You remember the scene in Apocalypse Now when Colonel Kurtz mumbles his story? You may remember leaning forward, straining to hear him – only to realize with a cold thrill that what he is saying is insane. Conspiracy theorists are like that. If you’re not careful, you find yourself being slowly drawn into their world, either accepting their ideas or arguing with them. The result is the same, regardless of whether you’re face to face or on IRC or email — either way, you lose.
Recently, I forgot that simple axiom, until I brought myself up with a start. I won’t mention the people in question, because I don’t want to dignify their antics with more attention. But, while the experience is still fresh in my mind, here are some of the signs that should put you on your guard:
- An obsession about a single person, corporation, or issue to the exclusion of everything else: Conspiracy theorists will spend an inordinate amount of time researching and blogging about the object of their obsession. Although Microsoft is a favorite object of free software conspiracy theorists, I’ve also come across people with an obsession against Richard Stallman, the Free Software Foundation, the Open Source Initiative, or even a particular project, such as KDE or GNOME. But, no matter what topics a discussion with them begins with, they will always find a way to bring up their obsession, often straining to do so. At the first hint of news, they will rush to blog about it, filling in gaps with speculation.
- Extreme paranoia directed at the object of the obsession: The object of the obsession is viewed as vastly more powerful than the free software community. It is conceived as moving constantly in the shadows, recruiting dupes, spreading money when it has some and laying long range plans to subvert some or all of the community. Sometimes, these plans may make direct business sense, but, just as often, they are for dubious benefits. Should the object of the obsession deny an accusation, the conspiracy theorists simply regard the denial as a sign of how clever the enemy is.
- An either / or mindset: For conspiracy theorists, no middle ground exists. Unless you are in complete agreement with them, you are in the enemy camp – and probably in the enemy pay. Even an attempt to qualify their argument will mark you as part of the problem. So will suggesting that they work to change or influence the object of the obsession where that is possible. The conspiracy theorist’s identity is bound up with being in opposition to the object of their obsession that anything except whole-hearted hatred is unacceptable to them. Key phrases: “There can be no truce with [insert object of obsession here]” and “Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom.”
- An inability to summarize other viewpoints with any accuracy: Convinced that they are on the right side, the average conspiracy theorist is either unable or unwilling to report other people’s ideas with any accuracy. Instead, they seem to report what they imagine others are saying, or is convenient to believe that others are saying.
- A refusal to modify opinions, even in light of new evidence: Conspiracy theorists’ beliefs are so important to them that to change them would risk losing identity. So they don’t, ever. When offered new information that might challenge their basic position, they will either try to discredit it or change the subject immediately, perhaps raising a peripherally related point but not addressing the new information.
- The use of decontextualized evidence: Conspiracy theorists see information that supports their central belief, and are prone to miss information that challenges or contradicts it. They will take a phrase out of context – for instance, take a comment on a technical issue to be about a political one — or even ignore basic grammar such as the serial comma in order to find support for their beliefs.
- A refusal to consider alternate explanations: Coincidence, circumstance, and human stupidity do not exist for the conspiracy theorist. For this reason, they make no effort to discount them, not even to strengthen their own arguments. The one explanation that conspiracy theorists accept is malevolence.
- A lack of civility and a quickness to give and take offense: The free software community is not the politest place in the world. However, even by its standard, conspiracy theorists are abusive. They’re quick to hurl insults, or to take insults personally. Their writing leaves an impression of emotion held barely in check, the words rushing out of them as fast as they can manage in their anger.
- A disregard for the rules of evidence: The wise pundit looks for evidence that would hold up in a court of law – that is, establish a point beyond a reasonable doubt. By contrast, conspiracy theorists have no such restraint. For instance, if a company has hired a former Microsoft executive, that is proof that the company is controlled by Microsoft. Never mind that Microsoft is so large that any North American company has a good chance of hiring a former Microsoft executive – the one tenuous connection is enough to establish proof for a conspiracy theorist. Key phrase: “Can it be coincidence that . . . ?” (Sometimes, yes)
- A scattergun approach to evidence: Instead of building up an argument point by point, conspiracy theorists tend to bury you in a random collection of related facts. They can take this approach, because their obsession causes them to have hundred of points ready at any given point. But instead of the rational building of an argument, the result is not logical persuasion, but an impressionistic, often highly emotional view of the situation.
- A lack of self-reflection: Many of the sort of people I’m talking about know that “conspiracy theory” can be negative term, and are insulted if you apply it to them. However they don’t have the least idea of why it is appropriately applied to them. Accuse them of paranoia, and they will explain that they are only be sensible, and everyone else is living in a fool’s paradise. Suggest they have a cavalier attitude to evidence, and they’ll say much the same same. Don’t expect a sense of humor, either – that’s usually lost with the self-reflection. If they call you a “Microsoft shill” and you ask, “Where can I send an invoice?” they’ll assume you’ve just revealed your true allegiance, not that you’re making a joke.
This isn’t a pop quiz of the “Should you quit your job?” or “Which Tolkien character are you like?” variety, and still less a guideline to psychiatric assessment, so I can’t tell you exactly how many of these behaviors are needed to diagnosis someone as a conspiracy theorist. In fact, I’m tempted simply to say that, when you meet one, you’ll know. Still, the more of these traits you see, the greater the likelihood that you’re dealing with a conspiracy theorist. If you see more than half, then the likelihood becomes a near-certainty.
And then what should you do? The problem is nicely summarized by two verses of Proverbs 26. The first is: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.” The second is: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit”. In other words, you don’t want to be dragged down to a conspiracy theorist’s own level, but you don’t want them to continue unchallenged and perhaps convince others who aren’t paying enough attention to realize the kind of person they are facing.
Answering is always tempting, but you have to put a limit on your answers. Whenever I receive comments on an article I’ve published, with few exceptions I restrict myself to two exchanges, regardless of whether I’m dealing with a conspiracy theorist or not. That way, I show politeness and respect to someone who has taken the trouble to contact me, but I don’t use up all my spare time in answering people. If your time is valuable, you might want to do the same.
However, you should also bear in mind that you can’t win. Try to refute a conspiracy theorist, and you simply prove to them that you’re the enemy. In the end, the best thing you can do for yourself – to say nothing of free software – is to stop responding to the conspiracy theorist as soon as you realize the type of person you’re dealing with. The time you spend dealing with a conspiracy theorist will be put to much better use writing code, persuading a friend to try free software or dealing with the real threats to the community instead of the imaginary ones.