Recent polls demonstrate that a shocking number of Americans believe ridiculous conspiracy theories. For example, nearly 1/3 of Americans believe that the Federal Drug Administration in the US deliberately withholds new drugs that target cancer from the American public. In addition, a full 25% of Americans still believe that former US President Obama was not born in the US (the “birther conspiracy”). Many also believe that the US government itself caused the horrible deaths of thousands on Sept. 11, 2001, or even that the whole event never occurred. And our current president is a major proponent of a variety of such conspiracy theories, especially the one about President Obama’s place of birth.
It needs to be said clearly that truth is objective, not subjective. It is not an opinion. 2 + 2 will always equal 4, and no amount of BS from artists like Kellyanne Conway or Sean Spicer (supporters of the “Alternative Facts” movement) will change that. Hydrogen has a single proton. Conway, Spicer, Trump or anyone else can say it has 2, or 10 or 1000–that will not change the truth of the matter. Just as they can say that Trump’s inauguration was the largest ever–when data shows that it wasn’t. It will not change the truth. Similarly, climate change is real. You can “believe” climate change is not happening all you want–that won’t change the truth, just as you can believe 2+2=5. Belief has nothing to do with truth.
The massive number of people who are gullible enough to fall for these conspiracy theories is extremely worrisome, and bears careful consideration. I break up the US population into 3 segments: 1) Those that go by evidence (scientists, mathematicians, teachers, academics, journalists, and essentially anyone who has been trained to think critically). 2) Those that are gullible and will ‘believe’ conspiracy theories. 3) Those who know that the conspiracy theories are BS, but propagate them to their own advantage (politically and otherwise).
Of these groups, ethically the worst are the propagators–Trump, Kellyanne Conway and Sean Spicers and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, along with the enablers (the Mitch McConnells and Paul Ryans)–all of whom know that they are spouting lies and nonsense that has no evidential basis, and yet do so for supposed political gain.
The massive number of people drawn towards conspiracy theories and other debunked nonsense presents a clear and present danger to this country and to democracy in general. It also makes science an almost impossible feat; when such a large segment of the population is stuck in the middle-ages of truth, how can science proceed? How can people appreciate scientific evidence when fact has lost its meaning?
It is difficult to stop these promoters of lies and vicious conspiracies, especially when they appear to get away with their crimes. There is only one tried and true way–that is to start from the “bottom up” and slowly but surely teach children and adolescents critical thinking in school.
Children must be taught the difference between objective facts and opinions–and that “believing a fact” is nonsense. One doesn’t believe in facts–a fact is a fact, period. No ifs and buts. And children need to understand what makes a fact a fact, and what precludes a fact.
This is an emergency; if there is not sufficient emphasis placed on ensuring that the next generation can differentiate between facts and BS, then democracy will lose its meaning. And science will become the first victim.