By Tom Ireland, managing editor at the Society of Biology and freelance journalist
When I was a teenager I loved a good conspiracy theory. I was obsessed with the X-Files and watched dodgy American documentaries about Roswell and Watergate and Kennedy’s assassination. I even had the famous ‘I want to believe’ poster on my wall.
Fast forward to 2014 and conspiracies theories are not quite as cool. They’ve become inflated and angry, and many are focused on discrediting people working on pressing global issues like climate change, vaccination, or feeding the world’s population.
All sorts of people are now implicated in these theories: researchers, journalists, feminists, drug developers… This year even video games critics and Ebola aid workers were inexplicably drawn into absurd-sounding global conspiracies. Thanks to modern communications, people in these industries can be discredited, harassed and even driven out of their jobs and homes by organised units of web-users in tinfoil hats.
The hallmarks of a good conspiracy theory now are also the hallmarks of terrible science. They connect random events into meaningful patterns and, alongside shameless confirmation bias (the tendency to look for evidence that supports your theory), create convincing narratives to the untrained eye.
Such theories can become big, hateful, vortexes where anyone who provides evidence to the contrary is sucked into the theory and said to be ‘corrupt’. This traditionally led to politicians, the media, and the security services being accused of colluding with the conspiracy, but increasingly seems to suck scientists in, too.
The resulting anti-science hurricane leads to a destructive blast of cherry-picked evidence, personal slurs and misleading rhetoric which causes havoc across the scientific and political landscape.
(Eventually conspiracy theories become so big and all-consuming they actually start to get pretty fun again. The people who believe the world is run by shape shifting reptilians have got the right idea).
Worryingly, conspiracy theorists are often way off track when it comes to sniffing out genuine corruption, or exposing nefarious organisations with vested interests in influencing global events. The most ‘popular’ conspiracy theories of the time seem to follow a depressingly regular pattern where powerful corporations and lobbyists hide in plain sight, while improbable suspicions and bizarre beliefs about other groups persist. (This graphic neatly illustrates that if there is global collusion on environment policy, it’s plainly obvious who the prime suspects are.) There’s also something troubling in the idea that people are more likely to be taken in by conspiracies if they are anxious and feel like they have no control over their lives.
This amusing little saying neatly illustrates why scientists have such a hard time responding to such wild and disparate allegations about their work. Scientists are used to looking at evidence objectively, not untangling themselves from a global conspiracy. Some scientists do spend time engaging with and debunking conspiracies (this site on ‘chemtrails’ is very comprehensive) but it must be hugely time-consuming and, for the reasons I listed earlier, must feel like arguing with a blancmange.
I’m not against fringe opinions, thinking outside the box and people believing that the Truth is Out There – it’s crucial for society to have researchers, innovators and investigators who do this in order for us to progress, and some of the greatest inventions and discoveries in history came from the minds of people initially thought to be loons. But if you have a theory, scientists are not a corrupt enemy you need to silence; they are the ones who can help prove it.
Earlier this year I interviewed Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel prize-winner and president of the Royal Society, and we talked about how scientists can counter misinformation through better public engagement. He strongly believes people should be allowed to believe whatever they want but should judge science separately.
“In something like climate change… you have vocal and often rather aggressive individuals who mix up the science and the politics. They are so worried about us all having to make global decisions on the economy that they try to undermine the science…and I’m pretty intolerant of that. You get the science right, then you can have a political discussion – do we care or not? People could discuss it like that rather than undermining the science.”
Wise words, I think. Or maybe he’s a shape-shifting lizard too.