Tin Foil Hats

Hey, Travis, when everybody is out to get you, paranoid is just good thinking!

– Dr. Johnny Fever


If there is one group of people that I despise arguing with, it is conspiracy theorists.  I find it even more frustrating than debating someone with strong religious convictions.  Maybe it’s just because I can sympathize better with people with strong religious beliefs because I have been exposed to religion and have had family who have strong religious beliefs.  Now both types of people are belief driven and in many ways there is no difference at least in terms of how neural pathways are formed and how the impact of reinforcing those neural pathways impacts the brain, but there is something about conspiracy theorists that seems more concerning.  Maybe this is true only for religious fundamentalists in the west.  In other areas of the world I would fear religious fundamentalists much more, but maybe it’s because with religion the crux of the debate falls to the supernatural and with the supernatural there is no way to disprove it.  For those who have faith it’s tangible and real and this is what governs their thinking.  A lot of times if you bring into the realm of the real world you can often find common ground and agree on things, even if you disagree on the mechanism.  In fact I’m pretty sure I’d be less surprised if someone found actual evidence of the existence of God than some of the conspiracy theories that some people believe in as being real.

When it comes to conspiracy theorists, the troubling part to me is that all of what they believe is easily disprovable.  There are no supernatural forces at work; it’s a conspiracy that involves this plane of existence.  It’s physical and tangible in a very real sense.  We can actually settle the debate.  With God, you’re never going to settle it, because God cannot be disproven in a strictly logical sense (of course that’s because for something to exist the onus for proof is on those that would assert its existence).

I was talking to a colleague recently who is a geologist.  He had told me before that his father was very conservative and does not think evolution is real.  More than not accepting the scientific evidence he has invented a conspiracy theory in which all fossils are fabricated and made in a factory somewhere and then scientists plant them around the world so that they pretend they have evidence.  It just blew my mind when he told me.  The amount of fossils we have is enormous and the time and energy to make all of those, plant them all over the world, all so that we could tell a false narrative about the origins of life are astronomical for me to even wrap my head around it.  Of course I’ve heard the general theme before that evolution is just a conspiracy to try and disprove the Bible and I literally don’t understand.

As an atmospheric scientist of course the one I deal with the most is the conspiracy associated with global warming.   Thousands and thousands of scientists all banding together trying to get greedy off that alternative energy money and trying to destroy the poor fossil fuel companies who apparently are struggling to make ends meet.  Debates usually go something like this:

Me. “As somebody who studies this and understands how the atmosphere works…” I list a lot of hard evidence, and explain how the greenhouse effect works.

CT (Conspiracy Theorist)  Evidence ignored and the grand retort is “But other people are experts too and they disagree”.

Me. Thinking, ohh they want to try to take that right now  “Actually not really, few people who deny climate change are actually atmospheric scientists, and none of them have been able to publish any scientifically sound papers in peer-reviewed journals on the subject.  Such scientist’s research is always funded by oil companies.”

CT:  “That’s because the journals are controlled by the IPCC and they prevent any contrary evidence from getting published.”

Me: *bangs head*

The back and forths are usually longer, but this was just a glimpse. One thing I have noticed that is common with all these debates is that they never address any scientific evidence you present directly.  So in retrospect, debate is a bad word.  They have no defense on the workings of antigens, the physics behind the greenhouse effect, or the random mutations of genes.  There is always some larger organization involved pulling the strings, shadow networks, cover-ups, secret e-mails, vast sums of money involved.  They post links to sites that reference other articles written by someone with equally little knowledge of what they are talking about.  There are vague references to events that never happen, or if they did happen there is no way to prove that they happened.   And why do these conspiracy theories always involve the government or scientists?

Governments are for the most part, simply incompetent.  The level of organization they need to have to pull some of the shit off that people give them credit for is truly astounding.   The really corrupt ones are so obviously corrupt and drunk on power there is no need of secrecy they do it right in front of your face.  And of course I know many scientists.  They are some of the finest people I know: curious, intelligent, and for the most part noble and compassionate.   Corrupt scientists are few and far between and are easily exposed because scientists believe that what they are doing is valuable and important and have zero tolerance for those that would make a mockery of the scientific process and allow bad science to flourish.

