A critical analysis of archeology leads to rejection of astrology, conspiracies, etc.
The world as a whole has become increasingly reliant on science to provide its technology and inform its policy. But rampant conspiracy theories, fake news, and pseudoscience like homeopathy show that the world could use a bit more of the organized skepticism that provides the foundation of science. For that reason, it has often been suggested that an expanded science education program would help cut down on the acceptance of nonsense.
But a study done with undergrads at North Carolina State University suggests that a class on scientific research methods doesn’t do much good. Instead, a class dedicated to critical analysis of nonsense in archeology was far more effective at getting students to reject a variety of pseudoscience and conspiracy theories. And it worked even better when the students got their own debunking project.
The study, done by Anne Collins McLaughlin and Alicia McGill, lumps together things like belief in astrology, conspiracy theories, and ancient aliens, calling them “epistemically unwarranted.” Surveys show they’re widely popular; nearly half the US population thinks astrology is either somewhat or very scientific, and the number has gone up over time.
You might think that education, especially in the sciences, could help reverse this trend, but McLaughlin and McGill have some depressing news for you. Rejection of epistemically unwarranted ideas doesn’t correlate with scientific knowledge, and college students tend to have as much trouble coming to grips with reality as anyone else.
By Amy Sipovic via The Times (mywebtimes)
A recent University of Chicago study found approximately half of all Americans believe in one of six medical conspiracy theories.
Two examples include the idea a U.S. spy agency purposefully infected African-Americans with HIV, and the government has dumped large quantities of toxic chemicals into the water supply under the premise of fluoridation.
Another study found 19 percent of Americans believe the 9/11 terrorist attacks were concocted by the U.S. government, and another 11 percent think the switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs is an attempt to make people more obedient and easier to subject to mind control.
In some regards, these numbers do not surprise me. I am asked questions from time to time by students who have read something on the Internet that sounds like a conspiracy theory, and they ask if I have heard about it.
While I think there should be a healthy discussion about policy and current events, I worry the Internet and online public comments sections are making everything — including scientifically-proven ideas — up for debate.
Conspiracy theories are different from a critical analysis of information because conspiracy theorists continue to cling to their beliefs, despite facts that continually disprove them. Often, they then say the facts are all a part of the overall conspiracy, and the cycle of ridiculousness continues.
Skeptoid listeners are always asking for conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. Here’s the best I could come up with.
Ever since the earliest days of Skeptoid, listeners have been asking me for two things: Do an episode on paranormal claims that turned out to be true, and do an episode on conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. For both types of requests, I’ve always answered “Great, just find some for me.” Nothing. Ever. Crickets chirping. So when I went on the Joe Rogan podcast, which has an enormous conspiracy theory following, I asked straight out: Please send me examples of conspiracy theories that turned out to be true. I was buried in email… to the degree that such a thing is possible.
Judging conspiracy theories can be a tricky business. For one thing, they’re often uselessly vague. I can say “The government does things we don’t know about,” and then virtually anything can come out in the news and I can claim to have been right. For another thing, the world is full of real criminal conspiracies, and I can always point to any one of them and claim “Hey, this is a conspiracy theory that was proven true.” So I have a simple pair of requirements that a conspiracy theory must adhere to in order to be considered the type of conspiracy theory that we’re actually talking about when we use the term.
- First, it must be specific enough to be falsifiable. This is the fundamental requirement that every scientific theory must comply with to be considered valid. By way of example, compare a vague version of the chemtrails conspiracy theory to a specific disprovable claim. You can’t just say “Some airplanes spray some unknown chemical.” That’s so vague that you could claim you were proven correct the next time a crop duster sprays a field. But if you say “United Airlines tail number NC13327 is equipped to spray VX nerve gas, and that one right there is spraying it right now,” then that’s a claim that can be disproven with a single inspection. You make a claim that specific, you’re proven right, I’ll stand behind you 100%.
- Second, it must be known to the conspiracy theorist before it’s discovered by the media or law enforcement. Simply repeating what someone else’s proper investigation has led them to does not constitute developing a theory. Woodward and Bernstein did an intense investigation and put together evidence bit by bit until they had the whole story of the Watergate scandal; at no point did they sit back in their chairs, propose an elaborate conspiracy, then watch as every detail unfolded exactly as they predicted. If you want to impress me with your conspiracy theory, you have to discover it (in detail) before other investigators piece together the proof and make it public for you. Otherwise you’re just claiming credit for reading the newspaper.
