My uncle is knee-deep in COVID conspiracy theories. Any tips for respectfully engaging him?

Uncertainty and Misinformation

A: Experts recommend the SART strategy: Show empathy; Affirm critical thinking; avoid Ridicule; and invoke conspiracy theory “exiters” as Trusted messengers. And it never hurts to remember that as humans we need to feel heard before we can truly listen.

Ah, conspiracy theories. We’ve all been exposed to them – wildly inaccurate hot-takes about COVID, typically invoking sinister plots by powerful forces. Defying evidence and/or basic logic, they nonetheless can stubbornly persist and seriously undermine public health.

Misinformation experts Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook have written “The Conspiracy Theory Handbook” to help science lovers debunk conspiratorial junk. We share a lightly-edited excerpt outlining the SART strategy in preparation for keeping the peace at Thanksgiving dinner.

/ Excerpt begins:


Approaches should be empathic and seek to build understanding with the other party. Because the goal is to develop open-mindedness, communicators must lead by example.


Conspiracy theorists perceive themselves as critical thinkers who are not fooled by an official account. Affirm the value of critical thinking and redirect this approach towards a more critical analysis of the conspiracy theory.


Aggressively deconstructing or ridiculing a conspiracy theory, or focusing on “winning” an argument, runs the risk of being automatically rejected.


Counter-messages created by former members of an extremist community (“exiters”) are evaluated more positively and remembered longer than messages from other sources.

End excerpt /

A final nerdy note:

This can be hard, slow work that isn’t always effective. Be gentle with yourself and walk away from the conversation when needed.

We sign off with a big thanks to our community. We see and honor your work battling the “infodemic” one social media post/share/IRL conversation at a time. We promise to keep providing tools that help us all #StandUpForScience.

With love,

Your Nerdy Girls


Additional References:

Final sentence in the headline “A:….” paraphrases journalist Amanda Ripley’s wonderful quote “Humans need to be heard before they will listen.” Source – Her A+ blog post on effective communication about sticky topics.

The Conspiracy Theory Handbook

Link to original Those Nerdy Girls Facebook post