Back in the halcyon days of 1999, when I first started working at Analog and Asimov’s, there was a growing number of people who saw the potential of the Internet beyond AOL and the list-serves and bulletin boards that it mostly consisted of at that point. They prognosticated and pontificated; advocated for and gave talks describing how, among other things, the Internet would one day be The Great Democratizer. It would make a single person’s voice as powerful as the voices of the biggest news organizations, the biggest media outlets; as worthy as the stodgiest gatekeepers, the most patronizing experts, the most entrenched authorities.2 As it turns out, they got what they wished for. Unfortunately, they got it in the worst possible way.3
Voices have been democratized, and now we find ourselves drowning in record levels of nonsense, non-science, flat-out lies, and yes, fake news, spread by the gullible, the ignorant, the trolls, and the agents provocateur. One person’s opinion is too often seen as having even footing with established fact; a conspiracy without a shred of proof is as good as randomized, double blind trials published in peer-reviewed journals. They may vary in scope or subject, but they're all part of the same beast, situated on a continuum from snout to ass, and maybe the most unbelievable of them all is the resurgence of that old eye-roller, the Flat Earth conspiracy.
Conspiracies have been with us as long as humans have had the ability to reason—exactly one second after a popular hunter was killed by a wild animal or unlikely accident, no doubt someone else wondered if they had been silenced by the clan elders because they “knew too much.” The first “third-party” in U.S. history was the Anti-Masonic Party, an organization dedicated solely to opposing the secret influence of the Masons, who had supposedly infiltrated all levels of government.4 Conspiracy theories are a recurring theme in Anti-Semitism, stretching back centuries. And then there’s the whole cottage industry of JFK assassination theories, and many more besides. Templars and Rosicrucians and Bilderbergs, oh my.
But the past two decades have seen a proliferation of especially prominent political theories: “9/11 was an Inside Job,” chem trails, and the like, and then, blurring the line between blinkered delusion and willful propaganda, a deluge of conspiracies tied to Barack Obama’s presidency, pushed into the relative mainstream far more than anything before.5 Obama was going to establish FEMA concentration camps; Obama was secretly a Muslim born in Kenya, wielding a fake birth certificate, and so on.6,6.5 The 9/11 theories are appalling, but almost understandable in the sense that conspiracies, at their very base level, seek to impose order on a chaotic world. It’s nearly unthinkable that a poorly outfitted bunch of nobodies from nowhere could topple iconic symbols of America, so there must be more to it. It’s insulting nonsense that belittles a very real loss of lives, of course, but it enables conspiratorially-minded bystanders to go about their business, secure in the idea that at least someone is directing the world, and maybe that’s more comforting than there being no grand plan, no direct intent; just events caused by complicated interlocking systems; billiard balls all knocking into each other and nothing more.
And here we come to perhaps the pinnacle of it all: we now have Flat Earth conferences and Flat Earth dating groups.
It’s a patently ridiculous claim that demonstrates an almost breathtaking lack of basic scientific understanding: I’m certain that 99.99% of Analog readers could disprove it themselves with simple off the cuff experiments,7 but the precise arguments don’t really matter; they’re almost beside the point.
You see, although the original Flat Earthers were Samuel Rowbotham’s Zetetic Society in the 1800s, who disputed the roundness of the globe on a Scriptural basis, Samuel Shenton’s later Flat Earth Research Society8 was less religiously based (and then went back to Scripture again, later, with “the International Flat Earth Research Society of America and Covenant People's Church”). When satellite images showed Earth as a sphere, Shenton remarked: "It's easy to see how a photograph like that could fool the untrained eye.” Later asked about similar photographs taken by astronauts, he attributed curvature to the use of a wide-angle lens, adding, “It's a deception of the public and it isn't right.”9
Note how Shenton depicted himself as a truth-teller? It’s a common refrain. It doesn’t matter that his claims are easily dismantled; the framework that would allow that contradictory information to seep in simply doesn’t exist for conspiracy theorists.
Yes, there have been genuine covert actions performed by the U.S. government and others, ranging from Operation: Paperclip, in which Allied forces extracted Nazi rocket scientists before the Soviets could reach them in the wake of WWII; to the Tuskegee syphilis experiments; to MKUltra, and others. In my opinion, while every high-schooler knows the rough outline of Watergate, far too few people are familiar with the Johnson tapes, in which LBJ discusses then-presidential-candidate Richard Nixon’s treason: in 1968, Nixon sent a senior campaign advisor to the Paris Peace Talks to tell the South Vietnamese to hold out for a better deal than what Johnson was offering, thereby increasing his chances in the upcoming election and ultimately extending the war in Vietnam by five years (at the cost of an additional 22,000 American lives, and untold Vietnamese).10
And private actors like corporations are no better: Big Tobacco knowingly hid the cancer risks of cigarettes as far back as the 1950s, and even now continue to attempt to muddy the waters through alleging a false “controversy” over overwhelmingly-settled science.11
So I understand a certain amount of distrust of authority. It’s naïve to think that government or big business simply . . . stopped misbehaving at some point. Distrust is patriotic in a way that I think the Founding Fathers would have understood.
