Conspiracy Theorists: How to Tell the Difference between reasonable and Irrational SkepticsRead Now
There are a lot of conspiracies out there nowadays, and many of them include scientists as the “evil guys”. Some conspiracy theorists argue that climate change isn’t real, and it’s all doctored or exaggerated data generated by scientists promoted by research funding agencies and green companies. Others argue that vaccination produces autism, and that scientists and pharmaceutical companies are trying to hide this fact. Still others argue that scientists are hiding evidence for a young Earth and the discovery of Noah’s Ark because this would confirm creationism. There are also those conspiracy theorists that state that the scientists that carried out the analyses of the destruction of the Word Trade Center by terrorist during 911 engaged in faking data and misdirection to hide the fact that the attacks were a false flag operation staged by the US government to justify the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. And there are even some who argue that the Earth is really flat, that the moon landing never happened, and that pictures of a round Earth are fake.
It is tempting to roll our eyes and dismiss these conspiracy theorists as ignorant, but when you check the social media accounts of these characters and read the debates in which they become involved in public forums, you find that many of them are quite knowledgeable individuals. In fact some believers in conspiracy theories are, or have been, eminent scientists!
Conspiracy theorists and scientists share the fact that they are both skeptics, and skepticism is a healthy attitude in science. There is nothing wrong in being a skeptic, and truth be told, conspiracies should not be dismissed outright either as there have been a number of documented conspiracies. But many would argue that when it comes to some of the conspiracy theories outlined at the beginning of this post, conspiracy theorists are going too far in their skepticism and are not behaving like true scientists. So how do we differentiate between the reasonable skeptics and the irrational skeptics? How do we determine when conspiracy theorists are not behaving like true scientists?
I have stated before that, unlike other disciplines, the reason that science can be right is that it can be wrong. In other words, scientific claims can be tested and proven wrong, if indeed they are. On the contrary, non-scientific claims can never be proven wrong. The proponents of non-scientific claims constantly move the goalposts and engage in fancy rationalizations to explain away the data that disprove their ideas. This is one of the characteristics of many conspiracy theorists. It is impossible to prove they are wrong, and in fact many of them when backed into a corner will argue that the mere act of trying to discredit their ideas is further proof that there is a conspiracy!
It is important to identify these individuals in order to avoid getting sucked into pointless debates that will consume a lot of your valuable time. So here is the question you should ask conspiracy theorists:
What evidence will convince you that you are wrong, and, if such evidence is produced, will you commit to changing your mind?
If a conspiracy theorist cannot answer this question with examples of such evidence, and make the commitment to change their minds if said evidence is produced, then you can infer they are not behaving scientifically. This is one of the differences between a reasonable skeptic and an irrational skeptic.
There is another big difference between reasonable skeptics and irrational skeptics. Most conspiracy theorists are individuals who are perfectly comfortable with sitting smugly in their corner of the internet engaged in ranting out against their favorite targets to their captive audiences, but do nothing to settle the issue. Reasonable skeptics, on the other hand, do something about it. I have already mentioned in my blog the case of Dr. Richard Muller, a global warning skeptic who decided to check the data for himself. He got funding, assembled a star team of scientists (one of them would go on to win a Nobel Prize), and reexamined the global warming data in their own terms with their own methods. He concluded that indeed the planet was warming and that human activity was very likely to be the cause.
This is the way rational skeptics behave. Why don’t proponents of the flat Earth theory band together, raise money, and send a weather balloon with a camera up into the atmosphere, or finance an expedition to cross the poles? Why doesn’t the anti-vaccine crowd fund a competent study to assess the safety of vaccines? Why don’t those that argue that scientists are hiding evidence of a young Earth finance an investigation employing valid methods to figure out the age of rocks? Why don’t 911 conspiracy theorists finance a believable attempt to try to model the pattern of collapse of the Word Trade Center buildings according to evidence?
