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.
The image below is a picture of the tallest mountain in the world. Do you know which is it?
If you answered Mount Everest you are correct. This mountain is over 29,029 feet high above sea level and has a lot of name recognition. But let me ask the above question in a different way. When measured from the center of the Earth, which is the tallest mountain in the world? Or alternatively, the summit of which mountain is closest to outer space? Surprisingly the answer is not “Everest” but rather the mountain in the picture below. Do you know its name?
This is a volcano in Ecuador called Chimborazo and it is 20, 564 feet tall when measured from sea level; an altitude way below that of Everest. However, when measured from the center of the Earth, Chimborazo is 1-2 miles taller than Everest and therefore its summit is also closer to outer space. In fact, when the height of a mountain is measured in this manner, Everest is not even in the list of the 20 highest mountains!
How can this be?
We need to remember that our experience can fool us. What can be more natural than to measure the height of a mountain from sea level to its summit? And the summit of the mountain thus found to be the highest must also be the closest point in the world to outer space, right?
If we were living in a flat Earth or on a planet that does not rotate, that would indeed be the case, but the Earth is not a perfect sphere. Due to the Earth’s rotation, the land and the sea around the equator bulge outward. Someone standing at sea level on the Earth’s poles is about 13 miles closer to the center of the Earth than someone standing at sea level on the equator. Because Chimborazo is located 1 degree south of the equator, it sits on top of this bulge, whereas Everest which is 28 degrees north of the equator is closer to the Earth’s center.
Considering this, one interesting question is: what about the death zone?
The death zone is found in high mountains above an elevation of 26,000 feet above sea level. At this altitude the abundance of oxygen is only 1/3 of that found at sea level, and the bodies of most people are incapable of adapting effectively. The death zone is one of the reasons Everest is so hard to climb, and also why the route to the top in this area of the mountain is littered with the bodies of dead climbers. One would expect that if the summit of Chimborazo is closer to outer space than the summit of Everest, then it should also have a death zone. As it turns out this is not the case because the Earth’s atmosphere also bulges at the equator. As a result of this, the summit of Chimborazo is safely below the death zone and, unlike what happens in Everest, the bodies of most people can function in the thin atmosphere of the summit if allowed the time for adaptation to high altitudes.
The foregoing illustrates the effect that small differences can have on some seemingly conventional measurements when these differences are taken into account over planetary scales. In terms of distance, the 13 miles that our planet bulges around the equator represents but a tiny fraction of the 3,959 miles comprising the Earth’s radius, and yet, this is enough to make the summit of Chimborazo the highest point on our planet!
Everest from base camp
Photo credit: Rupert Taylor-Price / Foter.com / CC BY
Photo credit: apgwhite / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND
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.
Is the Earth round? Avoiding The Absolute Truth to Find the Practical Truth: the Devil is in the Level of DetailRead Now
Most people hold a “binary” notion of the truth. For them things can either be true or false, because that which is false cannot be true, and that which is true cannot be false. We will call this notion the “absolute truth”. I want to argue that this absolute truth notion is unsatisfactory and impractical at addressing the worthiness of scientific theories. For this purpose I will use an example.
Consider the idea that the Earth is flat. For people in antiquity living in a flat place like the plains or a desert it probably made sense to think this, but eventually the ancients figured out that the Earth was not flat. The Earth is round and we know that for a fact nowadays.
So, the Earth is flat: false, the Earth is round: true; right?
Actually, the Earth is not round! As Isaac Newton proposed and was later found to be correct, the Earth, due to its rotation, is an “oblate spheroid”, which means it is flater at the poles and bulging at the equator (the distance from the Earth’s center to sea level is 13 miles longer at the equator).
OK, so, the Earth is round: false, the Earth is an oblate spheroid: true, right?
Well, not quite. The Earth is an oblate spheroid, but the southern hemisphere is wider than the northern hemisphere giving the Earth a bit of a pear shape.
Fine, so the Earth is an oblate spheroid: false, the Earth is a pear-shaped, oblate spheroid: true, right?
Actually, even this is false! The Earth’s mass is not distributed evenly across the planet, and the greater the mass, the greater the gravitational force, which leads to the creations of bumps in the Earth’s crust. Additionally these bumps change overtime due to the movement of continental plates, the changing weight of the oceans, lakes, ice masses, and atmosphere, and the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon. All of these processes can deform the Earth’s crust by the order of millimeters to a few dozen centimeters daily and by much larger amounts over geologic times.
So the Earth is a bumpy, shapeshifting, pear-shaped, oblate spheroid?
Wahoo, we did it! At last we have the absolute truth! The Earth is an pear-shaped, oblate spheroid: false, the Earth is a bumpy, shapeshifting, pear-shaped, oblate spheroid: true, right?
At this point you are probably thinking: seriously, are you kidding?
This is the problem with the absolute truth notion: it ignores the level of detail that is required for adequately describing physical phenomena. The level of detail that is required from a description of the shape of the Earth will vary depending on what you are intending to use it for. For surveyors determining distances in small patches of the Earth’s surface, a flat Earth model is perfectly suitable, as the error in the measurements is negligible. For people dealing with time zones, the round Earth description is perfectly adequate. On the other hand, satellite orbits can be affected by small deviations of the Earth’s crust from a perfect sphere, so people following satellites must take into account the oblate spheroid and pear deformities of the Earth. Similarly, people running particle accelerators must understand that the Earth is constantly shifting its shape so they can keep track of very small deformities in the Earth’s crust that arise daily and may mess up their measurements.
The vast majority of people would accept that the claim that the Earth is flat is false (low level of detail). On the other hand, most people would consider further refinements to the round Earth claim such as the oblate spheroid; pear-shaped, oblate spheroid; or bumpy, shapeshifting, per-shaped, oblate spheroid to be a needless amount of precision (too high a level of detail), and rightly so. The type of deviations from a spherical shape that these highly detailed models of the Earth deal with is at most about a dozen miles. If you take into account that the Earth’s radius is 3,959 miles, we are talking about a difference of 0.3%. By this token the Earth’s crust, despite its mountains and sea trenches, is very smooth. So for the use that most of us make of the information regarding the shape of the Earth, a round Earth model is an acceptable level of detail.
Depending on what you are trying to explain or achieve, trying to find the absolute truth may be not only impossible or unnecessary, but also cumbersome. So we come to the paradoxical realization that seeking the absolute truth may actually hinder or prevent our discovery of the practical truth! When scientists seek the truth regarding physical phenomena, what they have in mind is the practical truth which is a truth defined at a sufficiently high level of detail to explain the phenomena they are studying and derive predictions and useful applications. Later on other scientists may seek to explain things at a higher level of detail to address more complex questions that a lower detailed truth can’t answer satisfactorily, and so on.
What the public has to understand is that a scientific theory does not have to explain everything to be considered “true”. It just has to explain the relevant phenomena at a sufficiently high level of detail to generate accurate predictions and useful applications. The debate should not be about whether a given theory is true or false, but rather about whether a theory has been formulated at a sufficiently high level of detail for society to benefit from it.
The image from NASA is in the public domain.