A bunch of my friends seem to have become conspiracy theorists, almost, believing things that seem completely crazy to me. I'm not even sure how to deal with them anymore. If I try to disprove them, they just get angry at me. What should I do?
Yeah, so this is a big problem right now.

On one level, it's a somewhat reasonable problem. We used to take certain sources of information for granted, like information that came from the government, and much of that information has proven to be incorrect or distorted in future years. For example, the US government hid how it did radiation experiments on human test subjects (at least, if you believe Wikipedia) and other deeply unethical things from the public, deeply shaking people's trust down the line once they found out.

On the other hand, many people firmly attach themselves to theories for which they have little evidence.

Part of the reason people do this, is that most people don't actually consider the evidence rationally. They're more likely to believe what the people around them believe, which is why ideologies tend to cluster in friend groups. It's a problem for you if your friend group is clustering around an ideology you don't believe, but just flat out stating that you disagree may help other people on the fence resist the ideology. Engaging them too much seems not to work, but could saying, "I don't really buy this, I'm sorry," and trying to change the subject work? It might in some friend groups; I'm not sure about yours.

Ultimately, however, on a personal level and on a social level, I think we have to examine the emotional appeal of particular ideologies. If someone didn't choose an ideology through reason in the first place, what makes us think they will abandon it through reason?

For anti-vaxxers, for example, no amount of scientific evidence seems to change people's mind that vaccines are bad for children. However, if we start examining the emotional motivations, we see some things come out. Anti-vaxxers tend to value "purity" and "liberty" at higher rates than non anti-vaxxers. The emotional underpinning of the anti-vaccination movement seems to be keeping their children "pure" from vaccines, which seem to be "unnatural" and "chemical" in nature, and maintaining the freedom to do what you want without government oppression.

When phrased this way, their worries and position seem to make sense, even if you disagree with their ultimate end. When talking with an anti-vaxxer, I'd start by finding common ground. I'm also interested in keeping children free from chemicals, and I'm worried about government oppression. However, I also believe that vaccines have caused the elimination of certain debilitating diseases, like polio and smallpox. And, maybe you don't even need to convince them to believe that, you can just say that you believe that. Then, you can start discussing issues of given the two of us have different beliefs, how can we exist alongside each other?

At the end of the day, the most likely reason for people to change their minds on a conspiracy theory, is that they will meet and like someone who doesn't believe in it. Just existing in people's lives as a person with different beliefs is very powerful, and often can be enough to change people's minds in the long run. This is why the demonization of "pro-vaccine" people is necessary for anti-vaxxers to maintain their group momentum. Incidentally, that works in reverse too. I know many people who are pro vaccines, not because they have looked at the evidence themselves, but because their whole social group mocks anti-vaxxers. It seems to me these people would rally around a false belief as easily as a true one if everyone around them believed it.

As for why I believe in vaccines: I asked a very smart friend of mine who is an epidemiologist, and has actually studied the breakout of vaccine related diseases, and she believes in vaccines. But, what do you do if you don't have someone like that to turn to on the subject at hand?

You make the best guess you can with the information you have, but always be open to the possibility your information might have been wrong also.
Published on Thursday March 29, 2018