When I was 7 years old, I found out that Santa Claus didn't exist. By the time I was 12 or 13, I'd figured out that the stories in the Bible were mostly tales embellished from a nugget of historical fact over time or fabricated outright, not necessarily for any nefarious purposes but simply as a way to teach society lessons about morality and ethics. For most of the last three thousand years people took these bedtime stories as literal truth instead of metaphor and resorted to killing each other over their versions and interpretations.
About the same time that I understood the Bible was mostly the ancient Hebrews' version of Shakespeare, Cosmos began airing on TV and I soon devoured anything Carl Sagan wrote. I loved science, not because it had all the answers, but because it had a systematic way to analyze the way the world worked, a way that over a short 500 years has helped us better understand the solar system, how life evolved and how our bodies work. Science isn't perfect, never claims to be, and sometimes gets it wrong but, for the most part, the scientific method is the reason our civilization has transformed itself from tribes of frightened, ignorant, filthy masses believing in unseen benevolent and malevolent forces to people, organizations and nations working together to invent technologies that eradicate disease, lengthen and improve our lives, and explore space.
Sometime in my mid-teens, however, I took a few steps back. I didn't regress to the point where I believed again in religious fairy tales, but I started reading a lot more about conspiracies and the supposed truth behind many of the lingering mysteries of our time. I read about Nostradamus and his prophecies, about the Bermuda Triangle, the Loch Ness Monster and Sasquatch. I read Chariots of the Gods and The Twelfth Planet about aliens visiting Earth, merging their DNA into ours and seeding our civilization. I read about the lost tribes of Israel and how the Tudor kings and Queen Elizabeth I were secretly Jewish. I read about who was really behind John Kennedy's assassination. I believed it all. And why wouldn't I? It was all based on science.
Except that it wasn't. The authors behind all these new-age tales trotted out cherry-picked "research" that confirmed the conclusions they believed or wanted us to believe. All were essentially conspiracy masquerading as science. And for someone like me, who wanted to believe in something greater than myself, I did. For a long time. Until I slowly began realizing that, like the Bible, the stories weren't adding up. Nostradamus's prophecies were a joke, nothing more than fanciful versions of newspaper astrology so vague you could interpret them to mean whatever you wanted, after the fact of course. Books like Chariots of the Gods, which sounded so convincing because they seemed to fill gaps in our knowledge so well, crumbled under greater scrutiny and real scientific discovery of evolving humans and archeology that did a better job of explaining our past without far-fetched claims of aliens pulling our primordial strings.
I'd like to think I learned my lesson and that my scepticism immunized me from the charlatans to come. But that wasn't always the case in the wake of probably the greatest threat to our journey out of the superstitious darkness: the internet.
It's supremely ironic that the technological tool that's done so much to open the gates and democratize knowledge has also let in a tsunami of information that looks just like the real thing but is, in point of fact, a towering mountain of shit -- climate change denial, Obama birth certificate quasi-racism and Obamacare socialism silliness, 2012 Mayan end-of-the-worldism, anti-vaccination alarmism, a rebirth in Protocols of Zion-type anti-Semitic Jew-blaming and, the grand-daddy of them all, 9/11 conspiracies.
Three years ago, I wrote a blog post about the real reason Jews are wealthier than the average population. It's not because we're inherently smarter or chosen or sneaky -- we are simply more educated. This post, all this time later, consistently gets more hits than most anything else on my blog because people are constantly googling "Jews and money." I'd like to think I'm helping debunk this age-old anti-Semitic tripe but sadly most of the links that appear along with mine are from neo-Nazis and other crazies, whose screeds probably get more clicks than my post.
The internet has mounds of real information for those who want it. But sadly, even the most well-intentioned knowledge seeker can find himself hopelessly offtrack, wading through conspiracy theories that look like actual science.
And it doesn't take long for these conspiracies to materialize. Think about poor Malaysian Airlines flight 370 and how quickly people and our pathetically bad media (I'm talking to you CNN) felt the need to speculate on the plane's disappearance with far-fetched stories about airliners being smuggled to al-Qaeda-loving countries for use at a later date.
This week, I had an epic Facebook battle with a friend of mine who believes most of this garbage online. Our back and forths exposed that he has absolutely no clue how science works and why most of these conspiracy stories are, at best, unprovable guesses or, at worst, manipulative and dangerous nonsense.
In our pre-internet world, quirky ideas like alien visitations were relatively harmless because they never really spread very far. But today, beliefs that global warming is a hoax or that vaccinations are deadly spread like wildfire. That sets us all back and makes it increasingly difficult to rally society behind the solutions we need to find to solve our very real problems.
Image: "Conspiracy" lithograph by Frank Stella, 1971