The Election Conspiracy: The Dire Consequences of Living in an Alternate Reality and What We Can Do About ItRead Now
As I have discussed before, our brains seem to be wired to filter and process our perception of reality based on expectations that we have about the nature of said reality. This may actually be beneficial as it serves as a mechanism to reduce the vast complexity of the world around us to a basic set of actionable premises that guide our response to life-changing events or forces that we don’t control or even sometimes understand. Of course, the problem with this approach is that we may not see or accept those things that don’t fit our expectations and we end up creating and living in an alternate reality. But what happens when this alternate reality collides with the actual reality? You would expect people to change their minds, right? Unfortunately this is not often the case.
I have previously mentioned several specific reasons why people create and believe in conspiracy theories ranging from feeling safe, reducing uncertainty, and gaining control over their environment to developing and maintaining a positive image of one’s self or group. But I think one general reason why people create and accept conspiracy theories is to explain the discrepancy between their world view and reality. Nowadays there are millions of people in the United States living in alternate realities and accepting and spreading conspiracy theories to explain away the evidence that indicates their world view is wrong.
Thus, flat Earthers claim that the evidence the Earth is round is fake and part of a conspiracy to hide the truth. Antivaxxers claim that pharmaceutical companies are hiding the evidence that vaccines are not safe and cause autism and other diseases. Global warming denialists claim that scientists and the organizations that fund them are faking the evidence for global warming. Creationists deny evolution and claim that atheists aligned with powerful secular interests are attacking religion. Chemtrail proponents allege the government is spraying us with dangerous chemicals. 911 deniers claim the government was responsible for the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. COVID-19 severity deniers claim that liberals and left leaning organizations colluding with the scientific and medical establishment are exaggerating the impact of COVID-19 and trying to control people using lockdowns, masks, and social distancing.
The latest addition to this list is the individuals that advocate the “election conspiracy”. These are individuals who have the false belief the election was stolen from President Trump by a vast group of republican and democratic election officials, governors, congressmen, and judges colluding with voting machine corporations, the “deep state” and foreign nations. I do not include this group of conspiracy believers here lightly. Although normally I don’t address political issues in my blog, the evidence that the election president Trump lost was not a fraud, as a he claims, is just too overwhelming to ignore or dismiss as a mere “opinion”. Dozens of election officials both Republicans and Democrats, along with recounts, audits, and courts, as well as assessments by fact checkers and government agencies did not find instances of fraud large enough to overturn the election.
Belief in conspiracy theories has consequences at the level of the individual and society, and I think the severity of these consequences depends on two variables. One is the nature and scope of the conspiracy theory being embraced. Flat Earth proponents may only get laughed at, while antivaxxers may influence some people to not vaccinate their children who may then catch a serious disease. COVID-19 denialists may lead people to forgo masks and other mitigation measures that may put them and their loved ones at risk of being infected, while global warming denial activists may hinder urgently needed action on climate change. The other variable that may determine the severity of the consequences of embracing a conspiracy theory is the level of militancy it inspires and the extent to which its followers may become radicalized and willing to act on the premises of the conspiracy to the detriment of their own lives and wellbeing. The poster children for this last variable are the advocates of the “election conspiracy”.
On January 6th the whole nation watched in shock as a mob stormed the US Capitol building while the electoral votes of the American people were being counted. The individuals that did this were so certain that the system had failed them that they were willing to risk everything for their actions. Now many of them have been identified and arrested. They are losing their jobs and businesses, and are being placed on no-fly lists and subjected to non-stop harassment and threats. One of them was shot, and three others died from medical emergencies suffered during the riot. Their actions, besides destruction of government property and damage to American democracy, led to the death of one Capitol police officer and the injuring and abuse of dozens of others. We shudder at the thought of what would have happened if this mob of individuals had been able to get hold of the members of congress inside the Capitol. It has been documented that several people in the mob were shouting “hang Mike Pence” (the vice president) as well as threats to others.
The election conspiracy is a clear example of the dire consequences of living in an alternate reality immunized from facts and evidence. In this state of mind, people’s emotions and fears can be inflamed and manipulated to advance political or social goals in a process akin to selling them snake oil. And the people most susceptible to be victims of snake oil salesmen are those living in these alternate realities.
