A significant portion of the world does not believe in basic scientific facts, and there are pundits, politicians, influencers, organizations, and celebrities who reinforce this incredulity every day. Nearly half of the US population, for example, doesn’t believe in evolution and there are still politicians lobbying to force creationism in schools.[i] According to a survey conducted last year, only 57% of Americans believe global warming is caused by humans and 49% believe we should increase offshore drilling of oil.[ii] A large number of Americans also believe at least one conspiracy theory about COVID, such as that it’s a “hoax”[iii] According to a survey conducted in February of this year, one in six have vowed to never get vaccinated.
COVID aside there has been an unprecedented increase in conspiracy theories so divorced from reality they look like satire. Each are more bizarre than the next from “Flat Earthism” (a long-held religious belief that has taken thousands of years for people to abandon that unfortunately been making a comeback)[iv] to “Pizzagate,” a theory that Democratic officials were trafficking children and running a child sex ring in a Comet Ping Pong pizzeria. Similarly, “QANON” followers believe a “satanic and cannibalistic” cabal of pedophiles running a child sex ring conspired against Trump in the 2020 election. To them this was the only conceivable explanation to Trump’s loss as they were unable to grasp the reality that most Americans didn’t want four more years of Trump. A stupefying 17% of Americans identified as QANON followers in October of 2021 according to surveys conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute think tank.[v] Anyone the right-wing doesn’t like is labeled a “pedophile.” Reports they don’t like are labeled “fake news”. People are living in their own worlds, and we have entered a new age of glorified ignorance.
It’s not just fringe pundits with small numbers of followers that are inventing and supporting conspiracy theories. 253 US politicians believe Trump won the 2020 election, for example, including 19 senators and 20 governors, despite the absence of a shred of proof[vi] Trump himself has stated he believes climate change is a hoax invented to make money. Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham of Fox news, French politician, Marine Le Pen, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, and Italian Prime Minister, Giorgia Meloni all promote the “Great Replacement Theory” that asserts white people are being replaced by people of color via migration and a drop in the birth rate, which they call “genocide by substitution.” Unfortunately, these ridiculous conspiracy theories detract from real conspiracies that have been proven and they push some people to more moderate, passive, and pacified politics that dilute the energy and urgency of revolutionary movements. Instead of fighting violent right-wing fascism, we are told to move to the center. “Both sides” are claimed to have “good points” but the real problem is a supposed desire for radical change as if humanity faces no real problems. Revolutionaries are cast off as part of the same group of conspiracy theorists and the extreme right-wing is unjustly equated with the “radical left.”
There are so many outrages, so much unbelievable hoarding of wealth by the powerful few and simultaneous destitution of the majority of the planet, so much daily environmental destruction, and so much state-sanctioned violence, cruelty, and torture that it seems unbelievable anyone feels the need to make up conspiracies when there are already so many very much out in the open and well documented. The slew of misinformation in the media could be part of an effort by the ruling class to combat growing awareness of these obvious contradictions and inequities in society. They have abandoned appeals to logic and now simply claim these inequities don’t exist.
Conspiracy theorists like to argue that since the field of science consists of many theories, it doesn’t “prove” anything. But there are scientific laws, and scientific theories are often referred to as theories long after immeasurable evidence emerges to support them because the nature of science is skeptical. Since the search for truth is endless, scientific theories will always remain “theories.” But there are tentative theories, such as those on grand unification and theories like evolution that are incredibly well established and “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent” as paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote in 1981. A scientific law is different than a theory and contrary to popular beliefs, a theory doesn’t become a law with more evidence. A scientific law is something we can observe, such as gravitation. When we drop something off a building, it always falls. When we jump in the air, we come right back down, and don’t fly off the face of the Earth. This is, of course, gravity in action. However, explanations of gravity, such as that it is a wave, particle, or something else entirely are theories. Scientific laws are not well understood by most people who don’t study them and there are many who don’t even believe in them, despite the fact that we observe them every day. Evolution is sometimes referred to as a scientific fact and a theory because it is a fact we can observe gradual changes among generations of species to their environments in the fossil record but the theory of natural selection that explains why these changes occur is technically a well-substantiated theory.
