When I heard that Mick West was publishing a book on how to help talk people out of conspiracy theories, I said a bad word. I’m writing my own book on a similar subject, and it’s frustrating to see someone else get one out first. But I also preordered it immediately. West stands out as one of the most careful and thoughtful public figures debunking conspiracy theories, and I was eager to see what he had to say on the subject. Then I realized that if I asked for a review copy, I wouldn’t have to pay for it. (Negotiation is my specialty, remember?) Now that I’ve read it, I’m thinking of ordering a hardcopy to lend out–it’s a message that deserves to be spread.
West’s first claim to fame was as a video game developer, one of the founders of the studio that made the “Tony Hawk Pro Skater” series. As he tells his own story in the book, even then he was interested in the irrational ideas people spread around the office and online; cashing in his stock options let him take up his “hobby of debunking more seriously.” Watching him in action online, “hobby” seems like an unfair characterization. West approaches debunking with an extremely professional demeanor, in the sense that he shows both real expertise in the subjects he approaches and exceptional sensitivity for the complexities of this kind of engagement. Rather than getting bogged down in fun but counterproductive arguments, West works like a craftsman. He picks specific subjects, builds a foundation for a rational understanding of it, and patiently uses conversations and mass communication to compare the solidity of that foundation to the shakiness of conspiratorial and pseudoscientific worldviews.
What’s tricky about West’s style of engagement is that it would be difficult for most people to emulate him. Part of that is his technical expertise and meticulous thoroughness. When someone on Facebook insists that those white lines in the sky must be chemtrails, most of us don’t know enough to refute that idea with technical facts about clouds and contrails. Nor are most people in a position to make and collapse homemade structural models for videos debunking 9/11 truthers. But that sort of expertise is relatively easy to acquire, especially because most people tend to focus their interest and efforts in just a few different types of irrational thinking. The greater and more effective part of West’s personal style is his patience and consistency, engaging in long-term conversations with irrational people and communities. His discussions with people on the other side of the aisle are calm, respectful, and productive, avoiding the vitriol and drama that tend to crop up in such conversations. That’s a much harder skill to acquire.
Escaping the Rabbit Hole is a manual for adopting West’s style of engagement. As such it comes with certain limitations, but they’re far outweighed by the value here. There are a few things he does particularly well, and the most important may be simply illustrating that it’s possible to persuade people to walk away from irrational beliefs. His experience running Metabunk and engaging with outspoken conspiracy theorists has given him access to a few former believers who share the stories of their conversion; that’s a rare and valuable resource, and those accounts would make an interesting book by themselves.
On top of that, Escaping the Rabbit Hole showcases some nuanced thinking about how and why people get captured by irrational ideas. I’m especially pleased that West rejects the flawed but popular notion that conspiracy theorists are simply foolish or ill-informed losers. He preaches a more sophisticated, less reductionist, and more humane understanding.
It’s difficult to persuade someone that you don’t respect, and West’s perspective on irrational thinking shows his respect for the people with whom he’s engaging. That’s why I’m not very concerned that West gives short shrift to some potential pitfalls that I think are particularly important. Those include the backfire effect, in which the person you’re trying to persuade gets even more entrenched in their irrational belief, and the recruitment effect, in which people exposed to the discussion only see a fight and decide to jump in on the side that seems most sympathetic to them (often the perceived underdog). West briefly discusses the backfire effect and doesn’t cover recruitment at all. But because his style of engagement is so focused on respectful and substantive discussion, following his methods would minimize those risks regardless.
The heart of the book are the stories West has curated, telling in their own words the experiences of five former conspiracy theorists who “escaped the rabbit hole”: Steve (various conspiracy theories), Stephanie (chemtrails), Karl (9/11 truther), Richard (false flags), and Bob (flat earth). These are fascinating narratives, and West has assembled what seem to be years’ worth of interviews and correspondence into coherent discussions that humanize the people involved as well as drawing useful and important lessons from their experiences. They prove that it’s possible to escape those ideologies and providing solid roadmaps for how it can be done.
There are limitations to these narratives, and while West doesn’t try to use them for anything more than they are, readers should remember that these are inherently unreliable narratives. Not because the author or his correspondents are untrustworthy, but because they’re the first-person stories of people explaining how they fell into and climbed out of irrational beliefs from their own perspective. I’m inherently skeptical of such narratives because I think that very few people have an accurate understanding of their own thought processes—especially when it comes to understanding how they came to change their minds and determine their identities. On top of that, these are the stories of people who were relatively willing and eager to engage in discussions about their fringe beliefs. They may have relatively limited applicability to the experience of those who are less open and less involved in that dialog, such as a family member or friend who is quietly radicalizing without discussing it publicly.
Having said that, these narratives are very useful. If they aren’t perfect, well, nothing is. As long as we’re aware of these stories’ limitations, they’re an excellent and important resource. West is doing the skeptical community an enormous service not only by helping these people escape the rabbit hole but also by curating their experiences in the book as guidelines for future conversations in the same vein.
West recommends a solid set of tactics for such engagement, although the organization of the book makes it a little difficult to use as a handbook. Many of the most helpful tactics are salted throughout, rather than collected in a set of straightforward best practices. The organization of the book generally is a bit odd in some small ways; the last section, “Complications in Debunking,” seems to be largely a grab-bag of interesting thoughts and issues that didn’t fit in the rest of the book. He spends a couple of pages discussing Morgellons, for example, without much context. His thoughts are worthwhile though, and reminiscent of Will Storr’s excellent The Unpersuadables, which seems to come from a similar philosophy. I would have been interested to read a more explicit comparison of people complaining of Morgellons to, for example, people complaining about chemtrails. That’s true of many of the small topics he raises briefly at the end of the book: all of them could have been developed much more thoroughly, because West has obviously thought deeply about them. I wouldn’t be surprised to see another book before long doing a deeper dive into some of these ideas. I especially hope he further develops the section on the use of bots both to spread and to confront conspiracy theories.
One of West’s strengths is that he seems to focus his energies on a few conspiracy theories, apparently those where he has the most background knowledge and experience. Escaping the Rabbit Hole reflects that focus; a large chunk of it discusses in detail the facts debunking chemtrails, false flags, 9/11, and Flat Earth. But I’d like to see more—West is an effective and insightful advocate, and he would be a wonderful voice for vaccines and in other high-impact discussions. Fortunately, he’s aware that there are many other conspiracy theories than what he has room to discuss in the book, and he does a good job drawing generalized lessons from those specific issues.
Escaping the Rabbit Hole is an important book. If it helps persuade even one person to abandon an irrational ideology, can you imagine the real-world impact? And it will do more than persuade one person, because it’s about providing readers with the tools to go out and engage conspiracy theorists on a much larger scale. It’s worth reading even if you’re only interested in going on safari, reading about wild beliefs in detail. But if you’re participating in debates and discussions with conspiracy theorists, this is more than an entertaining read or a curiosity. It’s a toolkit for doing meaningful, important, and difficult work.
Mick West’s Escaping the Rabbit Hole will be released on September 18, 2018.
A quick note: the Amazon links above are not referrer links. We are not receiving any compensation for this review or purchases of West’s book.