Something has happened since I was a kid. Something strange and unexplained. A mysterious shift in the way we make decisions and form opinions.
I remember a time when I was in Year three and we all had to do a two minute talk, (which seemed like a long time back then), in front of the class about what our parents did for a living. One of the boys in the class, I think his name was David, got up to tell us his Dad was a scientist. A hallowed quiet fell over the classroom, but for a few whispered ‘wooooow’ noises. Another girl got up to tell us about her Dad – he was a weather guy on TV, which was pretty cool, but a scientist? That made every kid envious. David’s dad, or at least the talk about him, had our complete attention. He must have been really smart, (a good thing back then), and must know lots of cool stuff. I remember thinking about the chemistry set I experimented with at home and realising David’s dad did stuff even cooler than that – with even more impressive chemicals.
To be honest I don’t remember what it was that David’s father did or who he worked for. Its possible David was exaggerating to talk himself up in front of his friends. The point is the word scientist invoked a certain respect from the class. Because science was important. It was hard. It had rules that were difficult to understand and even more difficult to follow. Most of all, it was undoubtedly and unquestioningly true. It was a given. If something was scientifically proven, like the advertisements on TV always told us, it was right.
In the past few decades this has changed. Suddenly people want to believe conspiracies. Perhaps it was Agent Mulder’s ‘I Want to Believe’ poster that shifted our thinking. Maybe, the constant stream of advertisements that flirt with the truth and the laws of science and tell us that diet pills and face creams are scientifically proven have left us jaded and we have begun to question science as a matter of course. Maybe it is in our human nature to question what is presented as reality, and the internet has it made it that much easier to access an (often sensationalised) opposing point of view.
Conspiracy theories are a bit like gossip. Nobody knows if it is really true, it’s often hard to disprove, and there is usually very little evidence to back it up, (which is why it’s called a conspiracy theory and not a scientific theory).
Gossip is also sexy and salacious. It raises eyebrows by making connections that may or may not exist in reality. To some extent it’s easy to see why people believe gossip. It doesn’t challenge us. It makes us feel empowered about something or someone we don’t understand, like being part of a club we previously didn’t have access too, or finding common ground with someone we otherwise wouldn’t have anything in common with. It’s too tantalising to ignore. I understand that, and similarly I can see why some people subscribe to some of the more innocuous conspiracies. Like Elvis being alive, Jennifer Aniston being pregnant yet again, or Paul McCartney being dead, (not so harmless I suppose if you are Paul McCartney).
But depending on the theory in question, gossip is often far less dangerous than a half-baked conspiracy. One of the most popular, (and consequential), of these theories is that Pharmaceutical companies are taking over the world and poisoning children through vaccination for profit. Of course, this does not take into account the millions of scientists, doctors and regulators that would have to be in on the scam – and not one has folded and blown the whistle yet. Another warns that chemtrails from aircraft are sprayed for sinister undisclosed purposes. Never mind that there isn’t even a reason given for spraying unknown poisonous into the air, or any evidence to suggest the conspiracy is anything more than a baseless claim. Then there is the very water we drink – poisoned with fluoride, (which coincidentally is good for your teeth). No discernment regarding the potential unknown motive for alleged the mass poisoning.
What harm is there in indulging in a bit of conspiracy fluff? Well, sometimes, nothing. Sometimes, it’s more sinister. People may avoid fluoride or vaccination, resulting in varying effects from poor dental hygiene to pockets of deadly illness being exposed to our children. Many forget that Mein Kampf started out as a simple conspiracy theory penned by a German prisoner. Of course, that’s an extreme case. Usually the results are not quite so dire.
But more than just the effect of the conspiracy itself, what scares me is our modern inability to think critically about the facts. To realise that the opposing position has an agenda too, and question the source of the information presented to us. Even to understand that science does not accept anecdotal information or case studies as fact, but merely as a method of prompting future avenues of research. For something to be considered scientific fact by the scientific community it must be backed by statistics. And not just statistics, but statistics which are relevant and in context, not cherry picked. They must be replicable – that means it must be found to be true not once but at least twice. And they must be studied under rigorous scientific protocol, with large statistically significant sample sizes, confidence intervals and error co-efficients. Other scientists must review the methodology and accept it to be accurate and relevant, and it must be published by a journal or particular standing before other scientists will accept a piece of research as fact. Of course, these standards are far too lofty for a simple conspiracy theory to meet.
It is good that we question the information that is fed to us through an increasingly powerful and unscrupulous mainstream media entity. We should not believe governments, media outlets, religious leaders or anyone else blindly – we should ask for more information. But often the perpetrators of the theories have an agenda too. We need to remember that our ability to question should be the starting point, not an end point. Our own instincts and opinions cannot compare to rigorous scientifically proven fact. Not when it comes to vaccines, not when it comes to fluoride, chemtrails or any other contentious issues. Because while Big foot may be terrorising grizzly bears somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness far from potential unsuspecting human victims, some conspiracies are far more dangerous and may have far reaching consequences.