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2019 most talked about: Why flat-Earth theory and anti-vax conspiracies exist

Our most talked-about video of 2019 features a lesson in nonsensical thinking from none other than Michio Kaku.

MICHIO KAKU: We still have Flat Earthers, we have people that don't believe in vaccinations, and what do we do about it? Well, first of all, I think there's a gene. I think there's a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic, a gene for magical thinking. And I think that, when we were in the forest, that gene actually helped us. Because 9 times out of 10, that gene was wrong. Superstition didn't work. But 1 time out of 10, it saved your butt. That's why the gene is still here, the gene for superstition and magic.

Now, there's no gene for science. Science is based on things that are reproducible, testable -- it's a long process, the scientific method. It's not part of our natural thinking. It's an acquired taste, just like broccoli. You have to learn how the power can be unleashed by looking at your diet, for example. So I think 1,000 years from now, 1,000 years from now, we will have Flat Earthers. A thousand years from now, we will have people that still do not want to be vaccinated. OK? So what do we do about it?

Well, it's a struggle. It's a struggle that's eternal, because I think it's part of our genetic makeup. And there's even a name for some of this superstition. It's called pareidolia. What is pareidolia? It's the idea that when you look in the sky, you see things that are not there. Here's one experiment: Look at the clouds and try not to see something there. It's very difficult. You look at the clouds. You can't help it. You see Donald Duck. You see Mickey Mouse. You see snakes, animals. You see all sorts of stuff. You can't help it. Recently, the Notre Dame Cathedral partially burned down. And sure enough, somebody said, 'I see Jesus Christ there.' I saw the picture. Maybe you did, too. It really did look like Jesus Christ. But it was the ashes of Notre Dame. And how many times do people see the Virgin Mary in a glass of tea? So we are hardwired to see things that are not there. Because for the most part, they're harmless. For the most part, they do nothing. And once in a while, it saves our butt.

And so that's why I think we will have Flat Earthers, we will have the people who don't like vaccination, because hearsay throughout human history was the dominant form of information-sharing. You know, the internet is very new. Newspapers are very new. Science and technology is very new. But gossip, hearsay, slander, rumors, there's a gene for that. OK? So how do you combat it? Slowly, carefully, painfully -- it's a painful process, but in some sense, we're going up against our genetic predisposition to believe in nonsense.

  • Big Think's most talked about video of 2019 presents the explanation that if you see animals when you look at clouds or see faces in pieces of wood, that's called pareidolia: the phenomenon of making familiar objects from vague stimuli.
  • Humans evolved to be superstitious, and Michio Kaku posits that there is a gene for superstition and magical thinking. Nine times out of 10, your beliefs can be wrong, but one time out of 10 it saved your ancestors' butts, says Kaku.
  • Flat Earthers and anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists exist now, and they will still exist in 1,000 years, says Kaku. It's natural. Humans evolved to believe in nonsense, but it's by becoming good at something totally unnatural to us – science – that reason can prevail.

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