Escaping the Rabbit Hole: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect
by Mick West
Skyhorse Publishing, 2018
The premise of veteran debunker Mick West's Escaping the Rabbit Hole is very simple: false conspiracy theories abound, they're believed and promulgated by some powerful and influential people (including the President of the United States), and they do real harm: they hurt society, West writes, “by distracting from the very real problems of corruption and decreasing genuine participation in democracy.” He and Escaping the Rabbit Hole are here to help.
Anyone who's ever spent too much time online (which is 8.5 out of the world's current 9 billion humans) will know the usage of “rabbit hole” here, both in the broad and in the specific sense. Broadly, it's the chasing of some topic from video to video without taking a break for socializing or food or variety. More narrowly, it's the chasing of some strange, muttering, counter-factual conspiracy theory from video to video without taking a break for socializing or food or variety. The differences between the two are obvious: in the broad, a person runs the risk of having seen far too many patio re-tilings or wild raccoon videos, but in the specific, a person runs the risk of detaching themselves from reality and becoming That Weirdo Who at Work Who Thinks the World is Flat. The risk, in other words, of using the Internet to make yourself a genuinely scary unemployable lunatic ranting at strangers on public transportation.
It's the second kind, the specific kind of rabbit-holing, that concerns West, and he concentrates his efforts in this book on a few signature focal points of the kind: chemtrails, 9-11 “truthism,” government-sponsored “false-flag” operations, and, as probably the most extreme example, the suddenly invigorated Flat Earth movement. West studies each of these focal points on its own terms and offers advice tailored for their own ideological ecosystems, as with the Flat Earthers:
The best strategy is to focus on a handful of core beliefs, and address those in detail by showing undeniable proof that the evidence presented to support those beliefs is either wrong or is actually only explained by a round Earth. Flat Earth believers are fundamentally opposed to any form of argument from authority, so you are going to have to show them.
The strengths and weaknesses of that parting piece of advice are the strengths and weaknesses of the whole book. The main strength is the insistent and surprising note of inclusive humanism. Time and again in the examples West includes, people escape the rabbit hole not only because they're supplied with correct information in place of the conspiratorial clap-trap they've been steadily absorbing but also – and maybe primarily – because of the way they're supplied with that information. “They were influenced by factual and logical information communicated to them with politeness and respect,” West insists.
Unfortunately, the main weakness is bound up with that hopeful outlook. Escaping the Rabbit Hole doggedly believes that patient, polite trade of information can rescue souls who've lost themselves down the rabbit hole, but what applies to Flat Earthers applies almost as much to all other lost souls: they don't just reject certain kinds of argument, they also reject certain kinds of facts. The idea that an adult could look at “undeniable proof” and simply deny what they're actually seeing is probably on some level fundamentally alien to somebody like West. But down in the depths of the rabbit hole, no practice is more common than picking and choosing which aspects of observable reality will be admitted. If the conspiracy theory demands it, the sunrise itself can be denied.
We'll all have to hope that West's patient, courteous approach works for the majority.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.