Monthly Archives: August 2022

Anti-Science Conspiracy Theories, Power, and Morality

By Carl Weinberg, republished with permission. Read the original article here.

[My own comments: It is easy to link creationism to religion, but to me this seems counter-effective, as well as ignoring the many believers who oppose creationism all the more fervently because it is a travesty of their own faith. Debunking the science in “creation science” is an endless activity, but I don’t think anyone ever became a creationist because of things like polonium halos, or alleged gaps in the fossil record. Digging deeper, we can identify creationism as a conspiracy theory. Indeed it could hardly be otherwise, given its claim that the entire scientific establishment and most of the educational system is engaged in a diabolical plot. This is a particularly dangerous conspiracy theory, not only because it is fiercely anti-intellectual, but because it keys into climate science denial and, these days, into even crazier and more toxic beliefs.

Why do people buy into conspiracy theories, and how to thwart those who use such theories to enhance their power?

An analysis of conspiracy theory thiinking; diagram provided by JohnCook@skepticalscience,

This raises further urgent questions; why do people buy into conspiracy theories, and how to thwart those who use such theories to enhance their power. Questions for the psychologist, the social scientist, and the historian, as this article exemplifies.]

Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are inundated with COVID conspiracy theories: Satan-worshipping globalist elites, including George Soros and Bill Gates, deliberately developed and spread the COVID virus around the globe. The COVID vaccine is the Mark of the Beast from the Book of Revelation. Hollywood celebrities caught COVID by drinking infected adrenochrome harvested from live children in a satanic ritual. Mask and vaccine mandates are a communist plot by the Jewish IlluminatiPolling data suggest that millions of Americans—up to 20 percent of the country—believe at least some of these claims. 

Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, we are inundated with COVID conspiracy theories…

For secular and scientifically-minded Americans, it’s tempting to dismiss COVID conspiracy believers as lunatics and fools. But if we want to have a chance at beating the COVID pandemic, we do not have the luxury of ignoring 20 percent of the population. Nor will browbeating them work. Better to begin by attempting to understand the roots of conspiracy theories aimed at modern science, with the aim of confronting those ideas more effectively. My new book, Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America, suggests that people embrace conspiracy theories when they are concerned about moral decline and feel powerless to reverse it.

Starting with the Scopes “Monkey” trial of 1925, I trace a century of Christian conservative activism animated by conspiratorial claims remarkably resonant with the COVID culture war. Leading Christian fundamentalists of the 1920s—William Bell Riley, Gerald Winrod, Mordecai Ham, among them—blamed evolutionary science on an all-powerful international, satanic, Jewish communist cabal, foretold in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.  In 1924 sermons delivered in North Carolina, Ham warned his audience that Satan worked through a shadowy network of Jews with a “tremendous banking connection”  who stood behind the new immoral Russian Bolshevik government. “The day is not far distant,” Ham warned, “when you will be in the grip of the Red Terror and your children will be taught free love by that damnable theory of evolution.”  

Better to begin by attempting to understand the roots of conspiracy theories aimed at modern science, with the aim of confronting those ideas more effectively.

While creationists claimed that evolution was bad science and appealed to the Bible for authority, their primary tactic was to argue that the real danger of evolution was the way it made people act. If you taught young people they were descended from animals, that is, they would act in an “animalistic” fashion, which had both violent and sexual implications. In this view, communists were the worst. Not only were they atheists, undermining the authority of the Bible and promoting evolutionary science. But from Marx and Engels to Lenin and Trotsky, they fought for social changes that undermined existing power relations and represented an evolving class-based morality. In pinning evolution and communism on Jews, Riley, Winrod, and Ham followed the lead of auto magnate Henry Ford, who published the fabricated Protocols as fact. In The International Jew, published as a series in Ford’s Dearborn Independent, the automaker blamed Jews for all manner of social ills, especially for promoting “sex knowledge” to demoralize the Christian masses. In a similar fashion, current-day creationists like Ken Ham (no relation to Mordecai) of Answers in Genesis link the changing “man-centered” (as opposed to “God-centered”) morality of evolution to abortion and gay marriage.

