People believe in very strange things. Some search for extraordinary explanation where logic and common sense is the right answer. I asked the panel what’s the most bizzare conspiracy theory about space and astronomy they have heard about? Why do people continue to create such stories and resist to listen to scientific explanation?
Andrew Rader (SpaceX engineer, MIT PhD, author)
Many people have a vivid sense of imagination, and are loathe to trust the mainstream story, even if it is supported by evidence. Humans are emotional creatures, and their thinking is often driven by bizarre connections. There is a huge difference between legitimate skepticism (questioning what is true) and supposing the existence of conspiracies on shaky or contrary evidence. There are some real conspiracies, defined as “a secret plan to do something unlawful or harmful”. For example, Lincoln’s assassination surely was a conspiracy by John Wilkes Booth and his band, but I think when most people think of “conspiracy theories”, they mean ones perpetuated by the government (especially in the United States).
Particularly in the United States, there is a mistrust of government. While some skepticism is justified in most things, believing with certainty an alternative and less plausible story is not the same thing. Humans are notoriously bad at accepting uncertainty, so perhaps when evidence appears to be lacking, an alternative story seems attractive. Moreover, this imagined story is conceived to fit the preconceptions of the person imagining it – humans interpret the world through a lens which fits their internal biases, rather than trying to shift their biases to fit the actual world.
The main problem with “conspiracy theories” like alien visitation or a faked Moon landing is that while (almost) anything is possible, the magnitude of the problem is misunderstood. Taking the Moon landing case, millions of people were involved, hardware capable of reaching the Moon was designed, built, and launched multiple times over many years, and the supporting science and engineering supports an actual trip to the Moon. Given that framework, it would have been much harder not to go the the Moon (and keep the whole thing secret) than actually go. The weight of evidence supports the view not that it is absolutely certain we went to the Moon, but that having gone is a much more likely explanation than that the landings were faked.
Antonio Paris (Astronaut Candidate, Astronomy Professor, Planetary Scientist, Space Science Author)
The most bizarre conspiracy theory about space and astronomy is UFO phenomena. Rather than applying science and logic to defend the extraterrestrial hypothesis of UFO phenomena, the UFO community addresses the issue through emotions and confirmation bias. Ufologists have a predisposition to favor information, no matter how fantastic, that confirms their beliefs or assumptions. They display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively or when they interpret it in a biased way. This inclination is especially prominent at UFO conferences when emotionally charged stories of alleged alien abductions and government conspiracies are presented. Those who support the extraterrestrial hypothesis of UFO phenomena, moreover, tend to interpret ambiguous and anecdotal evidence as supporting their existing position. This is often the result of media sound bites, social media, and UFO organizations’ claims that they are “scientific” entities. When confirmation bias is coupled with pareidolia, apophenia, and illusory correlation, the end result is belief perseverance, which contributes to overconfidence and strengthens beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence. Moreover, belief in the extraterrestrial hypothesis of UFO phenomena did not develop into self-validating structures all by themselves. They are the direct result of the UFO community leaders’ often modifying and revising their agenda to conform to the prevailing culture of their memberships. A clear example of this occurred when the UFO community was faced with a serious institutional crisis regarding the U.S. government’s explanation for the 1947 Roswell incident. Rather than accepting the proven fact that the UFO was actually a balloon under the auspices of Project Mogul, the UFO community conveniently resorted to claims of a government coverup.
Pamela Gay (assistant research professor at Southern Illinois University, writer, co-host of Astronomy Cast)
The range of extraordinary emails I get is … extraordinary. Many include notices of “Confidential” and “Top Secret” and go on to explain how they have sorted dark energy or explained away relativity with some novel idea that has no math behind it, and they just need math from someone like me to get that Nobel Prize. I general respond to these with gentle encouragement to please take university physics. Please. Learn. Please?
But these aren’t conspiracy theories. These are just people with their own unique denial of physical reality.
