October 27, 2018

Fighting Conspiracy Theories Is a Matter of National Security

I'm not shocked that the accused mail bomber, a Florida man who allegedly sent more than a dozen live explosives to prominent politicians, actors, and a news organization, shared posts about the chemtrail conspiracy theory on his social media pages. It doesn't take much for someone who believes in seemingly-silly conspiracy theories to fall for harder conspiracies that can completely warp their perception of reality. That's a dangerous prospect when the person falling down the rabbit hole may lash out based on the posts they read and videos they watch.

The chemtrail conspiracy theory insists that the trails of condensed water vapor (called "contrails") left behind by the jet exhaust of high-flying airplanes are really a mixture of dangerous chemicals intentionally sprayed into the atmosphere to control the weather or make us sick. The conspiracy theory came to prominence in the 1990s at the height of talk radio and spread like wildfire as social media came into existence. There are millions of websites, forums, YouTube videos, and pages on Twitter and Facebook that work every day to try to convince people to buy into this outlandish bastardization of physics and meteorology.

It's silly, of course. Anyone who paid attention during science lessons in elementary school—or, you know, breathed outdoors when it was cold—understands the basic concept of condensation. The hot, moist jet exhaust of high-flying aircraft can condense into a thin, wispy cirrus cloud if the atmosphere is cold and moist enough. These condensation trails can linger for hours and eventually cover the entire sky if it's cold enough and there's enough moisture at flight level, or the trails can immediately dissipate (or not form at all) if it's too dry or warm. Contrails can even form at ground level in frigid parts of the world like Siberia and Antarctica.

Conspiracy theorists would like you to believe that basic physical and meteorological principles are bunk and that the clouds are really a nefarious government plot to unleash chaos on the world. If you're uninitiated to the world of weather conspiracy theories, that's actually one of the tamer theories, coming in behind the folks who believe that antennas in Alaska and Doppler weather radar dishes can create and control destructive storms with precision that allows them to destroy entire towns and even individual homes. (If that was possible, Iraq would be tornado alley and Raytheon would own a controlling stake in The Weather Channel.)

I've written quite a bit about these theories in the past—in fact, I wrote a post much like this one back in 2014. While it's fun to make fun of the silliness of it all, I really do believe in combating nonsense with good science. My anti-conspiracy messaging was effective. For years, I was a frequent target of the ire of popular conspiracy theorists looking to hold their ground. My name showed up on lists of "disinformation government shills" or whatever term they chose to use to make me sound like I was a well-paid CIA agent for writing about things like elementary science.

Protecting the integrity of science is important; however, debunking conspiracy theories like chemtrails plays another important role. People used to ask me why I went to such lengths to debunk such a silly conspiracy theory. They usually said that my bringing attention to these theories could actually lead people to believe in them. My argument goes the other way: if we don't fight back against the nonsense, people who consume false research and start believing in little conspiracy theories like chemtrails will ultimately start down a dark path of believing in bigger and more destructive stuff.

Believing in conspiracy theories makes it harder for someone to discern objective truth in the world. One conspiracy theory often leads to another, and pretty soon that person is open to believing everything they read, no matter how detached from reality the theory is. Once someone believes that the thunderstorm currently raging over their apartment may have been created by the government—and even worse, possibly created specifically to target them—all bets are off when it comes to how they view the world. After all, if they're spraying clouds of sickness in the sky or generating a thunderstorm over someone's house, what else are they capable of? Who's pulling the strings? Who's next on the hit list?

It's tempting to tell people to just ignore the crazy ramblings of random no-names and even to brush off those with millions of followers. But online conspiracy theories don't exist in a vacuum. There are real people behind those keyboards. A real person walked into a pizza joint in Washington D.C. and opened fire because of false information he read online. Real people regularly harass the real parents of the real children who died in the real massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School because of conspiracy theories they read on Facebook and watched on YouTube convinced them that it was all an act.

Once you're convinced that the world around you is a stage play controlled by a handful of evil people, it doesn't take much fiery rhetoric or bombastic vitriol (hello, Mr. President!) to cause someone to flip out over how scary the world is and try to do something to break the perceived cycle of control and deception. That can manifest itself in scary ways when the person trying to break the system finally snaps and decides to pick up a gun and go to a baseball field or assemble and mail a dozen live explosive devices to former presidents and cabinet members.

The world becomes vastly more dangerous as people become farther untethered from a basic plane of reality. The crazier things become, the crazier people will act. Weather exists as a way for nature to balance itself out. An enormous hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean exists to redistribute heat from the tropics to the poles. Political tension that grows without end will only serve to encourage people already on the edge to engage a severely misguided attempt to correct the world back to the balance they believe should exist—and the world they believe we live in is dramatically different from the way things really are.

When you see a conspiracy theory online—no matter how insignificant—don't let it go unchecked. A fact check may fall on closed eyes, but when we stop defending science, when we let simple facts like the size of a crowd or what someone said on tape become a subjective free-for-all that's up for debate, when we let conspiracy theories rule the internet without anything there to greet curious searchers with an alternative to the bunk they're consuming, we're waving the white flag and conceding the fight to preserve reality. This stuff is too important. The internet is a real place that's run and read by real people who can make decisions that have real-world consequences based on the things they read and see online. It's time we start acting like it.


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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I ran Gawker's The Vane for two years and I've contributed to Mental Floss, Forbes, Popular Science, and the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang. I also teamed up with Outdoor Life to write a book called The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, which came out in October 2015.

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