Which is to say that COVID conspiracy theories do not really derive from opposition to science, but rather express deep anxiety and a sense of powerlessness about the current moral state of American society. What makes conspiracy theorizing distinct is precisely the sense that the conspirators possess a near-supernatural power to affect the course of events. In real life, powerful people do lie and make decisions in secret. But they are never fully in control. Witness, for example, the disastrous twenty-year US war in Afghanistan or the massive movement last year to protest police brutality.

In real life, powerful people do lie and make decisions in secret. But they are never fully in control.

After we peel back the fantastical Jewish space lasers and lizard people, we will find a well-grounded concern with the power wielded over ordinary people by billionaires and their allies in both political parties. We can’t really have a rational debate over the role of Satan in the COVID-19 pandemic. But we can exchange ideas about pharmaceutical drug prices, the opioid epidemic, amnesty for undocumented immigrants, tech companies’ suppression of free speech, abortion rights, police brutality, and even the spate of strikes workers have launched across the US today. It is through debates on these kinds of issues that progress can be made.

Carl R. Weinberg is Adjunct Associate Professor of History and Senior Lecturer in the College of Arts and Sciences, Indiana University Bloomington. He is the author of Labor, Loyalty, and Rebellion and Red Dynamite: Creationism, Culture Wars, and Anticommunism in America. Follow him on Twitter @Euclid585.

Black swans and other deviations: like evolution, all scientific theories are a work in progress


Discussions about the nature of science and scientific theories are often confused by the outdated view that such theories are rendered false when anomalies arise. The notion of a scientific theory as a static object should be replaced with the more current view that it is part of a living research programme, which can broaden its scope into new areas.

For example, take the hypothesis that all swans are white, which seemed pretty good to Europeans until Dutch explorers found black swans in Australia in 1636. So what happens to our hypothesis? There are a number of options.

1) Redefine swan-ness to include whiteness. Then black swans aren’t really swans, and the hypothesis remains true by definition.

2) It’s been disproved. Discard it.

3) Compare different species of swan the world over, and see how well black swans fit in.

(1) is the least useful. Definitions can only tell us about how we are using words. They tell us nothing about the world that those words attempt to describe. (2) is based on the common-sense idea that hypotheses should be discarded when falsified by observation. This was the idea put forward by philosopher Karl Popper in the 1930s, to distinguish between science and pseudoscience.

He saw psychoanalysis, for example, as pseudoscience because disagreement with its findings can always be explained away as a result of repression. Popper’s 1930s view has a great deal to commend it, but throws out a lot of babies with the bathwater. (3) is how science actually works, as Popper and his colleagues, who challenged traditional views of how science works, had realised by the 1970s. GoJo Media/YouTube.

In our example, the black swan was an anomaly, but any major scientific theory will have anomalies. Newton’s theory of planetary motion could not explain the orbit of Mercury, an anomaly that was known for decades before Albert Einstein explained it with his general theory of relativity. Despite this anomaly, Newton’s theory was retained because there is so much that it does explain. A theory is not meant to be a final statement of how things are, but just the latest stage of a research programme in continual progress.

Evolution as theory and research

In the 18th century, the existence of family relationships between different species was spelt out in the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus’s grouping of living things into species, genera, orders and so on, but there was no suggestion of how things got that way. By the 1820s, the French biologist Jean-Baptiste Lamarck was talking about inheritance of characteristics acquired as the result of striving (as the giraffe’s ancestors strived to reach higher into the trees).

By 1859, naturalist-biologists Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace independently came up with the idea of natural selection as the primary driver of evolution. Natural selection, that is, operating on variation, but with no understanding of where the variants came from, or how that variation was inherited.

