash you, but if it will get you to read the book then go ahead and assume it for a while”). It can be helpful for family and friends, even if those loved ones act like enemies when some topics come up. And, in helping ourselves and our loved ones, West shows us how we help society at large. The harm that these false beliefs cause is not limited to particular relationships or households; it spills over into public discourse and legislation, as we are seeing all too often.
West has put his time and considerable talents into battling false conspiracy theories. He sees the term debunking (eschewed by many skeptics including James Randi) as noncontroversial in this instance, he says, because when he shows people the error of chemtrails or flat-Earth theory, he is not remaining impartial to investigate an unknown but rather introducing people to facts that have already been proven. The bunk has already been established as bunk, and it’s now an issue of debunking the mindset. A former game programmer, West admits it’s a process comparable to debugging.
Readers seeking a trove of empirical data might be disappointed, as Escaping the Rabbit Hole is not filled with charts and graphs—with a few exceptions, such as a graph illustrating the usage of the term conspiracy theory, to debunk a conspiracy theory about the CIA purposely promoting the term as a pejorative in a 1967 memo (… talk about meta bunk). West offers a light tour of some of the academic thinking on conspiracy theorists, but he cautions that the psychology of conspiracists is not well understood. The few common traits they are said to share are often, West warns, overstated and understudied. There’s a scant sixteen pages of endnotes, most of which are links to online articles, conspiracy videos, and threads.
The book touts itself as “A Guide to Helping Friends, Family, and Loved Ones,” and, as such, it’s like having Mick West personally teach you how to be a consummate gentleman (or gentlewoman) debunker. It’s a conversational book about how to have effective conversations. Through many examples and testimonies from people formerly trapped in rabbit holes, he shows that it is possible to extract them. There’s a method to his respectful tone and empathy: it works. He summarizes the three critical elements are maintaining an effective dialogue, supplying useful information, and giving it time. Or, as he paraphrases himself: “Talk to them, show them stuff they missed, and don’t rush.”
Part one lays out some debunking techniques (e.g., how to best proceed when someone dismisses you or a trustworthy source as a “shill”), and West familiarizes us with the term conspiracy theory and the spectrum of beliefs that populate that universe. Readers who have never been trapped in a rabbit hole themselves and might simply dismiss conspiracists as crazy or gullible (as many skeptics do) will benefit from the open, charitable description West offers, bringing us into the fold just enough to understand the commonalities we have with conspiracy believers. Conspiracy theory belief, as West says, “is as American as apple pie, and like apple pie it comes in all kinds of varieties, and all kinds of normal people like to consume it.” He examines the demarcation line that each of us has, where conspiracies behind that line seem sensible but anything beyond is just silly (or “disinformation”). Refining this taxonomy further, West touches on how conspiracists themselves organize into different camps—for instance, with some 9/11 Truthers believing that our government let it happen, while others purport that the government made it happen.
Part two, the core of the book, comprises an in-depth look at four particular types of conspiracy theories (chemtrails, 9/11 demolitions, false flags, and flat Earth) as well as stories from people once taken in by those theories. Throughout the discussions, West provides resources and sensible approaches to dealing with these ubiquitous conspiracy theories, ones he is particularly experienced with thanks to his long career managing Metabunk. Being a capable debunker means becoming familiar with what the conspiracies purport, and here West saves us time by providing a sort of Cliffs Notes on what believers in these four different areas subscribe to (as well as some variations). Indeed, the fact that each believer is unique means that different approaches are suited for different people.
His final two chapters discuss complications of debunking and the future of such efforts, and along with the conclusion make up part three. Turning someone away from a seductive, simplified view based on scientific misunderstanding will never be easy. It requires scientific communication on a very personal level, which means doing research and having advanced understanding of fields that you might be unfamiliar with—and, even if you do the work, your friend might not be able to understand it. Or, if you succeed communicating the ideas, accepting a new version of reality might be complicated by family dynamics or personal conflict with people still in their own rabbit holes. We also have to anticipate the influence of Russian trolls, bots, AI, and other technological surprises that will make debunking even harder.
The bottom line is that debunking conspiracy theories is a lot of work. But it’s worthwhile work, especially if you are helping a loved one out of a mindset that can cause them harm. Mick West has done us all the favor or shouldering a tremendous amount of the work himself, right down to condensing some of the main conspiracy beliefs, and demonstrable facts that can best refute those beliefs, in this relatively short book (278 pages, with a useful index). The shortcuts he offers are both psychological and practical—in one instance he directs us to a video of old books, dating back to the 1950s, which he’s collected to debunk a core tenet of chemtrail theory: that normal contrails cannot persist. Simply linking this video of physical, hard-copy books about clouds has turned the tide for many chemtrail believers who had rejected similar images as fakes when seen online.
One ray of hope that comes through in many of the personal stories West shares is the notion of turning conspiracy theorists into conspiracy debunkers. It may seem overly optimistic, but many conspiracists are already prone to asking questions, they just need guidance on which questions to ask and how to vet the information they find. West describes his own transition as a young programmer, swapping information via pre-internet bulletin boards, and how his fascination with strange phenomenon shifted from reading about the unexplained to, instead, finding explanations and sharing those with his friends. His fear of human combustion, for example, shifted to “more a macabre wonderment that a human corpse could burn, the flames fed by body fat, a good source of air, and the wicking action of clothes.” Other people he quotes made similar transitions, if a bit later in life, and describe how they enjoy keeping up with conspiracy theories nowadays simply so they can interject their new knowledge back into their old communities.
With persistence, and of course facts, logic, and respect, we might just pull something unexpected out of a few rabbit holes: skeptics.
Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect. By Mick West. Skyhorse Publishing. 2018. 304 pp, hardcover $21.99, kindle $13.19.