Back in the day, pioneers like Copernicus and Galileo faced opposition for their stand on science from both men of religion, who were worried it was disagreeing with their God and men of science, who were more loyal to their predecessors and had a difficult time adjusting to their worldview being toppled over. These people denied science because their trust was placed elsewhere. Today’s scientists face a different kind of deniers, those whose trust lies only in distrusting science itself.
Not too long ago, we just had few obscure conspiracy theorists with their message boards and YouTube channels with shaky ‘UFO/Bigfoot/Alien caught on tape’ videos. People who looked at something and saw something else, something they chose to. The advent of cheap smartphones with cheaper internet has put more data in the hands of the common man than he knows what to do with. However, what he does quite well is handpicking segments of this data that appeals to him and turning a blind eye to literally everything else. Half knowledge is dangerous.
Stating in chronological order of me finding them, rather than the historical timeline, the first major ‘denial’ was of the Apollo 11 moon landing. This was something more than people claiming that the government is hiding aliens or holding invisible submarines, this was nearly 6% of Americans (and that is the lower end of the margin) denying that no human has ever been to the moon. That’s nearly 22 million Americans rejecting one of the most prestigious accomplishments of their country. It essentially won the US their space race against Russia in spite of Russia having a huge lead having launched the first satellite and put the first man in outer space. However, it is for this very reason that people believe that the moon landing was faked, to portray to the world that the USA did it first and boost morale. Just for the sake of propaganda. To support these claims they have a long list of ‘proofs‘ which have been time and again debunked by fellow scientists and NASA themselves. Yet even today, you can find elaborate discussions on the most random videos on YouTube and Facebook of people quite bluntly denying the possibility of man on the moon. The most fun discussion happened offline though, in the real world where a man tried to get Edwin Aldrin to swear on a Bible that he did go to the moon and ended up getting sucker punched to the face.
While moon-landing deniers are comprised more of ‘weird uncle’ generation, The Flat Earth fad could’ve affected even your brother’s goofy friend Bobby. I genuinely thought that it was a joke when I saw a video that attempted to prove that the Earth was flat for the first time. The Flat-Earthers are way more organised than any previously known group of conspiracy theorists. They have their own website, they hold large annual conferences, they are extremely active on Twitter and are comprised of many young, popular personalities and they do not shy away from putting their views forward, no matter who’s asking the question. They are international with societies in the USA, Canada, UK and even have their own merch. Their website even has an official ‘library’ section where they explain how existing theories of Einstein and Newton work only with a flat earth model. They often seem very calm while responding to sceptics, their website is not even a little ‘cult-y’ and doesn’t have flashy banners that proclaim that ‘the truth is out there’, their words almost seem like science and they contain quite a repository of ‘literature’.Flat-Earthers have single-handedly contributed to the degradation of the word ‘research’ in modern times. As soon as a discussion begins and someone comes up with a scientific explanation for the phenomenon in question, they pull out the word ‘research’. They often claim to have conducted hours of research (as opposed to the years and sometimes lifetimes that men of actual science spend) on the internet (half my final year of college spent on literature survey combing through research papers laughs at me from the background) and they insinuate that these people are blindly following what the textbooks are telling them. Yeah, it’s called learning. These people have already spent their lives discovering and proving their findings. It is extremely difficult to get a new idea universally accepted in the scientific world. We learn from those who came before so that we can spend our lives adding to it. If everyone who wants to talk should have to come up with the alphabet on their own, there’d only be chaos. This chaos can be clearly seen everytime the flat earth society meets for a ‘conference’. Since all the, sigh, ‘research’ is independent (and absurd) their ideas are extremely incongruent beyond the notion that the Earth is flat. While the common idea is that the Earth is a disc with the north pole at the centre and Antarctica being a wall of ice along the outer rim (which is monitored by none other than NASA), there are those who believe that it is diamond shaped or a square enclosed within a biosphere. They claim all the photographs of Earth from outer space are doctored and fake, that man has never been to outer space, that the sun and moon are actually just a few thousand kilometres from the surface and that any photo taken from tall structures that show the curvature of the horizon must have used a distorting lens. From the mere act of day turning to night and more complex phenomenon like eclipses and the passing of the seasons, they got it all covered