So now let’s look at the most common “conspiracy theories proven true” that I was sent:
1. The Gulf of Tonkin
This was overwhelmingly the most common story sent to me from listeners of the Rogan podcast. It was the American excuse to enter the Vietnam War. A small naval battle took place between US forces and North Vietnamese torpedo boats, after which Congress gave President Lyndon B. Johnson the authority to order military action in support of certain Southeast Asian countries who were threatened by Communist forces. Basically, a thinly-veiled authorization for Johnson to go to war with North Vietnam.
The conspiracy part comes from the claim that the naval battle never actually took place, or that it was a fake “false flag” attack by American conspirators trying to give Congress the excuse they wanted. There’s probably a grain of truth to this. There was indeed one real engagement on August 2, 1964, in which planes and ships were damaged on both sides and the North Vietnamese suffered a number of casualties. There’s no doubt there. But it was the second attack two days later on August 4 that was fishy. American forces fired heavily on radar targets only, and nobody ever reported any visual sightings of North Vietnamese forces.
Throughout the day on August 4, as the action was unfolding, Captain Herrick of the destroyer USS Maddox cabled Washington a number of times, and reported in no uncertain terms that he believed there were no enemy forces. This information was public from the beginning. Even as Johnson was drafting his resolution, Senator Wayne Morse was holding public press conferences to reveal that the second attack was without evidence.
Provoking attacks may seem pretty unethical to most of us, but the fact is it’s been a common military tactic since the Romans and the Carthaginians. At no point were the details of the Gulf of Tonkin incident unknown, so it never existed as a conspiracy theory.
The FBI’s domestic Counter Intelligence Program was a terrible thing from the beginning. It operated since 1956, and also less formally for nearly 50 years before that. Their purpose was to discredit and harm American groups mainly associated with civil rights, characterizing them as hate groups that threatened national security. The program was blown in 1971 when a group of eight men, calling themselves the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, broke into a small FBI office in a perfectly planned and executed raid. They seized some 1,000 documents detailing COINTELPRO operations and mailed them to newspapers. The FBI was unable to identify any of the burglars before the statute of limitations ran out, so they got away with it clean. As a result, the FBI was forced to terminate this often-illegal program.
“I believe in a lot of astrology.” So commented pop megastar Katy Perry in a recent GQ interview. She also said she sees everything through a “spiritual lens”…and that she believes in aliens.
According to data from the National Science Foundation’s just-released 2014 Science and Engineering Indicators study, Americans are moving in Perry’s direction. In particular, the NSF reports that the percentage of Americans who think astrology is “not at all scientific” declined from 62 percent in 2010 to just 55 percent in 2012 (the last year for which data is available). As a result, NSF reports that Americans are apparently less skeptical of astrology than they have been at any time since 1983.
The data on Americans’ astrological beliefs are compiled by NSF but come from a variety of sources; since 2006 they have come from the General Social Survey. Over the years, the GSS and other surveys have asked Americans a recurring question: “Would you say that astrology is very scientific, sort of scientific, or not at all scientific?”
In response, a substantial minority of Americans, ranging from 31 to 45 percent depending on the year, say consider astrology either “very scientific” or “sort of scientific.” That’s bad enough—the NSF report compares it with China, where 92 percent of the public does not believe in horoscopes—but the new evidence suggests we are also moving in the wrong direction. Indeed, the percentage of Americans who say astrology is scientifically bunk has been declining ever since a high point for astrology skepticism in 2004, when it hit 66 percent.
The recent increase in astrological credulity was most dramatic among those with less science education and less “factual knowledge,” NSF reported. In the latter group, there was a staggering 17 percentage point decline in how many people were willing to say astrology is unscientific, from 52 percent in 2010 to just 35 percent in 2012. Also apparently to blame are younger Americans, aged 18 to 24, where an actual majority considers astrology at least “sort of” scientific, and those aged 35 to 44. In 2010, 64 percent of this age group considered astrology totally bunk; in 2012, by contrast, only 51 percent did, a 13 percentage point change.