Saturday, December 5, 2015

Science and Conspiracy Theory: An Experiment in Human Behavior

Some political and religious views lead to interesting patterns of rejection of scientific insights, even when those insights are supported by mountains of evidence. This behavior is not difficult to explain. People cannot specialize in everything, so we tend to simplify our lives by agreeing with people we see as authorities, and we grant or withhold our trust according to how well their ideas agree with our existing concepts of the world. We also tend to feel like we are right when we are wrong. This feeling that we are right when our view of evidence is clouded by our preconceptions exhibits a form of inertia: Verifiably incorrect views can be difficult to displace, both in our own minds and in the minds of other people. Most of us are not naturally humble enough to consider that we might be wrong in areas where we feel high confidence.

As this is an education blog, I argue that part of a good education is to learn to respect the rights of others to express any point of view, no matter how wrong we might think it to be. Ideas are then open to discussion in light of the evidence and the points of view of other people. Open discussion in light of evidence would ultimately yield a better society than one in which people mainly express their views to others with whom they already agree. Any idea can be subject to such discussion, and we do ourselves no favors by avoiding discussion with those with whom we disagree. Discussion can help us refine our ideas. After all, if we are wrong, who really wants to stay that way, given that we can choose to make our views align better with the evidence?

The adherents of many views outside the mainstream of peer-reviewed science may be more likely to be wrong than those within the mainstream, but from the scientific perspective, the veracity of any idea about the natural world ultimately depends not on how many people agree, but on the continually developing stream of evidence. When they lack hard evidence to support their beliefs, people unfamiliar with scientific thinking tend to perform intellectual acrobatics, seeking for circumstantial evidence and anecdotes in support of their existing views. They sometimes even see lack of evidence, such as lines blotted out on government forms, as evidence. They somehow know what was crossed out, and they wonder why you don’t see it as well. Many people who behave this way are so convinced of the reality of their views that they rationalize their behavior or do not see it as it really is. Many people cling to such views, assuming that anyone presenting evidence to the contrary must be part of a conspiracy or must have been duped by that conspiracy. Such people are often labeled as conspiracy theorists. Of course, real conspiracies do exist, but people document them by following trails of hard evidence that would stand up in court or even peer review in a scientific journal. Conspiracy theorists build a type of intellectual immune system into their theories, designed to resist the pull of evidence that would otherwise lead people to see errors in their views. After all, how could they be wrong?

Scientific conclusions often turn out to be wrong as well. Scientific perspectives have their own type of inertia, sometimes apparently supported by a preponderance of evidence, but still, many widely regarded scientific conclusions are ultimately discredited and replaced by other views that align better with the facts. That’s the key: Scientists view new facts as we find them, and we revise our views in response. Famous scientists usually become famous by providing evidence that overturns prevailing views. Many scientists who overturn prevailing views previously accepted those views. Scientific discoveries that simply support prevailing views do not usually yield wide acclaim.

Research grants are not usually awarded for proposed projects that are intended to entirely support prevailing views. Instead, grants are awarded in support of research to test new ideas. Most often, proposed research would build new material onto prevailing views. Sometimes scientists propose to analyze new ideas that if supported by the evidence would discredit and replace prevailing views. Of course, to supplant prevailing views constructed over decades or more of accumulated evidence requires substantial hard evidence and a well-defined argument. For example, the shift in position of a star during a solar eclipse, predicted precisely by Einstein’s theory of general relativity, and measured by Sir Arthur Eddington in 1919, provided the first observational support for that theory, which supplanted Newton’s law of universal gravitation. The principal difference between the type of conceptual inertia in science and that exhibited by conspiracy theorists is that maintenance or rejection of scientific views in the scientific community depends on evidence and peer review of that evidence. Scientists are required to respond to the concerns of their reviewers. Conspiracy theorists typically work to avoid reviews by those with whom they disagree.

Conspiracy theorists tend to pile up circumstantial evidence in support of their views. For example, those who think that the Apollo moon landings were faked point to movement of a flag in a video and a handful of apparently faked images. They find it difficult to explain these things, so they assume a conspiracy. They don’t consider, for example, how a flag held out by a wire at its top, to prevent it from dangling, might rock like a pendulum for quite a while after it is staked in an environment lacking a substantial atmosphere. The same people completely dismiss overwhelming evidence that the missions really happened and were successful, including the participation of thousands of witnesses at mission control and others who were present at or involved in lift offs or earth landings, as well as the observations of hundreds or even thousands of independent scientists around the world who analyzed the rock samples and other data returned from the moon. These scientists would have been able to identify abnormalities. If these things were faked, surely someone from among these thousands would have blown the whistle with hard evidence?

