Conspiracies are Everywhere

Bison, anticipating a massive volcanic eruption, seen fleeing Yellowstone.

Yellowstone National Park sits atop the world’s largest supervolcano.  The accompanying caldera will one day tip its hat and obliterate half of the American states. Or maybe not. This blog entry isn’t going to address the date of the park’s extinction (October 22, 2014, around 6 pm, is as good a guess as any), but instead I will write a bit about the human condition. The tendency to assume some group somewhere has secret information  – in other words, conspiratorial thinking – is rife among people who don’t have the energy or desire to engage in a little critical thinking. Among other stories lately surfacing about Yellowstone, there is this news item:

Is US government working on secret evacuation plan in case Yellowstone megavolcano erupts?

If you follow the link above, you will read about the secret evacuation plan and learn that the American government has been secretly making plans to send millions of Americans to South Africa, where the ANC has been pledged $10 billion dollars a year for ten years to build homes for American volcano-refugees. Or maybe the government is hiding the fact that “they” know Yellowstone will blow to bits this summer, but don’t want the news out because it will be bad for business.  If you think buffalo know more about the supervolcano than what’s been released to the public, enjoy the video linked at the top of this page. If you’d like to get a sense for how conspiracy people can think, check this YouTube video from a fellow who received a warning (in February) from an “unnamed source” at the USGS about the imminent eruption of Yellowstone.

What makes people believe the unbelievable? Perhaps we can’t really know the answer to that question. But we can make some inferences. Anecdotally, we notice that advocates of strange theories are often grumpy anti-government types. Interestingly, Scientific American recently ran a story that leads with: “Psychologists find that distrust of authority and low agreeableness are among factors underlying the willingness to believe” conspiracy theories. The article goes on to report that believers also generally suffer from low self-esteem.

Those who think there is a world of secrecy shrouding our everyday logical perceptions are often wary of science and scientists. [How a person can distrust a trained scientist but have faith in the blogger who tells them that the British Royal Family are reptilian creatures is beyond the comprehension of this blogger. Although the reptile aspect might explain why Prince Charles took up beekeeping.] A Conspiracy Theory is not a Scientific Theory. In fact, one strains to find any commonality between the two.

A scientific theory must withstand verification tests which a conspiracy theory can ignore or dismiss, realizing any such tests are stacked against the theory by conspiring scientists. Besides inhabiting a universe of disagreeable anti-authority types with low self-esteem, it also happens that many of these people are rather opposed to mainstream science and the rigorous critical thinking it entails. Interestingly, one of the aspects that leads many people into a career in science – the very human universal tendency to recognize patterns and trends in packets of information – is often seen as a trait in many of those with severe cases of conspiratorial syndrome. And there is the ceaseless search for underlying explanations or blame for events. For example, it may seem unlikely that one’s job application would be rejected by a hundred potential employers – unless they have been talking to each other. In reality, the requirement of a doctorate in geophysics for a specific teaching position may not indicate a conspiracy at work. It may simply indicate reality.

Where does that leave us with Yellowstone? Well, it might erupt with devastating consequences, or perhaps the whole thing will cool off. Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs may trickle coldly and then freeze over. The bison may amble back. Or, like me, you may have already gotten your letter from the government telling you which flight you have to take on the morning of October 22, 2014. You did get your letter, didn’t you?

Read the book, The Mountain Mystery.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
This entry was posted in Science Education and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s