Now certainly you might say at this point, while we have never proven the existence of a supernatural deity, there have been conspiracies.  To that, I say most definitely and in fact that’s what makes conspiracies relatively short-lived and small.  Because people are generally good and if there is some conspiracy that is causing harm to people, and lying to people it’s not long before somebody’s conscience gets the better of them and they get the message out.  In fact, this would seem to put a natural limit into how large a conspiracy can grow.  Once it gets too big or too harmful, whistleblowers will come out of the woodwork.  And there will be tangible evidence of this conspiracy and unsubstantiated hypotheses are no longer necessary.

I have decided that I need to stop engaging such people.  But it’s hard, because there some of the conspiracy theories, if allowed to spread, can cause real harm.  Like ones related to climate change or vaccinations and then I find it hard to keep quiet because lives are literally at stake.  Ultimately it feels like people who purport conspiracy theories enjoy the attention, the feeling of importance that they are part of the minority and they get it and everybody else has been duped.  Perhaps it’s just ego.  Perhaps it’s just pure and utter fear of a world they don’t understand. Perhaps it’s just people wanting to believe in something do badly that they will invent anything to rationalize that belief.  I don’t know.  I’d be curious to learn how some of my other readers deal with conspiracy theorists.


Note:  A study was conducted to determine whether Tin Foil Hats really protect your thoughts being read.  Turns out it makes it worse.  At least that’s what “physics” tells us. (That’s the punch line if you don’t want to read the article).

Respect my authoritah!

I was reading a fellow blogger’s post about the vaccination debate (a debate that should not even exist) as the author of the blog had highlighted a particular response to her blog from a physician and posed the question about why are we not willing to

From http://dublinopinion.com

listen to the physicians point of view.  She was also interested about why we would trust doctor’s in one case, but not in the case of vaccinations.  This is a very valid question.  If you are going to say doctors are out to lunch on vaccines and the very same medical science goes into everything else in the profession then you should never go see a doctor, take care of things on your own, and most importantly keep your kid at home so he or she doesn’t infect anybody else.

However it is the “Why don’t we believe the physician?” question that had me thinking as I drove to work this morning and I started thinking about how this is true for things like climate change and other scientific issues now and in the past like GMOs, evolution, the dangers of smoking, etc.  I was reminded of an excellent YouTube video that I have posted many times before called Good without Gods that talks about the basis for morality in a society.  One of the ways in which we can acquire morality is by default to authority, sometimes mistakenly so.  I believe that this is a basic cognitive bias humans have, perhaps because we all, from a very young age, default to the authority of our parents.  Part of growing up is realizing that your parents don’t have all the answers and don’t know everything, but part of our brains never really grows out of this default to authority bias.  This is in part why many people feel comfortable deriving their morality from religious authority without question.  Of course there is too much to know in the world and defaulting to authority saves time, and thus energy of which we all have only a finite amount of.  As a scientist I would say always be skeptical, but that means that we should also be equally skeptical to somebody who says vaccines cause autism.  In the face of controversy it seems the default to authority is what people rely on, so the question is, why isn’t the authority thousands of scientists who by consensus and exhaustive amounts of research say one thing as opposed to a politician who says another?  I have come up with a few possibilities but would be interested to hear what others think.  Here are the thoughts that I have come up with so far:

  1.        False authority figures. Who are the people we value in our society?
    Michele Bachmann – Not an authority figure (From http://www.warrenjasonstreet.com)

    Here in the U.S. it seems like the views of celebrities, politicians, and people with money (who are sometimes all one and the same) carry weight as being an authority on scientific issues.  This is simply not the case.

  2.        The power of money. In a highly consumer based society, money is seen as equivocal to power and thus authority.  If you have a lot of money you must have been smart to get it.  That is false of course.  Many people inherit their wealth, have connections, work very hard (but don’t necessarily have a high intellect), and some just get lucky breaks. Most of the smartest people I know don’t make money their goal.
  3.        Devaluing intellectualism.  In many countries I have visit those who are well educated, teachers, scientists are well respected in the community and in society at large.  Education itself is increasingly devalued here in the U.S. and so if educated people don’t have value in society that how can they be a worthwhile authority on anything?

The American Dream was built on valuing education, change, and progress.  We do not live in a society in which that dream is simply unobtainable for most and yet we believe in the concept like it manifested itself out of nothing.