On Anti-Vaxxers, Climate Change Deniers, and Flat Earthers
The Earth is an oblate spheroid, not flat.
Climate change on Earth is real.
Vaccines don’t cause autism and you should definitely vaccinate your kids.
Many of us would agree readily to all of the above. Ample evidence exists that glaciers are melting, the seas are rising and warming with the rest of the planet, and more and more animal species are facing extinction. The link between vaccines and autism is a spurious one, having been debunked numerous times over. The Earth is round because, well, it’s 2019 and we have technology that lets us see that sort of thing.
And yet, there are those people who would contest one or more of these statements. Flat Earthers, as the name implies, contend that the Earth is flat, citing visual evidence. Anti-vaxxers, often inspired by some Republicans/libertarians, insist that the government is wrong to mandate they vaccinate their children, making the issue a matter of personal freedoms. Climate change deniers dispute that global warming exists, argue against humans’ role in promoting deleterious climate change, and/or say that all this carbon dioxide we’re creating is actually a good thing because plants need it. Right.
It’s one thing, for instance, for Flat Earthers to more narrowly believe that our globe is not a globe and have it end then and there. The rest of us say one thing, they say another—to each his or her own. Sure, some (or most) of us might laugh at their expense, but we agree to disagree.
The problem arises when subscription to an alternative viewpoint potentially puts the non-subscribers among us at risk. Anti-vaxxers are wingnuts to be dismissed—that is until areas start encountering outbreaks of measles, a disease said to be eliminated from the United States in 2000. Climate change deniers are all well and good—except for the notion the world is on fire and we need all hands on deck to prevent a climate catastrophe. And when even Flat Earthers move from a relatively innocuous refusal to accept that the world is round to the theory that tragedies like the Holocaust and the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting never happened, it would appear their healthy skepticism is anything but.
Such is why all of the above extreme stances existing in opposition to verifiable scientific evidence must be regarded seriously, even if some members of these various movements aren’t wholeheartedly committed or straightforward. Susceptibility to mis- and disinformation campaigns is a pressing matter, especially in the digital age. A few errant clicks and you may find yourself down the proverbial rabbit hole, led astray by some YouTuber with a cursory grasp of video production and a passion for pushing conspiracy theories. Or—who knows!—that red-blooded American you’ve been talking to online might not have your best interests in mind—and he or she might actually be half a world away at that.
As a point of emphasis, the growth of these factions is disconcerting. Though measles is on the rise in the U.S. after a historic low, it’s not all the fault of anti-vaccination rhetoric. Inadequate access to vaccinations for poorer Americans/families of color and imported measles cases from overseas are contributing factors, too. Nonetheless, the anti-vaxxer movement is gaining traction and, along with it, so is the risk that measles or any other highly contagious disease may spread. Climate change skepticism, even if it were to be standing pat, is an impediment to the kind of progress we need to be making on this issue. Simply put, staying still at a moment in which we need to be moving forward is effectively sending us backward.
Making matters worse is the idea these movements are at the cusp of becoming mainstream if not already there. A handful of celebrities—some of them comparatively minor but even so (cough, B.o.B., cough)—have counted themselves at one point among those who doubt the sincerity of NASA and other scientific organizations for putting forth a round-Earth framework. Republican leaders like Kentucky governor Matt Bevin promote anti-vaccination talking points from their seats as elected officials. On the climate change front, meanwhile, there is perhaps no more prominent skeptic than the Denier-in-Chief himself, Donald Trump, who once famously referred to the observed effects of climate change as a “hoax.”
These aren’t just fringe campaigns. They possess real potential to influence large swaths of individuals, people who are our neighbors, parents of children at our schools, even family and friends. Like the diseases vaccines are developed to guard against, left unchecked, they have the ability to spread and do real damage. What’s more, addressing them in the wrong way could make holders of their core beliefs that much more resistant to change.
This begs the question: how do those of us who have accepted phenomena like the efficacy of vaccines, human beings’ part in contributing to climate change, and the very roundness of Planet Earth as fact have a conversation with those who don’t? How do we operate in an environment in which truth almost seems to be treated as merely a construct, a relativistic abstract concept independent of what we can test and infer? Despite the obvious perils accepting alternative theories presents, the evident uptick of pseudoscience peddlers is, in it of itself, alarming. As the great thinker (if only in his own mind) Ben Shapiro has said, facts don’t care about your feelings. Fine. Great. But when it’s my facts vs. your “facts,” we are at quite an impasse indeed.
Earlier, I noted how it’s easy these days, as a result of a few errant clicks, to find oneself in the company of a YouTuber who peddles nonsensical arguments and unsubstantiated conjecture to serve a particular narrative. On that note, I’m about to supplement my stances with content proffered by…a YouTuber. Wait, the climate-change-eschewin’, flat-Earth-believin’, no-vaccine-havin’ among you may say, you think your YouTubers are better than our YouTubers because they subscribe to the prevailing views of the scientific community and we don’t? My answer to this is, um, in a nutshell, yes. Yes, I do.
