Anti-Science = Anti-Trust

I just finished watching Behind the Curve documentary on Netflix. I learned that the Earth is a flat disc with the sun and moon circling the disc like hands on a clock. The disc also is covered in a sky dome that either has a defined height or may be infinitely tall. Still a point of controversy in the community. And the edge of this disc is Antarctica, an icy wall where no flights ever pass over. One of the main leaders of the movement compared it to that Jim Carrey movie, The Truman Show, where someone was born on a set and was made to believe that their world was one way when it was all a sham.

It was fascinating seeing how the world looked, both literally and metaphorically, in the eyes of believers. They dug deep, they spread their reasoning online, they tested their ideas. Some even advocate for the scientific method and created legitimate scientific experiments to prove their point, which was surprising. These scientific Flat Earthers believe science is ultimately the answer, but it had been hijacked by people who were shills, sellouts, perpetuating false knowledge. What was held in common by all of the members of this movement is the distrust towards ‘the establishment’ and the points of authority that all collude to lie to the people. They were there to discover the truth, the real truth, and open the eyes of those who were brainwashed.

Originally, I was expecting it to poke fun at the Flat Earthers and show how they contradict themselves, which they did, but they also conveyed the poignancy of isolation and the erosion of trust in the equation.

The anti-science movement, including Flat Earthers, Anti-Vaxxers, Homeopathy, and the like are all part of a greater emergent problem of trust in the current times. This isn’t something that suddenly happened, but is something decades in the making. The epitome of this is found in the term Fake News. Somehow this distrust in the media, of governments, towards education, medicine, corporations, the scientific community, and any established source of authority that has been gradually growing until it hit the mainstream. There is a deeply seeded force in Western society separating those who believe in collective knowledge, and those who rebel against it. But where did it come from? When did it start?

The answer likely lies in an unlikely direction, loneliness.

In the book Bowling Alone, Robert D. Putnam gathered decades of data from after World War II of core societal changes in the United States across multiple dimensions. In the age of the Baby Boomers, things were prosperous and so was the social fabric. People went to church, they formed associations, clubs, had meetings, organized, voted, and participated in bowling leagues and card games. They talked with their neighbours, went to parent-teacher meetings, and took part in their communities. Over time, all of these activities dropped up until the data ended in the 2000s. Why exactly this happened is something I’ll get to another time, but what’s important here is that society was becoming fragmented from a tight knit fabric to strands of thread.

At the same time, new movements emerged. The Civil Rights Movements, Gay Rights, Feminism. The status quo was being overthrown, and those who were suppressed for generations on end started to emerge out of the darkness. It helped to form new connections and a sense of belonging in those who were at one point isolated from one another. An unintended consequence of this, however, is that it further polarized the population from those that believed in these movements, and those that wanted to hold onto the old ways.

During one part of the documentary, there was a contrast between those holding a Flat Earth conference with those at a casual science forum. At first, I was worried where this was headed, but instead it highlighted a great point. The man at the science talk took the stage to talk about Flat Earthers, and a chuckle spread across the room. He went on to say that these people are not dumb, they are not crazy, but they are misguided scientists. This was further emphasized by a clip of another scientist saying that when a student doesn’t understand something it is not the fault of the student, but a failure of the teacher to empathize and see from their point of view where they have gotten stuck. As much as I don’t want to believe that there is fault with the scientific community, there is a truth to this sentiment. It is those who get the best grades, go to the best schools, get the best jobs that end up with all of the attention, the praise, and the money. Everyone else is displaced and, to some degree, disposed of into the edges of society. As much as power there is in the idea of equal rights, of equal value, this simply isn’t true.

I’m starting to believe that this fight against scientific authority is really a battle of the disenfranchised to regain a place in society, to regain a sense of value and power. This is treading some thin ice, but I think that these people genuinely have a legitimate reason to organize their movement, just not with the right agenda or methods. Anti-Vaxxers have brought back measles. Flat Earthers perpetuate distrust. The Alt-Right promote hatred and violence. If they were to all band together under a different umbrella, one that truly speaks to their growing sense of isolation and fairness it would become an entirely different movement. On the other side of the coin, the Left, the Environmentalists, the Pro-Choice, the Vegans, don’t exactly help by pulling on the threads that are already at their limit. I understand that battles need to be fought in order for there to be progress, yet I’d like to think that the way forward isn’t to continually attack and defend. There has to be another way.

I’m not going to pretend that I have the answer or that any of these books and documentaries do either. There’s no way of knowing what will happen in the near future as tension continues to mount. All I know is that there are likely two options at this point: 1) We continue this tug-of-war and pull the threads until they snap, leading to all out war, or 2) we learn to ease the tension and give some slack to both sides in order to come together and have a discussion again.

Society is a complicated beast, with no single controlling party, no secret society orchestrating the whole thing. It is, instead, a symphony without a conductor. When the right timing is in place, the right rhythm, the right balance of pitch, timbre, and volume, this amazing melody emerges from the individual members and sections. When everything is out of place, it just becomes a jumbled, ugly mess where everyone is competing to be heard, and no one wants to listen. I hope that people will stop shouting louder than the person next to them, and start to listen and synchronize along the same feelings that resonate in all of us. Let’s create some beautiful music again. When it works, there’s nothing like it.

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