Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Despite the fears of conspiracy theorists, the Large Hadron Collider has not created a black hole and sucked in the planet.
These worries have dogged the experiment since it began. In reality, the claim is a laughable misinterpretation of a small technical detail. Nevertheless, the theory was popular enough to draw coverage from major news outlets, which helped spread one of the most absurd fears to enter the public consciousness. I like to think that most of the people who feared the collider would trigger the end of days aren’t stupid or irrational. Rather, someone convinced them the Earth may disappear into a black hole.
“Why do people believe this stupid thing they see on the internet?” is a question I often find myself asking. That’s especially true for science, where everything from climate change to vaccines fall victim to pseudoscience. The sheer volume of misinformation available plays a role, but that’s only part of the story. I took a trip to the stupid corner of the internet to see how pseudoscientists use language to manipulate readers.
The anti-vaccine movement is both infamously manipulative and wildly popular. I can understand how it appeals to struggling parents — it offers a clear villain, simple cause-and-effect and plenty of sciencey-sounding jargon. Age of Autism, a popular anti-vaccine conspiracy theory site, features a particularly manipulative mission statement. It claims to “investigate the causes and possible biomedical treatments of autism,” and states that autism is “man-made and therefore preventable.”
Those statements might sound hopelessly vague to you. That’s because they are. They have no evidence and therefore no focus. However, they hide that with jargon. They don’t assign blame randomly; they “investigate the causes.” They don’t advocate home remedies; they study “biomedical treatments.” Stealing language from science gives them authority, helping them manipulate desperate readers.
This strategy isn’t exclusive to anti-vaxxers. It’s equally essential to climate deniers. A depressingly recent opinion piece by Fred Singer in the Wall Street Journal argues that sea level rise has nothing to do with water temperature or carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and that we can’t stop it. It even includes these astonishing lines: “The temperature of sea water has no direct effect on sea-level rise. That means neither does the atmospheric content of carbon dioxide.”
This is complete nonsense, but the argument is wrapped in enough pseudo-intellectual language to sound believable. Singer mentions his methods of analysis and the demands of physics. He follows a tenuous line of logic and qualifies his claims. It’s a remarkable imitation of science. But ultimately, it’s just rhetoric. It seems that, like the anti-vaxxers, climate deniers know that appearing scientific is more important than presenting real evidence.
It should go without saying that no magic combination of words can make a stupid idea scientific. Only rigorous, repeated experimentation and consensus building can lend credibility. We know that climate change is real and man-made — but not just because some guy thought it up and described it with fancy words. We know because nearly the entire scientific community agrees that it is true. Jargon doesn’t tell us that vaccines are safe. A wealth of studies do.
Remember that scientific language does not always come with evidence. Exercise critical thinking and look for consensus — which peddlers of pseudoscience can’t fake. Someone might try to convince you that a black hole will destroy the planet. They’re probably lying, but please don’t take my word for it. Look at the actual science.
Nate Rogers is a rising sophomore physics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.