I'll never forget the 20th anniversary of 9/11. I spent the latter half of the day huddled up in my living room, carefully reading a book from Popular Mechanics called Debunking 9/11 Myths. That night, for the first time since my teenage years, I went to bed with my lingering questions answered. I'd finally put my own conspiracy thinking to rest.
This is the story of how I came into those beliefs, and the long, winding path to ridding myself of them. It's also a meditation on how we, as a society, can do a better job of reaching people who are caught up in destructive belief systems.
I was 10 when the towers collapsed.
We were living in Redondo Beach, CA at the time. I'd just gotten up for school, and my mom and stepdad were intermittently and anxiously glancing at the news as they got ready for work.
I remember watching footage of the second plane hitting, then being awkwardly shuffled off to school. That day, we tried to focus on normal fourth grade activities, but everyone could feel something was terribly wrong. My teacher started crying when we'd learned the towers had come down.
The next few weeks were a blur. In those days, I was obsessed with baseball—playing it, watching it, the whole deal. And I remember filtering the aftermath of 9/11 through the lens of sports. I watched every game in the MLB playoffs, every tear-filled tribute and moment of silence, including George Bush's iconic first pitch in the World Series a month later.
But eventually everything went back to normal in my little world. It would be years before I'd think about 9/11 again.
Somewhere in high school—either sophomore or junior year—the conspiracies found me.
Browsing around the internet, I somehow stumbled across a free documentary. I don't remember which one. Maybe it was Loose Change. Or perhaps it was the first film in the Zeitgeist series.
Regardless, that first exposure to conspiracy thinking was exhilarating. I felt alive.
Once those seeds were planted, everything new I saw or read seemed to confirm my suspicions of foul play.
In my senior year of high school, I took a class on post-WWII American history. At one point, we dug into how the CIA had helped overthrow democratic governments around the world—in Iran, in Chile, in Guatemala. It cemented my belief that the US government wasn't to be trusted, and was capable of horrific things.
During those years, my dad and I would often get lunch at a Jewish deli in Denver. I remember a handful of animated discussions, one in particular where I tried to argue—without any actual engineering knowledge, mind you—that it was physically impossible for a plane to cause those buildings to fall the way they did. Despite his best rhetorical efforts, my dad's arguments went in one ear, and out the other.
By the time I'd made it to my freshman year in college, my conspiracy brain was at its most impenetrable. I'd built myself a fortress of delusional certitude.
From age 20 to 30, I spoke nary a peep about 9/11.
Partly because my enthusiasm had waned over the years. I no longer bought into any of the grand narratives or explanations—that it was planned by the Bush administration, or that the Illuminati were ushering in a new world order or whatever. Somewhere along the way, the speculative "who dunnit" stuff had begun to feel empty and childish.
I also lost my zest for going any deeper into my lingering questions. Where once I was enthralled by the rabbit holes and the chase, in my twenties I channeled my energy into things like filmmaking, dating, figuring out adulthood, and building a business.
In high school and early college, I might have topped out at 7 of 10 on the conspiracy scale. But without any external intervention, or even intention or effort on my part, I cruised through my twenties at a cool 2 of 10.
Even though it was never top of mind, there was always a doubtful little voice in the back of my head, which would pipe up whenever someone mentioned 9/11.
Yet I never shared these doubts, not even with my closest friends. The social cost felt too high. There was always a fear I'd be branded a "truther" and that I'd carry a scarlet letter for the rest of my life. Whether that would have happened or not, I have no idea. But I always felt on edge about my dark little secret spilling out.
At this point, I had just two lingering questions—the things that stuck out to me as evidence of something fishy.
- How could two towers, designed to withstand impact from planes, be damaged asymmetrically, then fall symmetrically at freefall speed?
- What the hell was the deal with building 7? How did it collapse the way it did without having been hit by a plane?
In my mind, the official explanations for these things were insufficient. It felt like I was being told not to trust my lying eyes.
Of course, I'd never actually read the official explanations myself. I'd just believed the conspiracy folks when they said the official story was bogus. My understanding of these topics came from second hand (possibly even third or fourth hand) information.
