Tag Archives: conspiracy theory

Myth Busted: Debunking the Alleged 5G/Coronavirus Connection

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, it becomes abundantly clear that conspiracy theories and misinformation are almost as prone to spreading through the public. Thus far during this global crisis, misinformation like “coronavirus is just the flu/no worse than the flu” to drinking water every 15 minutes will “flush out” the virus, to eat cloves of garlic protects against COVID-19. The latter of which led to a woman being hospitalised in China after eating 1.5kg of raw garlic. 

Whilst conspiracy theories may be slightly less dangerous than pure misinformation, they are no less insidious. Some ‘theories’ that have circulated thus far are that COVID-19 is a “bioweapon” that was “created in a lab” — either genetically engineered or incubated in bat test subjects, in the US or in China, depending on who you believe — to it being a “poplation control scheme” devised by Bill Gates of Microsoft. 

What is very clear is that the “disease vector” responsible for the spread of misinformation and conspiracy is most certain social media and to a wider extent, the internet itself. It is perhaps ironic then, that the most widespread conspiracy theory and the one that the most people seem to be lending credibility to, is that 5G — the next generation of mobile internet connection that promises faster upload/download speeds through the use of a wider radio spectrum — is either responsible for the illness that is being blamed on COVID-19 or is somehow facilitating the spread. 

In fact, news reports this week indicate that some people are taking this fallacious connection so seriously that they are attacking 5G towers and workers. Just this morning Birmingham Live in the UK reported that a 5G mast had been set on fire, whilst a video circulates on Twitter of protesters in Hong Kong tearing down masts.

Whilst it would be easy, and perhaps convenient, to claim this as a new phenomenon, the adoption of COVID-19 as the proof of the “dangers” of 5G is just the latest step in a long smear campaign designed to induce fear about its introduction. 

The trepidation around 5G can be traced much further back, beyond its inception, beyond the creation of the internet even. The fear of 5G arises from our fundamental and long-standing misunderstanding about radiation. More specifically about what electromagnetic radiation is, and the difference between ionizing and non-ionizing radiation. 

But before tackling the long history of irrational radiation fear, we should take a look at some extant claims and demonstrate how easy they are to dismiss. 

Tracking down Patient Zero 

Whilst it would be pretty much impossible to track down the first person who connected 5G and COVID-19, it’s far more feasible to separate out some of the most common claims and analyse them. The first 5G/Coronavirus claim that I personally came across was the idea that there actually is “no virus” and that all the symptoms are a result of 5G networks, so let’s consider that claim to be our “Patient Zero.” 

A commonly spread message across social media demonstrates how with a little creative application of the truth correlations can be drawn between things that are not causally related.

In the above screenshot, it’s clear that the roll-out of different forms of communication are being linked to the prevalence of certain viruses. It would be pretty easy to start any kind of debunking by pointing out that everything we know about the viral theory of disease transmission would have to be wrong to accommodate this conspiracy theory. Thus, before we even start, there’s a wealth of evidence — enough to build the foundation of our entire understanding of disease and medicine — to demonstrate this claim is nonsense on toast. 

But, where’s the fun in that? Instead, let’s pick apart the claim bit by bit.

Firstly, the suggestion that radio waves were introduced in 1916 is laughable and clearly demonstrates that the people that are spreading this conspiracy have zero idea what electromagnetic radiation is.

Radio waves are simply low-frequency, long-wavelength, electromagnetic radiation — less energetic than infrared. In fact, they carry with them less energy than the visible light we use to see everything around us. 

It should be clear then that if radio waves are responsible for a viral disease, the largest contributor to epidemics should be sunlight. 

Radio waves didn’t “emerge” in 1916, in fact, the static that you can hear on an unturned radio partly consists of radio waves that date back to shortly after the big bang — emerging from the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) that permeates the entire Universe. The Earth also receives a great deal of electromagnetic radiation from the Sun in the form of radio waves. Thus, any technological developments that utilised radio waves simply added to those natural sources.

Looking past that there is also an issue with the dates being offered in this widely circulated social media post. The first commercial radio transmitters and receivers were developed between 1895 and 1896 by Guglielmo Marconi — with radio being widely used by 1900. Way before 1918 flu pandemic, which lasted until 1920. 

The “evidence” put forward by the conspiracy theorists then takes a break of nearly a century until the supposed introduction of 3G in 2003, which is linked to the spread of SARS. The thing is, there were lots of pandemics in this intervening time — Asian flu in 1957 and Hong Kong flu in 1968 for example. These are ignored because they don’t fit the conspiracy theorists’ narrative. 

As for 3G, well its rollout took a protracted period of time. Whilst it was indeed serving Europe in 2003, 3G wasn’t rolled out in Asia until 2006. It took until 2007 to get 3G operational in 40 countries, and it wasn’t introduced in Africa until 2012. The SARS pandemic was first identified in China in 2002 — four years before 3G was introduced. It was brought under control in July 2003. There was another smaller outbreak in 2004, again in China, still two years before the introduction of 3G there.

The roll-out of 4G was much tighter, taking from 2008 to 2010 roughly to implement. The Swine flu pandemic began in Mexico in 2009 and was over by August 2010. That means that for Swine Flu there is some correlation. Far more than can be attributed to 3G and SARS, which barely overlaps at all.

We also have to ignore that coronaviruses such as COVID-19, SARS, and MERS are very different than influenza strains, can often cause radically different symptoms and most certainly have very different incubation periods. If these ailments had the same root-cause — ie. low-frequency radiation — we should expect them to be similar.

With all these cases, even if you discount the fact that every epidemiologist, doctor and scientist who works in virology must be “in” on the conspiracy, there still lurks that problem that science attempts to avoid at every turn. 

