A couple of smarty pants researchers from Dartmouth College have spent considerable time and energy studying what is commonly referred to as “the backfire effect”. The fruits of their labors resulted in a paper titled “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions”. I’m simplifying their work for the sake of brevity (if you’re really interested, just go read the paper), but the basic idea, which I’ve cribbed from RationalWiki, is: “the backfire effect occurs when, in the face of contradictory evidence, established beliefs do not change but actually get stronger“. Kind of really crazy, right? Knowing this, it can sometimes be difficult to muster up the willpower to confront conspiracy theorists, because you know that you’re incredibly unlikely to sway them, no matter how well-prepared or well-spoken you are. So I was pleasantly surprised when, after a relatively short back-and-forth, I was able to get a fanatical Sandy Hook denier to actually admit that they were wrong about something.
Last week, a Redditor going by the groan-inducing username HONRWATCH (HONR is a charity that aims to bring awareness to denier harassment, in case you’re unfamiliar) posted a nearly seven minute long video about not being able to see unlit Christmas lights from a helicopter to the conspiracy subreddit and titled his submission “Video analysis proves the Newtown Hoax was filmed in stages. Literally no Christmas lights on the fire station during the ‘chaos.’ Christmas lights obvious in the background of live reports. Not debatable.”
You hear that, everyone? It’s not debatable! So don’t even try! Please?
Now it doesn’t surprise me at all to see a denier so blatantly discourage critical thinking. After all, it’s conspiracy theory Kyrptonite. But it did surprise me that a number of /r/conspiracy users flat-out refused to take the bait and quickly pointed out some of the glaring issues with the video itself, the most obvious of which being that you can see the Christmas lights, especially if you know where to look. One of those users actually did a fantastic job in compiling evidence and debunking the video, but their efforts were predictably ignored by HONRWATCH, who chose to chase after much more low-hanging fruit.
But in seeing how active HONRWATCH was in defending this garbage (or maybe they just really love the sound of their own greasy fingers pounding away on a keyboard), I figured there was a chance — albeit a small one — that I could get them to defy themselves and actually engage, ultimately exposing them for being the total fraud they are. So I called them out:
Since you’re watching, /u/HONRWATCH…
You’ve made the claim that this photo:
…does not refute your theory because ‘The aerial footage was shot on another day.’ I’m asking you if the only evidence you have of this is the fact that you personally cannot see the unlit Christmas bulbs on the firehouse. If so, what is it?
Do you still stand by the idea that unlit Christmas lights are not visible anywhere in that footage?
Since HONRWATCH had thus far refused to acknowledge anyone with a valid point to make, I was legitimately surprised when they replied to me. I can’t pretend to know how people like this work, but my best guess is that by asking simple, pointed questions, I fared a bit better than those who had just laid out all of the areas in which the video had failed so miserably.
“Yes, do you see unlit Christmas bulbs?”
Okay, so they ignored my first question, but that’s not a huge deal; I was still 50% successful. So I decided to stick with the same strategy and ask easy “yes” or “no” questions. That way, even if HONRWATCH continued to deny the obvious existence of the lights in the pictures that I had provided (which were a bit more clear than previous pictures as I captured them straight from the source video), I could likely ensnare them with their answers to the follow-ups.
“Yes, I do. As multiple people have pointed out in your original thread, you can see the lights.
Here’s one instance:
You can see the extension cord leading to the lights, lights wrapped around the base of the antenna, and lights dotting the peak of the roof. They’re about as clear as possible, given the circumstances. If you’re going to continue to believe that these aren’t lights, then what are they? What is the extension cord running to?
Also, please answer the following questions:
1) What other evidence do you have that the Channel 12 helicopter footage was not taken on the same day as the photos you were presented with in your own thread?
2) Do you acknowledge that the three wreaths are visible on the firehouse in the helicopter footage?
3) Do you acknowledge that the hanging icicle lights are visible on the cupola in the helicopter footage?
