Editors Note: There’s a story I’ve always enjoyed. A scientist was giving a lecture on the place of the Earth in the cosmos. He was corrected by a little old lady, who claimed he was wrong, and that the Earth was a flat dish balanced on the back of a turtle. When he asked her what that turtle was standing on, she promptly replied, “Another turtle.” “And that turtle is standing on ... what?” he asked politely. She replied, “Look sonny. It’s turtles all the way down.” I think that little old lady may be typical of a large number of Americans. According to a recent poll, 25% of Americans think the Sun revolves around the Earth.


Facts vs. Conspiracy: Colombus Had It All Wrong

“You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts.”

                       Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan
                                             
 

A 1966 Time magazine cover asked, “Is God Dead?” It was a purely rhetorical question, because no one knows whether god exists to begin with; however, 51 years later, a Time magazine cover asks, “Is Truth Dead?” A hundred days into the Trump era, this is the more-disturbing question, because the answer seems to be self-evident: “If not dead, at least in a coma.”

Technological societies need to discern empirical facts from superstition, lies, mythology and the just plain nuts, but we no longer seem to be able to do so. Our president calls mainstream reporting “fake news,” preferring “alternative” facts (aka “falsehoods”) from the conspiracy theorists at Breitbart News. His party parrots his nonsensical tweets, and rejects inconvenient scientific data that’s incompatible with conservative dogma, the Old Testament or Exxon Mobile’s annual report.

A minor controversy surfaced recently when All-Star NBA guard Kyrie Irving expressed his belief that the Earth is flat. This story got an extra bounce from Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal, who said he too rejected a spherical Earth. Both could simply be pulling our legs — and neither is exactly Stephen Hawking from the ears up — but it’s still disconcerting to hear such an outlandish position expressed so matter-of-factly.

Musician Frank Zappa once said, “To be a real country, you need a beer and an airline.” To be a crazy cult (think Scientology), all you really need is a website. There are billions of people on Earth, so, if you believe the moon landings were faked by Richard Nixon and Bigfoot, you’ll probably find a website that agrees with you. I’d thought Flat Earthers were just having fun with a wacky idea, but many of their websites are intensely serious.

“The Principle” is a big-budget documentary being advertised all over social media. It insists Copernicus was wrong, and the Earth is the center of the universe. The film maker duped several prominent physicists — including Dr. Lawrence Krauss, who later called everything in the movie “nonsense” — into appearing in it to lend it credence.

The film maker’s blog, Magisterial Fundies, argues against everything from heliocentrism to the basic thesis of cosmology, the Big Bang, and it accuses NASA of conspiring to suppress evidence for an Earth-centered universe. It also cites the Galileo Was Wrong blog, which is run by Robert Sungenis, who also happens to be a Holocaust denier.

One local Flat Earther I’ve corresponded with on social media preaches that pretty much every scientist from Kepler and Hubble to Darwin and Hawking was wrong. When he opined that Einstein was a “sham,” who was complicit in the “fake history” of science, I asked for his credentials, because he arrogantly seems to consider himself smarter than everyone from Galileo to Neil deGrasse Tyson.

(Although he could supply no academic bona fides, he did boast about his family. During World War II, they’d been Nazi industrialists. Many of their company’s top executives, including some relatives who were imprisoned after the Nuremberg trials, were convicted of war crimes, including the use of slave labor.)

My question for those who reject settled science and history — e.g., the Holocaust, evolution, global warming, a spherical earth, heliocentrism, the moon landing, the Sandy Hook massacre, 9/11, the Big Bang and the age of the universe — is whether the world’s respected scientists, journalists and historians are merely mistaken, or are they sinister conspirators perpetrating a hoax? The answers have become increasingly paranoid.

I know deplorables who claim Obama is a Muslim, which explains why he supports ISIS, and the death of fact-based reality enables Trump to accuse the former president, with no evidence, of being born in Kenya and of tapping his phone. Casual accusations of treason happen when broadcasters like Alex Jones, who’s called the Sandy Hook massacre a hoax aimed at the NRA, become trusted sources of data for our president and his party. Some wingnuts even worry that they’re being brainwashed by CNN.

Of course, conservatives don’t have a monopoly on anti-science/anti-history conspiratorial tendencies. Wacky far-left theorists have included the anti-vaxers, as well as the 9/11 Truthers, who believe George W. Bush is guilty of treason for having brought down the World Trade Center. However, with Trump lying continuously on Twitter, efforts to equate the Left and Right create a false equivalency.

The Nazis’ World War II nuclear program was hampered by dogmatic adherence to Deutsche Physik, their “alternative” to 20th century physics (which they labeled “Jewish science”). This drove many scientists, including Einstein, out of Germany. Meanwhile, the Soviets lost a generation of biologists when Stalin mandated replacing modern, mainstream genetics with the politically correct quackery of party hack Trofim Lysenko. Today, a Right-Wing Physik, approved by preachers, right-wing politicians and oil company executives, targets climate change, evolution and cosmology.

Christian conservatives’ favorite pseudoscientist is creationist Ken Ham, who is barely credentialed to teach middle school, and recently had his butt kicked by Bill Nye the Science Guy in an evolution debate filmed at his silly Creation Museum. Although the Genesis Great Flood tale is as impossible historically as it is absurd scientifically, Grant County, Kentucky, gave Ham huge tax rebates to build a “life-sized” replica of Noah’s Ark.

This boondoggle failed to bring in enough tourists, so the county is now threatened with bankruptcy. Just as the Ark mythology is a metaphor, Grant County’s problems are a microcosm of what can happen to modern nations that allow the fake, the irrational, the superstitious and the conspiratorial to replace scientific and historical reality.


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