So how do we deal with this?
Whereas the more radicalized conspiracy believers may be too far gone to be helped, there is a larger mass of people that is unsure about accepting the conspiracy. Some aspects of the conspiracy make sense to them but they are turned off by other aspects. These people are not conspiracy theory believers, but they are conspiracy theory agnostics. I think that these conspiracy agnostics are the people we should talk with. We should address their concerns seriously with evidence and within a framework of respect for their views. But we also need to find what I call “converts” among the ranks of the conspiracy theory believers. Converts are people that have come to their senses having analyzed what they said and did and rejected the conspiracy. These are people that the conspiracy theory agnostics (and even some believers) can identify with. These converts should become the spokespersons against the conspiracy.
We may not be able to eliminate the conspiracy, but maybe we can reduce its spread.
The photograph by of tear gas being used on rioters outside the capitol by Tyler Merbler is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
Although this is a science blog, I often address instances when belief clashes with science. I subscribe to the notion that religion and science have expertise over different areas and should be kept separate as per the concept of non-overlapping magisteria advocated by the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. But I recognize there will be cases where that separation becomes fuzzy or unworkable. I have made the point several times in my blog that science is the best method we have to discover the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us, and this is not an opinion. The success of science in discovering how the natural world works is plain for all but the most irrational skeptics to see. However, at the same time I accept that science cannot operate in a vacuum, and we have to contend with the reality of belief. In these trying times when we are in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, one of the crucial guidelines that scientists have issued to our population is the need for social distancing and avoiding crowds to reduce the spread of the virus. This guideline is derived from our knowledge of how the virus spreads.
Because of this I was shocked when I saw the video below.
This woman, who had just attended a church gathering where dozens of people hugged and assembled inside, has the firm conviction that the virus won’t infect her, and that she will not give it to others, because Jesus is protecting her.
Most people will criticize the belief of this woman and her congregation and view them intellectually in unflattering terms. However, I understand the need that people have for religion, especially during trying times such as the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact this is nothing new. For millennia, human beings have invoked the deity to help them overcome challenges. I also understand that for many individuals, psychological well-being is often as important as physical well-being. This is not to say that all religious congregations have responded in the way this one did. The majority are offering virtual religious services and other activities that follow social distancing guidelines. But there are a substantial number that are still refusing, and these can (and have) become hot beds of virus spread. However, I don’t think this is solely a religious issue.
In the United States, there is a distrust of government among many people. Any ordinance that in any way limits freedom is viewed with suspicion. If you include that there is the belief among some religious groups that a war is being waged on Christianity by atheists aligned with liberal organizations that wish to spread socialism and destroy the American way of life, you begin to get the idea of what may really be transpiring behind this opposition to common sense safety rules that interfere with regular worship. To this, of course, you must add the delegitimization of science that has taken place in our society, and the rise of antiscience movements such as those that advocate opposition to vaccination and climate change denial or the acceptance of conspiracy theories ranging from 911 and chemtrails to the flat Earth.
I believe, however, that there are ways to harmonize belief with science. If you look at the video of the woman again, you can see that she is wearing a seat belt. This makes sense, as science has generated evidence that seat belts along with air bags save lives during collisions. The woman probably doesn’t even think about this when she adjusts her seat belt upon entering the car. She also probably doesn’t even consider driving without a seat belt expecting Jesus to protect her in case of a crash. Additionally, the church she attends probably has lighting rods on top of the roof to protect the building and the people inside from lighting. It is likely that no one in the congregation has even considered removing the lightning rods and relying just on their faith in Jesus to protect the church. So there are clearly science-derived safety measures that these people accept. Why not then accept the safety measures against the coronavirus?
While it’s true that, unlike the acceptance of seat belts or lighting rods, the social distancing guidelines impose a serious restriction in their ability to worship, in essence the occurrence of a viral pandemic is not different from a lighting strike: they are both natural phenomena. Car crashes are a more artificial situation, but they can be rationalized in terms of collisions among moving bodies (a physical phenomenon). If these people have accepted, or at least don’t question, the science and the necessity behind seat belts lighting rods and other such safety measures in their daily lives, how can we convince them that the safety measures against the virus are no different?
