Here we are in the middle of what the WHO calls an infodemic, so it’s no surprise conspiracy theories and mis/disinformation are experiencing a dangerous renaissance. The sheer volume of bad or misleading information is staggering – not to mention exhausting to process.
This post started with the intention of deconstructing a few current conspiracy theories. But, during the writing phase, I realized I had never really organized or chronicled my own eureka moments regarding skepticism and conspiracy. I decided to take the opportunity to do that. For current conspiracies to make you laugh until you cry or possibly the other way round, here’s a decent start: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/06/17/conspiracy-theories-pandemic-trump-2020-election-coronavirus-326530?fbclid=IwAR007oKVGe0CaimxFBTZEDEVNH0xNQbEwvwi6G1hp536nhlyiJe4xclFZp4
Believe You Me
It was as a budding young astronomer in the late 1970s that I first began to notice information dressed up in scientific language and referring to astronomical events and ideas that didn’t quite correspond with my evidence-based scientific sources. On top of that, for several of the ideas, I could actually go outside and see the disparities with my own eyes!
At ten years old – and living in a pre-Carl Sagan ‘Cosmos’ world – I was, of course, susceptible and curious about things like astrology, UFOs, LGMs (little green men – space aliens!). After all, these topics used astronomical or space science terms and ideas as their currency. They looked like they were in some way related to the breathtaking and eternally inspiring views of the Milky Way I had while laying on a blanket in my yard and looking up across the Summer Triangle and down to Scorpius and Sagittarius on summer evenings.
Before I was a teenager I had found Uranus and Neptune with binoculars – hiding from the ancients in plain sight! Through my telescopes, I saw Saturn’s majestic rings and watched the Galilean moons of Jupiter orbit the giant planet night after night in perfect Newtonian harmony. Month after month, year after year I watched the sky reflect exactly what my almanacs, Sky and Telescope magazines, and Abrams Planetarium Sky Calendar had said it would. Sky and Telescope would go even further in every issue and talk about almost incomprehensible cosmological ideas, their scientific testing and application through observations of exotic deep space objects like SS-433. These articles represented my first brushes with Relativity and would soon blossom and dethrone my pop culture delusions.
The End is Nigh!
Pamphlets were still a major medium for communicating various mainstream and underground political, religious, esoteric and conspiratorial ideas in the 1970s. One such pamphlet – or tract in the vernacular, stands out. It was religious in scope and intoxicatingly apocalyptic in tone. Who can resist an end-of-the-world disaster story!?
I wish I could remember how I acquired it. Possibly it was a young person at my church that knew of my astronomical inclinations who passed it to me. As I look back, I recognize it as the turning point in my journey from a passive absorber of information to analyst and skeptic.
The topic of the tract was a ‘planetary alignment’ in the late 1970s and what it portended. Recognition of the alignment is credited to Jim Burke, an engineer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1966. At the time, JPL and NASA were deep in the highly successful Mariner robotic interplanetary probe era and thinking about the possibility of a Grand Tour of the outer solar system for robotic probes in the 1970s and 80s. Positions, timestamps and formulas for orbital mechanics were fed into computers and made it pretty easy to run the clock forward to see where planets would be in the future.
In this case, the ‘alignment’ was simply that a majority of the planets in our solar system would be, more or less, aligned on one side of the sun and moving in a trajectory favorable for gravity-assisted probes to conduct flybys. An alignment this favorable had not seen since the time of Thomas Jefferson’s administration – and they didn’t even know about Neptune yet!
But the message of this particular tract was ominous. All those planets on this ‘one side’ of the sun were surely going to multiply and focus the gravity of one upon the other and trigger environmental catastrophe across the solar system through massive vulcanism, earthquake, and weather disruptions – ‘The Jupiter Effect.’ Of course, this was presented as a sign of the end time with the stern admonition that we were almost out of time to get right with God!
Obviously, the window passed and closed without catastrophe – biblical or otherwise.
It was also interesting to see as I got older that most rational adults either laughed at or generally ignored other end-of-the-world ‘Blood Moon’ charlatan clergymen and pocket prophets.
A Conjunction of the Sun and Uranus
Around the same period, it had dawned on me the sun’s position ‘in’ a given astrological birth sign was off by an entire constellation. I could go out at sunset during the astrological month of Gemini and still see the constellation standing on the northwest horizon at nightfall…the sun was simply not where the astrologers said it was – it was still blazing against Taurus! Their dates – basic to the entire system – were fundamentally in error. I suddenly understood why astrology was called a pseudoscience and summarily rejected by evidence-based science. It was just as Carl Sagan identified it, a hoax.
A Five Tone Conversation at Devil’s Tower
UFOs piloted by little green men in our skies – with some unlucky ones captured and cloistered in not-so-secret military bases – was the next conspiratorial indulgence to be deaccessioned from my mental library. It held on a little longer than the others thanks in part to our honestly credulous media’s love of sensationalism, and truly fun sci-fi movies of the late 1970s – the names of which should be obvious.
The demotion and abandonment of UFOs as a serious subject to me came with my coming to understand the physics of space travel and its relationship to the nature of space-time itself – Relativity. Not exactly a pre-teen topic but fundamentally liberating once I came to understand it. That said, if anyone has solid physical evidence, I’m eager to speak with you. But remember, extraordiary claims require extraordinary evidence!
At War with History
And then came a final demotion and abandonment that galvanized my approach to skepticism. I began reading and studying H.G. Wells, in terms of his early so-called science fiction, in those final UFO curious years. The reason was my youthful obsession with a record album of the 1938 Orson Welles radio dramatization of ‘The War of the Worlds.’ Even into my thirties, I believed there was an actual, real live mass panic involving hundreds of thousands – if not millions of people. After all, the media continually presented it as an absolute historical fact. As a historian, I had found interview footage with a contrite-looking Orson Welles apologizing for the panic, plus a 1940 conversation between Orson and H.G. in San Antonio, Texas which took the panic as actual – and even instances of pre-war German media references about the panic. The weight of anecdotal evidence seemed pretty compelling! What it ended being was a shining example of how unreliable anecdotal evidence is.
While thoroughly debunked by historians and social scientists today through the reappraisal of emergency services records and period reports, many in our credulous, under-educated, or lazy media still parrot the old October 30, 1938 mass panic urban legend.
As I grew up, obviously, I never found a defined or self-contained intellectual tool kit or set of principles for skeptics. That would have shortened my journey from credulous information absorber to skeptical analyst considerably. But, no one’s fault, really. As I mentioned earlier, it was a pre-Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ world.
Now, happily, things are different. Though he died in 1996, Carl Sagan’s influence is still felt today. Here is your very own Baloney Detection Kit as described by him. Please use it and let me know what you find!