In a video essay on the Flat Earth ideology from December of last year, Harry Brewis, known by the handle “Hbomberguy,” argues that, despite how ludicrous some of us might find this position, its holders may not necessarily, ahem, flat out reject scientific principles. He explains in the waning moments of his 40-plus-minute production:
These people are attempting a form of science, and I think that’s what really gets to me about them—not simply that they’re pretending they’re scientists who’ve secretly found the truth. … People like Mark [Sargent] are right to want to question authorities on issues. They’re right to want to question everything they know about reality and the society they live in, and that’s because at the center of Flat Earth—not the North Pole, the actual center of the ideology—its core is a tiny, shining fragment of a systemic critique. It’s the beginning of trying to understand what’s wrong with our society and what to do about it.
… People seek these solutions because they perceive, on some level, a problem—and they’re right. Something is wrong with the world right now. The world is figuratively on fire. World leaders are asleep at the wheel. There’s nothing in place to prevent another massive financial crash which will destroy thousands if not millions of livelihoods. And ecologically speaking, on top of being, you know, figuratively on fire, the Earth is literally on fire. Wildfires are getting worse, temperatures are all over the place, ice is melting at an astounding rate. Even on a globe Earth, the edge is coming fast.
So I can’t blame anyone for feeling alienated and lonely about living in late-capitalist society. At least under feudalism, we had job security. So of course people are going to try to find something that helps them cope or seems like a solution. That’s why you get cults. That’s why you get Scientology. That’s why you get Jordan Peterson supporters. Something is wrong and we can all tell, and some people have arrived at a solution that doesn’t really work or at the very least makes them feel a little bit better.
… Believing these things isn’t a solution, and it’s not really accurate about what the problems are. The problem isn’t NASA. The problem isn’t the Earth being flat. The problem is something else.
While mercilessly roasting the more outspoken promulgators of Flat Earth like Mark Sargent and calling out its most bigoted elements, Brewis does seem to possess a certain degree of sympathy for its followers. The same might apply to anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers. They feel something is wrong. They distrust the authorities and institutions that, to a large extent, have let them down.
When someone comes along and offers them an alternative, who tells them they are right to be scared and eagerly points out a scapegoat, that’s how we get parents who decry the long arm of the state in forcing them to vaccinate their children. That’s how we get millions of viewers who believe the likes of Steven Crowder regarding the notion the ice at the poles is growing, not shrinking. That’s how we get Brexit and President Donald Trump. These people are right to be skeptical. Unfortunately, they’ve picked the wrong matters to be skeptical about and the wrong people to guide them in their search for meaning and purpose.
This rejection of scientific consensus based on anecdotal evidence (“I’ve never seen the Earth curve—have you?”) or disqualification due to a presumed agenda (e.g. vaccines as a ploy of the for-profit health care industry) is not to be utterly exonerated. Certainly, those individuals who would exploit others’ susceptibility to manipulation in this way should be held accountable as well.
The question of how to interact with these types of people, however, still lingers. How do you penetrate a world in which facts don’t matter to people who claim to believe in science? A piece by Bill Radke and Sarah Leibovitzaccompanying Radke’s interview of Boston University philosopher of science Lee McIntyre for KUOW’s The Record might provide some insight.
As McIntyre did or at least attempted to do going undercover at the Flat Earth International Conference, he approached attendees armed not with evidence or an attacking or condescending manner, but with a “philosopher’s question”: What would it take to convince you you’re wrong? According to the article, they didn’t have an answer.
McIntyre submits that this is a hallmark of anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, Flat Earthers and the like and thus where they diverge from true scientists: they cherry-pick data, ignoring information that disagrees with what they believe. To be fair, in a time in which Russian bots and other foreign agents try to influence public opinion and in which information reaches our senses faster than we can rightly process, it’s not just the InfoWars-Breitbart crowd who can fall prey to what is termed “confirmation bias.”
Prevailing trends of the population at large notwithstanding, McIntyre cautions against simply brushing these alternative-theory movements aside for fear of encouraging other campaigns built on faulty reasoning. He also reasons you shouldn’t write off their subscribers or cut them off, but rather “engage, listen, and work the facts in where you can.” Additionally, scientists need to do their part in standing up for the importance of uncertainty to the scientific method. It’s OK not to have the answers—that is, as long as this admission is made in the service of trying to find them in earnest.
The Earth is an oblate spheroid, not flat. Climate change on Earth is real. Vaccines don’t cause autism and you should definitely vaccinate your kids. It’s important we uphold these truths. At the same time, we can engage non-believers in an accessible, trust-oriented way and draw attention to the real causes of the problems Harry Brewis and others might enumerate. After all, we’re going to need a communal effort to solve them and it’s going to take all types of people working together to do it.