When I was 10 years old, I stood in the supermarket checkout, astounded. There, on the cover of a newspaper, was Bill Clinton shaking hands with an alien. “Dad!”, I said, practically ecstatic, “Bill Clinton knows an alien! Look!” I was obsessed with aliens and UFO’s at the time, and we were Democrats, so this was basically my dream headline. Our president had convinced the aliens to talk to us. My dad laughed, and said, “That newspaper is what we call a tabloid. They report things that aren’t true to get people’s attention, just like they got yours. If Bill Clinton had met an alien, don’t you think we would have seen it in the New York Times or on the News Hour?” I realized he was right, and was slightly disappointed because I really wanted the aliens to visit us.
Years later, Men In Black came out, and my sister and I went to the theater to see it. In one scene, Agent K goes to a newsstand, and buys up all the tabloids, explaining to the newly minted Agent J, that that’s where all the real news is. Everyone in the theater laughed because we knew it was ridiculous. I was reminded of that moment in the supermarket checkout years prior. The entire premise of the movie was that there’s a whole alien eco-system hidden in plain sight, which is a lovely thing to think about, to me anyway. Of course, we all knew it was the stuff of, well, supermarket tabloids and Hollywood creatives.
Within my lifetime, the line between journalism and farce has become so blurred that people seem to have no idea what to believe anymore, and conspiracy theories have taken over. The internet has successfully allowed anybody to publish their views to a wide audience in seconds. While this has been important to society in some ways, like the ability to live stream police brutality or crimes, and a real trip in other ways, like how some seemingly random things go viral, it has also provided a means for conspiracy theorists to be placed on more equal footing than they were before. The New York Times was not generally placed next to The National Enquirer. It sat next to The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. There was a visible and clear demarcation. This is journalism. That is just for fun. That line doesn’t exist on the internet, though. A blog is a blog is a blog. Of course, there are wonderful and credible sources online as well, but a person really has to know how to sort them out from the rest.
We can’t talk about this without talking about the recent trend toward declaring anything that doesn’t fit one’s preferred narrative to be fake news. I remember explaining what fake news was to a friend’s cousin who was insisting that The Washington Post was fake news because it publishes a lot of things he doesn’t agree with. He showed me some evidence for his claim. It was the Opinions page, and featured an analysis of a recent issue written by a Democrat Congressman, and an analysis of that same issue written by a Republican Congressman. He said, “Look! It’s fake news! They run stories that contradict each other!” I pointed to the byline at the top that said “Opposing Views”. I explained that an opinion piece cannot be fake news because it is presenting someone’s opinion on an issue as their opinion, not reporting it as fact. I also explained that representing both sides of an issue is balanced reporting, not indecision. This, along with the fact that it wasn’t the first time I’d had this conversation, lead me to one conclusion. The ability to evaluate a source has become scarce in society, and that probably goes a long way toward explaining the rise in conspiracy theories. Increasing numbers of people deny the validity of a source that goes against their own bias, so if The Washington Post can be fake news, then Green Med Info, David Avocado Wolf, InfoWars, or any given YouTube channel could be the real deal as far as they’re concerned. I have found that in most cases, these same people are not open to logic and reason. My friend’s cousin still thinks The Washington Post is fake news, and says so every chance he gets.
I will never forget the day I came home from work to find my husband tapping away furiously at his laptop keys with the same look on his face that he gets when his ex-wife sends a particularly rude email. As I walked into the bedroom, he said, “Come here. You’ve got to see this. Some guy thinks the earth is flat and has been arguing with me for an hour about it.” My first thought was that a master level troll was messing with him. My husband is no stranger to the internet, and doesn’t fall for just any troll, so I figured this must be a really good one, the sort of troll you have to appreciate for their raw skill even if you think trolling is pretty annoying in general. I was wrong again. It wasn’t a troll. This was an actual person who thought the earth was flat, and they were certain they were going to convince my husband, who has an above average grasp of scientific principles, to believe them.
Our curiosity was piqued. How could any functional adult believe something that was the complete opposite of everything we learned in Kindergarten? The earth being round is pretty much the most basic scientific fact that exists, and these people deny it. How? We grabbed a couple of ciders and started Googling. We had no idea what a rabbit hole we were going down when we started, but there’s basically a whole conspiracy theory community out there who are convinced of everything from the earth being flat, to Australia not being real, to the moon landing being faked, to the illuminati being a thing that exists. There aren’t enough minutes in ten lifetimes to delve into all of it, so flat earth seemed like a place to start, especially since it’s so obviously and objectively wrong. The biggest thing we wanted to know was why these people think the earth is flat in spite of so much evidence to the contrary.
Most of the flat earthers’ arguments seem to be religiously based. They go by a drawing that was included with the Old Testament that described a flat earth with a firmament filled with the atmosphere as we know it. They think this entire assembly is floating in water, and that the stars are fallen angels who come to earth to procreate with human women. I wish I were making this up, but I’m not. That’s what they think.
But aren’t they aware that the Bible was written a long time ago, before Kepler defined orbits, before Galileo determined our orbit in particular to be heliocentric, before Newton defined gravity and figured out how it works? I’m not here to criticize anyone’s religious beliefs, but surely one can understand that the people who wrote the Bible weren’t exactly going to pass today’s peer review process with their understanding of science. The answer is yes, they are aware of that, and they don’t care. They’re right, we’re wrong, and we can take our peer review and shove it.