4) Do you acknowledge Christmas trees are visible behind the firehouse?
‘Yes’ or ‘no’ will do. It will take you 30 seconds to answer them.”
It was at this point that I fully expected HONRWATCH to lean on the classic conspiracy theorist move of tossing out a couple of tired ad hominems before refusing to continue the conversation, but either they honestly realized that they had made an enormous mistake or they sniffed out the impending burial and tapped out as quickly as possible.
“Point taken, I’m convinced.”
Wait… what? I was shocked. Flabbergasted, even! Here’s someone who had just spent considerable time defending this theory, even from fellow conspiracy theorists, and they’re folding after four short, simple questions? There was absolutely no way that they were not being facetious, so I continued to press them.
“You’ve already written about Sandy Hook at great lengths, but you won’t take the 30-60 seconds (tops) required to answer these questions and support your position?”
But they confirmed that they were in fact serious. The jig was up. To continue to deny what was now so obvious would sap them of any credibility they may have had left.
“I said I was wrong, I’ll drop this angle.”
And amazingly, they did! Granted it’s only been a week, but I haven’t seen them mention it since. So much for not being debatable, I guess.
Now as much as I’d love to consider this a happy ending, I know better than that. No one this committed to something so ludicrous would abandon ship after having one talking point dismantled; it just joins the long, long list of similar dead ends that have come before it. The goalposts never stop moving. But a small victory still feels good, dammit, and if HONRWATCH wasn’t someone so entrenched in the bullshit, it’s entirely possible that this could have been it for them, “Backfire Effect” be damned. It just goes to show that it’s not all entirely pointless.
Bonus round! Debunking the Christmas lights video.
While most of the major points have been made in my conversation with HONRWATCH (seen above), there are a few more things about this video that need to be discussed:
1) Holy shit, “William Tyndale”, learn how to use screencasting software. For this masterpiece, he chooses to simply point a camera at and film his computer screen while he prattles on. Not only does this result in sloppy, ugly work, but it degrades the quality of the video significantly. As difficult as it is to see the unlit bulbs from a helicopter in the original video (which I’ll cover shortly), this just makes it far worse. This is likely intentional.
2) No source is provided for either video, but the daytime portion is taken from Channel 12’s helicopter video, which I’ve referenced here multiple times and is available, in high definition, on YouTube. The evening portion is taken from a Nightline broadcast, though there isn’t much to be gained from watching the clip in high definition.
3) “William Tyndale” only shows roughly 4-5 seconds of the 10:30+ minute Channel 12 helicopter video. This is why it’s important to share your sources, so that everyone can see what you’ve left out. It’s in those remaining 10 minutes and twenty-five seconds that we get some of our best looks at the bulbs and wires running along the firehouse roof (as shown in the photos above).
4) “William Tyndale” intentionally misleads his viewers by having them look for bulbs in places where there never were any bulbs. At around the thirty second mark, he deliberately runs his cursor along the rear portion of the building and says “there are no lights on the ridges”. But lights are not visible on the rear of the building during the evening shot either, because they were never hung there. And while you may be able to attribute point #1 to technical incompetence or ignorance on William’s part, there’s no chance that this is not intentional.
5) Despite hovering his cursor over it at one point, “William Tyndale” chooses to ignore the very obvious Christmas wreath on the cupola. The other two visible in the evening footage can also be seen in the daytime footage, on the front of the building.
6) We’re looking at a video of a video, trying to find unlit Christmas bulbs from a helicopter… in case that wasn’t abundantly clear.
Finally, and most importantly:
7) We can prove that the lights are there year round, every year. Simply look at this photo of the firehouse, taken on May 3rd, 2010, and posted in the Newtown Bee:
In a ultimately futile attempt to share the truth with the kind of people may have an interest in what William Tyndale has to say, I posted a version of the above in the comments section of the video in question. William Tyndale of course quickly deleted my comment and banned me from his page, because he has no dick.