Two worlds collide

Will science and religion ever work out how to coexist peacefully?

There’s not much on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) calendar this year. Most of it is green. According to the colour key, that indicates a “technical stop”: in February, the LHC will shut down for an 18-month upgrade. Before that, there’s a bit of yellow (“protonion set-up”) and a gold block that starts the week after – the “proton-ion run”. The few other events marked come from another world: Good Friday, Easter Monday, Ascension Day, Whitsun and Christmas.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) also has a to-do list and this one can’t ignore religion, either. One of the WHO’s aims is to make Africa polio-free (Nigeria is the only state on the continent where the disease still lurks). Another is to continue its immunisation programmes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. At least one of those goals is up the creek. In Pakistan, the immunisation programme has been suspended – just before Christmas, nine health workers carrying out the vaccinations were shot dead.

The shootings are believed to be the work of those who believe that the vaccination programme is a western plot to sterilise Muslim children. It sounds ludicrous but it’s a popular conspiracy theory; the claim has left Nigerian children as the only Africans still fully exposed to the debilitating virus.

There is growing concern in the Muslim world that western science is encroaching on religious territory and this anxiety has some basis in reality. While health workers in Pakistan debate whether to risk their lives, the scientists at Cern will use proton-ion collisions to probe the Creation story. The result of these collisions will be a quark-gluon plasma.

Smash apart the protons at the centre of atoms and you will find that they’re composed of particles called quarks, held together by other particles called gluons. Seeing this stuff requires a lot of energy: the quark-gluon plasma exists only at temperatures of a few trillion degrees. Researchers first created one on earth about a decade ago and it demonstrated some extraordinary properties that are well worth revisiting. For instance, the primordial soup of particles has so much energy and such strong interactions that it pulls new particles out of the empty space in which it resides. In effect, it creates something from nothing.

The only previous time a quark-gluon plasma appeared in the universe was a microsecond after the Big Bang, when the universe was the size of a small town. As things cooled down, the quarks, the gluons and the electrons congealed into hydrogen atoms. Eventually, everything else formed: stars, galaxies, bigger atoms, planets and people.

In the 200,000 years since they first appeared on earth, those people have demonstrated persistent curiosity, with interesting consequences. Questions about their origin led them to form religions. That led to rituals and festivities, creating well-bonded communities that valued co-operation, which gave rise to what we call civilisation, which in turn birthed science – another way to satisfy that human curiosity.

Science provided a way for people to agree on answers to what the world and the universe are made of, how it all works and where it all might have come from. The co-operative side of human nature, meanwhile, has caused nations to work together on things such as re-creating the moment of Creation (religious festivals permitting) and establishing international vaccination programmes to alleviate suffering. All we have to do now is work out how the two might coexist without people getting shot.

A graphic showing traces of collision of particles at the Compact Muon Solenoid. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

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"They’re turning the frogs gay": The psychology behind internet conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories are appearing on both the political left and right. 

They’re turning the frogs gay.

If you have ever watched a video by the internet’s premier conspiracy theorist, Infowars’ Alex Jones, you will know that this is an undeniable fact. Chemicals in the water are turning the (frigging) frogs gay.

The blatant absurdity of this conspiracy theory (which scientist is perving on homosexual amphibians, anyway? Stop them) makes it one of the most widely mocked and memed of Jones’ outbursts. Yet despite the ridiculousness of the red-faced ranter, he has a large and vocal fan base that even includes the 45th president of the United States himself.

We seem to be living in an era where conspiracy theories are booming. From Hillary Clinton’s paedophile pizza parlour, to Russian hackers, Red Pillers, Obama's communist coup and Trump’s 4D Chess – the internet has been flooded with conspiracies from both the Left and Right. Dr Robert Bartholomew, a sociologist who specialises in mass delusions, believes that social media has exacerbated conspiracy culture.

“We now live in a niche world, making it easier for people to construct their own reality - a world as they want it to be, not as it is,” he says. “A person who believes that Obama wasn’t born in the US can just visit sites that reinforce his or her beliefs." Batholomew explains that because of the internet, conspiracies can be passed on “at the speed of light”, while other experts have noted that emotions can also spread online, in a process known as “emotional contagion”. 

