But how do you know…?

I love conspiracy theories and alternative science.

I mean I really love conspiracy theories and alternative science. Whether it is the faked Moon landings, flat Earth, climate change denial, creationism or 9/11 truthers, I am infinitely fascinated by all things outside of the mainstream.

I should probably be clear, I do not believe any of these conspiracies or what I would more accurately call pseudoscience. What I love about both conspiracy theories and pseudoscience is the outlandish and out there ideas people can come up with and believe, how they can warp or misunderstand sometimes basic facts to fit their narrative, and how essentially all conspiracies have similar foundations which you can see time and again across a range of (sometimes) bizarre ideas.

I should also probably say early on here that while I am fascinated by conspiracies and the people who believe them, I do not think ill of those people. I do not think they are stupid or mentally ill. I do not think I am superior to them or wish to denigrate people because of their beliefs. Part of my fascination with conspiracies is I can appreciate the attraction of these belief systems, even if I don’t believe them myself, and more often than I might care to admit I have been intrigued by their arguments, even if the ideas have not formed into a belief system for me.

What I do think people who buy into conspiracies are, is misguided. More often than not this is unintentional, and can even be considered noble. It stems from people’s desires to understand the world and explain it, but if provided with inaccurate information or poor analysis, this can lead to people drawing incorrect conclusions. I am sure some of the people producing misinformation are doing so maliciously, to manipulate others usually for financial or similar gains, but for the most part I suspect the people spreading conspiracy theories and those believing them are sincere in their beliefs.

I would actually go further here. I think I, and anyone like me with even a passing interest in science, have a lot in common with conspiracy theorists and believers in pseudoscience. We are all in the search for truth and understanding. We all see a complex world before us, and want to break it down and provide explanations. We would all like the simple answer to the mysteries of our universe. Where we differ, I am content with not having a neat, simple answer to complex questions, and I am happy with not knowing the answers to everything (for now), whereas I tend to find conspiracy theorists need answers and they need them to be final.

In this post, I wanted to take a very brief tour of some of the conspiracies and pseudoscience which fascinate me. Along the way, I hope we can explore some of the problems with the reasoning behind conspiracies, problems which are often common to more than one belief system. While I hope this post will be interesting and entertaining, I will end on the darker side of conspiracies just to make sure I keep things balanced. And if you are a believer in any of these ideas, or equally out there concepts like astrology, UFOs or BigFoot, make sure to share this post with your like minded friends and tell me why I am wrong in the comments below. I doubt I will be convinced, but like all good scientists, if sufficient evidence is presented I will be open to changing my mind.

A quick note about terms before I dive into the meat of the post. I have used conspiracy theory and pseudoscience already in this post, and there are other related terms I could have used as well (alternative medicine for example). Clearly, each of these topics has a different focus and set of beliefs, though they may and often do overlap, particularly when it comes to evidence, or lack thereof. For ease during this post, I’m going to use the phrase conspiracy theory to refer to these beliefs generally, unless there is a reason I need to discuss a particular type of belief system, in which case I will use the specific term. Hopefully you will see the points I am making apply just as easily to pseudoscience or parapsychology or alternative medicine as they do to conspiracies.

Houston, we have a problem…

My first encounter with conspiracy theories, at least as far as I can remember, related to the Moon landings. I had always been fascinated by space, both real (NASA) and imagined (Star Wars, sorry Trekkies) and would search out new information about space travel wherever I could find it.

Somehow (inevitably?!) this led me to a book of conspiracy theories, with the Moon landings appearing prominently on the front cover and throughout the early pages of the book. For those not aware, the evidence supporting the moon landings being a hoax include apparent problems with the photographic evidence, problems with the physics of spaceflight, and ultimately problems with people being in space full stop.

I cannot deny for a time I was taken in by the presentation. The apparent photographic evidence is fairly easy to understand. In some of the photos, shadows appear to be going in two different directions, or registration marks on the images (small crosshairs which are etched on the glass of the camera) appearing to go behind the objects they are photographing. 

Understanding the physics of spaceflight takes a little bit more thinking. The concept of the Van Allen belt was a new one to me at the time, and I suspect I would still be unaware of the concept if it was not for Moon landing conspiracies. I’m sure I am not the only person who learned some actual science on the back of a conspiracy, but I fear I may be in the minority.

What finally convinced me the Moon landing hoax conspiracy was itself a hoax relates to the issues around humans in space (and the Van Allen belt once again). Essentially the idea goes like this; astronauts travelling outside Earth’s magnetic field, such as to the Moon, are exposed to such high levels of radiation they would all become sick and die, if not immediately then in time with the likes of cancer.