As it turns out, many religious congregations, including some that share the same brand of Christianity as that of the woman in the video, have already taken care of this issue. They argue that God has responded to our prayers to keep us safe by giving us science, and through science we can understand how the world works and react accordingly. Viewed from this vantage point, applying our God-given science to come up with safety guidelines for the coronavirus is no different from applying it to come up with things like seat belts or lighting rods. No conspiracy. No attack on Christianity, No atheism or socialism. Science does not have an ideology. Science is a tool, and it the right hands it can be used for good.
Of course, the above argument that God has given us science is a religious argument and therefore outside the scope of science. But if it means having people accept safety measures that will save lives, I am all for it. Rather than condemn and berate these people for their beliefs, I am of the opinion that the best way to proceed is to search for individuals whom these religious denominations will trust, and have them deliver this argument. Then it can be worked out how to adapt the coronavirus safety guidelines to meet the needs of these religious congregations.
Image by geralt from pixabay is for public use.
When it comes to the supernatural, believers and skeptics have a set of seemingly irreconcilable differences. Religious believers claim that faith healers can make miraculous healings happen. Believers in psychic phenomena claim that things like extrasensory perception (ESP) are real. Believers in spiritualism claim that the spirits of the dead can be contacted by individuals with special powers such as mediums. Skeptics however, point out that every time such occurrences have been investigated thoroughly, no evidence for their existence has been found. The disagreement between believers and skeptics has led to a lot of acrimony peppered with plenty of throwing up of hands, shaking of heads, and rolling of eyes. Can’t believers and skeptics agree on some things?
I think they can. For one thing, the vast majority of both believers and skeptics would agree that it is not ethical or moral for a fake faith healer, or psychic, or medium to deprive people of their hard-earned money through lies and trickery. There are many examples of such fakes. Many mediums in the United States in the 1920s were exploiting people’s pain over losing loved ones, tricking them into thinking they could communicate with their spirits. In the 1980s many psychics such as James Hydrick deceived people into believing they had supernatural powers. During this time period, the televangelist Peter Popoff was also active tricking people into believing he could cure them of their ailments through the power of God. In the 2000s psychics like Rosemary Altea fooled people into believing she could communicate with their dead relatives. In the 2010s, the psychic Maria Duval and her associates tricked as many as 1.4 million American, most of them elderly and sick, into sending money by mail in exchange for psychic help to heal their ailments or improve their economic situation.
If a person is promised a service such as contacting their dearly departed, or the healing of a malady, finding love, improving their economic situation, or a peek into their future in exchange for their money, then said person is entitled to receive just what they were promised. This is a very basic and straightforward principle based on universal common sense notions of honesty. But this just leads us to the cause of the acrimony between believers and skeptics. By which procedure do we determine whether a faith healer, a psychic, or a medium is honest or fake in a manner that will be accepted by both sides?
I don’t know a definite answer to this question, but I do have a suggestion regarding how stringent the procedure should be. Let me build my case for it.
Let’s start with Penn and Teller. These guys are a fantastic duo of magicians. They have been in the business for decades. They have a huge knowledge regarding how magic is performed, and not only do they perform amazing tricks, but they also invent new ones. Penn and Teller have a show called “Fool Us” where they invite the best magicians in the world to try to fool them. In other words, to try to perform a magic trick for them that they can’t figure out how it’s done. Despite their experience and their knowledge, Penn and Teller have been fooled quite a number of times by other magicians such as Rebecca Herrera as shown in the video below.
I am a scientist and a skeptic, and I consider myself smart. However, for the life of me I cannot figure out even how some of the most mediocre magicians do their tricks, let alone Penn and Teller or other world class magicians. However, as long as a trick is limited to its magic context, there is no problem. It’s all wonder, fun, and games. But in the moment a trick is removed from this context and performed as part of a séance, a psychic demonstration, or a faith healing event under the pretense that it is not a trick but a bona fide supernatural event, that is where the problem arises.
Imagine if the magician Rebecca Herrera featured in the video above used her talents to try to convince people that she really has supernatural abilities. It would be too easy. We are all accustomed to dealing with nature, and nature does not lie, but when it comes to dealing with dishonest tricksters, the truth is that the vast majority of people are sitting ducks. When individuals witness things they cannot explain, many will be inclined to accept the reality of these things and jettison skepticism out the window, which will soon be followed by their money. This is especially true in the case of the most vulnerable such as those who have lost loved ones, or are facing difficult family situations, or are experiencing health problems.
