The Reverse Scientific Method: Why Conspiracy Theories Are So Convincing
How To Recognize The Difference Between Pseudoscience and Science
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“… if you assume a big enough conspiracy, you can explain anything, including the cosmos itself.”
― Fritz Leiber, The Big Time
If you haven’t seen it, there’s an excellent documentary on Netflix about Flat Earthers called Behind the Curve. It may not sound like a great way to spend an hour and a half, but I promise it is super entertaining. It’s not only entertaining though; the documentary reveals several reasons that conspiracy theories can begin, spread, and prosper, and surprisingly it is not just due to a bunch of crazy people. Honestly, nothing is just due to “crazy people;” that is always too simplistic, so let’s look into why intelligent people can be duped by lies, misinformation, and a distrust of authority.
1. It’s A Community
Conspiracy nerds are kind of weird. I mean everyone worth knowing is kind of weird, but a lot of people who spend a lot of time researching conspiracies, buying conspiracy books, making conspiracy YouTube channels, and posting on conspiracy forums, march to the beat of their own drum. The documentary, Behind The Curve shows several of these interesting characters, like Mark Sargent, who has 84k subscribers on YouTube. He’s written a flat earth book, spoken at flat earth conferences, and even runs a flat earth forum called “enclosed world.”
There’s a whole rabbit hole of flat earth content creators, and many of them, while seeming quite nice, are also a little strange. And yet, thanks to the internet, they can all talk to each other, go on each other’s podcast, buy each other’s merch, and have real world meetups. That’s awesome and cute, especially when it comes to something relatively harmless like believing the earth is flat. It is not so awesome when it comes to alt. right terrorist groups posting manifesto’s on 8chan before they commit domestic terrorism, like we saw in El Paso in 2019.
The internet is a beautiful and scary place. But the simple fact is, people who may have not always had someone to talk to about their weird thoughts, now can find many like-minded individuals online. That is great most of the time, but you can also find yourself in echo chambers, where you, and a group of people who think like you, continually reinforce each other’s fantasies until they look an awful lot like reality. A lot of the dogmatic stubborness of some conspiracies stem from the sense of community built around them. Of course you might say the same about CNN comment sections, or r/politics on Reddit. It is difficult to be objective and find objective truths.
“Feedback loops, echo chambers, circular reinforcement. All could play a part in escalating the utterly imaginary to the level of reality, sometimes with fatal consequences.”
― Jasper Fforde, Early Riser
2. Their Science and Facts Back Them Up
Okay, okay, how am I going to show you that science backs up some outlandish theories such as flat earth or Trump being a time traveling soldier from 2036? Well, sometimes conspiracy books, videos, and websites, look like they are using science, at least to someone who knows (only) a little bit about science. Let me show you what I mean with two strange examples and why it is so easy to confuse science and pseudoscience.
This image is from the Flat Earth Society wiki:
Now, of course the seasons could also be caused because the earth is tilted at an angle of 23.5 degrees, and as it travels around the sun, some parts of the year, the sunis pointing more directly at certain places than others. At least that’s what this homework help site for primary students in the U.K. tells me.
If you do not have a good understanding of the underlying functions of the earth, our galaxy, and physics at large, the graph above, and the “perspective effect” could very well look scientific.
This also is a perfect example of the Dunning Kruger effect which says that when people have insufficient knowledge about a subject they ALSO have insufficient ability to know they don’t have sufficient knowledge. If I am looking for a scientific justification for my beliefs, and I trust any scientist that justifies my belief, regardless of what “most” scientists say, I can easily feel informed and confident in an incorrect belief. Of course, I am also not a physicist and I’ve never been in space, so I could be getting duped by believing the status quo too I guess, except…
2. Science follows the scientific method, pseudoscience goes backwards
If it has been a while since high school science class, the scientific method looks like this:
1. Ask a question
2. Do background research
3. Construct a hypothesis
4. Test your hypothesis with an experiment
5. Analyze the data
6. Draw a conclusion (and I’ll add, EVEN IF the conclusion is different than your hypothesis).
In Behind the Curve we see several Flat Earth “scientists” buy a laser controlled gyroscope to prove that the earth is not rotating. The earth makes a full 360 degree rotation approximately every 24 hours, which is why we measure a “day” every 24 hours. If you divide 360 by 24, the earth should rotate about 15 degrees every hour. In the documentary, they set up their gyroscope and wait an hour, and what do you know, it registers a 15 degree rotation. This is a great example of the scientific method.
Ask a question: Does the earth rotate 360 degrees in 24 hours?
Do background research: If the earth rotates 360 degrees in 24 hours, it should rotate 15 degrees in one hour. A gyroscope, if place unmoved on the earth, should register this rotation if the earth is in fact rotating.
Construct a hypothesis: The earth does not rotate because it is a flat plane and the celestial bodies are a projection that move across it.
Test your hypothesis: Leave gyroscope in one place for an hour.
Analyze the data: The gyroscope registered a 15 degree rotation in one hour.
Draw a conclusion: The earth does in fact rotate 360 degrees in 24 hours.
What happens in the documentary though, is they decide they do not like the conclusion because it does not match their hypothesis. So they go back to the drawing board to find an experiment that will make their conclusion match their hypothesis. This is the scientific method backwards. It is not meant to work backwards from a conclusion to find evidence. It is okay to be wrong about your hypothesis in science. It is not okay to be wrong about your hypothesis in conspiracy dogma.
3. There Is Comfort In The Conspiracy
“Conspiracy theories are really attractive. Figuring out patterns is one of the things that gets your brain to give you a nice dose of chemical reward, the little ping of dopamine and whatever else that keeps you smiling. As a result, your brain is pretty good at finding patterns, and at disregarding information that doesn’t fit. Which means it’s also pretty good at finding false patterns, and at confirmation bias, and a bunch of other things that can be fatal. Our brains are also really good at making us the center of a narrative, because it’s what we evolved for.”
― Elizabeth Bear, Ancestral Night
What is scarier? If an elite group is in complete control of everything and is trying to brainwash the public about round earth, Bush “doing 9/11”, lizard-aliens, time-traveling Trumps, and poisonous vaccines, OR if the world is messed up and tragic, and no one is pulling the strings? What if terrorists groups just get past security and kill thousands of people sometimes? What if we elect a bankrupt celebrity as President? What if pharmaceutical companies are greedy, maybe even sometimes “evil”, without them intentionally causing a rise in autism?
Chaos is scary. We grow up hearing stories with villains and heroes and endings tied with a bow. I think most of us see ourselves as heroes, and when villians threaten our families, our communities, our religious beliefs, our country, or our other ideals, we want to point it out, find out the cause, and try to overcome the evil. It can be comforting to find a group of people, a book, a YouTube channel, which seem to have answers, connecting seemingly disparate dots. It gives you hope that maybe you, and others like you, can overcome the bad in the world.
I’m afraid the truth is, there is plenty of bad in the world, but I don’t think it has an identifiable face. I don’t think we are being lied to about every single thing in order to get away with unimaginable evil. I think the evil we are facing is pretty clear, and at times, it feels hopeless. Corporate greed, genocide, racism, misuse of power, and many more terrible realities do rain down on people every day, and I wish there was an easy answer to the most important question:
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