The Conspiracy of Conspiracy Theorizing

I learned about last week’s fire in Seaside Park through a conspiracy theory. It read simply: ‘And I’m sure this was an accident.’ Given Jersey’s long history of questionable accidents—just that week I had witnessed Nucky Thompson unemotionally torch his childhood home—the sentiment wasn’t shocking.

Then I reflected on the sizable percentage of my Facebook feed that is fueled by such theories. There is no dearth of questioned occurrences, from Obama’s…well, everything Obama does to the many identities of Aaron Alexis, the never-ending barrage of climate change ‘hoaxes’ and Area 51’s dirty and finally (almost) revealed secrets. The world is fueled by secrets, or, at the very least, social media is.

Sander van der Linden’s article, ‘Why People Believe in Conspiracy Theories,’ offers some disturbing statistics: 37% of Americans believe global warming is the product of Al Gore’s imagination—ok, a hoax; 21% that the US government really is in cahoots with Alf and friends; 28% that the Illuminati is running the show.

Two of the more disturbing examples involve supposed ‘crises actors’ involved in faking the Sandy Hook and Boston Marathon tragedies. These ‘actors’ are flown around on the government's dime staging terrorist events in order to, by the theorist's accounts, help shut down the NRA and give the Obama administration unworldly power.

And then, of course, is the 9/11 truther movement, which really propelled conspiracy theorists into the spotlight as credible representers of reality. Since then Alex Jones and the thousands who follow him make every event a conspiracy—he’s out preaching to his choir about the Navy Yard right now.

What is it about conspiracy theories that make them so appealing to so many, especially when they make no realistic sense and, as van der Linden writes, theorists need contradictory evidence to even make it plausible? He devised three common facts about such suspicious minds:

People who believe in one conspiracy theory are likely to espouse others, even when they are contradictory.

Conspiracy ideation is also linked with mistrust of science, including well-established findings, such as the fact that smoking can cause lung cancer.

Mere exposure to information supporting various fringe explanations can erode engagement in societal discourse.

That last point is important in this social media-dominated world. Before the government released any information about the Navy Yard shooting, for example, my close friend Dax’s feed was blowing up. A D.C. native, his old friends had plenty to say, regardless of whether or not it made sense.

This isn’t to say that social media doesn’t play an important role. It often provides information that traditional news outlets can’t get too quickly enough. And it also produces and circulates intelligent ideas that aren’t necessarily covered in the press. Yet when everyone has an opinion and no one is waiting to read anyone else’s, all you get is noise. 

As Dax remarked thumbing through the collections of letters and exclamation marks, ‘Conspiracy theories have become boring.’

Van der Linden turned to one evolutionary hallmark as indicative of our pull towards conspiracy theories: pattern recognition. The human brain functions in such a way as to make patterns where none necessarily exist to try to fit reality neatly into an understandable chronology. This manifests as innocuously as seeing horses and sea urchins in clouds and, perhaps more dangerously, believing a crucified savior returned on a piece of toast or rotted pipe, all the way to the more socially problematic examples such as shootings in Aurora and Connecticut.

Van der Linden also cites the fundamental attribution error: overestimating intentionality behind the action of others. This habit might make a neat (or not so neat) package for one to simmer on, but it does nothing for understanding the random nature of the universe.

More damagingly, it leaves no trace of empathy or compassion. The incredible parents of Sandy Hook, who have weathered so much and fought so hard for reform, have suffered immensely, as have the families and friends of those who perished in the marathon, navy yard and towers of Manhattan. To disrespect them in such a cruel manner is infantile and sadistic.

Alien fantasies (sometimes) make great science fiction. When tragedy strikes, being human is more important than being clever.

Image: Tudor Catalin Gheorghe/

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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