I provide below a few examples of claims that are far outside of the range of mainstream science as contained in peer-reviewed literature, but that have become popular in segments of the general public. Chances are that many of you agree with at least one of these “theories”. I mean no personal offense to anyone who might agree with them. Instead, those of you who do agree should take it as a challenge to defend your perspective by following the pathway of scientific thinking: Offer for review by your peers your strongest piece of evidence and how it leads to your conclusion. Prepare your arguments carefully, and try to consider how your conclusions might be wrong. Being outside of the mainstream itself is not evidence against an idea. Yet, oftentimes those who support such ideas don’t take the time to discuss in detail the evidence for or against their ideas with those holding mainstream scientific views (who might be critical), and they think that those who disagree with them are either uninformed or tainted by the conspiracy. These perspectives limit discussion and further isolate people in their beliefs.

If you wish to mount a challenge to the prevailing scientific view, which is against these “theories”, then present the strongest piece of evidence you can identify for your perspective, and allow the discussion about that piece of evidence to take its course.

Here are a few claims to get the discussion going:
  1. The general upward trend in the average surface temperature of the earth over most recent decades has been faked, and scientific claims of climate change including global warming caused by human activities are biased by grant money and political motivations. 
  2. Genetic modification of food crops is fundamentally dangerous to humans in all its forms, and is driven entirely by profits in big industry.
  3. Long-lived vapor condensation trails that develop behind airplanes are part of a “chemtrail conspiracy” in which the government is spraying harmful chemicals on the population.
  4. Vaccines are dangerous to all children, leading to high rates of autism and other disorders. Further, vaccines do not provide any relevant protection against the diseases for which they were supposedly formulated, and incidence of these diseases has declined anyway due to cleanliness and modern nutrition.  

All of the above “theories” run directly counter to a preponderance of evidence as expressed in the peer reviewed literature, although there are caveats in the details. I include below some discussion of science in the context of these ideas along with a few caveats to the prevailing scientific perspective (my lists evidences for the scientific perspectives and of the caveats are by no means all-inclusive).

Global Warming

There is indeed a broad consensus that CO2 and methane emissions associated with human activities generate global warming. However, our confidence in the specific amount of warming that the surface of the earth is likely to achieve under doubling of CO2 is uncertain because of incomplete understanding of the balance of feedbacks that add to or subtract from the warming effects. Yet, uncertainty in the details does not imply certainty of the absence of net effects!

Some scientists do choose to study problems motivated by their politics, but this point does not influence whether their conclusions are consistent with evidence—In successful peer review, the actual evidence is what supports or refutes claims.

Other concerns that can be legitimately raised about concepts of climate change involve how the media, the public, and even some scientists describe it in order to yield action to support political agendas. Some of this behavior might be justified by the evidence, but any claims with insufficient evidential support are dishonest. For example, some politicians and reporters blame specific storm events, such as hurricane Sandy, on climate change, an assertion that few scientists have been able to demonstrate to the satisfaction of peer review. The environmental movement risks loss of public trust when they make assertions about relationships between specific types of weather events and climate change or when they make other claims that have insufficient evidence.   

Genetic Modification of Food Crops

A growing fraction of the population has become convinced that all genetic modification of food crops is dangerous, in large part due to actions of activists, labeling on organic foods, and advertising campaigns. Many people are surprised to discover that the preponderance of evidence in the scientific literature supports that nearly all genetically modified foods are safe. Simply asserting that they are dangerous and repeating that statement over and over again does not prove its truth. However, some people do raise some potentially valid concerns about genetically modified foods. I list a few of these below. I have yet to see evidence based arguments that would lead us to conclude that all genetic modification of food crops is inherently dangerous. 

a. Some genetic modification of food crops might encourage higher rates of herbicide use, which might possibly lead to health concerns. Even if true, that would not imply that genetic modification itself is fundamentally dangerous. Contrary to that view, many genetic modifications are done to reduce the need for chemicals and to make plants more disease or drought resistant. 

b. Cross-pollination (mostly within the same crop species) might spread modified genes into neighboring fields, which although not necessarily harmful to anyone’s health, might impact the ability of organic farmers to market some of their crops.