But it’s not simply distrust that would lead someone to attribute the mountains of evidence that the Earth is round to the use of a wide-angle lens; it’s denialism. As clinical neurologist and skeptic Steven Novella says, “. . . belief in a flat earth is ultimately about rejecting institutional knowledge itself. . . . In the end, that is the core malfunction of the flat-earthers, and the modern populist rejection of expertise in general. It is a horrifically simplistic view of the world that ignores (partly out of ignorance, and partly out of motivated reasoning) the real complexities of our civilization.”12
And that gets at the heart of it: to the conspiracy theorist, the rejection of institutional knowledge is a feature, not a bug. They don’t have to delegitimize institutional knowledge in order to push their fringe beliefs; they push their fringe beliefs in order to delegitimize institutional knowledge. If a given institution isn’t flawless, then it can be dismissed entirely. Should we really be paying taxes to a government that once slipped unsuspecting citizens LSD? Should we really trust science to tell us where we came from as a species if they can’t even decide whether eating eggs is healthy? And since institutions are made up of people, who are necessarily flawed, there’s nothing the sufficiently motivated can’t reject whole cloth. Society in turn is largely made up of various institutions, so in a very real sense, conspiracies pick at the very fabric of a society: the ability to say, “Yes, this is a fact, something we all understand is true,” and to base our decisions accordingly.
Perhaps it’s relatively harmless when your crazy uncle thinks the noise from wind turbines causes cancer; it’s another thing entirely when that crazy uncle is the president and his belief is going to guide his energy policy. So if your uncle votes for folks who share his same blinkered belief, maybe it’s not so harmless after all.
Measles, mumps, and whooping cough are reappearing in numbers unseen in decades, thanks to anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists. (There is no evidence that vaccines cause autism, but among “anti-vaxxers,” the lack of evidence is chalked up to—you guessed it—conspiracy.) What happens if/when there’s a plurality of legislators who hold the same conspiratorial beliefs? What other illnesses have to return before people realize the effect their obstinacy has? How bad does it have to get, I wonder?
I’ve been vocal about my skepticism of “media effects theory,” (See: “The Blame Game” Parts 1 & 2, July/August-Septembr 2013 and “Thank You Notes” May/June 2018) and I remain so, but that’s largely predicated on the idea that the vast majority of people who consume fiction of any sort—whether in books, movies and TV, or games—have a certain fundamental understanding that they’re engaging with something “made up”;13 that we all take any messages that might arise, either intentional or inadvertent, with a grain of salt as part of our natural process of understanding. But when something purports to be true, all bets are off.
(One area the First Amendment doesn’t protect is defamation—libel and slander. Indeed, noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is currently on trial for accusing the parents of the slain Sandy Hook elementary school children of being “crisis actors,” and the mass shooting that killed twenty-six children and educators, a “false flag” operation ginned up in order to create an excuse to confiscate firearms.)
I certainly don’t have concrete numbers; I’d like to think that the impression that conspiracy theories, both political and scientific, are becoming more common, more mainstream, more tenaciously held, is just the Internet’s magnification effect at work, making a small number of bad actors seem like a much larger movement, and that their numbers aren’t proportionately larger than any sort of fringe has ever been in the annals of human history. But it would be unwise to be complacent about it. Because until we put things right, there’s no progress that can be made, no other problems truly solved. We need to get better at critical thinking; to fight to defend our institutions and processes, not specific conclusions; apply Occam’s Razor,14 and “Make yourself an enemy of all that you read,”15 because every day we sink deeper into a “Bright” Age of ignorance, where we suffer not from the loss of knowledge of a Dark Age, but a blinding cathode-lit surplus of it.
1 With apologies to John Kennedy Toole.
2 You wouldn’t be mistaken if you caught a whiff of market fundamentalism here: the idea that this pure and noble system, when left to its own devices and free from meddling, would alchemize a perfect outcome from base human nature. The Market is always just; the Internet makes us all equal, and Information Wants to Be Free.
4 President Millard Fillmore was elected to the New York State Assembly as a member of the Anti-Masonic party.
6 Much of it was pushed by Jerome Corsi’s WND outlet. Corsi has put forward conspiracy theories ranging from the aforementioned 9/11 Truther and Obama birth-certificate theories, claims that Hitler escaped to Argentina instead of dying in Berlin, and that petroleum isn’t biological in origin. His most recent book is Killing the Deep State: The Fight to Save President Trump. Make of that what you will.
6.5 Don’t even get me started on David Icke’s Reptiods.
7 It has been functionally settled at least since Magellan circumnavigated the globe, but, assuming you don’t want to wait for a lunar eclipse to see that the shadow of the Earth is round from all directions, you can watch the Sun set twice, if you can climb high enough, fast enough. I live near New York City, where there’s no lack of tall buildings or fast elevators.
It also strikes me as odd that the return of Flat Earth conspiracy theorists also coincides with the rise of private space travel, when it’s at least theoretically easier than ever to confirm for yourself first-hand, if you’re absolutely dedicated.
8 Not to be confused with the Flat Earth Society of Canada, which was making a legitimate, albeit satirical, point about critical thinking.
There’s also an excellent resource at: https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/secret-white-house-tapes/research-the-tapes
13 And, you know: the paucity of actual replicable evidence of such.
14 Don’t make unnecessary assumptions. When you hear hoof-beats, think “horse,” not “zebra.” The more assumptions you use to explain an event or phenomena, the more likely you are to be wrong. And most conspiracies are almost entirely assumption piled on assumption.
15 “The duty of the man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads, and . . . attack it from every side. He should also suspect himself as he performs his critical examination of it, so that he may avoid falling into either prejudice or leniency.”—Ibn al-Haytham