Monday, June 19, 2017

Debunking Conspiracy Theories

This weekend I found myself wondering if it was a waste of time trying to debunk conspiracy theories–particularly those related to science. However, when you consider that 26 Percent of Americans Say the Sun Revolves Around the Earth, it seems like we have a lot of work to do.

The most recent, and arguably the most concerning conspiracy theory is the reemergence of the Flat Earth movement. As you might expect, this movement is wrapped up with other equally false conspiracy theories; chemtrails, the moon landing hoax, geocentrism, etc. On both Twitter and Facebook, I’ve engaged Flat Earth believers, and on both platforms I wondered if I was simply wasting my time.

History Says No

If we consider that in 1999 only 18% of Americans believed the Sun revolved around the Earth, it becomes obvious that we’re losing ground. Part of this is due to the ability of conspiracy theorists to spread their disinformation easily online via blogs, self-publishing, and YouTube. Not only does this serve to increase the number of people who believe in these conspiracy theories, it discredits these legitimate outlets for anyone who is NOT spreading lies.

If history is our indicator, simply ignoring the conspiracy crowd won’t make them go away.

Just because it’s a waste of time trying to convince a believer that the Earth is round and orbits the sun, we cannot conclude that it’s a waste of time debunking their claims. Some people sitting on the fence could, and it seems have, concluded that a lack of debunking from the scientific community implies the conspiracy theorists are right.

It’s About Education

Like so many other things in our modern world it comes down to education. There’s a reason that educated people tend not to believe in most conspiracies–education, particularly in STEM subjects, inoculates people against crazy theories.

The obvious long term solution is better STEM education, even for people who are not STEM majors. But this doesn’t mean we can stop debunking nonsense wherever we see it. If we do, we run the risk of 30%+ of Americans believing the Sun orbits the Earth within a few short years.