The World Is Not Flat

What starts out as a joke can turn into a brand of skepticism that erodes entire belief systems.

By Ben Zhang, Duke University

As Neil Armstrong once said, people love an attractive conspiracy.

It is hard to avoid conspiracy theories nowadays, especially on the internet. If even an envelope mix-up at the Oscars can compel people to grab their tinfoil hats, then what about theories with wider ranging effects? Of course, it is easy to fall into the trap of immediately dismissing those who believe that Elvis never died or that Hitler escaped to Argentina rather than being killed in Berlin. But, there are a multitude of reasons to pay attention to conspiracy theorists and the things that they say.

One of the primary problems with conspiracy theories is that they fail to promote critical thinking; in fact, in many cases, they do just the opposite. Many conspiracy theories could be easily dismissed with some simple logic. Could the moon landing really have been faked? Well, if it were, it would have been almost impossible to keep under wraps. So many people would have been involved in the creation of the hoax that the truth would likely have eventually leaked out in some form.

Conspiracy Theories Are Not Only Dumb, They're Dangerous

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Of course, a lack of evidence has never failed to deter those who engage in conspiracy theories. For example, scientists have debunked the claims of 9/11 Truthers time and time again, yet they stubbornly persist in their beliefs. Six years after the attack, for example, Truthers made an unannounced guest appearance on “Real Time with Bill Maher,” resulting in their unceremoniously ejection from the building. Even today, prominent figures in the limelight continue to claim that 9/11 was an inside job.

But, perhaps an even more unnerving example of conspiracy theories run amok occurred when NBA superstar Kyrie Irving declared to the media that he believed the Earth was flat. He refused to recant his beliefs when pressed upon the issue later, and he was even joined in his Flat Earth club by several other NBA players.

Why is it that so many people continue to believe in far-fetched fringe theories without any shred of supporting evidence? Studies have shown that a lack of trust is one of the main predictors of belief in conspiracies. This makes sense, as those who have little faith in others will naturally be more likely to buy into the idea that they are up to no good.

Other studies found that conspiracy theorists tend to be more cynical about the world than most. When it comes to politics, for example, they are likely to distrust the political establishment. These results are quite ironic in the current political climate, seeing as the president has been routinely described as being America’s “Conspiracy Theorist in Chief.”

But what sort of harm could occur from people believing things that, in all probability, aren’t true? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Take vaccines, for example. Though they have been shown to be safe over and over again by credible scientific sources, anti-vaxxers continue to damage their reputation. The results can be deadly.

An infamous 1998 paper from British researcher Andrew Wakefield, for instance, linked vaccines to autism. After being published in the journal “Lancet,” vaccination rates around Britain plummeted. It took over a decade for them to return to their former levels, and the fallout can still be seen today. Many people (including the aforementioned President Trump) continue to assert that vaccines cause autism. As a result, incidents like the Disneyland measles outbreak in 2015 are becoming more and more common.

Conspiracy Theories Are Not Only Dumb, They're Dangerous

Image via Politico

Another example of the harm that can arise from belief in conspiracy theories is equally tragic. Studies have shown that African-American men who believe that HIV/AIDS was created by the government to target them specifically were more likely to engage in risky sexual behaviors, thus (ironically) increasing the likelihood of AIDS spreading among their communities. Kyrie Irving’s spherical Earth denial is a symptom of science denial plaguing the country at large. Though his comments may seem harmless, they help reinforce the current credibility gap that scientists today have to deal with, making it even harder to convince people to act on important issues, such as climate change.

So what can we do about conspiracy theories and those who espouse them? Unfortunately, convincing people to give up their deeply-rooted views can be challenging. Another excellent predictor of belief in certain conspiracy theories is belief in other conspiracy theories. Again, this makes sense: If you are willing to suspend logic and critical thinking skills in one area, you will be more likely to do the same in another.

The solution is to not give conspiracy theorists the time of day. News outlets love them because they grab peoples’ attention, but the cost of doing so is too great. We can’t go around citing every person who specializes in “JFK conspiracy and systemic election fraud analysis.” Doing so just gives them more credibility, which, as we have seen, almost certainly leads to trouble.

On the flip side, once conspiracy theories start to become ingrained into the fabric of society, we need to be ready to challenge them. Unfortunately, this could have the opposite effect as intended. When people’s worldviews are challenged, they often respond with the defense mechanism of doubling down on said beliefs. As a result, even if shown conclusive proof that they were wrong, they will continue to insist that they were right. This is especially true when it comes to politics; the recent example of Trump’s inauguration photos comes to mind.

However, we must take a chance on educating the public. Though we may not convince everyone to give up their beliefs of widespread conspiracies, we can prevent the ideas from catching on in the minds of those who have yet to hear them. Maybe in doing so, we could reverse the wave of anti-intellectualism that has gripped the nation in recent years.

Logic and reasoning used to be assets; now, they are faults. But, it is not too late to believe once again in facts and evidence, in data and science. We can put an end to the reign of conspiracy theorists, but only if we are willing to put in the effort.

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