Pseudoscience, conspiracy theory and other falsehoods increasingly overlap and feed off each other.
While patrolling the ‘skeptic’ or ‘rationalist’ side of the internet, it is incredibly easy to find both reasons to despair and to see it mirrored back. The stream of silly things said by religious preachers, quack doctors and conspiracy theorists with tens of thousands of listeners, continues unabated. Defenders of reason, real science and even the very concept of an objective truth seem continuously on the back foot.
For many in the pro-science, pro-secularism and pro-critical thinking community, it often appears to be that the world has descended all of a sudden into rampant stupidity, and that their work has been set back by 20 or 30 years. However, the approach of the work has been itself completely stuck in the past, and there are precious few who have noticed what is really going on.
What’s at stake, and what’s different now?
Take the cause of the vaccine. The BBC reports that now half a million children are not being vaccinated in the UK, citing this as a severe health risk for the population as a whole. To state that it is merely a risk is to be treating the situation with kid gloves. Measles, a disease that 10 years ago was all but wiped out from the western world, has made a big comeback, infecting young children all across the globe. The high profile Disneyland outbreak in 2015, which saw 400 children infected with the infectious disease, gave some hope that maybe the anti-vaxxer (or pro-disease, as campaigners on the internet have begun to call them) cause might be nipped in the bud now.
However, this has not happened. Big names continue to oppose the procedure. but not for the reason you might be thinking. There have been massive campaigns to get people back on board with keeping their children up to date on their health procedures. In Australia, it is illegal to bring your child to kindergarten unless they have been properly vaccinated. Expect these types of laws to only become more prevalent, but also expect them to totally miss the cause of this disease. They only treat the symptoms. Meanwhile, organisations like the British Medical Association have tried with herculean determination to educate people on the benefits of the jab, citing the reams of evidence proving that the procedure is completely safe. All of this falls on deaf ears.
They haven’t understood the problem, and if they have then they have no clear idea how to properly combat this new plague of delusion.
In the past, most delusions against new medical advances came from a place of faith. Religious leaders preached that doctors and scientists were playing God. However, that faith was easy to adjust with results. But to think that will be sufficient to work again is a mistake, yet one we consistently keep failing to understand.
Take the Flat Earth movement. Contrary to the popular legend, it was not Christopher Columbus who proved to the world that the earth was round. This had been proven comprehensively by the ancient greeks, and anybody familiar with sailing was already accounting for the curvature of the earth to assist in navigation. In fact, he believed that the world was smaller than it really was. He was warned that his planned expedition was dangerous not because he would fall off the edge, but because sailing from Europe to India going west was going to be a much longer and more gruelling journey than he was envisioning. This is why the Portuguese monarchy refused to fund his expedition- why waste money on some nutjob who thinks the earth is a quarter smaller than it was to sail off with nowhere near enough supplies?
It was only centuries later, in the Industrial Revolution, when people started to seriously believe that the Earth was flat again. Books and pamphlets were printed, and they were just as laughably uninformed to an educated reader back in 1890 as it would be to one today. In fact, the modern flat earth society was only founded in 1956.
Yet now it’s going from strength to strength, with a fresh polish. Most Flat Earthers now advocate for a model that would see the United Nations flag, with the north pole at the centre of the world, as a more or less accurate representation of the disk upon which we allegedly live. A disk apparently surrounded by huge ice walls. Which is why there are apparently no flights from Sydney to Santiago (except when there are) and why flights from Europe to America fly over Greenland (except that those flight paths make much more logical sense on a spherical planet than a flat one).
Once again, an education campaign has been underway to counter this obvious nonsense. NASA devotes a lot of time and attention towards explaining the wonders of the universe, including the properties of our humble planet. Once again, it only seems to serve to inspire and fascinate- those of us who are not convinced that NASA is an evil government conspiracy to hide the true shape of the planet in a bid to sell maps.
Misinformation isn’t isolated.
I could and would love to go on. Homeopathy continues to be a popular medical treatment, despite the fact that if it were true, then water would be a deadly bomb. Climate change deniers insist that carbon emissions are having no impact in the hottest year in recorded history, including the records found in the distressingly rapidly melting ice caps. Belief that the moon landings were faked is rising.
A lot of ink has been spilled in recent years to discuss skepticism. To the importance of checking the sources of your information, to the role you as a citizen play in spreading or combating misinformation online, but in truth the refrain will be the same. Those who read and implement that advice are going to be the people already convinced that misinformation is a problem.
The heart of the matter is that it is not an accident these beliefs have sprung up in just this decade. Fundamentally, they are about doubting the authority of traditional powers. When an anti-vaxxer spreads their insanity, they contradict “big pharma” and organisations like the World Health Organisation. When Alex Jones raves about the Sandy Hook massacre being a false flag operation, the end goal isn’t to deny that a large number of children actually died. The end goal was to protect the possession of firearms, and to doubt the ability of the federal government under Barack Obama to tell the truth. There is an intoxicating quality to the high associated with this. Do not underestimate it, and future efforts to combat these falsehoods must take this into account.
Opinion- It’s Time For Action
Perhaps it is time to channel the spirit of Anakin Skywalker. If you are not with me, then you are my enemy. After all, they all have similar origins and similar motivations. There is significant overlap between the people who believe that NASA staged the moonlandings with people who believe that the Earth is flat. Hostility to Genetically Modified Foods correlates with hostility to vaccines. To start off with, they ought to have a unifying name, to help identify the concern.
Let’s try the term: Radical Delusionalist.
This term works as it both describes the fact that these are in many ways new innovations of thought, even if entirely wrong to the point of being laughable, as well as adding a descriptor for rejecting the overwhelming scientific evidence against their position.
There are of course many edge cases on what may or may not count. People arguing that more attended the inauguration of Donald Trump as president over the inauguration of Barack Obama despite the clear evidence may be counted as such, but then again it could also just as easily be argued that this was only a test of loyalty, that in truth, the actual numbers matter far less than the fact that they like Trump more than Obama.
However, it should be clear that there are some situations where this definitely does not apply, as a good starting off point:
Political positions and partisan affiliation.
Politics is a game of allocation, of personality and circumstances. The concerns, merits and disadvantages of the Iran nuclear deal will seem very different to an Iranian than it might to an American, who in turn will have a slew of divergent questions to a Micronesian. To call someone a radical delusionalist for supporting a social policy that might seem insane to you will probably backfire, especially because their opinions will be informed by a series of values that desire different outcomes.
While religion is often at the core of many radical delusionalist standpoints, it is also worth pointing out that many of faith acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence in a great many areas. Indeed, many early advances were made by the religious. It would be tactically unsound and unfair to apply this label to them.
Lack of consensus engagements
The truth is that there is still a lot that is unknown about science, life, society and much more, with many fierce debates in many expert fields regarding what is going on. Long may that continue, and through experiments, feuds and debate our understanding of the world around us may become more complete. It would be heartbreaking if this new term was to be misused in such a context.
Now with that in mind, let us know what you think? Should we be adopting this idea as a more mainstream approach to combating the dangerous insanities of the anti-vaxxer or homeopathy? Or are psychics and young earth creationists really 2 groups so separate that it would be better to not attempt a more united approach in trying to reaffirm rational education among the population? Or is objective reality a fad that we shouldn’t be holding to so dearly?