I had someone reach out to me recently under the pretext of asking a few questions about science and given they perceived me, from my online posts, to be intelligent. Putting aside the fact my scientific knowledge is more that of a keen hobbyist, it pretty quickly became clear the person in question wasn’t just asking questions they were confused about – they were on a personal crusade against what they believed was a conspiracy from the top, and they didn’t get how I, someone “against the grain” so to speak, could accept the lies we had apparently been fed. This is my rather rambling thoughts on the matter.
This is not the first time I have had discussions with someone who engaged in science denialism (and denied that they were doing so), but this was the first time someone had accused me of “not being able to handle” the truth because I was “comfortable with the consensus view”. There were some similarities though, the main one being a misconception of the scientific method, or some bizarre idea that we had forgotten it.
Essentially, science never “proves” anything – we just fail to reject a hypothesis. That does not mean, however (pending a huge shake-up in our understanding, perhaps a theory of quantum gravity), that the science we have established and built up with evidence, observations, and experimentation should be dismissed in favour of another explanation or a defeatist “we can’t know” attitude.
One person I talked to about this was falling back on religious belief – evolution was not “proven” (even though it very much is with mountains of evidence to support it), nor was the age of the Earth or the universe itself, let alone their “origins” (again, we have pretty firm ideas about all of that), mankind simply cannot know these things for certain, therefore God. Obviously this was his God, the only correct one, and not any of the others he could have by chance been born into or adopted instead, but I digress. The science, like many other things, was, in essence, rejected.
The recent incident did not, to my knowledge, come from religious origins, but from a sense of conspiracy and alternative explanations. It was actually weirder – they appeared to reject evolution, natural laws like those of Newton or thermodynamics, and even gravity and space itself. They believed the notion of us, humans evolved from apes (we are apes), living on a flying rock through space to be “unscientific” and farcical. Instead, their assertion – mostly based on constant reference to ideal “gas laws” and just not believing gravity is a thing – was that the Earth must be a closed system. That is, we are not in space because, if we were and space is a vacuum “as NASA claims”, then the gases would merely disperse. So because gas hasn’t dispersed into this vacuum, we must – well, I don’t know, he didn’t say, but I assume we must be in some constructed sphere that helps contain what we call the atmosphere. The other assumption about gravity is that we have apparently “never seen gas pulled down by gravity”, as that would contradict gas law and entropy.
There are just a few teeny problems with all of that. I will get to the “conspiracy” side later, but for now let’s focus on the scientific issues. Again I will state, my scientific knowledge is perhaps higher than average on some things, but I am not a scientist, I do not research it as my main field of study, and I absolutely defer to the experts in their respective fields who do excellent work expanding our knowledge.
Firstly, gravity does exist. And it does affect gases. Stars, including Sol, our sun, are literal flaming balls of gas carrying out nuclear fusion at their cores due to the force of gravity (relative to the mass of the object in question) crushing it down. Our atmosphere is held in place by gravity, as without it said atmosphere would disperse and, like Mars’ atmosphere, be swept away by solar winds. We would not be here. One clear way to demonstrate this is the density and pressure gradient – closer to the surface, the force of gravity and the atmospheric weight from above makes the air more dense, something life has evolved to live with. The higher the altitude, the lower the density – hence people usually require taking oxygen with them when scaling Mount Everest.
As for gas being pulled down, beyond the fact that the atmosphere is anchored here, gas molecules are pulled down, but they are constantly bumping into each other at such small distances and are light in weight – they aren’t just crashing to the ground. They can’t go further down because there is land there, and so we get a pressure gradient as mentioned and, as gases do, they disperse “evenly” to the extent they can. Just not into space, because gravity.
Second, there was no offered alternative to this. If we were inside a closed spherical system, pressure and density would be fairly uniform everywhere at all altitudes, which is not the case. It also leaves the question of if not gravity, then what? What holds us to the ground, what force brings objects we throw in the air back down? Leaping to the whole space isn’t a vacuum/it doesn’t “exist”, what are the tides controlled by if not the gravitational pull of the moon? What keeps all the satellites and other objects in the outer layers of the atmosphere spinning around? Newton, Einstein and many others have given us an incredibly robust and useful set of theories for gravity from everyday objects on Earth to the orbits of planets around the sun – we don’t have a theory of quantum gravity yet because physics kind of breaks at that small a scale, but it is unlikely to completely reject our current understanding.