c. Some people claim that involvement of big business in some of the science of genetic modification implies that the technology is inherently bad, but this point is politically motivated and is irrelevant to whether the resulting products are in fact dangerous. Evidence must actually show the danger, and there are plenty of peer reviewers outside of the corporate funding system to provide rigorous peer review of scientific publications about technology developed in private companies (Journal editors typically choose reviewers from outside of the institution of the authors). Activists often simply assert that these foods are dangerous, and flocks of people then agree, like Columbian sheep. Many forms of genetic modification are carried out by university scientists or scientists at nonprofit organizations, independent of corporate funding.

d. Introduction of new proteins into a food supply by coding for those proteins in the DNA of plants could potentially cause allergies or other food sensitivities, but this possibility is also true for conventional plant breeding. Most genetically modified foods have been more thoroughly tested than any other types of new food crops (including crops treated by pesticides considered suitable for "organic" agriculture). Although this testing is clearly merited, to the best of my knowledge it has yet to provide any clear evidence of danger to humans.  


I am not aware of grains of truth in the “chemtrail” conspiracy theory—This rumor appears to me to be entirely fabricated, after my reading of several of the websites spreading it. Science clearly explains why some contrails last long and others do not, and none of these explanations require nefarious additives to make some of them last longer. Having a natural explanation of course does not necessarily prove that people could not use that as a cover for their nefarious deeds, but I have yet to find any evidence of a conspiracy or of the poorly defined negative impacts that would arise from whatever “they” might be spraying on us. In any case, the argument this "theory" is making is that long lasting contrails are caused by added chemicals, and that there is no natural cause of similar behavior. 


  • Vaccine injuries do occur, especially in response to allergic reactions to eggs. Yet, to date, I have never seen any source that provides verifiable evidence of claims that vaccines cause autism or that vaccines as a whole do not benefit bulk resistance of the human population to diseases that can cause harm and death. 
  • Appearance of autism symptoms the same week or even the same day on which a vaccine is administered is not evidence that the vaccine caused the autism, because the fraction of unvaccinated children exhibiting autism symptoms at the same age is not statistically different. In those cases in which autism symptoms express a few days before a vaccine administered, do we claim the opposite, that the autism caused the vaccine administration? Such a claim would of course be preposterous. More recent studies show that although major outward expression of autism symptoms ramps up near preferred times of administration of the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella vaccine, they occur in equal rates in children who do not receive the vaccine and at a similar stage in life. These points have been reviewed by scientists outside of the corporate pharmaceutical industry.
  • Experts have recently demonstrated that it is possible to diagnose autism much earlier in life, perhaps even in utero, using more specialized testing, suggesting that vaccines administered later than that time could have no impact on the statistics of autism. 
  • Many anti-vaccine activists argued that the preservative thimerosal is responsible for autism, yet, autism rates seem to be the same between those treated with vaccines with or without this additive, and with those not vaccinated at all. 
  • Furthermore, some recent research suggests that possibly all of the apparent increase in autism rates over the last two decades might result from increased rates of detection: In other words, further evidence and change in our views of that evidence over time has altered the list of symptoms that we think are consistent with the autism diagnosis, so that more people with symptoms previously not categorized as autistic now get categorized that way. So, it is possible that there is nothing abnormal about recent decades in actual autism rates: They may have always been high, but decades ago, our metrics for diagnosis were too strict, leading to many people who would be considered autistic today not being labeled that way in the past. This point makes an excellent illustration of the self-correcting nature of scientific thinking. It is not that science cannot be wrong. Instead, we extend trust to scientific thinking in general because it is self-correcting, ultimately improving on itself to yield better explanations as our understanding of the evidence improves, and we go where the evidence leads us.
  • Death rates associated with some diseases, like polio, did begin to decline prior to broad administration of the relevant vaccines. However, spreading rates of polio did not decline markedly until after the vaccine. Much of the reduction of polio death rates before vaccine use became widespread resulted from the development of the iron lung. Thus people who would have been killed by the disease previous to that invention got to continue living, but they lived lives trapped in the breathing device, crippled by their debilitating illness. I’m sure most victims of this dread disease who lived out their (usually short) lives of confinement would rather have received the vaccine and avoided their predicament. The historical record includes numerous similar examples for diseases like measles, smallpox, and others. 

Concluding Comments

If you disagree with these points, I welcome your comments and feedback, and we can exchange peer reviewed references as part of the discussion, as needed. As a scientist, my intent is to understand the workings of the natural world and how we interact with it. Optimum education is a marketplace of ideas, in which open discussion of the evidence for and against propositions is needed. No benefits come from insulting those who hold different points of view, but people should not feel insulted when other people question their views.