The strands of “evidence” presented to support this conspiracy are very easy to dismiss based on a well known logical fallacy which scientists are always at pains to avoid. A maxim that passed into infamy when a doctor ignored its principles and started a movement that has cost lives across the globe.

Correlation does not equal causation.

The mere fact that two events are correlated does not mean that they are causally linked. A causal link between events has to be established by evidence. To demonstrate this, one only has to see how easy it is to link events like these epidemics to something else unrelated, especially when you omit and distort data. For example, can we really be sure that the American thrash band Metallica aren’t responsible for the epidemics blamed on 5G and other radio wave-based systems? 

Picture what follows as a deranged tweet:

“In 1986, Metallica released their masterpiece “Master of the Puppets.” In the same year, America suffered its largest flu epidemic since 1968!

2003, Metallica release the panned “St. Anger” album — SARS happens!

2008, they release “Death Magnetic” shortly after MERS strikes!

And in 2019 the band release “Helping Hands…Live & Acoustic at the Masonic” thus sparking the COVID-19 pandemic and simultaneously proving the Masons were behind this all along!”

What I did there was made a correlation using the barndoor effect. Rather than aiming at a target painted on a barn-door, I fired a few random shots into it and then painted a target around the bullet holes. Being a crack shot is easy when you cheat. And this is exactly what the people pushing this conspiracy are doing. 

Andrew Wakefield, the British doctor ho first connected vaccines to the prevalence of autism. An example of correlation without causation that has killed. (WIKIcommons)

One of the key issues that still motivates the anti-vax movement is the rise in autism cases and how this seems to correlate to the introduction of the MMR vaccination. The connection was initially drawn by Andrew Wakefield in a 1998 paper published in The Lancet and later retracted. Wakefield himself was struck off for the unethical procedures he engaged in to obtain his results, but he has been embraced as a hero by the anti-vax —and some would say the anti-science — movement. 

All it takes to launch a conspiracy theory based on correlation is a willingness to distort and ignore data, and to bury the fact you have no actual causal evidence. 

Let’s bring the viral theory of disease back into play, and look at a slightly toned-down suggestion, the idea that 5G could be weakening our immune systems. 

Understanding Non-ionizing Radiation

Again, the main evidence that has been presented for 5G facilitating the spread of COVID-5G has been the correlation between its rollout, the areas of the world in which it is most used, and the timing and location of COVID-19 outbreaks. We can dismiss this by saying correlation doesn’t equal causation. So what about the suggested mechanisms by which 5G is weakening our immune systems? 

The idea that 5G weakens the immune system is very similar to claims of electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS) in which mild to severe symptoms are connected to exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF). At the moment the World Health Organisation (WHO) does not consider the symptoms of EHS to be related to exposure to EMF. Likewise, there is no clinical evidence to suggest that 5G can cause harm or weaken the immune system.

Firstly, the human immune system cannot be weakened against COVID-19, for the simple reason that this strain of coronavirus is new, we have no immune response to it. That is what makes it so dangerous, none of our immune systems contain the antibodies for this virus yet. 

Secondly, the radio waves that form the basis of 5G are non-ionizing. This essentially means that they don’t have the requisite energy to strip electrons from atoms. This is unlike high-frequency electromagnetic radiation like X-rays or gamma-rays which do have the energy to ionize atoms and thus, damage cells. 

When electrons are stripped from atoms — these atoms become ionized. This can be a problem in our bodies because the surface — or valance — electrons of an atom determine how it bonds with other atoms. A change in this respect can change how proteins fold within the body. This might not sound too extreme, but the way a protein folds determines how it functions. Thus, exposure to ionizing radiation can lead to all sorts of nasty effects, including cancer and yes, weakened immune systems. 

Again, radio waves don’t have enough energy to do this, but you may well be asking, what if we’ve been exposed to a lot of radiowaves? Surely then there will collectively be enough energy to cause ionization?

The simple answer to this is no. Fortunately, that isn’t how ionization works. 

An electron can be ejected by an atom when it receives enough energy from a photon, but the photons that comprised radio waves don’t have the energy needed to displace electrons

Imagine the valence electron as a rubber duck and the atom to which it is attached as a metal bucket. We start to fill the bucket by pouring water into it — analogous to bombarding our electron and atom with radio waves. 

Now in the real world, the water lifts the duck off the bottom of the bucket, and eventually, it spills out. Ionization doesn’t work like this though. With ionization, the electron doesn’t spill out unless the photons that make up these radio waves individually contain enough energy make them do that. It does matter how many photons there are. 

Albert Einstein was the first to discover this phenomenon whilst investigating the photoelectric effect. When light hits the surface of a metal, electrons are given off, but Einstein found that lowering frequency of the light cut off the flow of electrons. Yet to his surprise, altering the intensity of light did not cause electrons to stop being released — it just slowed their escape. 

So for example, a low-frequency light with a high-intensity shining on the surface of a metal will not cause electrons to flow. Yet a high-frequency, low-intensity light will.

Re-running our bucket experiment, this is like saying the duck stays at the bottom of the bucket unless the water is of the correct temperature to make it rise. No matter how much water pours in, that duck ain’t budging. Bringing the temperature of the water up, spills out the duck at random, it could take a drop of water to do it, it could take a monsoon. 

If it seems like this doesn’t make sense, well, yeah. It’s quantum physics. If it confused and terrified Einstein, why should it be comfortable and easy for us to understand?

Finally, we come to the idea that COVID-19 can somehow utilise 5G signals as a method of transport or even communication. 

COVID-19: Waverider? 