There are literally thousands of ways in which a dishonest person can fool others into believing they have supernatural powers. This often involves using very basic techniques to obtain information such as “cold reading” coupled to other more elaborate tricks such as those described in the video below from The Real Hustle series.
Nowadays with the advent of the internet it is even easier to obtain personal information from individuals and present it as having been obtained by supernatural means.
The performance of these tricks is safer for the performer if they are carried out within a religious context. This is due to the fact that any miracle that didn’t work can be blamed on weak faith. There are several people who have deserted the faith healing profession and they have revealed many of the tricks they use to dupe believers. In the video below by Derren Brown you can check some of them.
So now let me get to my suggestion.
Without suggesting to believers that ALL faith healers, psychics, or mediums are fake, I nevertheless want to posit that, because it is virtually impossible for regular folks like you or me to tell the difference between a trick and the real thing, you should set the bar for accepting that the powers of these characters is real very, very high. I would even recommend that before believing, you should get help from someone in the magical profession to identify any tell-tale signs of cheating. Do not try to do this yourself! Fake faith healers, psychics, or mediums can have decades of experience deceiving people. They will use their tricks, manipulate your emotions, and fool you. This is especially true if you WANT to believe. If we accept that there are liars and cheats out there, displaying skepticism is not a weakness in your capacity to believe or your faith. Rather it signals that you are prudent and discriminating in your beliefs, which is a good thing to be.
Psychic picture from Pixabay is in the public domain. Séance scene from “Weird of What?” by Sgerbic is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
Marylyn vos Savant is an American writer who was recognized by the folks at Guinness World Records to be the person with the highest IQ in the world before that category was eliminated from their world record groupings in 1990. Marylyn writes a weekly column for the magazine Parade, where, among other things, she solves puzzles and answers questions that her readers send to her. In 1990, one reader sent her a puzzle (named the Monty Hall Puzzle after a Canadian-American game show host) that involved a game show where you are given a choice between 3 doors. Behind one door is a car, and behind the other 2 doors there are goats. You pick one door, and the game show host proceeds to open one of the remaining 2 doors revealing a goat. The game show host then asks you if you want to switch your original selection to the other remaining door. The question is: is it to your advantage to switch your choice of doors?
Marylyn replied in a very matter of fact way that the answer is “Yes, you should switch”. If you keep your original choice, the odds of winning the car are 1/3, but if you switch, the odds of winning the car are 2/3. This ignited a firestorm among her readers which included quite a number of scientists. She received thousands of letters telling her that there is no advantage in switching because, as there are 2 doors left, one with a goat and the other with a car, the probability of winning the car is 1/2. Of those that wrote letters to her, only 8% of the general public and 35% of scientists thought she was right. Marylyn wrote another column maintaining she indeed was right and tried to explain her reasoning, but to no avail. The insults started coming in. Many laypeople and scientists (including mathematicians and statisticians from prestigious research centers in the country) lectured her on probability and berated her intellect, some even suggesting that maybe women think about statistics differently.
In response Marylin wrote a another column asking for a nationwide experiment to be carried out in math classes and labs, in essence reproducing the problem using 3 cups and a penny. After this she was vindicated. The experiment she suggested along with simulations performed using computers, proved that she was indeed correct, and many former skeptics wrote letters of contrition apologizing for insulting her. By the time she published her last column on the subject, 56% percent of the general public and 71% of scientists (the majority) accepted that she was right.
The process outlined above, displayed an initial phase of skepticism, followed by a second phase of analysis and corroboration of the claim. However, the case of the puzzle is clear cut. There is no ambiguity. Everyone could perform the experiment and convince themselves of the truth (there are even online sites that allow you to do this now). And yet, despite this, there were still a significant percentage of individuals who did not accept Marylyn’s conclusion.
The two phases mentioned above are also seen in the acceptance of counterintuitive scientific theories, although the complexity of the analyses is much greater and not accessible to everyone, and the opposition from the skeptics is much stronger. This is especially true in some dramatic situations involving science where the debate spreads into the social and political realms spanning conspiracy theories. One such case is the conspiracy theory that states that the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers after the attacks of 911 was produced by demolition charges and not as a direct result of the attacks. Among the buildings that collapsed, the case of Building 7 became a lightning rod for the conspiracy theorists because of the way it was damaged and the way it fell.