in their own theories. One of the more interesting cases I saw was from a Facebook post that I’m unable to track down now where-in a man had posted nearly a hundred links to research papers from the early days of NASA and certain highly reputed journals and highlighted the word ‘flat-earth’ in every one of them. He stated that it took him over a year to collect all this and he’s sure there’s more such ‘hidden’ knowledge out there that the government is hiding. Well, if the government wanted something hidden I don’t think they’ll let google docs publish it. While he may be right about spending more time on research, in this case, than those who were replying to him, you know, normal people with productive lives and day jobs?, all the instances of the words ‘flat earth’ that he had highlighted were from formulations of flight equations and orbital mechanics where you assume a flat-earth with respect to the point of launch so that the equations come out non-hellish. I never reply to any of these because usually more experienced people would’ve already debunked it way more elegantly than I could, but in this case, I hold a degree in aerospace engineering. Those journals were cited in my textbooks, I had read those very lines and have derived those equations in class assuming a flat earth. I felt I had a lot to contribute to this thread. But then I kept reading and an employee from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratories had already done it for me. Yeah, he didn’t succeed, just got labelled ‘too blind to see the truth’. For once their ‘research’ had some credible sources and yet he chose to see what he wanted to see only. You could out every single flat-earther in a rocket and send them to space and show them that the Earth is indeed spherical and they would politely shake their heads and tell you that you’ve drugged them and put them in a simulator. There’s no winning this war. No complaints though. I just love reading these discussions because Indians are usually mocked for behaving super-weirdly on the Internet, for being creepy or just generally being ‘extra’ and I often get heavy moments of second-hand embarrassment going through them, so it’s fun for me to know that the first-world elite has enormous dumbassery within its crew as well.
Then there are those who deny climate change, those who say the government controls and manipulates the weather, Chem-trailers who believe they are doused with psychology-altering aerosols to keep the public under control and Anti-Vaxxers who believe ‘big-pharma’ is using vaccines as a hoax to make money. Perhaps except climate change deniers, which comprises of many within the government including the current president of America, all other conspiracies stem from an innate lack of faith in the government. This isn’t the church throwing Galileo under house arrest, flat-earthers, at least most of them, believe the earth is flat not because the Bible said so but because they feel all of established science is lying to them for the government. So they take up their own ‘research’ to the best of their abilities and draw their own conclusions. They take pride in ‘knowing better’ than the scientists that the world honours. That is why they are very calm when explaining themselves – they believe they are superior and you need to be taught right, you are to be felt sorry for. You are the naive one according to them and your insults don’t affect their ego the same way a kid’s punches don’t hurt you. They cite so many articles and journals to prove their point, it shows that they believe that they are the ones pursuing actual science, following legit evidence while you are blindly following the authorities. The chemtrail theorists claim the government is adding aerosols in the air using aircraft effluents to manipulate weather and keep the public compliant because they spray room-freshener and see the drops dissolve immediately while the white trails left behind by aeroplanes hang in the air longer. Anti-vaxxers, often called mommy-bloggers, believe they are being exploited by pharmaceutical companies into vaccinating their kids which leads to more serious illnesses like autism and cancers that these companies can profit off of. It is very easy to scare a new mom if you tell them something could affect their child and when you mobilise a large enough group who equally feed each other’s fears constantly, you bring back measles to America after 18 years.
What is sad is that these people are often young and are capable of much more influence than the tinfoil conspirators of yesteryears. There have been petitions by flat-earthers to teach the flat-earth theory in school to children before they are ‘influenced by the globe’ same way that creationists used to want evolution removed from the syllabus. Anti-vaxxers are literally putting the future of the world in question. Even being a minority they’ve affected herd-immunity enough to bring back long eradicated diseases and one can only imagine the horrors to come. This wasn’t the case before. Conspiracy theorists were subjects of ridicule. However, the collective disruption brought up by dark conspiracies like CIA’s illegal MKUltra turning out to be true, Wikileaks showing the full extent of NSA’s surveillance capabilities and powerful positions ending up in the hands of unqualified people who cater specifically to these audiences has caused a huge resurgence in their numbers and granted them a sense of legitimacy that wasn’t always there before.