The answer is very simple, and it is the reason why fellow global warming skeptics repudiated the results of Dr. Richard Muller when he confirmed global warming is real. It’s because for the irrational skeptic, truth is a secondary consideration. Irrational skeptics are so vested in their beliefs and/or ideas that their main priority is to uphold their point of view by whatever means necessary. No fact or argument will sway them, no research or investigation is necessary. Because of this, when it comes to these characters, the best course of action is to apply Aldler’s Razor (also called Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword) which states that what cannot be settled by experiment or observation is not worth debating.
The World Trade Center photograph by Michael Foran is used here under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. Photo of Buzz Aldrin by Neil by Armstrong, both from the NASA Apollo 11 mission to the moon, is in the public domain. The image of a 5-year average (2005-2009) global temperature change relative to the 1951-1980 mean temperature was produced by scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and is in the public domain.
I have been recently reading about Flat Earthers. These are individuals who claim that the real shape of the Earth is flat. If you go to social media outlets such as Twitter and type in hashtags such as #flatearth you will see the accounts of a number of these people. One thing that struck me about Flat Earthers is that quite a number of them are sophisticated individuals who are well versed in technical jargon and can argue with you forever or outpost you on a discussion board. There is even a society called the Flat Earth Society dedicated to promoting the “truth” of the flat earth. It held the first International Flat Earth conference in 2017.
But you may ask: how do Flat Earthers explain all the pictures of Earth taken from space that show it’s a sphere? The short answer: a conspiracy! Flat Earthers believe that the public is being deceived by the government which has bribed or coerced astronauts into lying, faked the moon landing, and created bogus pictures of a spherical Earth.
Admittedly, the case of Flat Earthers is an extreme example. You could even say that they are at the fringe of antiscience groups such as climate change deniers, antivaxers, or creationists. But from their rhetoric, I think we can draw one valid question that is worth addressing: How do we know there is no conspiracy? The government has been shown to have lied in the past, as well as have many other institutions and organizations. How do we know they are not doing it in these cases?
The answer is diversity: diversity in scientists, and diversity in methodology.
I have mentioned in a previous post the famous case of N-rays, the mysterious radiation discovered by the French scientist René Blondlot, and confirmed by other French scientists, that turned out to be nothing but a case of self-delusion. During the course of the investigation of N-Rays, at one point it became evident that almost all of the positive results were coming out of French labs. When all the positive results originate from one state, or organization, or lab, we should be concerned. Diversity in the scientists that practice science is a safeguard against bias and mistakes.
In another post I have also mentioned the case of polywater, a seemingly new form of water with many potential applications. Many scientists set to work on polywater and they were able to obtain the same results reported by other scientists (the results were reproducible). Nonetheless, polywater was eventually demonstrated to be false. The positive results were due to the fact that all the scientists were using the same methodology and making the same mistake! When all the positive results come from scientists using the same methodology, and these results can’t be supported by any other methods, there may be a problem. Diversity in the methodology employed in research is also a safeguard against bias and mistakes.
Thus when many scientists from different nations, ethnicities, religions, political beliefs, scientific traditions, etc. study a problem employing different approaches and methodologies and come up with the same results, you can infer not only that the chance that there is a conspiracy going on is vanishingly small, but also that there is a very good chance that the theories they have generated have grasped important aspects of reality.
For the conspiracy that the Flat Earthers claim to exist to be true, it would have to involve not only the government of the United States and astronauts, scientists, and private contractors involved in the space program, but also similar numbers of people in the other 5 space agencies that possess launch capabilities (those of India, Europe, China, Japan, and Russia), as well as those of the 50 plus countries that have satellites in space, not to mention individuals involved in space research in all these countries. Additionally, the roundness of the Earth has been demonstrated by many methods. If you want to argue for a flat Earth, you might as well argue that we are all living in The Matrix.
However, in their conspiracy claims Flat Earthers are in good company. The theories that the global climate is warming and that humans are responsible for it, or that vaccines do not produce autism, are the product of science involving a diversity of researchers and methods, and yet they are also rejected by many people claiming that they are part of massive conspiracies.
To all individuals out there espousing these conspiracy theories about science and scientists, I want to suggest that you consider a radical and revolutionary idea. This is that maybe, just maybe, the vast majority of scientists are interested in the truth, they act in good faith, and that the theories they have generated are correct!