This struck me as a testable hypothesis (a fundamental part of science) and in my rather naïve way picked up one of my books on the space programme. My thinking went something like this;

  1. Approximately 1 in 4 people get cancer in their lifetime when living on Earth
  2. 27 astronauts travelled to the Moon on 9 missions (including the 6 landings)
  3. So if more than a quarter of those 27 (i.e. more than ~7 astronauts) had suffered/died from cancer, then it would support the idea space is an environment hostile to human life.

I don’t remember how many astronauts I determined had had cancer or died after returning from space. I do remember the number came out less than seven, and for me that was enough. Space did not appear to be as dangerous as the conspiracy theorists suggested. From there I read more about the space programme and the more I learned the less convinced I became of the hoax theory. My brief dalliance believing in conspiracy theories had come and gone, though clearly not my fascination.

As I sit here writing this, I am painfully aware of the flaws in my reasoning. Cancers are a much more complex set of conditions than a simple exposure leads to disease relationship. Simply counting up the numbers of deaths and comparing it to the prevalence of a disease proves nothing.

What it does demonstrate is my attempt at science. I had a hypothesis (space flight leads to cancer), I developed an experiment (or in this case an observation) to test the hypothesis, I gathered the data and then analysed the results. From this, I then drew a conclusion, by chance the correct one. This process is the basics of the scientific method, by far the most powerful tool we have today to understand the Universe we live in.

The scientific method is not exclusive to scientists. In their way, many conspiracy theorists are applying a version of the scientific method to understand the world. Like my attempt above, the difficulty often lies in the conspiracist either designing a flawed experiment, collecting the wrong data or drawing inappropriate conclusions. When I attempted science above I was lucky in reaching the right answer with a flawed method, those who continue to support conspiracist positions cannot say the same.

…members all around the globe

For some, it is not a big leap from believing the Moon landings were fake to believing NASA is lying to us in other ways as well. Over the last couple of years, ideas that the world is flat have become a more prominent belief system.

For some proponents of this belief, I am sure it is a joke which has got a little out of hand. The Flat Earth Society for a time had the tagline ‘members all around the globe.’ You will never convince me this is not a wind up. But for some proponents, perhaps the majority, they truly believe the Earth is flat.

If all you have to go on to determine the shape of the Earth is what you can see around you, then drawing the conclusion the Earth is flat is not a ludicrous idea. From our vantage point as tiny people compared to the ginormous Earth, it can indeed appear to be flat, in the same way if you zoom in on any circle or ball there will come a point the small piece you are looking at will appear flat, or near to it.

Fortunately we do not need to rely just on what we can see around us to reach conclusions about the shape of the earth, or anything else in science for that matter. Using the angle of shadows at different points on Earth, Ancient Greek philosophers were able to not only show the shape of the Earth but calculate the circumference with reasonable precision. With modern telescopes for astronomical mapping and observations, and of course satellites in space looking back at the planet, we can confirm findings which have been known for thousands of years.

One of the biggest issues supporters of the flat Earth have with the paragraph above, they distrust scientific experiments which they cannot do with their own hands and see with their own eyes (of course they could do the shadows experiment themselves, but I’m not trying to argue they are consistent). A believer in the flat Earth most likely cannot build a rocket capable of reaching low Earth orbit to determine what the shape of the Earth is. What they can do is go to the beach and see what appears to be a flat horizon before them.

Being able to see and do scientific experiments is a really important part of learning about science. I would encourage everyone and anyone (especially those with inquisitive children) to get involved in experimenting and learning about the world. Science should not simply be a case of learning facts from a book.

Unfortunately, as science advances and the experiments become more complex, there comes a point when it is beyond the means of the average person. Setting up a pendulum in your kitchen and running experiments to calculate the frequency for different lengths of string is something anyone can do, building the Large Hadron Collider to discover new subatomic particles is a multi-country endeavour. When science becomes more expensive and complex, and given the vast breadth of science, there comes a point we have to trust those doing the research are being honest. For most conspiracy theorists, this is a nearly impossible thing to do.

Putting trust in scientists is not done blind. Scientists must present their data and open it up for scrutiny by peers. Other scientists may try to replicate their results to check if they are accurate. Fraudulent scientists are and should be caught out and their findings withdrawn. As with all areas of life, we must put a qualified amount of trust in the work done by others which we cannot do ourselves. For someone who is distrustful by their very nature, this can be a tricky thing to do.

In the beginning…

Before we even set up an experiment to test a hypothesis, we come with a series of assumptions about the world and how it works. Ideally, we should try and include the fewest assumptions in the experiments we carry out, and if the data we collect suggests an initial assumption was wrong, we need to be prepared to correct it.

