Conspiracy Theory

HOW happy is he, as all may see
Who has the good fortune a fool to be,
And what you tell him will always believe!
No ambition can grieve,
No fear can affright him
Which are wont to be seeds
Of pain and annoy.
This doctor of ours,
‘Tis not hard to delight him–
If you tell him ’twill gain him
His heart’s wish and joy,
He’ll believe in good faith that an ass can fly,–
Or that black is white, and the truth a lie,–
All things in the world he may well forget–
Save the one whereon his whole heart is set.

–Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527).

There are people who believe that the Earth is a flat disc, the sky above a sphere of acrylic with stars painted on its inner surface; the sun and moon are, according to these folk, mounted upon some sort of trackway that allows them to move, with the seasons and the days, above a stationary, flat Earth. This would not be surprising if the people who so believe were savages, with no knowledge of astronomy, geography, physics or any other science. But they are not; they are reasonably well-educated, not all unintelligent, citizens of modern, 21st century industrial nations. They believe that the powers-that-be know the truth–that the Earth is truly flat–but for some sinister reason are keeping it from the ‘sheeple,’ who must be kept in the dark (presumably on the underside of the disc), and not allowed to know the truth.

‘Flat Earth’ is merely one of dozens of conspiracy theories that people believe–or say they believe. I chose it as an example because, as a navigator, I am utterly immune to its arguments. We find our position on the spherical Earth by solving the equations of spherical trigonometry, which would simply not work at all if the Earth were a flat disc. But the weirdness of this belief is echoed in others–moon landing hoaxers, anti-vaxxers, alien abductees, etc.

The question is, “Why do people believe something so palpably false, and so easy to disprove to any rational person?” Many reasons are cited: people like to think that they are smarter than the next man; that they have access to information denied to others; they are paranoid and think that powerful people are lying to them and trying to do them harm; they take any proof that their theory is false as evidence of the cover-up, and that therefore their theory is true.

My (non-conspiracy) theory is that social media is largely to blame. Facebook, Google, et al., want you to view advertisements because that is the source of their revenue. In order to show you advertisements, they must entice you onto their pages. If you–as I did–go to YouTube and watch a video put out by the flat-earthers, your recommendations page will suddenly be filled with similar items, because YouTube’s algorithm has decided that that is what you are interested in, so they’ll naturally feed you more of it. An unfortunate side-effect is that otherwise sane, intelligent people get sucked into these rabbit-holes where everything they are exposed to is nonsense and they lose the ability to tell truth from fiction.

Could the social media giants not adjust their algorithms to show their consumers actual science as well? Sure, recommend the flat-earth woo, but also highlight videos made by those holding the opposite view. A YouTube spokesman, when asked about this very problem, said, “We’ve changed our search and discovery algorithms to surface credible content, built new features that clearly label and prominently surface news sources on our homepage and search pages, and introduced information panels to help give users more sources where they can fact check information for themselves.”

You’re smarter than me if you can parse that sentence and extract its meaning. But if you can, do you believe it?

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