Not all hostility to science comes from the right. Some left-wing and anti-authoritarian groups also have some hostility at least to scientists as authority figures. Criticism of scientists actively working for oil corporations, for example, is very reasonable. There is massive hypocrisy in this type of scientific work. Although the science that shows the existence of anthropogenic climate change is irrefutable, many scientists continue to work for oil companies. They are applying scientific principles to find oil via seismic surveys but then ignoring the environmental science that shows to extract this oil is nothing short of ecocidal. This hypocrisy is shared by scientists working on nuclear technology, crops genetically modified to resist toxic pesticides, and addictive pharmaceutical drugs. “Science” should not be blamed for this but rather rapacious capitalism. The scientific method can be applied simply to turn a profit, ignoring all the negative externalities that are scientifically proven but irrelevant to those who only care about profit. This isn’t a reason to be cynical of “science” but rather a reason to be cynical of every salesman, whether or not he calls himself a “scientist.”
Unfortunately, some against science associate it with capitalism. For example, those who believe a vaccine’s benefits outweigh its potential side-effects might be accused of supporting the billion-dollar pharmaceutical companies selling them when this is an ad hominem attack. The discussion on the COVID vaccine has been reduced to false dichotomies: either you support the vaccine unquestioningly and do not want to accept the existence of any side-effects or you deny it works at all or that any vaccine is effective. There is no room for nuance. The pundits who take either extreme are broadcast widely while those who recognize a vaccine’s effectiveness and potential side-effects are not household names.
Science motivated purely by a yearning for knowledge is the only kind true to the scientific method but it is not necessarily profitable and so it is not nearly as well funded as other types of technical sciences that can be applied to manufacture products or extract resources. So long as education is privatized, the fields of science will remain much harder to access for those without the money to enroll in expensive universities. This has long been a problem in scientific fields. Many incredible scientific thinkers died destitute and the credit for their discoveries was stolen by others with greater wealth, influence, or formal education. This is why there is some legitimate criticism of elitism within scientific fields. Everyone ought to be able to contribute to the scientific process and everyone ought to have free access to scientific information. Of course, merit can still be considered without a lack of merit or formal education being a reason to completely discredit anyone. Conversely, no theory ought to be immediately accepted simply because it is posited by someone with the most impressive merits. Without capitalism education could be made free and this would rapidly change scientific fields.
Some say science is cynical and that it takes the mystery out of life. But one could argue it deepens life’s mysteries, adding far more richness and depth than a religion that explains everything away with divine intervention. Scientists like Carl Sagan viewed the world with more awe, wonder, and unpretentious curiosity than any preacher or conspiracy theorist. Far from cold and unfeeling, they drew inspiration from the universe and its many mysteries. If you simply begin by basing your worldviews on your feelings (which change constantly due to changing neurochemical activity from diet, exercise, drugs, lifestyle, light exposure, etc.) your worldview is bound to be chaotic. Influential people with massive platforms wake up feeling a different way with new unfounded theories and people leech onto these as part of their new reality. It is an incredibly dangerous way to live. Proof is irrelevant to these people. Their “feelings” are the only proof they need, which can’t be demonstrated to anyone else. They can invent anything they want. Some are particularly vulnerable to this appeal to novelty. The “truth” is rewritten daily for these people. One new article, YouTube video, or documentary is enough “proof” for them to change their entire world views. There are also far-right reactionaries with the opposite bias, wherein anything new is considered dubious and “tradition” is valued above all else. No new information, no matter how compelling or irrefutable, will sway them. These biases both share a common denominator, which is that they reject the scientific method and empiricism.
As Carl Sagan wrote in his book The Demon Haunted World, Science as a Candle in the Dark:
“Science is different from many another human enterprise—not, of course, in its practitioners being influenced by the culture they grew up in, nor in sometimes being right and sometimes wrong (which are common to every human activity), but in its passion for framing testable hypotheses, in its search for definitive experiments that confirm or deny ideas, in the vigor of its substantive debate, and in its willingness to abandon ideas that have been found wanting. If we were not aware of our own limitations, though, if we were not seeking further data, if we were unwilling to perform controlled experiments, if we did not respect the evidence, we would have very little leverage in our quest for the truth. Through opportunism and timidity we might they be buffeted by every ideological breeze, with nothing of lasting value to hang on to.” This is where our culture stands today. Too many are uninterested in controlled experiment or evidence, and the “ideological breezes” are steering us in incredibly dangerous directions.
