4 anti-scientific beliefs and their damaging consequences

The rise of anti-scientific thinking and conspiracy is a concerning trend.

  • Fifty years later after one of the greatest achievements of mankind, there's a growing number of moon landing deniers. They are part of a larger trend of anti-scientific thinking.
  • Climate change, anti-vaccination and other assorted conspiratorial mindsets are a detriment and show a tangible impediment to fostering real progress or societal change.
  • All of these separate anti-scientific beliefs share a troubling root of intellectual dishonesty and ignorance.

We are living in an increasingly more complex world every day. This statement has seemed to become a modern maxim in our time. The many consequences that flow from this change are beginning to become evermore present and noticeable. Carl Sagan's prescient quote sums it up nicely:

"We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology."

One such disconcerting trend is that this type of ignorance is being taken one step further. Rather than wanting to remedy this lack of insight or knowledge, it would seem that many people are doubling down and plunging headlong into even more idiotic beliefs.

Forget basic logic, deductive reasoning or stringing together comprehensive lines of thought. These are the four most prevalent and damaging anti-scientific beliefs held by people in the world. While reading, keep in mind this indispensable wisdom:

"We are all born ignorant, but one must work hard to remain stupid." – Benjamin Franklin

Moon landing conspiracy

Flag on the moon

Image by NASA

Apollo 11 moon landing

Landing on the moon was a triumphant paean to the greatness of our human spirit and ingenuity. Between 1969 and 1971 we landed on the moon six times. Each landing carried down two astronauts, while one waited for them in lunar orbit. We brought down moon rocks, left behind many lunar modules (that can be pinged with lasers from the earth's surface) and we learned a great deal about the moon from these pioneering missions.

In recent years, talk about the moon landing being a hoax have begun to circulate and pickup more ignorant adherents. The fact that most of these deniers are not scientists or astronauts — nor have have advanced knowledge of engineering, rocketry, physics and so forth — should be telling enough. Even without going into the nitty gritty of the science, there's enough places online to find simple arguments debunking the moon landing hoax.

Mathematician David Robert Grimes approached the idea of debunking the moon landing hoax and other associated conspiracies in a novel way through a mathematical model. The formula accounts for the amount of people involved in a supposed conspiracy and how long it would take to go on keeping the details hidden from the public.

He states: "Even if there was a concerted effort, the sheer number of people required for the sheer scale of hypothetical scientific deceptions would inextricably undermine these nascent conspiracies."

Grimes understands that even with such a compelling and logic based understanding of the phenomenon of conspiracy, those with these beliefs will likely never shake their convictions.

"The grim reality is that there appears to be a cohort so ideologically invested in a belief that for whom no reasoning will shift, their convictions impervious to the intrusions of reality. In these cases, it is highly unlikely that a simple mathematical demonstration of the untenability of their belief will change their viewpoint. However, for the less invested, such an intervention might indeed prove useful."

Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt echoed this sentiment when he said:

"If people decide they're going to deny the facts of history and the facts of science and technology, there's not much you can do with them. For most of them, I just feel sorry that we failed in their education."

Flat earth theory

Transport yourself back to a backwoods epistemological viewpoint that was mostly considered ignorant just a few centuries ago — the earth is flat. No one in their right mind should hold this belief. Yet it still persists. In an interview with Big Think, Nasa astronomer Michelle Thaller expertly lays out a few ways to disprove the flat-Earth theory.

She states: "That's a hard thing for me to even start talking about because there are so many proofs that the Earth is round, it's difficult to know where to start. And it's not okay to think that the Earth is flat. This is not a viable argument."

One example she gives is of the Greek scientist named Eratosthenes, who figured out that the difference of the sun's angle hitting a town called Syene and the far-off city of Alexandria on the same day didn't strike down the same way. Eventually his experiments would lead him to accurately measure the circumference of the Earth some 2,000 years ago.

Although old Eratosthenes and countless others led us out of this swamp many years ago, the idea won't die. Educational researcher Harry Dyer finds this troubling as he recently visited a flat-Earth convention and reported his experiences to Quartz.

"The idea of trusting your gut or trusting your feelings came up a lot at the conference. I think it is indicative of [a form of] populism where people want to move away from statistics and create an environment that engages more in emotions," he said.

While this remains on the fringes for now, there's no telling how much this poisonous idea may continue to grow.

Vaccinations and autism linked myth

A recent report points to some 160 people in New York state being diagnosed with measles. This comes just a few years after a large outbreak of measles at Disney World in 2015. Anti-vaccinators and their coterie of misinformed supporters just might take the blame for this entirely preventable disease.

There has been absolutely no link between vaccines and autism. The idea stems from a discredited paper written by disgraced British doctor named Andrew Wakefield who intentionally published a fraudulent paper linking the two. What could be the continuation of this discredited belief? Hysteresis.

The findings of a recent study suggess that vaccines and the previous public perception of them sometimes causes a phenomenon that's known as hysteresis, which creates a holdover negative perception of the process. Basically, because the public was originally exposed to this faulty information, their resolve against vaccination is strong even in the face of the overwhelming amount of evidence available. The full details of the study can be found from the Royal Society Publishing.

Climate change denial

Conspiracy theory and its associated cognitive dissonance, and other laundry list of cognitive defects, is most dangerous when applied to denying climate change. A study written in 2015 explored the consequences of being exposed to a popular conspiracy theory. They found that it can make you less socially-minded and less likely to accept already established scientific fact and laws.

In the experiment, subjects were sat down and instructed to watch a quick two-minute clip from a global-warming conspiracy movie. They were divided into three groups: conspiracy (who watched the clip), a group that watched a United Nations video talking about global warming and a neutral group.

The results showed that subjects exposed to the conspiracy video were significantly less likely to believe that there is a 97 percent consensus agreement between climate scientists about the phenomenon and far less likely to do anything about the problem. These varied anti-scientific ways of thinking can cause a lot of real world damage, from leaving children vulnerable to viruses to accelerating the effects of pollution.

Dr. Sander van der Linden calls this the conspiracy effect and warns people to be aware of it:

My advice: Misinformation spreads quickly and can do much more harm than you think. The next time someone tries to convince you of a popular conspiracy theory, beware of the conspiracy effect.

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