The best conspiracy theory I ever heard was actually shared over far too many glasses of [undisclosed adult beverage] while I had a fabulous conversation with an otherwise utterly sane, rather famous actor I otherwise greatly respect. Because this theory doesn’t appear to be in the public record I’m not going to disclose his name. This fellow presented me with a completely novel (to me) take on the Moon Hoax conspiracy. While he believed we did indeed land on the Moon when we said we did, he felt (and continues to feel) that the broadcast that aired on live TV was actually studio footage put together by Stanley Kuberick using the fabulous NASA lens he had access to. This conspiracy theorist posited that the transmission of the 1969 Superbowl was problematic and NASA couldn’t risk having the Moon transmission get screwed up by technical issues. Thus, we landed and explored, BUT, in his mind, what was seen on TV was pre-filmed in a studio. I have to admit, it makes a certain kind of sense… and that is true of many of the best conspiracy theories… but… it’s not true. (This plays along with William Karel’s movie “The dark side of the moon landing” https://www.youtube.com/watch?t=5&v=11nXqMsVLeA)
There are a lot of bad conspiracy theories out there; ones that make me question how these people function in the workplace. The continued belief by some that there was no Jewish Holocaust in WWII is one of those “How?” conspiracy theories. There are also ones that make me wonder “Could that be true?” The conspiracy around the statistical discrepancies between poll results and election results in the 2000 election leaves me scratching my head. This range of conspiracy theory, however, traces out a unifying idea: they present a reality the believers want to be true.
And at the end of the day, faced with the world we actually have, don’t we all sometimes wish for a different reality?
Nancy Atkinson (Senior Editor for Universe Today, Host of the NASA Lunar Science Institute podcast & a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador)
Conspiracy theories are interesting because they allow a unique look into the human psyche and why people believe the things they do. After confronting many astronomy-related conspiracy theories by writing articles and debunking them, I think when people get caught up in hype and drama of these predictions, it mainly comes down to scientific illiteracy and a fear of a concept or thing due to misinformation or misunderstanding.
Moon hoaxers — people who don’t think the Apollo missions went to the Moon — are especially maddening because they refuse to look at the mountain of evidence proving the missions were in fact real. But I think the most perplexing of conspiracy theories is the doomsday/apocalypse/end of the world theme.
I’ve lost count of how many times the world was supposed to end in just my own lifetime, but from ancient Nostradamus to the plethora of 2012 doomsday scenarios to the upcoming supermoon eclipse, predictions of the world ending have been happening for centuries. I’ve never been able to understand why humans seem to have a fixation about this topic, but since we and our planet are still here, that means 100% of the predictions have been wrong! I think we can count on any future predictions of apocalypse being wrong, too, because no one — seriously no one — can predict the future.
It’s disappointing when people use astronomical events like a close passing asteroid, an eclipse, supernova or a comet appearing in the sky to spread fear. Learning about the real science of these objects is much more interesting and fun!
Fraser Cain (publisher at Universetoday.com, co-host of Astronomy Cast)
The most bizarre conspiracy has got to be the fact that lots of people don’t believe we ever landed on the Moon. It’s an absolutely classic example of insane conspiracy theory thinking. The “evidence” that the conspiracy theory proponents rely on is essentially, “I don’t think astronauts could survive the radiation of the Van Allen Belts.” Even though there’s plenty of science and actual measurements taken during the Apollo flights through the Belts. I honestly don’t really understand the psychology of conspiracy theories, but we see the same things pop up again and again. We’ve been battling the Nibiru nonsense for almost 20 years now, and it’ll probably still be around 100 years in the future.
Nicole Gugliucci (“Noisy astronomer”, blogger, educator, post-doc)
I was once accused of being part of the “black hole conspiracy.” Yes, this is a thing. Apparently there’s a conspiracy to make people believe in black holes which can’t possibly exist in the “electric universe” in which everything is charged and made of currents or… something. It’s a bizarre belief. That said, I think all of us have the capacity for belief in irrational things, as its how our human brains work and construct explanations of the world. Though I think the curiosity part of science is innate and natural to us, the rigorous methodology is not. So there are many factors that influence resistance to science and belief in pseudo science, but some part of it is, that’s just how our brains seem to work by default.