But how can they believe these things in a world where we have sufficient numerical analysis to prove the shape, size, and other properties of our planet? Anyone who’s been to engineering school remembers those first few courses in Newtonian physics, statics, and dynamics, the courses that taught us how matter behaves on this planet of ours. Our first equations, and some of our subsequent ones, made certain assumptions. All weights were on a Teflon track which provided no friction. All projectiles were spherical and encountered no air resistance. Bodies were uniform in density. Loads were always applied exactly at easily determined points. These completely unrealistic assumptions helped us to learn the concepts of motion, and add in the other factors as we went. Sometimes those other things are negligible, and there are methods for determining that. In any case, the general equation governing an event is important, and usually based on assumptions that do not represent reality.
Apparently, no flat earther ever went to engineering school. Please try to hide your shock. Anyway, they found an old equation in a public NASA archive from 1984, the explanation for which includes the words, “Assume a flat earth.” It is a formula for a general equation that can be used for aeronautical calculations on any landing surface, whether the earth, the moon, another planet, anything. When it comes to engineering calculations, you can always add another term or coefficient to narrow down your results, but we start with the general equation, flat surfaces, Teflon tracks, and spherical chickens with no air resistance launched from cannons with exactly known blasting loads. These are the ingredients, and everyone who survived even to sophomore year of engineering school knows it.
But how do people deny the earth is round when there are pictures of it taken from space? They claim it’s all CGI, that NASA is a giant conspiracy made to trick the people, and that all of it is completely made up by the government. Why would the government want to do this? Your guess is as good as mine. As a longtime government employee, I have no idea where the funding for that type of cover-up operation would come from, and I really wish they’d give me some of it to improve our infrastructure. That’s what these people think, though. That’s the bottom line. They think the earth is flat, and Big Science has some covert interest in keeping that information from the people.
I’m not concerned with what these people think. I’m more concerned with the fact that we live in a world where something so patently ridiculous that most people dismiss it as a joke the first time they hear it can gain enough traction that the average netizen is aware of it. This is more than just some internet rumor we can laugh about on FaceBook. Shortly after my husband and I discovered that flat earth theory exists, we made the extremely unfortunate and maddening discovery that many of the same people who are convinced that we’re floating through space on a giant Frisbee are also spreading rumors that the Parkland students who are currently rallying for common sense legislation to keep our kids safe in schools, are paid actors, and that the entire deadly incident at their school was a ploy by the government.
A quick search turns up hundreds of memes showing pictures of the Parkland students, photoshopped into movie posters, with sayings superimposed over them about how they got paid, and other things that are completely vile to do to a bunch of teens who have been through enough already. They will latch onto anything. Because one of the students posts a lot of YouTube videos from California, they insist he actually lives there, and was flown into Florida to be a paid crisis actor in Parkland. Even after he explained quite publicly that he is from California, and moved to Florida a year ago, these people did not let up.
Upon searching a little further, we find that they did this to the Sandy Hook kids’ families as well. They accused them of being paid actors, of participating in a government operation to subjugate the people in some way. How, I’m not exactly sure. Why the government would even want to do something like this, they never can answer. They are just determined to believe that people are not who they say they are, and it’s all a massive conspiracy.
If the 2016 election taught me anything, it’s that we can’t ignore the parts of our society we think are fringe like we once could. We simply don’t have that luxury anymore. I remember one of my Army buddies telling me in 2013 that the Tea Party was a big deal, and that the GOP was going to move significantly to the right because the base was energized. I didn’t think much of it because he is extremely biased on the subject, and having been in the pub for several hours at that point, we weren’t exactly sober. Given the circumstances, I did what every other university-educated, major city dwelling liberal did when confronted with ideas like that, and dismissed the concept as illogical, because objectively, it was. If they couldn’t even elect McCain or Romney, then how the hell would they elect someone as crazy as Palin on their own? Then a few years later, we got blindsided when those exact people showed up in droves, and elected Donald Trump, who makes Sarah Palin look like a lady and a scholar by comparison.
My lesson was that these days, you can’t brush off the drunken ramblings of your conservative Army buddy. Similarly, we cannot just dismiss these conspiracy theorists as crazy people who will go away. They will not go away. They create tons of content, disseminate it widely, and have a bigger following than most of us know. They prey on people who don’t know how to evaluate a source, who are disenfranchised in society, who don’t have access to the formal education that would debunk their ideas off hand. They are a symptom of a major problem with our society. They exist because people don’t know how to evaluate a source. They proliferate because people are trying to make sense of things they can’t explain.
The cure is information, not for them because they won’t have it, but for our children and others in society so they never fall into these traps. We knew we had to protect our kids from traffickers on the internet. We knew we had to protect them from for-profit university scams. We need to protect them from conspiracy theories, too. It’s not funny, it’s not cute, it’s not a phase. It’s harmful, and it’s causing problems in society. In today’s world, we have to fight for science and for reason, and this is one of the ways we have to do that. Talk about reality. Speak the truth. Talk about science. Do it every day. Make it second nature. Then these people and their bad information won’t stand a chance.
Maybe then, the aliens will want to talk to us.