In the early 20th century came the discovery of mutations as a source of variants and the incorporation of the Austrian botanist Gregor Mendel’s genetics into evolution science, but as yet without knowledge of the material basis of mutation and inheritance. This emerged in the 1940s, when DNA was recognised as the genetic material. Then from the 1950s onwards there was the determination of its structure and the cracking of the genetic code that revealed how it directs the formation of proteins.

Alfred Russel Wallace discovered natural selection along with Charles Darwin.

Since then, we have recognised that evolution is governed by chance as well as by selection, that inheritance is complicated by things like gene duplication (where a chunk of DNA is copied twice and each copy can then evolve independently), horizontal gene transfer (where DNA is transferred between species), and even the incorporation of genetic material from viruses into our own genetic material. And of course there are plenty of other things that we still don’t understand … Yet.

So at every stage, we have an imperfect theory, full of gaps and inconsistencies, but one that emerges all the stronger from scrutiny of its imperfections. Like atomic theory, it has developed in ways that its originators could not even have imagined, with growing understanding at all levels from individual molecules to the genetics of populations. And like atomic theory it is fundamental to our understanding of the science that has grown up around it. Biology without evolution is like chemistry without atoms.

The possibility of correction

Sometimes we tells students that “the scientific method” consists in gathering data, formulating hypotheses to explain them and then collecting more data to see if the hypotheses stand up. At other times, we tell them that it consists in formulating hypotheses, collecting data and rejecting the hypotheses if the data don’t fit. Such views are much too simple and make scientific research sound like following a rather boring recipe.

The first step in any scientific enquiry is deciding that something is worth looking at. So the possible results must be worth having and the research programme must have some prospect of success. The next thing is continual dialogue between hypotheses and data. The hypotheses must be open to modification in the light of the data and must always remain open in principle to correction in the light of further knowledge. This commitment to the possibility of correction is known as fallibilism, and is one thing that all scientific endeavours have in common.

Beyond that, I see no point in pretending that science has a single method (it doesn’t), or in trying to draw a hard and fast line between scientific knowledge and other kinds of knowledge about the world (there isn’t one).

What about the swans?

Meantime, DNA evidence shows that the different white swan species whooper swan, tundra swan and mute swan are closely related, with the Australian black swan as their first cousin. Surprisingly, the black-necked swan of South America is a more distant relation.

Europeans thought swans were white until Dutch explorers discovered black swans in Australia in the 17th century. EPA, CC BY-SA

Other questions suggest themselves. Is there any link between geographical distribution and closeness of relationship? When and where did the separate species arise? Do the differences in colour have any survival value, and if so, what?

So by now, our original swan hypothesis, based on appearance, has been greatly modified, and given rise to a whole range of new questions involving molecular similarities, adaptive evolution vs neutral drift, biogeography and the fossil record. That’s science.

Paul Braterman, Hon. Research Fellow; Professor Emeritus, University of Glasgow

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘God intended it as a disposable planet’: meet the US pastor preaching climate change denial

This piece,written in October 2020, seems more relevant now than ever. The Reverend John Macarthur returned to this theme in November 2021, repeating his description of the world as disposable and comparing it to a styrofoam cup

Reverend John MacArthur. Wikimedia

Paul Braterman, University of Glasgow

Every so often you come across a piece of writing so extraordinary that you cannot help but share it. One such piece is a sermon on global warming by American pastor John MacArthur. Full of beautifully constructed rhetorical flourishes, it is forcefully delivered by an experienced and impassioned preacher to a large and appreciative audience.

For me, as a man of science, it is the most complete compilation of unsound arguments, factual errors and misleading analogies as I have seen in discussions of this subject. But it’s important because climate change is a big election issue this November in the US, where there is a growing movement of evangelical Christians who deny its existence, while Joe Biden promises a “clean air revolution”.

Read more: Faith and politics mix to drive evangelical Christians’ climate change denial

The minister of the COVID-denying, law-defying Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California – which has encouraged worshippers to congregate as normal despite state COVID-19 restrictions – MacArthur is an impressive figure whose Study Bible has sold almost 2 million copies.