Building 7 was one of the buildings in the World Trade center complex. It was not targeted by the terrorists, but rather when the World Trade Center Towers collapsed, this inactivated the pipes carrying water to the sprinkler system of Building 7, and burning debris from the towers ignited fires within the offices. The fires burned for several hours, and then Building 7 collapsed in a manner that reminded both laypeople and experts of a controlled demolition. Additionally, at this time the collapse of a steel frame building such as Building 7 was unheard of. This, along with a series of interpretations of actions and communications taking place that day, led a large number of people to express skepticism that Building 7 could have collapsed due to the fire.
The above state of affairs represented the initial phase of what happens when people are confronted by something that counters their sense of how things should work. Skepticism in this phase is a reasonable reaction to the information being received.
Among the several investigations conducted after 911, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST) conducted a thorough 3 year investigation that explained why building 7 collapsed in a manner reminiscent of a controlled demolition. In doing this they discovered a new type of progressive collapse which accounted for the collapse of the building which they dubbed fire-induced progressive collapse. Using simulations, they conclusively explained how a steel frame building such as Building 7 could be brought down by fires, and they ruled out other explanations. Some reasonable skeptics were still left unconvinced because, after all, no steel frame building had ever collapsed due to fire alone. However, this changed when the Plasco High-Rise building in Tehran (a steel frame building like Building 7) collapsed as a result of a fire in 2017. A very clear explanation of the above facts is presented by Edward Current in the video below.
Because of this and other investigations, the scientific community today accepts the explanation that Building 7 collapsed due to fire. This was the second phase where facts were gathered, research was carried out, and the issues were explained to the satisfaction of the majority. This is not to say that there aren’t some holdouts. For example the Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth is a group that has still refuses to accept these conclusions, and in their website they boast of having 3,141 plus architects and engineers that still espouse skepticism of the accepted explanation. However, considering there were 113,554 licensed architects in the US in 2017 and 1.6 million employed engineers in the US in 2015, you can see that these individuals represent just a minority of their professions that still cling to an irrational skepticism that is unwarranted.
Such is the resistance some human beings display to accepting counterintuitive facts, whether they are the solutions to a fun puzzle or the explanations behind world changing events.
The Monty Hall Problem image by Cepheus is in the public domain.
A long time ago, back when I was a young teenager, my mother bought the book The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty. This book is about the possession of a girl by a demon and her subsequent exorcism. My mother placed it in our book room. However, she thought that it contained things that were not appropriate for my age. So she called me over and explained that she had bought this book, but she did not want me to read it — Mom, really? Needless to say that as soon as I had a chance, I made a bee line for the book room and read the book: bad idea. The descriptions and the language in the book terrified me. I could not get the images and words out of my mind, and for about a week I did not sleep well. As soon as I turned off the light every sound and shadow in the room acquired a sinister nature, and I was be consumed by fear. At times I thought I saw things moving about my room. At times I thought I heard voices. It was really creepy, and the worst thing is that I could not tell my mother because she would figure out I had read the book! However, by the time I got to see the movie based on the book, I had gotten my act together enough to see the film without losing my composure.
Fast forward 20 years or so. I studied biology in college and later obtained a Ph.D. in Nutrition with a major in Biochemistry. I learned the ways of science and how matter and energy in this world operate based on specific physical, chemical, and biological principles. I published a weekly newspaper column entitled “The Scientific Truth” that dealt critically with pseudoscience and the paranormal. I still remembered my Exorcist-induced week of fright, but I interpreted what had happened to me under a whole new light.
What happened to me was due to the fact that human perception is not a passive event. We do not merely take input from the environment to directly construct our perception of the world around us, but rather we are constantly interpreting this input based on a set of parameters that the brain applies to make sense of reality, and these parameters can be changed by experience. That day so many years ago, I was exposed to very strong stimuli that reshaped the perception of reality by my brain. The noises and shadows in my bedroom at nighttime had not changed from the way they had always been, but my brain reinterpreted them in light of the new information obtained from reading the book and made me fear them. Fear is often a useful emotion that can keep us from harm, but when fear is too intense or not based realistic premises, it can have paralyzing and unhealthy effects.