Like everyone else, conspiracists come with a set of assumptions which may be challenged by the collection of evidence. Whether this evidence can then change their mind on an issue is less certain. Proponents of creationism, the idea the Earth was created (usually 6000 years ago) by a god, would be typically of this mindset. It is not uncommon to hear from a creation believer that they come to their exploration of the Universe believing it was created, that nothing will sway them from this view, and that any attempt to gather data is in an attempt to support creation rather than to see where the evidence takes them.

Making the data fit your assumptions can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Cherry picking is probably the most obvious. Say for example a geologist tests the age of a rock formation, repeating the test a few times to reduce the chances of error. The dates may come back as 1 million years, 1.1million years, 800,000 years and 4000 years. Clearly one of these results is anomalous. Perhaps the test was done incorrectly, or the sample was contaminated. A good scientist would report all the results (and maybe repeat the test a few more times just to be sure) but when it comes to calculating an average age for the rocks, most likely leave out the anomaly. Give the same data to a creation believer, and the only finding reported is the anomaly as it fits nicely in their assumptions. This example is a bit of an exaggeration, but unfortunately not too far of what creation believers will do to advance their cause.

If cherry picking is not good enough, you can also look to discredit science which does not fit within the young Earth worldview. At the risk of this post becoming a list of geology examples, a common choice is to claim isotope testing, a method used to date rocks, is simply wrong. A creation believer might also claim rocks are dated by the age of fossils found within them, and fossils dated by the age of the rocks they reside in (for anyone missing this point here, this is a bit of a circle…), failing to take account of independent methods of dating the rocks and the fossils within them.

Now don’t get me wrong here, no one is immune from the potential to cherry pick or distort the truth. Even the most mainstream of scientists could fudge the data to fit their favoured hypothesis, or ignore information which does not help their cause (and ideally should be called out by the scientific community for doing so). When it comes to creation believers, and other conspiracists, the chances data is being misrepresented seems to be much higher.

Ice with your burning world?

No matter how much we try in science, there will always be some degree of error involved in any measurement or data collection. As a simple example, take a ruler or tape measure and measure the length of the nearest object you have to hand. Chances are your ruler allows you to measure to the precision of a millimetre, and for measuring your object this will probably be sufficient. But I suspect none of your measurements lined up exactly with one mark on the ruler. Is the length of the object closer to the 5 or the 6 mm mark? Is it even possible to be so precise, especially if the object is irregular?

As scientific measurements become more and more complex, the risk of errors increase, and a good scientist will look to design their experiment as far as possible to remove those errors. What error is left will usually result in slightly different results each time an experiment is run, and it is up to the statisticians to then analyse the evidence and provide a coherent result which best fits the data.

In fields such as physics, measurements can be completed with a very high degree of precision (in fact cutting edge physics can be so precise it can actually come up against the fundamental uncertainty in the Universe itself, making more precise measurements not possible. If your head is hurting at this point, sorry…).

In scientific disciplines such as biology or applied sciences like medicine, such levels of precision can only be dreamed about. Run an experiment twice with living animals or humans, and you can often get wildly different results, giving the statistician more than a bit of work to do to create order from chaos. When, for example, we are giving a drug to someone to try and cure an illness, having such levels of uncertainty in the research base can make it a more challenging sell to the patient.

For those who deny man made climate change, this acceptance by scientists of the imperfections in measurement is one more flaw in climate science itself. Whether it be inaccurate models, flawed data or some global conspiracy to make the world better with clean energy, the likes of climate change deniers will twist scientific understanding to fit a worldview, or more nefariously, an agenda.

Conspiracies, everywhere?

It is in areas like climate change, or vaccine safety or more recently even just wearing a mask, where conspiracy theories and pseudoscience morph from the vaguely entertaining to the dangerous and scary. My family and friends occasionally ask me how I can be so fascinated by ideas I do not ascribe to. And it is a fascination.

Partly it is the entertainment value. I admit to finding the claims made as part of some conspiracies funny (though I am careful not to laugh at the individuals holding the beliefs. I don’t want to be mean or belittle anyone, and for the most part I believe them to be truly curious, if a little misguided). Partly, I am so interested because of the dangerous messages and potential consequences which come with it. Believing the Earth is flat only really hurts the people who hold to those beliefs (and maybe their family and friends if relationships begin to strain). Doubting the effectiveness of vaccines or masks risks hurting everyone. As was seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, the consequences for even seemingly inconsequential beliefs can be dire. This is all without touching on the darker belief systems out there (which usually have the Jews as the villains) which can lead to some of the worst atrocities imaginable.

Conspiracy theories and pseudoscience can seem like a joke to those not inside the belief system. Sometimes, they can be deadly. Even the most harmless belief can lead to the latter option easier than you might expect. If, like me, you are fascinated by the strange world of conspiracies, make sure to remember how behind every laugh there can be a darker outcome.

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