Ironically, some invoke science as a weapon to eliminate skepticism. Corporate interests will label movements against GMOs as “unscientific” to obscure the reality that GMOs are by and large created to resist pesticides, which have been proven by numerous scientific studies to cause cancer and disrupt the endocrine system. But supporting the scientific method is not analogous to some naive technological utopianism that regards every scientific invention as sacrosanct. Nuclear weapons were created by scientists to disastrous ends afterall. Supporting the scientific method is simply about understanding our world. What we do with that knowledge is something else entirely.
The scientific method is the foundation for nearly all of human knowledge and technology. It is a way to understand the world in the most objective way possible by making hypotheses from observations, and then testing those hypotheses. Some critics of science argue that human observations are inevitably subjective and biased but that it why testing hypotheses is usually performed with instruments that give the same results regardless of who is using them. It is an incredibly grounding way of understanding the world because it brings consistency. It has established scientific laws that the universe does not break. It makes natural phenomenon more predictable and less terrifying. For those who don’t believe in science, nothing is consistent. Most believe God controls everything and this must be an unsettling way to live unless you have complete faith in an omnipotent and moral God, despite all the environmental catastrophes and underserved human suffering and cruelty that occurs daily.
It is worth noting many practice the scientific method without acknowledging or recognizing it, including those who “reject science”. Countless examples in our lives occur daily when we have ideas and we test them to see if they are true; this is science in action. Therefore, demonizing science makes no sense. If we are to have any kind of rational, just world science will play a large part.
Fortunately, there has been some backlash against right-wing conspiracy theorists. Alex Jones, for example, was sued and ordered to pay nearly $1.5 billion to the families of victims of the Sandy Hook shooting for claiming the shooting was a “hoax” that didn’t really occur. Antifascists have held right-wing pundits accountable for lying and purporting hateful myths, such as denying the Holocaust occurred. But clearly there is still a lingering hostility to science among many segments of the population, especially the right-wing.
One of the reasons the scientific method is so important is that it allows for continual evolution of our knowledge. Too many ideologues have a fixed view of the world or a confirmation bias; they immediately reject anything that doesn’t conform to their world view, making them incapable of change and this is unfortunately seen by many as a strength rather than a weakness. To have conviction in our beliefs can absolutely be a strength but to be obdurate and uncompromising even in the face of undeniable information that conflicts with our beliefs is imprudent to say the least. Regularly employing the scientific method in our daily lives can instill us with humility. Instead of explaining everything via divine intervention, the scientific method reminds us there is a tremendous amount we still don’t know and a tremendous amount that humans of current and past generations have discovered, more than any one person could learn in a lifetime. Instead of reacting to every new piece of information with predictable emotion, we can first analyze the information and ask a number of questions, such as “Is it credible? What is the source? Can it be verified? How does this conform or conflict with what we already know and why?” It can be very helpful if we try to resist reacting reflexively or emotionally until we at least have a better understanding of the truth. There is great value in just observing without expectation. While those who have read this far are likely inclined to ask themselves these questions, it is a challenge to reach those already indoctrinated with conspiracy theories who lack a desire to think critically or even improve themselves. It is uncertain if it’s worth trying to reach these people or simply to take a defensive approach, assuming they won’t change. So long as mass media remains the property of billionaire capitalists, the propaganda will continue, so targeting these platforms and their infrastructure is critical, as is holding people accountable when they do spread misinformation.
[i] Study: Evolution now accepted by majority of Americans | University of Michigan News (umich.edu)
[ii] Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2021 – Yale Program on Climate Change Communication
[iii] 25% in US see at least some truth in conspiracy theory that COVID-19 was planned | Pew Research Center
[iv] Nevermind that humans have achieved space travel, taken pictures of the round Earth, traveled around the globe by plane and ship countless times, Nevermind the thousands of satellites we have set in orbit that continue to provide us with GPS and a myriad of other technologies. Never mind the fact that every visible planet and star is round. Nevermind the theory of gravitation.
[v] Belief in QAnon has strengthened in US since Trump was voted out, study finds | QAnon | The Guardian
[vi] The 253 Politicians Who Back Trump’s False Election Fraud Claims (bloomberg.com)