Like many, the 2016 election—and the ensuing years of epistemic chaos and culture war meltdowns—woke me up to the dangers of conspiracy thinking at scale.
I watched as broad swaths of the political media ecosystem, both left and right, become addled with simplistic conspiratorial speculation.
I saw family members become Q-Anon true believers, to the point of cutting ties with anyone who disagreed.
We all saw conspiracy thinking undermine our pandemic response and vaccine rollout.
And of course, we all witnessed several storms of riotous violence stemming directly from widespread conspiracies.
From my vantage, it became increasingly clear that conspiracy thinking—on the right, left, and anywhere else—is not only contagious, but inherently destabilizing. It can lead to the fracture of relationships, families, communities, and entire societies.
And, of course, left unchecked, it can lead to dehumanization and violence.
2018 was unequivocally the worst year of my life.
But looking back, it taught me a valuable lesson about the nature of conspiracy thinking.
Having just moved to Tucson, I found myself disconnected from family and friends. My relationship was falling apart. My business was floundering. And I used food as an emotional escape, sending my health and fitness into a downward spiral. It was the loneliest, most hopeless, depressive year of my life.
During those dark days, the one reliable place I found solace and comfort was in culture war media. Much as Meghan Daum talks about making friends on "free speech YouTube" after her marriage fell apart, I started going down my own rabbit hole with the "intellectual dark web."
It started with podcasts like Joe Rogan, Ben Shapiro, and the Brothers Weinstein. And it led to YouTube, where I'd rarely miss a video from folks like Dave Rubin, Matt Christiansen, and Steven Crowder. I'm ashamed to admit it, but watching people dunk on and ridicule woke college students was gratifying in a visceral way. And for brief moments, there was light amidst the darkness of my life. I felt better about myself.
The thing about culture war media—both left and right—is that it's predicated on believing in the unambiguous badness of "them" (however your team defines it). Culture wars are fueled by simplistic stories about how the world works—stories that constantly reaffirm the virtue of our team, and the evil of theirs. And in culture war media ecosystems, and the resulting filter bubbles, inconvenient facts are ignored, while other facts are distorted (or invented) to fit the narrative. Everything must fit the narrative.
After my toxic relationship ended, and I started getting healthy again, my attraction to conspiratorial thinking and culture war media vanished. As if by magic.
The healthier my body and mind became, the more I was not only uninterested in the media that had once nourished me, but I was repulsed by it. I remember one day in particular where I opened YouTube, watched two minutes of a Dave Rubin video, and said out loud, "Wow, this guy is a clown." And I haven't been back since.
As I healed myself, I saw clearly how the culture wars had been a cheap substitute for what I actually needed and wanted out of life. It was like the shitty fast food version of belonging and meaning.
That led to a stark realization. I'm most susceptible to conspiracy thinking when I'm at my worst. When my core needs around agency, connection, belonging, and meaning aren't being met in healthy ways, I gravitate towards the nearest, loudest thing that soothes my psyche. And I suspect I'm not the only one.
In advanced industrial societies, we're good at a lot of things, but our track record of helping people meet these core psychological needs is abysmal. We live in the most materially wealthy and technologically advanced time and place the world has ever known, yet a substantial portion of the population is starving for what matters most.
It's like there's a severe drought in our collective psyche, just waiting for a spark to set off an uncontrollable wildfire of conspiracy, fear, and loathing of self and other.
I've come to believe it's not "misinformation" that's the problem here. This isn't social media's fault. The conspiracies spreading through society are merely a symptom, not a root cause.
If that's true, then it's up to us, individually and collectively, to recognize this dynamic for what it is, then pull ourselves out of those downward spirals. And from there, it's our responsibility to help others do the same. There is no top down solution to this. The only things that reverse these worrying trends are individuals, then communities, learning to meet their needs in healthy, constructive ways.
All of this brings us back to September 11th, 2021. The twentieth anniversary.
I'd spent the previous few years continuing to work on myself, and rooting out various forms of conspiratorial thinking. I'd learned to spot and reject simplistic culture war narratives. I'd learned to go to the source instead of relying on shoddy second hand information. And I'd learned to feel at home in complexity and ambiguity, instead of needing simplistic narratives to feel secure.