Not even going to touch the whole “space can’t be a vacuum/doesn’t exist” bit because that is too far-fetched to even argue against. Because that’s the conspiracy and science denialism bit.
Science Denialism and the Scientific Consensus
I am a sceptical person. I question anything and everything and my worldviews have changed drastically over time as a result – it’s one of the reasons I am an anarchist for instance. But despite my anarchic disposition and rejection of authority, it is also based on sound reason and facts. In this case, scientific facts as discovered and theorised by experts in their respective fields. I believe it was Bakunin who said that, while we should obviously apply critical reason to what we are told, science is something that should guide us, and as the science changes we should too. If something is found to be wrong, it is corrected. If there are competing theories, we work to find what works best – the origin of abiogenesis is one such debate happening at the moment, with geothermal vents competing with tide pools.
It is because a majority of scientists, the majority of evidence, points towards a particular theory that I accept it as fact, not reject it out of some opposition to the status quo. The vast majority of climate scientists are urgently telling us we are basically fucked. The vast majority of biologists of various sorts can show us in great detail how evolution functions and can trace species back to common ancestors. The vast majority of cosmologists and astrophysicists probably have no idea what they’re talking about, but it is reasonably accepted that there was a “big bang”, with evidence ranging from the Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation to the structure of the cosmic web itself.
The person convinced we aren’t in space calls into question the legitimacy of all this by specifically distrusting NASA. How can we let an institution, big or small, decide how and what we think? Well for starters, NASA doesn’t decide what I think – I do based on the cool shit NASA and other scientific and educational institutions are able to tell us about how the universe works. His denial is based on both a misunderstanding of science and a conspiratorial mindset against the “grand narrative” we have been spun. NASA tells us its nefarious lies, Google will promote them as the truth when you research it online, and fools like me soak it up and share it on social media.
They denied being a conspiracy theorist, because of course they don’t see it that way, but there’s no other word for it. They were unwilling to listen and learn form me because they had already rejected that narrative from the more authoritative sources. The fact that I was repeating the narrative meant that I was unable to break out of my comfortable bubble to face the real world, to really question the scientific consensus and find the truth.
It is worth mentioning that a large part of my interest in politics and journalism is the rejection of the mainstream narratives in many respects. Bernay’s Propaganda was an incredibly influential work, and the manufacture of consent by structures of power as explained by Lippman and, somewhat more recently, Chomsky and Herman and others, is a real concern we need to combat. Bernay’s himself popularised cigarette smoking among women while manufacturers peddled doubt about the health risks, and later stoked negative perceptions of the Guatemalan government of Jacobo Arbenz in the US at the behest of United Fruit Company, who also worked with the CIA and US government to enact the eventual overthrow of Arbenz who was a mild threat to their imperialist business interests.
There are countless other examples throughout history and the present day, including the muted discussion of climate change – we should be rioting, people. But Chomsky and Herman make an important point – the mainstream media, and really just all media, has an agenda. The point isn’t to reject it outright, but to approach it critically, to seek alternative views, to ascertain the facts. If you read between the lines and complement it with other sources, the New York Times, one of the largest corporate newspapers, is perhaps one of the best sources out there.
Scientific and educational institutions are much the same, except in many cases they are public bodies, like NASA or universities. We can approach them with as much scepticism as we want, because that’s what the scientists themselves do. Peer review exists for a reason, and things are consistently tested and refined. The scientific method is inherently self-correcting and, while mistakes can and have been made, the purpose is to try and remain unbiased in our approach to it. As such, we do have quite a fantastic and accurate picture of the universe.
I defer to the scientific authority of scientists and institutions like universities and NASA, not because they are institutions inherently deserving of legitimacy and our uncritical acceptance, but because it is reasonable to do so when the process is carried out properly. Sometimes in politics or history, the accepted narrative isn’t always correct. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq following 9/11 is one example that springs to mind. But politics is subjective, no matter how many facts (and which facts) you use – science is, to an extent, about as objective as you can get. To reject the “mainstream narrative” of our scientific understanding of the world is to deny what has been established, and misunderstands the point of scepticism and searching for future knowledge.
So to answer the question of how I, being ostensibly so intelligent, could possibly “believe” in established scientific facts – it is because I listen to those more intelligent than I on the matter and make my judgement on the facts. It’s better when everyone agrees on a consensus view of science.