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Why pseudo-science is spreading like wildfire

Science progresses too fast for most people to follow, and it reaches results, facts and theories, and applications that are often too bewildering and counter-intuitive

Gulf News

Who would have believed that in 2018 flat-earthism would be a strong trend in world culture?! Not only are there countless voices shouting their conviction that the Earth is flat and that Nasa lies with all its images of the planet, we scientists and science communicators are now besieged and attacked for our “naive” submission to the western “science” conspiracy… We even have a pilot and PhD holders (including one Arab physicist whose interview can be found on YouTube) who confidently campaign for a flat Earth!

This rejection of established knowledge is not limited to the flat Earth topic. Astrology too is having a renaissance: a number of websites have reported that traffic to their horoscope pages has, in the last few years, increased exponentially — in one case by 150 per cent between 2016 and 2017.

And this cultural phenomenon is not confined to space fields, it is also observed, perhaps even more pervasively, in medical topics, with the growing popularity of objects and procedures from magnetic wristbands to homeopathy.

And to make things worse, this counter-culture and rejectionist movement almost always comes with a conspiracy mindset: astro images (including and especially those of Earth) are claimed to be fake, space missions are bogus, Nasa lies to protect its multi-billion dollar budget, “honest scientists” and other opponents of this “western science” are silenced and fired, etc.

This trend started with “the moon landing was a hoax” and continues today with “Elon Musk sent his red Tesla car toward Mars? Do you think I’m an idiot?”…

What explains this striking and worrisome development in today’s culture?

First, science and the technology it produces are victim of their own success. Science progresses too fast for most people to follow, and it reaches results, facts and theories, and applications that are often too bewildering and counter-intuitive, leaving most people aghast and with one difficult choice: accept what’s being presented without understanding almost any of it, or reject it and retain a semblance of independence and control over one’s life.

Instead of “two cultures” (what C. P. Snow observed and described 60 years ago), I think we can now speak of “two worlds”: a well-educated elite that understands science (at least enough to follow regular and stunning developments) and another that doesn’t understand it and thus adopts a worldview filled with pseudo-science.

Pseudo-science is any knowledge that seems to be based on knowledge of the world but does not adopt its rigour and, most importantly, does not require us to override our intuitions and replace them with complex ideas. For example, astrology talks of constellations, the sun, the moon and the planets, the ecliptic, various motions and cycles, all scientific, but then adds the idea of connectedness between us humans and the cosmos, which people find reasonable and appealing.

Indeed, astrology writes its predictions in a way that speaks to us and remains close to our everyday experience. In one famous experiment, a professor gave the same fuzzy astrological prediction to all his students and asked them to rate how well it applied to them: the average “correlation” was 4.2 out of 5. In other words, almost everyone said “this applies to me” even though it was exactly the same text.

Social media

The second important cause for this growing phenomenon is social media. The new tools of connection and exchange between people have levelled the playing field: it doesn’t matter how much or how little education or expertise you have on a given topic, you get the same opportunity to voice your “opinion” and to argue with specialists. And should a scientist dare to wave their expertise on a topic, they would immediately be branded as “elitist” and be attacked.

Furthermore, celebrities easily get millions of followers, and their “opinions” on matters that they have little knowledge of reach and are adopted by countless people… Add to close the loop, people unconsciously cling to their long-held (often erroneous) views and tend to seek supportive evidence to their ideas. This is known as ‘confirmation bias’. Indeed, changing minds is often an uphill battle.

What can we do? First, science educators need to be fully aware of these trends and of their causes. Secondly, our educational curricula and methods need to take the above biases and social conditions into account. In particular, before they teach any scientific knowledge, educators must address the deeply held ideas and make their pupils and students aware that “obvious facts” are often wrong. Correct knowledge and understanding can be acquired in a coherent and long-lasting manner only after the misconceptions and reasoning fallacies have been exposed and corrected.

Educators, writers, broadcasters, and opinion makers have an important role to play in correcting the damage that digital media are inflicting on the young generation. Let us spread true knowledge and correct modes of reasoning, lest we be totally drowned in superstitions and pseudo-science.

--Nidhal Guessoum is a professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, UAE. Twitter: @NidhalGuessoum


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