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When I Debated Alex Jones

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PIERS MORGAN
AP

The only thing I have in common with Piers Morgan is that we have both debated live with talk-show host, pro-gun lobbyist, and all round conspiracy theorist supremo Alex Jones. (Actually, that is not strictly true. When Piers Morgan was a fresh face journalist at the Daily Mirror, he wrote an article about my grandmother Gladys and another Gladys who lived nearby. Apparently these two women had a lot in common. The headline was 'Glad to Meet You'. My grandmother told me Piers had made most of it up.)

After I wrote a Demos paper about conspiracy theories, I spent some time arguing with conspiracy theorists, including Alex himself. I was invited onto his talkshow to discuss a paper I'd written which argued schools should teach more critical thinking, but I was immediately sucked into the finer details of Demos' funding arrangements, 7/7; Princess Diana, and the New World Order. A 15-minute interview turned into an hour, all conducted over Skype with a dodgy Internet connection. It was a bit of an ambush. But I learnt a lot about Jones technique and conspiracy theory method: and I think Piers made some critical errors.

First, Piers hubristically believed he would use logic and facts to debate and vanquish his opponent. But conspiracy theories work to a number of logical fallacies and apply selective use of standards of evidence, which are then sealed up in a self-fulfilling cycle of intrigue: no evidence of explosives in the twin towers? Ha! That proves the authorities are really smart - it must be a bigger conspiracy than we thought! Adherents will look for, and invariably find some evidence of a shadowy link: a former Demos director now works for government? Ha! You are part of the conspiracy!

Second, don't assume conspiracy theorists are simply ill-informed. Jones is hyper-informed; probably over-informed. He spends many hours a day sifting media and doing research. He, and other conspiracy theorists, often know more about the minutiae than any non-specialist. Don't argue on all the details, as you'll be portrayed as a lazy, gulliable fool who believes the 'official account' without having checked it out for yourself. 'The government has lied before - why trust them now' runs the argument. It's better to pick one piece of the puzzle and study that meticulously (FYI, for 9/11 conspiracy theories, the telephone calls of people on the flights is a pretty good place to start)

Third, don't think conspiracy theorists like Alex will sit quietly and humbly, grateful to be in the spotlight. Mr Jones either utterly convinced of the rightousness of his cause, or so cynical as to realise this is a lucrative money-maker. Either way, he is going to talk, shout, self-promote, and do whatever else he can to drive more traffic to his website.

And finally, if you are the host of CNN's flagship talkshow, probably best not to invite people like Alex Jones on to your show. And if you do, at least be prepared.

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