From the anti-vaccine movement to the belief that the earth is flat, there seems to a growing distrust of science and institutions, and experts say it’s difficult to come up with an antidote to the erosion.
A distrust in scientific institutions and conspiracy theories are nothing new. Some say that the moon landing was a hoax; others claim Tupac Shakur is still alive. And then there are those who insist shape-shifting lizards in human form are in a plot to rule the world.
But the recent rise of flat earthers, anti-vaxxers and climate change skeptics seems to have caught people’s imagination and fueled wariness of science.
Over the past few years, the flat earth community has sprung up online questioning the validity of a scientific fact — that the earth is round and rotates around the sun.
And even though the link between vaccinations and autism has been scientifically debunked several times, some still question the institutions that provide this evidence.
But are these movements on the rise or have they always been there?
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The rise of social media
Some researchers believe YouTube has contributed to a rise in the number of people who believe the earth is flat.
A study by researchers at Texas Tech University interviewed people who had attended the Flat Earth International Conference in recent years, and a majority credited YouTube as their gateway into the community. According to the researchers, some attendees said that they had been watching flat earth videos in order to debunk them, but became inadvertently convinced.
“There’s a lot of helpful information on YouTube but also a lot of misinformation,” Asheley Landrum, who led the research, told The Guardian. “Their algorithms make it easy to end up going down the rabbit hole, by presenting information to people who are going to be more susceptible to it.
“Believing the earth is flat in of itself is not necessarily harmful, but it comes packaged with distrust in institutions and authority more generally.”
Global News reached out to Google for a comment, but the company did not respond by the time of publication.
Dr. Harry Dyer, a lecturer in education at the University of East Anglia, said the rapid growth of the internet has made it easier for conspiracy theorists to find each other.
“I don’t see distrust of science on the rise right now, I just see more people speaking out about the distrust,” he said. “It used to be the odd person at the bar speaking about these things, but now these people have a platform.”
Experts now have less power than they used to because the traditional gatekeepers of knowledge have been lifted through social media, he explained.
For example, when rapper B.o.B tweeted about his belief that the Earth is flat in 2016, the post went viral.
Dyer said on social media, everyone can have a say about the shape of the Earth. Whether it’s B.o.B or a scientist like Neil deGrasse Tyson, both have equal footing online.
“The control of knowledge had previously been in a few institutions. Now we are seeing the knowledge of people who pry away from those institutions, and there are several different realities. That is why it’s hard to talk to flat-earthers — you cannot agree on basic facts,” he said.
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Matt Motta, a postdoctoral fellow studying the politics of science communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said there is a prevalence of these beliefs on social media, but whether this has increased in public skepticism is unknown.
“Tweets like B.o.B’s put these ideas out to the public, but whether or not they make people more likely to adhere to ideas is a different question. You gain followers, but you gain opponents, too,” he said.
Why believe in conspiracy theories if science points to the contrary?
Humans have evolved to have cognitive biases, said Bastiaan Rutjens, a psychology professor at the University of Amsterdam. This brain tool was useful when we were hunters and gatherers, he explained. Noticing danger and distrusting our senses helped us survive.
“Cognitive biases were helpful in our ancestral past, but they are not useful today,” Rutjens said. “A consequence of this is that we too quickly think things are related, such as vaccines causing autism. This really resonates with people, as we do see an increase in vaccinations and an increase in autism diagnosis, and then we are quick to believe they must be correlated.”
But he said this is not the case for vaccines as the autism theory has been debunked several times.
“But our cognitive biases make us connect these.”
This is the “correlation versus causation” effect. A famous example of this is that rates of violent crime and murder have been known to jump when ice cream sales do. Does this mean that eating cream causes us to commit violent crime? Probably not.
When it’s is hot outside, people are likely to buy more ice cream, which also improves conditions for crime to take place.
“We are jumping to conclusions too fast, and connecting events that are far more complicated,” Rutjens said.
There is also the fact that big events, such as the assassination of John F. Kennedy, demand a big explanation and are not just a “random thing,” he said.
“People need logical reasoning to believe this. It has to be an orchestrated event or it does not make sense.”
This is known as the proportionality bias, the urge to figure out bigger reasons for incidences, such as the president being assassinated or questioning the reason behind 9/11. There may be a need to believe it was something bigger, like the CIA or the Illuminati.
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A 1979 study looked into this effect by showing to participants fake newspaper articles with two versions of the same assassination story. The first version outlined the story of a successful assassination on a president. The other version said the president survived it. When it came to the version of the president dying, the participants preferred a conspiratorial explanation. But in the second version, when the president survives, they believed the story of the lone gunman.
Is there any harm?
Motta and Dyer said that it’s important to be skeptical about the process of science, but many have taken it to “far extremes.”
“When people question scientific method selectively in service of their opinion, they exploit tiny pieces of skepticism and then blow them up,” Motta said.
Take, for example, the anti-vaccine movement.
The number of recorded measles cases in Europe more than tripled between 2017 and 2018, marking the highest it’s been in a decade, the World Health Organization said.
In the year 2000, measles was eliminated from the U.S., but there were 349 cases of measles in 2018, according to the Center for Disease Control.
And the rise in a measles outbreak in Europe and the U.S. (and even parts of British Columbia) is because of a steadily growing anti-vaccination movement, experts say.
“Measles is incredibly infectious,” Dr. Benjamin Mazer, a doctor at Yale-New Haven Hospital, said. “And the measles vaccine is also one of the most effective vaccines.
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He said there is a distrust of the profit motive in medicine and pharmaceutical companies, leading many to believe vaccines cause more damage than good, despite science saying otherwise.
Rutjens said the distrust in vaccines is growing, but a majority of people still vaccinate their children.
“Most people do vaccinate, and many have concerns about it and still do it, but really only a fringe of people strongly oppose it,” he said.
He believes humanity is not doomed by this. Scientists just need to find new, creative ways to connect with people who are distrustful.
‘They are intelligent and highly motivated’
Getting mad at your family member or friend for believing the earth is flat or that vaccines cause autism isn’t going to persuade them to stop thinking that way, Motta explained.
“The reason why people hold these views is not that they are stupid, it’s that they are motivated,” Motta said. “So telling people ‘You are wrong here,’ is not going to win them over, but is actually going to backfire.”
“I get emails from anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers, and these people have done their research and know the facts. They are intelligent and highly motivated.”
Rutjens believes that feeding people more information isn’t likely going to change someone’s mind. For example, political conservatives who are highly educated are especially skeptical about climate change, so giving them more knowledge, in this case, is not very helpful.
“We have to start by taking seriously the moral issues people have on GMOs, vaccine and climate change and understand ways to work with their values rather than contradicting them,” he said.
“With anti-vaxxers, you cannot just say, ‘You are just wrong and here are risks.’ That is not going to cut it. You have to work with people, not against, and understand the psychology and political sources that may motivate their thinking,” Rutjens said.