Closer home, in India, trust in the government is never an issue because it never was there in the first place. We don’t see the government as a whole, like the Americans may associate the white house, Pentagon and NASA interchangeably. We’ve always seen them as autonomous, no matter what the case is for real. An Indian today can have absolutely no faith in Narendra Modi, he still isn’t going to have any doubts if ISRO claim to have discovered aliens on the moon. He’s going to be proud. However, this doesn’t mean that India has no fake news or conspiracies doing the rounds at all. They are there, on countless Facebook pages, email chains and elderly WhatsApp groups, they just travel on different mediums. One of the grandest successes of the British colonisers is often touted to be the fact that they broke the heritage of the country. They uprooted the classic systems in place and replaced it with their own that largely portrayed the white men as being superior. That feeling stuck around even after they left. The more patriotic Indians can often be seen deriding the rest on blindly being seduced by the West and of having forgotten our own rich past. Since the human brain is stupidly designed, we only jump from one extreme to another. Today’s Indian is so proud of his history and heritage that it blinds him from seeing much else. So today, if you want to propagate a wildly fake news in India as the truth, you find one ‘woke’ Indian and tell him it is how people used to do it in ancient times or that it is said so in the scriptures. Do not mistake me, this isn’t about religion, rather a misplaced sense of patriotism and cultural pride. Every single day there is a new WhatsApp chain that states that cancer can be cured easily if you drink a particular root extract, that the ancient Indian already had flying vehicles and nuclear weaponry, that literally every modern discovery is already written down in the scriptures.
It’s not that they are entirely false, extensive mathematical, astronomical and surgical methods have been listed out albeit in primitive, unrefined formats. It was still miraculous considering their age in history and that their western contemporaries were still living as hunter-gatherers. It is still something we are not globally acknowledged for, most of the credit is given to the Greek philosophers. So it is still something perfectly worthy of being proud of. But then the amounts of hyperbole these things are taken to trivialises the situation and makes actual facts lose their credibility as well. A very recent fad that’s making the rounds online are the ‘satsangs‘ (sermon) of one infamous godman. Much like most other godmen in the country, he too was caught in a sex scandal (although everything seemed to be consensual rather than harassment or abuse) but it didn’t deter his following much. However, much unlike most other godmen, his sermons are well balanced between religion, science and pseudoscience and he blends them well enough for the naive observer to not be able to discern where one ends and the other begins. Of course, the majority is utter nonsense but he does vaguely link them to actual science surprisingly good. Usually, the first line is very true as he takes a valid scientific topic, but everything that follows is glorious bullshit and extremely entertaining. He’s disproved the mass-energy equivalence of Einstein, he started talking about parallel universes but turned out declaring he could teach us to tap its vibrational powers, he strongly advocates the idea that ancient Indian science was well ahead of where modern science is at right now and makes claims of having ‘tested software scientifically and experimentally’, he spoke of the well established spooky effect in quantum mechanics wherein objects have been found to behave in a certain way only when being observed – the observer influencing the observed – but immediately goes off the rails claiming that it was long discovered by ancient gurus and that the next stage will let him move the sun and that it’s unfathomable for scientists currently. Even if you take everything he preaches to be metaphorically spoken, it is quite hard to understand what aspects of spiritual growth he is talking about metaphorically when he states that he has the ability to make monkeys grow vocal chords that allow them to speak in English. You tell me.
The internet making the world smaller, making abundant information available to every common person was supposed to make us walk in the opposite direction. Science can only progress as more people raise questions and it’s great that many are questioning existing literature and wish to test things on their own but for what motives though? The methods of finding answers should be free of any political or personal bias. Well, to each his own. It is indeed his right to freedom of speech that allows him to publish what he thinks is true on a social media. It is up to the listener to judge his intelligence and choose to accept or deny it. So we can’t really ban the flat earth society or arrest mothers who refuse to vaccinate their minor kids. But people can’t be allowed to take advantage of the naive in any format. We can’t stop the creation of fake news, we can’t control how it propagates for the internet is just too huge a body to run a sieve through. So I guess the only solution at the hand now is, as Red Forman would say, don’t be a dumbass.