I reasoned that my fear that night was a result of ignorance. Despite the claim that Blatty’s book was based on a real exorcism, not a single case of demonic possession has ever been conclusively demonstrated to be anything but mental illness. In the exorcisms that have taken place, objects don’t fly, lights don’t flicker, bodies don’t levitate, etc. The occurrences taking place in these events are within the realm of what’s possible when people experience mind-altering diseases. My fear that night was unwarranted. I felt a bit silly for having experienced it at all, and rolled my eyes at the gullibility of my former younger self.
So it happened that I found myself carrying out research that involved periodic trips to a faraway town by the sea, where I worked at a small research station. In one of these research trips, I was the only scientist working at the station. After I had been working for most of the day, there was a failure in the electric grid and the lights went out towards the late afternoon. Since my workroom didn’t have any windows, and I just had a rudimentary flashlight, I decided to call it a day. I had a quick dinner and headed into town right before dusk. There I came upon some of the local fishermen who had gathered around an improvised log fire. A couple of them worked with the research station, and I sat with them. The fishermen shared some of the local stories of the town’s past, and then as it got darker, they started telling ghost stories!
For the next two hours next to the flickering light of the fire and under a sky faintly lit by a crescent moon, I heard these adults talk about things they had seen or heard during their lives. The lore included screams and moans of unknown origin coming from the mountains adjacent to the town, strange vaporous figures floating around at night, things hovering over the sea waters or lurking just beneath them, open graves with missing corpses at the local cemetery, the doom that had befallen some people cursed by an alleged local witch, etc. I alternated between being amazed and amused. I didn’t know to what extent these people were exaggerating their stories, but most of them seemed very convinced that they were true. I knew that groups of skeptics had been systematically investigating one claim after another of ghosts, witches, paranormal occurrences and whatnot for decades finding nothing that could not be explained by science. However, I did not want to be disrespectful. These fishermen were bonding and apparently having a good time, so I kept my mouth shut.
After the group dissolved, I went back to the research station. It was quite dark and the silver glow of the moon gave the surrounding landscape a surreal pale phosphorescent tinge. Inside the research station it was pitch black and the faint light of my flashlight barely helped me make my way along the corridor that led to my bedroom. The shadows created by my flashlight seemed to move in strange ways, and I became aware of noises that I didn’t remember hearing before. Was there something lurking in the darkness beyond the glow of my flashlight? Was it moving towards me? The same sensations I had experienced 20 years ago came back in full force. This time, I was older. I knew better. I was not ignorant. I was not gullible, and yet, I was caught again in the grip of fear. Inside my brain an ancient program had been activated. A program derived from our animal ancestors, created by the forces of evolution, and amplified by superstition and ignorance. A program that for thousands of years made us fear what lay beyond the cave entrance or the perimeter of the campfire, even if there was nothing there. And I could not shut it down!
Thankfully an emotion stronger than fear came to my rescue: anger. I became extremely angry because, although I understood exactly what was happening to me, I was not able to control it. As I made my way along the dark corridor to my bedroom, I clenched my fist, waved it at the darkness, and screamed, “I’m a scientist”! This sounds stupid today, but that day it worked. I was able to counteract my fear with sheer outrage at how silly I felt at being manipulated by my own brain. After a couple of hours of more fist clenching, I was able to force myself to sleep. Next day the electricity returned, and that night I fell asleep uneventfully.
What I understood after this experience, is that mere knowledge and/or conviction that something does not exist and can’t harm us does not immunize us against fearing it. We have all grown up within a culture that through oral stories, movies, books, and other means has conditioned our brains to accept at a very primal level that things like demonic possession, ghosts, and other fictitious entities or occurrences exist, can harm us, and should be feared. This conditioning can at times manipulate us like puppets and make us feel things that we are not justified in feeling from a rational point of view.
But at least now I understand this: I am a scientist.
The cover of the book The Exorcist and the poster of the movie are copyrighted and used here under the legal doctrine of Fair Use. The ghost picture by Alexas_Fotos is from Pixabay and is licensed for public use.
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.