But still, those two pesky questions about 9/11 remained. How did the towers fall the way they did, and how did building 7 fall?
On this day, the door was open for me. It was an opportunity to step fully out of the realm of conspiracy, and into the identity of Citizen.
I started my quest that afternoon with a google search.
Needless to say, this dynamic didn't help. And it nearly stopped me from searching further. Like everyone else, I want to be treated with dignity, and like an adult.
But on a whim, I grabbed a kindle copy of the Popular Mechanics book. Despite a few hints of condescension in the early pages, this book felt different. It took each claim of conspiracy seriously, on its own terms, without strawmanning or ridicule. Then it meticulously picked each claim apart, one by one, relying on a diverse array of subject matter experts. It didn't insult the intelligence of the reader, but instead catered to it.
So over the course of about three hours, I devoured the chapters that addressed my lingering doubts, and skimmed a few others. I found conceivable scientific explanations for how the damage, along with raging fires, had brought down those three buildings twenty years earlier.
And as you might guess, I came away that evening satisfied. I believed the official accounts and explanations were, at the very least, plausible.
Here's a humbling truth about this whole saga.
I'm far too much of a scientific and engineering layman to know if what I read that night is true. Without becoming an engineer myself, there's no way for me to directly answer any of these questions. I had to outsource this one to subject matter experts. And I did. That Popular Mechanics book provided enough reasonable doubt for me to put my conspiracy thinking to bed.
As I type these words, I'm reminded of this passage from Jonathan Haidt's seminal book, The Righteous Mind:
“The social psychologist Tom Gilovich studies the cognitive mechanisms of strange beliefs. His simple formulation is that when we want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Can I believe it?” Then we search for supporting evidence, and if we find even a single piece of pseudo-evidence, we can stop thinking. We now have permission to believe. We have a justification, in case anyone asks. In contrast, when we don’t want to believe something, we ask ourselves, “Must I believe it?” Then we search for contrary evidence, and if we find a single reason to doubt the claim, we can dismiss it.”
When I look at conspiracy communities, including the various culture war tribes, mostly what I see is lonely, disaffected people desperate for a sense of meaning and community in their lives. I see people unwilling or unable to grapple with complexity, because the simple narratives that surround them are too seductive.
This isn't a judgment. It's just that I've been in that place. I've been that person. More than once. And I have no intention of going back.
Point being, I was able to break free from conspiracy thinking because I wanted to. And because I needed to. It was the only way for me to create a sense of coherence in my worldview, and to cement my emerging identity as a Citizen. Conspiracy thinking is antithetical to who I'm trying to become, and what I'm trying to model in the world.
Had 19 year old Rob picked up that book, it wouldn't have made a lick of difference. If I were a member of the truther tribe, finding my sense of identity and meaning amongst 9/11 true believers, I'd likely have never even picked up that book, let alone read and believed it. And had I not grappled with the culture war, and become deeply distrustful of conspiracy thinking, I doubt I would have felt the urgency to seek answers that evening.
Therein lies the inconvenient truth of solving conspiracy thinking on a society-wide scale.
The easy part of this equation is creating high quality, widely accessible information that respects the consumer and treats them with dignity. The more we ridicule and shame people harboring conspiratorial beliefs, the more we push them further away and calcify their worldview.
But here's the hard part. For any information to make a widespread difference, people must want it. They must be ready, willing, and able to displace their old beliefs with new ones. Coercion and top down solutions won't solve this problem. They'll only make it worse.
We need to start treating the root causes of systemic disaffection, instead of slapping bandaids on a stab wound. We need to find new ways to bring people together, give them shared meaning, and help them meet their core psychological needs in constructive ways. Because otherwise, conspiratorial thinking shows no signs of slowing its march into the heart of the body politic.
I don't have the solutions to any of that. But I believe it's one of the most important sets of problems for committed Citizens to work on in the years ahead. So I hope you, like me, are ready to work on it, together.
Good luck, and godspeed.