The Daily Star — the UK’s number purveyor of pseudo-scientific junk — this week ran an article that suggested: “viruses can talk to each other” and thus make active decisions about who to infect. The implication is that 5G signals are being used to do this. Full Fact, the UK’s fact-checking website link this bizarre claim to a 2011 paper which suggests bacteria can communicate via electromagnetic signals — an idea that is thoroughly disputed and, as you probably noticed, refers to bacteria not viruses. 

The Full fact article also points out that COVID-19 is spreading in areas of the world with little to no 5G coverage. One of the worst-hit countries is Iran, a country with no 5G networks. 

Protesters in Hong Kong tear down a 5G mast

This element of the COVID-19/5G conspiracy really goes to the heart of why we need to step on this “theory” hard and fast. We know how COVID-19 spreads and limiting that spread is vital. 

The novel coronavirus moves through contact with small droplets when those infected with the virus cough, sneeze or exhale. Smashing down 5G towers will achieve nothing to limit the spread. What will limit the spread is getting people to self-isolate, practice social distance and good hygiene practices when they can’t. Wearing protective gear such as masks and gloves has been shown to have some positive effects. 

To get people to do that we must show them that conspiracy theories like those listed — and I hope thoroughly debunked — above, are nonsense. In turn, ensuring that they are listening to good information and not outdated irrational fears about “radiation.” 

Lies photo.

Faulty findings, real appeal: the psychology of pseudoscience

Today we take a look at what pseudoscience is and why people turn to it.

Lies photo.

Image credits Ged Carroll / Flickr.

Whether you’re one of our long-time readers or you simply put the effort into Googling your way to this article, chances are that you have an appetite for (if not a background in) science. I find that this academic bend, given time, tends to instill a certain way of thinking. A particular way of reporting one’s self to the world around us, one that stays with us throughout our lives. A certain mental discipline, if you will, based on a few shared principles:

  • We listen to facts over opinion. That doesn’t mean we’re always right, or that we’re free of our own biases. Overall, however, we tend to mold our opinions from facts, rather than the other way around.
  • We maintain a critical mindset. We double-check. We scour libraries or the Internet for data, but we also pay mind to the source of that data.
  • Despite this, we trust in the (provable) competence of others. There’s no fast solution to be had online that substitutes years spend in academic study and research. We do our best to weed out shady sources of information, but we also understand that unrestrained skepticism can be as toxic as no skepticism. After a certain point, you simply have to defer judgment to those whose entire job is to know what they’re talking about.

Now help yourself to some of this tasty text:

Climate change is a Chinese hoax designed to steal jobs. If it were truly happening, how could I hold this ball of snow up in Congress? (a senator actually asked this).

As we all know, vaccines cause autism — because mercuryI only use natural products for my kid, none of those chemicals for him, no sirree.

To round it all up (pun intended), the Earth is flat. There’s simply no other explanation to fit what so many of us have observed. Spherical planets orbiting around the Sun?! Go away with that mumbo-jumbo; that’s what the Government wants you to think, man! We’re living on a flat world and we will get to the bottom of why NASA is hiding it from us!

Inhofe holding snowball.

“Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) has, once and for all, disproven climate change,” the Washington Post sarcastically reported on the event.
Image via Wikimedia.

It kinda gets the hairs to stand up on the back of your neck a bit, doesn’t it? I don’t blame you. These views feel so blissfully unencumbered by basic fact, so fundamentally opposed to how we order our thoughts, that they’re actually scary; almost insulting, too. For you and me.

Yet, to a (sadly) growing number of people out there, these words spell enlightenment and a release from outside manipulations. They’re the battle cry of those who aren’t afraid to question the unquestionable, those who would seek for themselves the truth that others are hiding away. The brave, the bold, the explorers. Something inspiring like that.

Which I find quite puzzling, to say the least.

I’ve spent the last few weeks armed with a sturdy wifi and a sturdier drink in hand delving into the deep, dark, and often confusing corners of the Internet that these conspiracy theorists and pseudoscience aficionados have claimed for themselves. I wanted to understand what makes some people actually believe a theory so bonkers that it causes most others to recoil. I bore the few chuckles and many more groans (the drinks helped) this elicited so that today, we could talk about the flat elephant in the room. Namely:

What is pseudoscience?

Flat Earth map.

This, among others.
Image via Wikimedia.

The line between science and pseudoscience is generally tricky to clearly delineate. ‘Science’ isn’t a sum total of information wholly beyond critique. Researchers have repeatedly disproven theories that seemed undeniable once evidence to the contrary became available. On the other hand, some theories that seemed to be pure fantasy were later proven to be true.

Science is a process — namely, the process via which we obtain that information. It’s a set of methods, of checks and balances, that we apply when verifying theories. Sticking to these rules is the best way that we know of to tease out relevant data from our own biases and preconceptions.

Pseudoscience in all its forms uses ‘facts,’ methods, and bits of data that wear the trappings of science but not the essence. Pseudoscience sounds genuine but doesn’t follow the set of accepted scientific standards, most notably the scientific method, falsifiability of claims, and the Mertonian norms. It’s part of non-science and it’s not the same as bad science — an error made while trying to follow the scientific method, but otherwise in good faith.

In other words, pseudoscience is a body of claims built on shaky reasoning and quite a bit of cherry-picking — but it still wants you to call it ‘science’.

How sure are we?

Completely. We deal with this baloney every day.

Why write this?

Stop me if I’m going too fast here, but we write about science. While it’s undeniably awesome that we can make a living out of it (thanks, guys and gals), we’re not in it for the money.

We do it because the world is an incredibly beautiful place, and science is how we explore it. This passion to know and understand is what drives us forward. We write about science because we truly believe that we were privileged to be born into families and broader societies that could afford to educate us. It shaped us profoundly, molding us into the people we are today.

Everyone, everywhere, has the right (an argument can be made that they have also have the responsibility) to access the sum of human knowledge; to an education, be it formal or informal, in school or university, in libraries or on the Internet. We were fortunate enough to be handed that. We want to honor that debt by helping others educate themselves, in turn.

There’s a reason I started off this discussion with the three principles I think all of us here share. We tend to point the finger at adepts of pseudoscience and criticize them for breaking the first two — we reprimand them for what we perceive as a preference of opinion in face of facts, and we bemoan their lack of critical thinking.

We ridicule them for their buying into these fairy tales. Which isn’t particularly nice of us.

After my wayward weeks through their blogs and forums, however, I don’t think that’s the real issue anymore. Sure, there are some really unhinged individuals lurking about these sites — that’s true in every setting. But most members of these communities strike me as quite capable of both critical thinking and of taking in new facts and integrating them into their belief systems.

What then?

All others we monitor.

The motto “In God We Trust; All Others We Monitor” is displayed in the foyer of the Air Force Technical Applications Center’s radiochemistry laboratory at Patrick AFB, Fla. Surprisingly appropriate for the issue at hand, though.
Image credits U.S. Air Force Civil Engineer Center.

The real issue with pseudoscience, I feel, lies in that third item on my list — trust. Members clump around these wild theories because they simply cannot find it in themselves to trust outside competence or outside information.

Karen Douglas, a Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Kent who specializes in social psychology and belief in conspiracy theories, largely agrees with me on this:

“I think you are spot on regarding the lack of trust,” she told me in an email.

Needless to say, I liked her instantly. I was still very much confused about the whole affair, however. The readiness of the people I chatted with to blame conspiracies, cover-ups, and shady groups that pull on society’s strings was simply too poignant to overlook. Do adepts of pseudoscience distrust… everything? Or do they just have a burning white hate for The Gov’ment / Big Pharma / NASA / mercury? I asked Prof. Douglas if what we’re seeing is a focused or more generalized lack of trust — be it against researchers or authority in general.

We were discussing the topic of flat earthism, but this largely applies to all conspiracy theorists and pseudisciences out there:

“Whether this is generalized mistrust or not, however, is an open question,” she told me. “As far as I can see, flat earth believers tend to mistrust scientists/NASA etc. and argue that they are providing false information.”

“It’s not clear whether these people also mistrust other sources such as their friends, neighbours, the police, and other institutions.”

Pseudoscience disseminates this lack of trust. It is, at its nature, so completely opposed to what science is and stands for that it’s corrosive to it. Just like matter and anti-matter, science and non-science seem to cancel each other out with a bang. But the effects of such ‘theories’ are much more widespread and insidious.

This is why we’re writing this. To internalize the more high-profile pseudoscience currents out there is to toss all trust out the window and replace it with single-minded empiricism (e.g. “how can the Earth be round when I don’t see a curvature?”). It is to constantly question the motives of others and to always assume they’re out to get you (e.g. “big pharma hides that vaccines kill”). Pseudoscience requires some impressive leaps of mental dissonance and cherry picking because it requires that you only look at certain bits of data, lest the whole theory falls apart (such as the ‘snowball in Congress‘ move, a classic and one of my personal favorites).

It instills in those exposed to it the mindset that destroys confidence in researchers and, by extension, all other professionals. It breeds skepticism bordering on paranoia and fosters distrust in others while definitely making you right because, hey — everyone who says otherwise is probably part of the conspiracy.

This pattern of discussion is so prevalent among followers of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience that there’s even an essay on Wikipedia to help editors ‘defuse’ it.

Once you believe one thing based only on a feeling or a hunch, and you persist despite overwhelming evidence pointing against it, it’s easy to believe the next one.

It’s a very slippery slope.

“Trust always appears as one of the strongest predictors of conspiracy theories, but conspiracy theories also make people more mistrustful,” Douglas explained. “That is, when people are experimentally exposed to conspiracy theories […] they become more mistrustful of the relevant institutions.”

“Another very strong predictor of conspiracy theories is paranoia.”

“It is also the case that conspiracy believers tend to believe in paranormal phenomena (e.g., life after death, extrasensory perception), and that they tend to be superstitious (e.g., believing in good luck charms). These are correlational relationships, so the higher the conspiracy belief, the higher the paranormal or superstitious belief (i.e., it’s not a one-one relationship and we cannot tell which one causes the other).”

So why do people believe it?

Banana Earth.

via Banana Earth Society / Twitter.

It’s hard to say. Obviously, everybody has their own reasons for doing the things they do. There is also precious little literature looking into the psychological going-ons behind pseudoscience. However, a paper that Prof. Douglass co-published in 2017, “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories” can help get us a general idea as to why pseudoscience holds such a strong appeal.

“Conspiracy theories appear to provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction,” the paper reads.

“[Conspiracy theories also] have attributes that set them apart from other types of causal explanation. […] They are speculative in that they posit actions that are hidden from public scrutiny, complex in that they postulate the coordination of multiple actors, and resistant to [the scientific process of] falsification in that they postulate that conspirators use stealth and disinformation to cover up their actions — implying that people who try to debunk conspiracy theories may, themselves, be part of the conspiracy.”

“It also appears to be stronger when events are especially large in scale or significant and leave people dissatisfied with mundane, small-scale explanations.”

They’re very appealing because they provide an unassailable barricade from which to defend one’s beliefs. The (false) context that pseudoscience and conspiracy theories provide completely shut down any avenue of debate. And that’s just dandy with us since humans totally Do Not Like having their beliefs questioned or criticized (see here and here).

Motive can be attributed to the shadowy and obscure interests of the conspirators (‘actions that are hidden from public scrutiny’); the purpose of any institution can be called into question (‘the coordination of multiple actors’), and its claims — no matter how valid — quickly dismissed (‘stealth and disinformation’).

This mechanism is what gives pseudoscience its staying power — but what exactly draws people to it in the first place? Sure, it helps “provide broad, internally consistent explanations that allow people to preserve beliefs in the face of uncertainty and contradiction,” — but that sounds like sticking your head in the sand, doesn’t it? I don’t think there’s anyone, anywhere, that would genuinely want to knowingly lie to themselves.

There has to be more at play here.

Writing for The ConversationHarry Dyer recounts attending the first Flat Earth Convention in the UK. This three-day-long event paints a very different image of the adepts of pseudoscience than most of us would likely attribute them.

“The weekend in no small part revolved around discussing and debating science, with lots of time spent running, planning, and reporting on the latest set of flat earth experiments and models,” he recounts. “Indeed, as one presenter noted early on, flat earthers try to ‘look for multiple, verifiable evidence’ and advised attendees to ‘always do your own research and accept you might be wrong’.”

“While flat earthers seem to trust and support scientific methods, what they don’t trust is scientists, and the established relationships between ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’.”

“The level of discussion however often did not revolve around the models on offer, but on broader issues of attitudes towards existing structures of knowledge, and the institutions that supported and presented these models.”

Dyer argues — quite compellingly at times, definitely give him a read — that this recoiling from anything perceived as ‘mainstream’ starts from the way freedom of thought is twisted and bent in recent times. It’s laughably easy for anyone, anywhere, to create and share any type of content with virtually no moderation. For the first time in our history, people can pick what narrative they want to believe. People for whom the official explanation will never satisfy simply because it is ‘the official’ one will lap up any alternative, no matter how hollow, because they want to believe.

Liar sign.

This is how some people treat any and all authority.
Image credits Alan Cleaver / Flickr.

We’re also seeing dramatic social polarization around key issues: energy, climate change, politics, fake news. These topics always breed a certain level of animosity and resentment among participants. Such emotions can be spun and manipulated — ironically — by outside interests.

In the end, however, adepts of pseudoscience movements genuinely believe that they ask the questions others want them not to ask; that they are opposing censorship from ‘those in power’.

“At the same time as scientific claims to knowledge and power are being undermined, some power structures are decoupling themselves from scientific knowledge, moving towards a kind of populist politics that are increasingly sceptical of knowledge,” Dyer writes.

“[…] This can also be seen in more subtle and insidious form in the way in which Brexit, for example, was campaigned for in terms of gut feelings and emotions rather than expert statistics and predictions. Science is increasingly facing problems with its ability to communicate ideas publicly, a problem that politicians, and flat earthers, are able to circumvent with moves towards populism.”

Science is awesome, and it works, and it gives you the right answer — but the truth isn’t always comforting. Science gives facts, but sometimes, people just want hope, meaning, or a way to deflect blame; things that fall under the category of ‘feels’. Science doesn’t offer many of these emotional release valves. Pseudoscience offers them a-plenty.

We have an inbuilt need to make sense of the world around us. Pseudoscience offers us a way to make sense of the world “when information is unavailable, reducing uncertainty and bewilderment when available information is conflicting, finding meaning when events seem random, and defending beliefs from disconfirmation,” Prof. Douglas’ team write in their paper. They add that “people are likely to turn to conspiracy theories when they are anxious and feel powerless.”

Conspiracy belief is “strongly related to lack of sociopolitical control or lack of psychological empowerment,” and such belief “is heightened when people feel unable to control outcomes and is reduced when their sense of control is affirmed”, the team explains. Finally, subscribing to a pseudoscientific trend is a way of satisfying our “desire to belong and to maintain a positive image of the self and the in-group,” helping us “valorize the self and the in-group by allowing blame for negative outcomes to be attributed to others.”

Pseudoscience coughs up an explanation where we don’t really know what’s happening and makes you feel part of a group that values you. It gives medicine (that doesn’t work) for diseases we can’t cure.  For the patient that doctors can’t save, pseudoscience offers a way to cope; the fact that it’s false doesn’t matter. It gives hope, or the illusion of hope, where science doesn’t — and hope is a powerful soother.

For many of their adepts, then, pseudoscientific theories offer an escape from a world that’s often cruel, unfair, or just doesn’t make sense. And that’s what makes this whole affair tragic:

“Unfortunately, research conducted thus far does not indicate that conspiracy belief effectively satisfies this motivation,” the paper reads.

“On the contrary, experimental exposure to conspiracy theories appears to immediately suppress people’s sense of autonomy and control.”

The growth of pseudoscience in all its forms, I feel, is one of the most worrying developments of our modern times. Dyer takes it as “a product and sign of our time; a reflection of our increasing distrust in scientific institutions, and the moves by power-holding institutions towards populism and emotions”. In his eyes, such beliefs represent a rebellion of sorts against those ‘in power’ for faults that we may never know.

Science March in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Sign from the 2017 Science March in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Image credits Mark Dixon / Wikimedia.

For Prof. Douglas it’s a refuge; the safe place in our minds where we retreat to feel right, to hold our beliefs inviolate, to feel justified, to make our hardships mean something without facing our own faults.

For me, it’s a sign that something, somewhere, isn’t working right. By chance or design, not-insignificant groups of people choose to take refuge in ‘their own’ truth. Be it a refuge from segregation, abuse of power, a safe harbor in which to anchor their beliefs from the winds of fact — it does not matter. When people weave stories to insulate them from society, that society has failed them.

And perhaps it is time to take a good hard look at ourselves and how we helped push them into ‘alternative’ facts.

We’re facing real, significant climate change. We’re seeing the reemergence of diseases that our vaccines had almost wiped out. We’re trying to go to Mars while some people still insist the Earth is flat. We can’t afford to waste time and energy being divided on topics that are clear-cut. We can’t afford to doubt the experts and put those that make us feel good in power. We can launch world-ending nukes with a button — we can’t risk having people not listen to basic scientific fact, or judging life through a twisted lens.

Pseudoscience doesn’t work: real life has a way of knocking on your door no matter how far away you try to move. It does, however, make the things that do work, work a little bit less. It is, at its core, based on false information. It is a lie.

I, for one, think each and every one of us should work to weed out lies wherever possible — both our own and those of others.

This core thinking error underlies both creationism and conspiracy theories

Scientists have found a connection between two seemingly unrelated concepts: creationism, the belief that the Earth was purposely created by a supernatural agent, and conspiracism, the tendency to explain past or current events through conspiracy theories. The connection is the idea that some things are “meant to be.”

If you ask people why some phenomenon happens, two dominant and diametrally opposite schools of thought emerge: one is scientific reasoning, which uses a series of deductions and reasoning to reach a logical conclusion. The other is teleological thinking. A teleological thinker, for instance, makes propositions such as “the sun rises in order to give us light” or “the Earth was created for humans” — whereas a scientific thinker will go crazy at the mere thought.

“This type of thinking is anathema to scientific reasoning, and especially to evolutionary theory, and was famously mocked by Voltaire, whose character Pangloss believed that ‘noses were made to wear spectacles.’ Yet it is very resilient in human cognition, and we show that it is linked not only to creationism, but also to conspiracism,” says Sebastian Dieguez of the University of Fribourg.

Dieguez and colleagues have studied conspiracism, finding that it can’t be explained by the tendency to assume that “nothing happens by accident,” a commonly held belief. Instead, a related but not identical belief may be driving this tendency: the idea that some events in the world are actively and purposely fabricated — that some things are meant to be, driven by an external force. Sounds familiar? That’s also the core of religious thinking.

In order to test their hypothesis, they recruited 150 college students in Switzerland, and then an additional 700 people online. The participants were asked to complete a questionnaire including teleological claims and conspiracist statements, as well as measures of analytical thinking, esoteric and magical beliefs, and a randomness perception task.

As expected, they found a strong correlation between creationism and conspiracism. They also found that the relationship was mostly independent of other variables such as gender, age, analytical thinking, political orientation, education, and agency detection.

This is more than just a curiosity — in the current age of “post-truth,” where conspiracy theories and outright lies spread like wildfire through social media, we need to understand what is causing these issues, and how they can be combatted.

“By drawing attention to the analogy between creationism and conspiracism, we hope to highlight one of the major flaws of conspiracy theories and therefore help people detect it, namely that they rely on teleological reasoning by ascribing a final cause and overriding purpose to world events,” Dieguez says. “We think the message that conspiracism is a type of creationism that deals with the social world can help clarify some of the most baffling features of our so-called ‘post-truth era.'”

Dieguez hopes that the results can be replicated on a wider segment of the population.

Journal Reference: Wagner-Egger et al.: “Creationism and conspiracism share a common teleological bias.” Current Biology.

Contradicting fake stories / conspiracy theories on social media just doesn’t do anything. It may be counterproductive

Instead of trying to convince someone that their crack ideas are, you know, crack, it might be best to smile and move on.

The flat Earth conspiracy theory has gained surprising popularity on social media.

A world of tribes

We know it too well — it’s strange to say, but our website and Facebook page are often flooded by pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. We do our best to explain the science and set things in order, but more often than not, the discussion just derails and things start to spiral uncontrollably. It’s a situation where very little can be done.

If you’ve ventured down this rabbit hole, you probably know just frustrating it can be. Not only do some people not listen to even the most basic of arguments (ie globe Earth), but it seems that the harder you try, the more you feed them. Well, a new study reports that systematic debunking on social media just doesn’t do anything. It may even do more harm than good.

“Debunking posts stimulate negative comments and do not reach “conspiracists” causing the opposite reaction to what was intended” explains Fabiana Zollo, author of the paper and research fellow at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice.

To prove this, Zollo analyzed likes and comments on 83 Facebook scientific pages, 330 conspiracy pages and 66 Facebook pages aiming at debunking conspiracy theses. In total, she analyzed over 50,000 Facebook posts. What she found is not surprising, especially considering recent global events.

Two different worlds

There are two different worlds coexisting on Facebook, but they don’t really interact with each other. Users fall into one category or the other, and after they choose a narrative, they stick to it. In other words, they create an echo chamber for themselves. The study reads:

“Users online tend to focus on specific narratives and select information adhering to their system of beliefs. Such a polarized environment might foster the proliferation of false claims. Indeed, misinformation is pervasive and really difficult to correct.”

What researchers found was that when a dissenting opinion emerges, it’s just ignored; users almost never interact with it. This was confirmed in the data. But something else emerged: after such a dissenting opinion was ignored, overall activity on these conspiracy pages increased. So not only did the debunking not help, but it stirred spirits even more.

If this is the case, then it means any debunking strategy will have underwhelming results. Anecdotally, I can confirm this, and other journalists are taking note too: Washington Post’s Caitlin Dewey decided to suspend her weekly intersect on debunking in the Washington Post.

The results are also consistent with the so-called inoculation theory for which the exposure to repeated, mild attacks can let people become more resistant to changing their ordinary beliefs. So if you make any debunking “attacks” you might want to make them go all the way.

What works

If hard facts don’t work and can be even counterproductive, then what works? Basically, it’s all about building bridges to other tribes. If we want to stop misinformation, we don’t just need to have our facts straight, we also need to share them the right way. It’s not a simple task, but in a world where divides are growing bigger than ever, it’s certainly worth it.

“A more open and smoother approach, which promotes a culture of humility aiming at demolish walls and barriers between tribes, could represent a first step to contrast misinformation spreading and its persistence online,” the study concludes.

However, Facebook and Google are studying specific solutions to reduce the impact and visibility of such conspiracy theories or pseudoscience. The effects of such strategies were not studied here.

The thing is, we all have a responsibility here. We all create our own social media experience, we draw our own social circles. It’s tempting to only select people that say things we want to hear, but that’s really not the way to go. It’s important to not shut our own doors and employ critical thinking to judge what we’re seeing. Just because it fits the narrative you want to hear doesn’t make it right — think about that before you become entrenched in one camp or the other.

Our Facebook page was not involved in the study, which is a bit sad.

Journal Reference: Fabiana Zollo , Alessandro Bessi, Michela Del Vicario, Antonio Scala, Guido Caldarelli, Louis Shekhtman, Shlomo Havlin, Walter Quattrociocchi — Debunking in a world of tribes. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0181821

Credit: Pixabay, Comfreak.

The internal urge to eliminate uncertainty favors conspiracy theories

Psychologists have long debated the psychological predispositions that make some people prone to believe conspiracy theories. Now, researchers from Poland and the United Kingdom have identified a new trait linked with conspiracy theories: the desire to eliminate uncertainties.

Credit: Pixabay, Comfreak.

Credit: Pixabay, Comfreak.

Some people believe the moon landings were faked in a Hollywood studio, that AIDS was engineered in a US government lab, even that the world is flat. Though these conspiracy theories are wild and extremely improbable, they have a glimmer of plausibility that some minds hang on to like there’s no question all of it is true. A common theme of conspiracy theories is that they have a fairly simple chain of events which give simple structured answers to difficult questions.

Conspiracy theories are not the realm of the clinically insane. Disturbingly high numbers of Americans have such beliefs. In their 2014 seminal book, American Conspiracy Theories, University of Miami political scientists Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent found that, among other things, a third of Americans believe the “birther” conspiracy theory that Obama is a foreigner. About as many believe that 9/11 was an “inside job” by the Bush administration. Shocked yet?

But the idea that conspiracy theorists are just a bunch of paranoid nerds living in their parents’ basement is a myth. Marta Marchlewska of the University of Warsaw, the study’s corresponding author, wanted to learn what psychological traits make people prone to conspirational explanations. A conspiracy theory, Uscinski and Parent explain, is defined by four characteristics: “(1) a group (2) acting in secret (3) to alter institutions, usurp power, hide truth, or gain utility (4) at the expense of the common good.”

She and colleagues recruited 700 Polish adult volunteers for two separate experiments. Scientists have found that certain psychological predispositions can make people more or less prone to believe conspiracy theories. Now, new research has found another trait that could be linked to conspiracy theories.

During the first experiment, volunteers were instructed to read an online news story about the European Union’s plan to help Syrian and Eritrean refugees in Poland. In the second experiment, volunteers read conspiracy-centered news stories about the Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 plane crash, which officially disappeared out of unknown causes, or the Germanwings Airbus A320 plane crash, which was officially crashed on purpose by the pilot.

The punch line was that the volunteers got to see a comment section with both conspirational and non-conspiratorial explanations for what really happened.

When the participants were well aware of the official cause of a particular event, they didn’t resort to conspirational thinking. However, when faced with the prospect of cognitive closure for a more ambiguous story, a pattern of endorsement for conspiracies emerged, as reported in European Journal of Social Psychology. In our case, participants were far more likely to accept the official explanation for the Germanwings crash, which is very well established, but endorsed conspiracy theories in the case of the Malaysia Airlines crash, which offered more room for interpretation. The latter also caused a cognitive void that demands closure.

“For example, participants high in need for cognitive closure were more likely to endorse a conspiracy theory behind a plane crash when this conspiracy was salient,” Marchlewska explained.

“This was only the case when non-conspiratorial official explanations for the crash were lacking. When other causes for the plane crash were easily available to participants instead, those high in cognitive closure were more likely to reject conspiracy theories.”

No, there’s no “dark lady” on Mars – just stop it

Social media is abuzz *again* with stories about a dark lady figure being spotted on Mars by the Curiosity Rover. Conspiracists are all over it, and many dubious media publications are “analyzing” it. Long story short, it’s all hogwash.

Image via NASA/JPL

Instead of appreciating and admiring the fact that we have  a rover on another planet taking pictures and sending them back to Earth, people are trying to see stuff where stuff simply isn’t. In the image above, people think they see a lady figure. Don’t see it? Let’s try again.

Image via NASA/JPL

Yeah, it kinda, maybe, does look like a lady figure, but you know what else might look like a lady figure? Random rocks in a black and white picture. It’s just like that time people thought hey saw a crab walking on Mars – we tend to see patterns in everything, and some people are quick to jump the gun and made ludicrous statements.

Just as a minor sidenote, judging by the scale of that picture, the “lady” would only be about 10 cm high, about as big as a vodka shot.

NASA about 21 December Doomsday: “It will be another winter solstice”

Debunking conspiracy theories

Oh boy, it’s this time of the year again: grab your supplies and head on to the bunker, cause the world is ending – again. The popular Mayan conspiracy theory that the world is ending on December 21 has made a surprisingly high number of adept, and NASA had to step in. They released quite an interesting post, explaining why this is all just shenanigans. First up, the Mayan calendar:

Their calendar does not end on Dec. 21, 2012. It’s just the end of the cycle and the beginning of a new one. It’s just like on Dec. 31st, our calendar comes to an end but a new calendar for the next year begins on Jan. 1st.

The Mayans did many remarkable things, but they didn’t predict the end of the world.

 

The belief that a now extinct civilization could somehow predict the end of the world thousands of years after their demise does seem a little sci-fi itself. Second up: the giant devastating planet Nibiru.

Niburu is suppose to be a planet that’s four times the size of the Earth. It’s going to get very close to the Earth and cause all kinds of disasters. So this enormous planet is suppose to be coming toward Earth, but if it were, we would’ve seen it long ago and if it were invisible somehow, we would’ve seen the affects of this planet on neighboring planets. Thousands of astronomers who scan the night skies on a daily basis have not seen this.

Aha! But wait, some will say, I know what’s going on here – you’re keeping it all covered up. Seriously, let’s use a little common sense; thousands of astronomers keeping the secret for several years? Every nation, every space agency, every amateur astronomer just hiding it all? Makes sense.

As if that wasn’t enough, other folks are scared of solar flares. Well as NASA themselves explain, the next solar activity will be in May 2013 – fairly mild, nothing serious to be expected. But who can overlook the other theory, that some sort of planetary alignment will cause devastating tidal effects on our planet? First of all, there’s no planetary alignment on Dec 21; and even if there were, the effect other planets would have is truly negligible, much smaller than that of the Moon.

I’ve saved the best for last; some people actually believe that on Dec 21, the Earth’s poles will shift and all sorts of devastating stuff is going to happen. As a geologist, I can clear things here fine, thank you. The Earth’s poles have shifted hundreds or thousands of time in its history; it is a cycle, one that takes places in hundreds of thousands of years, and the shift itself takes millennia to happen, so we’re in the clear here too.

So there you have it people, the odds of any of those things happening is about the same as giant cosmic panda bears with panda weapons show up and bring pandamonium to Earth. Love your friends and family, be kind to them, do what want in life and enjoy it – that’s all.

French town overrun by doomsday visitors

The small yet pleasant city of Bugarach in southwest France is flooded with tourists, but the thing is most of them are preoccupied by UFOs instead of the local countryside.

The town located near the Pic of Bugarach mountain which has no more than 200 inhabitants is getting more and more spotlight from doomsday visitors after it became the center of a few odd predictions, including one that prophesies that aliens will arrive on Earth at the mountain on the so-called doomsday.

Jean-Pierre Delord, the town mayor, has become uneasy with the influx of visitors – and for good reasons, when you consider that the number of visitors is expected to increase dramatically as we get nearer to 21th December, which is the date many conspiracy theorists have announced as the end of the world.

“These blasted prophets from all over the world have turned our mountain into some sort of UFO garage,” Delord, who has asked the French army for help, told Reuters last year. “The end result is that all these fanatics are coming here to hide out.”

Another worrying matter is that, as ‘doomsday groups’ start congregating, a number of other dangers could emerge, including riots or mass suicides. Again, sadly, I find myself forced to say that despite what conspiracy theorists or doomsday fans might claim, the world will not end as the Maya predicted, from what we know there is no big planet on a collision course with Earth, and so far, the biggest chance of ending the world is in our own hands.

Sadly, NASA has to debunk Mayan apocalypse conspiracies again

It saddens me to see NASA having to come out again and explain why the whole ‘Mayan end of the calendar apocalypse’ thing; the US space agency came out with on Saturday in an attempt to debunk these claims and downplay concerns that the world will end in 2012.

Mr Don Yeomans from NASA explains that all these concerns rely on nothing more than conspiracy theories, noting that even the way the Mayan calendar was interpreted is wrong.

“Their calendar does not end on December 21, 2012; it’s just the end of the cycle and the beginning of a new one. It’s just like on December 31, our calendar comes to an end, but a new calendar begins on January 1,” said Mr. Yeomans.

He then continued, addressing a number of scenarios devised by adepts of these ‘theories’, including collision with a hidden giant planet, termed Nibiru or Planet X by believers. They claim that the planet is on a collision course with Earth and that it is currently out of the reach of average astronomers, and main space agencies are working in secret to avoid spreading the panic.

“There are no planetary alignments in the next few decades, Earth will not cross the galactic plane in 2012, and even if these alignments were to occur, their effects on the Earth would be negligible. Each December the Earth and sun align with the approximate center of the Milky Way Galaxy but that is an annual event of no consequence,” says the U.S. space agency.

Mr Yeomans then addresses another fear – that of a solar flare. While he explains that our planet will face solar storms this year, this is a result of the fact that the Sun is nearing the peak of its 11 year cycle – a peak which will actually occur in May 2013, not December 2012. Also, there is absolutely no indication of a truly massive solar storm in the near future.

They even spoke about one of the cookiest ideas I’ve ever heard: reconfiguration in the alignment of the Earth’s magnetic poles that could severely affect human activities on the planet; while magnetic poles do switch places, this process happens every 750.000 years, and the process itself lasts a few millenia.

“A reversal in the rotation of Earth is impossible. There are slow movements of the continents (for example Antarctica was near the equator hundreds of millions of years ago), but that is irrelevant to claims of reversal of the rotational poles,” says the space agency. “As far as we know, such a magnetic reversal doesn’t cause any harm to life on Earth. A magnetic reversal is very unlikely to happen in the next few millennia, anyway.”

Then again, there’s always the classical asteroid fear.

“The Earth has always been subject to impacts by comets and asteroids, although big hits are very rare. The last big impact was 65 million years ago, and that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Today NASA astronomers are carrying out a survey called the Spaceguard Survey to find any large near-Earth asteroids long before they hit,” say scientists.

So people, please calm down and be logical for a moment; all these conspiracy theories were blown out of proportions by Hollywood-like schemes and do absolutely nothing but plant irrational fear. It’s not the first time researchers from NASA and not only come out and speak against such claims, but hopefully, people will actually get it this time.