'The most dangerous show on Netflix,' declared The Guardian
on 22 November. Self-harm guide? Cannibalistic serial killer glorification? No. The show in question is a 'documentary' by someone with no qualifications whatsoever in history and/or archaeology who tries to sell the idea of a super-intelligent civilisation wiped out millennia ago and whose existence has been ignored (possibly cancelled?) by 'mainstream' scholarship. The point of the article is the danger posed by conspiracy theories. Well-meaning as it is, the piece does not even scratch the seriousness of the threat posed by so-called 'conspiracy theories'.
The very term 'conspiracy theory' is part of the problem: not only it is an oxymoron, but its use is counterproductive, if the aim is to debunk.
For a proposition to be raised to the status of theory, it has to fulfil two basic and related requirements: (i) it must say something new about the world; and (ii) it must advance hypotheses that can be rejected as false. The falsifiability of science (first proposed by Karl Popper) is widely recognised as a key concept which, with some additions and criticisms, is accepted by most scientists.
Here is my theory: food in my fridge is being eaten by a yet undiscovered species of gorilla. You, dear reader, are welcome to test it. If you ask me to open the fridge and find no gorilla inside and no trace of missing food, I will tell you that the gorilla disappears and replaces all the stolen stuff as soon as the fridge door is opened. Want to X-ray the fridge? No problem for my theory, as my gorilla becomes transparent when X-rayed.
The point here is that because my 'theory' can never be disproved it adds nothing to knowledge. The link to 'conspiracy theories' is obvious: when confronted with any disproving evidence, the standard response is that such evidence is manufactured by mainstream science/media, who are responsible for hiding/destroying any corroborative evidence. Bottom line: any conspiracy 'theory' is a fable at best, and often an intentional deception.
Netflix is in the business of maximising its profits, not in the business of debunking pseudo-scholarship. But whose business is it, then? No serious academic would want to debate a charlatan. As famously stated by Richard Dawkins when asked to share a platform with a rabid anti-evolutionist: 'That would be very good for his CV, not so much for mine'.
The problem here is that as the propagators of conspiracy fables are immune to scientific scrutiny and reputable scholars have no incentive to rebut them, the fables are free to circulate unchecked. Conspiracy fables have another in-built advantage compared with properly researched and peer-reviewed knowledge: unlikely the latter, which are prevented from flowing freely by the presence of paywalls (see last week's The free flow of knowledge
), pseudo-scholarship is available to anyone for free. In fact, pseudo-scholarship and pseudo-science are designed to be easily diffused because the people who produce them are rewarded not in terms of (non-existent) peer reviews, but through sheer popularity (number of followers, mentions in YouTube videos, etc).
One of the root causes of the polarisation underlying phenomena such as the Brexit divide, the Trumpisation of American politics, the anti-vax movement, the portrayal of experts as enemies of the people, etc, is the blurring of truth as an achievable objective.
The citadel of truth is attacked not only from the outside by mercenaries carrying 'alternative facts' banners, but also from the inside as one of the pillars of the scientific method is being corroded. I refer to the central role played by peer review in the validation and hence the progress of science. As all advances in knowledge are provisional and subject to being proved either wrong or incomplete, the main incentive for researchers is to contribute to the process that refines, redefines, supplements, and eventually replaces current theories. The mechanism that for the last 350 years or so has helped mankind to sort out quackery and pseudo-science from genuine science is peer review, the social contract underwritten by all researchers whereby the decision on the (temporary) validity of any piece of research is delegated to impartial peers with specific expertise in the field.
The ideal of impartial and accurate assessment is not always achieved, but in the main, peer review has evolved into a robust mechanism of verification and certification of scientific and scholarly advances.
As explained in last week's piece, the onerous and time-consuming burden of peer review is undertaken by academics for free, as part of the very ethos of academia and the fruits of this labour are exploited and monetised by commercial publishers of academic journals. Pernicious and unfair as the current academic publishing rigged market is, it has at least preserved the role and status of peer review. Until recently, that is.
One side-effect of the attempt by oligopolistic publishers to stem the demand for the free flow of knowledge (the so-called Open Access movement) by allowing journal articles to be accessible by everyone at zero cost online, provided the authors pay an (exorbitant) charge, has been the proliferation of 'predatory' journals.
Let me explain. A predatory journal entices would-be authors (mainly from the global south and from new or less established universities) with the promise of fast 'peer review' and even faster publication upon payment of a modest 'article publication charge'. This is not a niche industry. At the latest count, over 15,000 journals have been assessed as 'predatory'. No peer review is actually undertaken, but the journals are still indexed as 'peer-reviewed'. Result: except for a few experts in the field, it is almost impossible to distinguish between proper scientific papers and fake ones.
For example, even reputable media outlets such as the BBC, The Washington Post
, or The New York Times
often refer to their sources as 'peer reviewed' research, without specifying the actual journal.
The problem is even deeper. Even before the emergence of 'predatory' journals, the quality signal implicit in the 'peer reviewed' stamp was very generic, signposting the difference between unchecked research and independently assessed research. It is left to the researchers in any given field to agree on the relative ranking of peer reviewed articles, typically on the basis of the reputation of the journal, and/or on the track record of the authors. To take an extreme example, in my own discipline (economics) there exists a clearly defined hierarchy of journals, so much so that in US universities tenure decisions (effectively the awarding of a permanent post) are based almost exclusively on the basis of publications in the top five journals (out of a list of over 300 journals).
Bottom line: peer-reviewed articles are not all equally valid. When presented to the general public, a clear indication should be given as to their relative standing.
Is this not – how can one put this tactfully? – just a purely academic issue of little importance? Not quite.
Consider just three phenomena whose consequences can hardly be described as irrelevant: man-made climate change, Brexit, and the Truss-Kwarteng 'mini-budget'. In all three cases, the scientific consensus, as measured by peer-reviewed research published in the best scientific journals, is almost unanimous; and yet respected media outlets, such as the BBC, operating under a totally misguided conception of 'balance', have given and still give a disproportionate amount of space and respect to outlandish views that deserve neither.
The troubling disrespect for the progress brought about by the scientific revolution goes even deeper, all the way down to how primary school children are taught. According to the guidelines issued in February 2020 by Education Scotland (the education arm of the Scottish Government) (Realising the ambition
Open-ended experiences and materials allow more exploration […] the child is empowered by the fact that they cannot respond in a 'wrong' way. Process is more important for learning than 'end products' at this stage.
This attitude is profoundly anti-scientific: indeed, if a six-year-old asserts that Wile E Coyote is nastier than Road Runner by all means let him/her be empowered, but if the child claims that Coyote's eggs are larger than Road Runner's, he/she ought to be corrected because there is a non-negotiable 'right' answer. The learning process should start from the fact that there is an established method whereby, based on experimentation and the assessment of evidence, some statements are unambiguously wrong.
Dr Manfredi La Manna is a Reader in Economics at the University of St Andrews