He regards the infallibility of the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, as essential to his faith, and his sermon about global warming can only be understood in that context. MacArthur’s rejection of the science is shared by other major US ministries and organisations such as Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International and the Discovery Institute.

In this sermon, MacArthur paraphrases “a scientist at Cal Tech” (except not a scientist at all, but the novelist Michael Crichton, best known for Jurassic Park), as saying in a lecture:

Consensus science is the first refuge of scoundrels … invoked only in situations where there is a political, social, financial agenda but no scientific support.

The reverend has the most serious reasons possible for rejecting the scientific consensus concerning the age of the Earth, the origins of humankind, the history and prehistory of the ancient near East and the peopling of continents: it is totally incompatible with the Genesis account of creation, Adam and Eve, the flood and the dispersion of peoples from the Tower of Babel.

Error, denial and misunderstanding

As for global warming itself, the reverend channels standard climate change denial, but all his arguments are unsound and have been convincingly refuted to the satisfaction of an overwhelming consensus of climate scientists (see in-depth discussion at Skeptical Science). He understates the amount of global warming, incorrectly describes the full record as dating back only 30 years, and cites the Little Ice Age as evidence that the changes currently taking place are natural. There’s more:

Here’s the key, friends, this is the real deal. Legitimate science recognises a close correlation between sunspots and climate change … The sun is the source of temperature changes because of its infrared variations. … There is absolutely no evidence that CO₂ contributes to warming. On the contrary the opposite is true. Warming produces CO₂ … It’s the other way round.

Here we have a collection of half-truths and misunderstandings, typical of denialists claiming to represent “legitimate science”. As the graph below shows, the 11-year sunspot cycle is a minor deviation, and the temperature increase since 1980 has occurred despite the fact that over that period the amount of solar energy falling on Earth has gone down slightly. Incidentally, this solar energy input is concentrated mainly in the visible, not the infrared, region of the spectrum, and it is the roughly balancing heat outflow from the Earth that is in the infrared.

Graph showing global temperature change between 1980 and 2015
NASA, Author provided

MacArthur offers a false dichotomy between saying that CO₂ warms the oceans, and warmer oceans release more CO₂. Unfortunately, both these statements are true. There is a positive feedback loop: human-released CO₂ is the primary driver, but its effect is amplified by the fact that yet more CO₂ is then released from non-human sources. Regarding CO₂ itself, MacArthur seems to be even more confused:

By the way, plants produce CO₂. What man produces is marginal … Industry doesn’t affect CO₂ in the environment or atmosphere.

Plants do produce CO₂ but they absorb more than they emit. However, when it comes to humans, their activity may cause only a small imbalance each year between CO₂ emission and natural uptake, but this imbalance is cumulative. CO₂ levels are now 50% above pre-industrial, and subtle atomic differences clearly show that fossil fuel is the source. But according to MacArthur, “There is no scientific reason to believe that ice caps are melting”.

Despite the Arctic Monitoring and Assement Programme’s video on this subject, the reverend does not think that the evidence for ice-cap melting is scientific, and that other factors are at play:

This is all political [and] financial agendas, class warfare, class envy … By the way, US$100 billion has been spent to make a case for global warming … driven by the socialist mentality … even some of the feminist mentality that resents male success.

All is now clear. Talk of global warming is part of a politically motivated conspiracy. But US$100 billion? That’s 600 years’ worth of all federal climate research spending. Clearly, those pesky socialists and feminists are formidable fundraisers. However, none of this matters because environmentalism is fundamentally misplaced. As MacArthur puts it, citing Revelation and the integrity of scripture:

God intended us to use this planet, to fill this planet for the benefit of man. Never was it intended to be a permanent planet. It is a disposable planet. Christians ought to know that.

And that is a statement that would leave anybody who cares about this world speechless.

This article is republished from The Conversation,where it has received over 340,000 reads, under a Creative Commons license. It has also been republished at PoliticsMeansPolitics , Metro News, Yahoo News California and UK, and Church and State. Read the original article.

%d bloggers like this: