The conspiracy theory-laden social media onslaught unleashed by rapper B.o.B. got us thinking about another famous “the Earth is flat!” believer. Charles K. Johnson was the most notorious name associated with flat-Earth theories since Christopher Columbus. And he became something of a celebrity because of it.
Charles Kenneth Johnson was born in 1924. He became president of the International Flat Earth Society in 1972—but he’d believed the Earth was a flat planet since he was a child growing up in Texas and couldn’t wrap his head around the concept of gravity. He kept those beliefs with him during his 25 years working as an airplane mechanic in San Francisco. Eventually, he moved to the Mojave Desert and made a career shift into activism. He took over running the Society when its previous leader, Johnson’s good friend Samuel Shenton, passed away and designated him as successor. Shenton had founded the group in the 1950s but traced its origins back to 19th century England.
That Johnson’s desert abode was so close to Edwards Air Force Base, home of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, only made it more curious how strongly Johnson stuck to his beliefs. He believed the space program was a full-on hoax. In 1980, he gave an interview to Science Digest in which he opined “You can’t orbit a flat earth. The Space Shuttle is a joke—and a very ludicrous joke.”
Joni Mitchell was hospitalized this week, but the songwriter has been sick for years. She has described her debilitating illness as “a slow, unpredictable killer–a terrorist disease. It will blow up one of your organs, leaving you in bed for a year.” Yet doctors have described this same illness as an internet meme, a delusion spread online.
Mitchell is talking about Morgellons disease, a condition where people report their skin crawling with parasitic, foreign fibers, often sprouting out of sores and lesions, in addition to fatigue and other health problems associated with itching skin. Morgellons is emphatically not accepted by the medical community. In fact, many doctors and researchers credit the internet with creating the conditions to spread Morgellons self-diagnoses as a kind of digital folie a deux. “It seems to be a socially transmitted disease over the Internet,” mass delusional specialist (yup, that’s a thing) Robert E. Bartholomew told the Los Angeles Times in 2006.
In 2008, a panel of doctors answered questions about Morgellons for the Washington Post. Dr. Jeffrey Meffert explicitly pinpointed the internet and digital communities as the reason why the idea of the disease caught on, saying the disease “has only existed as long as high speed internet.” Skeptics don’t see Morgellons as a virus, but see it as a misbelief gone viral.
In 2012, the U.S. Center for Disease Control investigated Morgellons and concluded that it is psychosomatic. A CDC spokesperson told me the center is no longer tracking reports of Morgellons since it published the study.
Many doctors believe that people who self-diagnose with Morgellons have delusions of parasitosis and infestation, and are inflicting their abrasions on themselves. In other words: It’s all in their heads.
People who identify as Morgellons patients—or “Morgies”—are upset by this assessment. So where do people go when they feel like the medical community rejects them? Online.
Also See: Morgellons (Wikipedia)
By Thom Scott-Phillips via Gizmodo
Anti-vaccination beliefs can cause real, substantive harm, as shown by the recent outbreak of measles in the US. These developments are as shocking and distressing as their consequences are predictable. But if the consequences are so predictable, why do the beliefs persist?
It is not simply that anti-vaxxers don’t understand how vaccines work (some of them may not, but not all of them). Neither are anti-vaxxers simply resistant to all of modern medicine (I’m sure that many of them still take pain killers when they need to). So the matter is not as simple as plain stupidity. Some anti-vaxxers are not that stupid, and some stupid people are not anti-vaxxers. There is something more subtle going on.
We all have what psychologists call “folk” theories, or “naïve” theories, of how the world works. You do not need to learn Newton’s laws to believe that an object will fall to the floor if there is nothing to support it. This is just something you “know” by virtue of being human. It is part of our naïve physics, and it gives us good predictions of what will happen to medium-sized objects on planet earth.
Naïve physics is not such a good guide outside of this environment. Academic physics, which deals with very large and very small objects, and with the universe beyond our own planet, often produces findings that are an affront to common sense.