The image of a flat Earth by Trekky0623 was modified under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. The image of the real Earth from NASA is in the public domain.
Our Misleading ExperienceRead Now
We often frame the way we react to and interpret reality based on what we experience. This perfectly reasonable approach, however, is not always accurate, and science can explain why. I will present some examples today and try not to sound too pedantic while doing it!
Consider sunrises and sunsets. For millennia we have basked in the splendor of the spectacle of the sun rising in the morning and setting in the afternoon. That is our experience, right? The sun goes up and then down. How many poems and paintings and songs have been inspired by sunrises and sunsets? How many metaphors? The mere sight of the orb of the sun clearing the horizon or sinking below it has had a profound influence on the psyche of our species. The problem here is, of course, that the sun doesn’t “rise” or “set”, it is the Earth that turns! “Sunrises” and “sunsets” are just an illusion created by the fact that we are living on a rotating planet.
When drinking a beverage through a straw many people will claim to be “sucking” the liquid. If pressed to explain how the liquid gets from the container to their mouths, they will probable add that they create a vacuum inside the straw with their mouths and the vacuum “sucks” the liquid. This is not true. You have several hundred miles of air on top of you which generates a pressure at sea level of 14.7 pounds per square inch. This tremendous pressure is applied to everything including the drink and the air inside the straw. When you “suck” on the straw, your lungs expand creating a low pressure area inside them which is transmitted to the cavity inside the straw, and air moves from high pressure areas to low pressure areas. But in this case, the beverage is between the inside of the straw and the atmosphere. Thus the atmosphere pushes the liquid up the straw and into your mouth. The same happens with a vacuum cleaner. The motor creates a low pressure zone inside the machine by blowing air out, and the atmosphere pushes the air towards the inside. Sucking a liquid with a straw or operating a vacuum cleaner inside a room where the air has been removed (i.e. where the effect of the atmospheric pressure has been eliminated) would not work. Vacuums don’t suck. It is the atmosphere that pushes.
How many people have asked others to shut a window or a door because they are letting the cold in (winter) or out (summer)? Here “cold” is being treated as an entity, and that is the problem. Cold doesn’t exist! The real entity is heat energy. Heat has a physical correlate (molecular vibrations) and can be measured (temperature is the measure of the heat content of something). At absolute zero (−459.67 °F), molecular motion ceases, there is no heat, and things can’t get any colder. What we perceive to be colder is something with less heat, and what we perceive to be warmer (or less cold) is something with more heat. Much in the same way that darkness is the absence of light and not a real entity in itself; cold is the absence of heat.
Let’s do one last one. We have seen videos of astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS) moving around their craft. Most people describe the astronauts as floating. Strictly speaking, this is not accurate, as for something to float it has to have a density lower than the medium surrounding it (think a balloon filled with helium released into the atmosphere). The astronauts pirouetting about the ISS are not less dense than the air that surrounds them, therefore they are not floating. At this point most people would clarify that the astronauts just appear to be floating. That is a fair reply, but when pressed as to why this is the case, many will answer that it is because there is no gravity in space.
This is again not true. To understand why, imagine the following: you jump from a high diving board. During the few seconds before you hit the water are you floating? No, you are falling. Now imagine that as soon as your feet leave the diving board a room materializes around you, and this room has a camera in a corner. If I were to check the footage of the camera for the few seconds before you and the room hit the water, I would see you seemingly “floating” inside the room. But you are not floating, you are falling. Similarly, the astronauts inside the ISS are falling towards the Earth because they and the station are being pulled by gravity towards our planet. So why doesn’t the ISS crash and burn? This is because the station is moving at just the right speed to match the curvature of the Earth. As the ISS falls, the Earth curves, so the station and the astronauts inside it are always falling, but they never hit the ground. Gravity is alive and well in space.
These are some cases of how our experience does not accurately describe the actual physical phenomena in the world that surrounds us. Can you think of any other examples? Please leave a comment, and let me know.
Images from Pixabay used under a CC0 Creative Commons license.