Yet though social media helps conspiracies to spread, the psychology behind them is age-old.

“Conspiracy theories are a product of our psychology and our psychology doesn’t really change over time,” says Dr Robert Brotherton, author of Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories. “A certain proportion of people have always been receptive to conspiracy theories.” But who are these people – and what happens to make them fervently believe in gay frogs?

Brotherton emphasises that the psychological biases at work in conspiracy theorists’ minds are biases that we all possess to some extent. The “proportionality bias” means that if something big happens, we intuitively assume that something big must have caused it. Some of us can accept when this isn’t the case – when a lone gunman, for example, is responsible for assassinating the president from a grassy knoll – but others go looking for alternative explanations.

Humans also have a propensity to seek patterns, so we bend over backwards to connect unrelated facts (side note: why do the two psychologists thus far in this piece have remarkably similar names? Is there a psychologist Illuminati?).

“Confirmation bias” also means that we accept information that confirms our beliefs and ignore that which doesn’t. Once these biases lead someone towards a conspiracy theory, they might develop a “conspiracy worldview”, whereby everything becomes suspicious. Brotherton explains, for example, that after the Watergate scandal was exposed, conspiracy theorists weren't vindicated like you would expect - but instead believed that the official narrative was a cover-up and that Nixon was set up. 

A Pizzagate post on 4Chan, outlining alleged patterns and meanings

Yet though the psychology behind conspiracies is timeless, Brotherton does note that certain factors exacerbate our willingness to believe. And this credibility is not limited to right-wing Americans.

“One of the things I think that is most revealing is how quickly conspiracy fears have shifted to the Left, especially in the States, since the election,” he says. The night before the election, videos spread on right-wing social media profiles claiming to show that electronic voting machines were rigged to vote for Clinton. When Trump won, Democrats began to believe that Russians had hacked the voting machines in favour of Trump (though claims Russia manipulated the election are rooted in fact, there is no evidence they tampered with the actual count).

 

A Pizzagate meme

Brotherton explains that cognitive dissonance is to blame.  “In an election, if you voted for the losing candidate, that makes you feel kind of bad because it’s not what you wanted, and makes you look kind of silly, like why would you vote for the loser?"

The most obvious way to reason this out is to accept the candidate wasn't so good, and agree more with the other side.

"Obviously that’s not what happens at all," says Brotherton. Instead, he argues, we tend to go in the other direction. Instead of admitting that our candidate lost because they had flaws, we theorise about hacking and rigging in order to feel as though we were right all along.

A false claim about Donald Trump's administration

Yet conspiracy theories do continue to spread among the far right as well as the left, despite their electoral gains. Dr Mike Wood, a psychology lecturer and expert in the techniques used by conspiracy theorists online, explains that those with extreme political views might still be drawn towards conspiracy theories, even when they gain some power.

This is because their extreme position means they are still unlikely to get to accomplish what they want to do. "They have to rationalise that in some way," Wood says. "Often that leads to conspiracy theories.”

A Pizzagate meme

Alienation, a lack of control, and uncertainly are all facts that lead someone towards a conspiracy worldview, explains Wood. As he puts it: “basically conspiracy theories are a way to try and make sense of the world that in that moment doesn’t particularly make sense.” According to Wood, victims of social exclusion do tend to take conspiracy theories more seriously.

“If the world seems like a very random and kind of capricious place where things don’t particularly make sense and you can’t really control what's going on, that's when conspiracy theories are at their strongest," he says. Conspiracy theories "allege that things that are happening are basically controllable". 

It is hard to say whether any of this is at work in the mind of Conspirator-in-Chief Donald Trump. The President has previously spread information from Jones’ Infowars, most notably when he claimed three million votes in the election were cast illegally. “I won the popular vote,” he tweeted alongside this alleged fact, perhaps attempting to explain away his own cognitive dissonance. Yet whether or not Trump believes the conspiracies he spreads, the psychologists I speak agree on one thing. Having such a high-profile figure spreading conspiracies means they're not going away any time soon.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.