As well as physics, we also have naïve theories about the natural world (naïve biology) and the social world (naïve psychology). An example of naïve biology is “vitalistic causality” – the intuitive belief that a vital power or life force, acquired from food and water, is what makes humans active, prevents them from being taken ill, and enables them to grow. Children have this belief from a very young age.
Naïve theories of all kinds tend to persist even in the face of contradictory arguments and evidence. Interestingly, they persist even in the minds of those who, at a more reflexive level of understanding, know them to be false.
Carl Sagan is arguably science’s biggest rockstar—the ultimate champion for logic and reason. Which makes it all the more painful to find out that his son is a vehement 9/11 truther.
In a recent interview for a radio show called 9/11 Free Fall (already off to a great start), Jeremy Sagan—the younger son of Sagan senior and his first wife, fellow scientist Lynn Margulis—went off on all us closed-minded sheeple. In response to a prompt asking when he first “woke up,” Sagan remarks:
Well, on first seeing it—anyone seeing it can see that there’s something suspicious about it. I think it was New Year’s 2002, I was at a friend’s house, and they were saying Bush could never do something like this because he was incompetent. But in retrospect, now that I think about it, it’s true. I don’t think Bush could really do it, but that’s why they had him skirted off into Florida, to get him a little bit out of the way. In retrospect, you look at that and its obvious it was a controlled demolition.
Obvious indeed. But what evidence does Sagan, a computer programmer, have to support these supposedly manifest claims? Little more than the usual inside job truther fare, saying, “I think the visual evidence is the most compelling. You have molten steel coming out of the building. Obivously, also the evidence of thermite is very compelling. The other thing I should say, if you look at building 7, the way everything was known before it happened. And the way it was reported in the media before it happened, that doesn’t happen. You know?”
In the latter case, Sagan is referring to an aspect in the “controlled demolition” conspiracy that asserts some people had prior knowledge that the buildings were about to fall. This idea is supposedly supported by the fact that a BBC reporter announced the building at 7 WTC’s collapse 20 minutes before it actually happened. Of course, the BBC reporter referred to it as a “very honest mistake,” and news stations have a rich and vibrant history of getting facts very, very wrong in high stress situations.
Perhaps even more surprising than Jeremy Sagan aligning with the paranoid ranters of the world is the fact that, apparently, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. No, not Carl Sagan (dear god not Carl Sagan). We’re talking about his mother. Yes, Lynn Margulis, Jeremy Sagan’s mommy dearest herself was also a crusader for 9/11 Truth.
Margulis was only married to Sagan senior for eight years (from 1957 to 1965), but apparently it was enough to pass off the paranoia gene at least once. If Dorion, her other son with Sagan, has followed in his mother’s and brother’s footsteps, he’s stayed understandably quiet about it.
And while Jeremy seems to have just now come out, Margulis was all in from the start. On the site Scientists for 9/11 Truth, she claimed . . .
“The potential danger from EM fields is making millions of human beings into test animals,” Ted Koppel solemnly intones in a 1990 Nightline report on electromagnetic fields from power lines. But two decades and hundreds of studies later, there has been no great cancer epidemic caused by power lines. Why did we get so scared in the first place?
The latest video from Retro Report, a series reexamining the breathless news coverage of yore, delves into the late 80s and 90s panic over electromagnetic fields. A small number of suggestive—but inconclusive—studies showed a possible link between the presence of power lines and cancer in children. With power lines threading through every neighborhood, parents naturally panicked.
Retro Report tracks down David Savitz, one of the first epidemiologists to find a link between power lines and childhood cancer. Savitz now disavows that link, dismissing those early studies as aberrations in what is now a huge body of literature that finds no risk from electromagnetic fields. This is just how science works— with contradictions and in fits and starts.
The evening news may no longer be yammering about power lines and cancer, but the same story is still playing out with GMOs and cell phone radiation. [Retro Report]