25 June 2014
Chem-Trail Folks Crash AMS Conference on Broadcast Meteorology
Posted by Dan Satterfield
We came back from lunch for our final session to find that every seat in the room had a DVD, and the same glossy brochure claiming that the government is giving you all kinds of disease from their secret spraying program. For those that may not have heard yet, these people believe that those white lines you see in the sky behind high-flying jet aircraft are actually mind/weather control chemicals. They also believe a research program in Alaska that studies the Earth’s electromagnetic field (called HAARP) is also involved.
Just about every meteorologist in the country hears from these folks on a regular basis, and what they did not know was that a few hours earlier I had presented a talk about what causes these conspiracy theories to be so widespread these days. There is no reasoning with these folks, and I know of very few who waste their time to do so. That said, I do find it interesting that these theories are so widespread and I thought I’d share some of my talk about it. It seems to me that the more we understand what is behind the sudden increase in these conspiracy theories, the better we will be able to keep them from spreading.
The talk was about how two fake rumors of an impending blizzard went viral on Facebook, but I think the two are related. When many meteorologists attempted to squash the rumors, we were met not with “thanks that’s good to know”, instead the response was often anger. There has been some psychological research into conspiracy theorists (although surprisingly not that much), and I shared a few quotes from a NY Times Magazine piece (written by Science Journalist Maggie Korth-Baker) that attempts to explain what is going on here:
“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” says Viren Swami, a psychology professor who studies conspiracy belief at the University of Westminster in England. Psychologists say that’s because a conspiracy theory isn’t so much a response to a single event as it is an expression of an overarching worldview….
In 2010, Swami and a co-author summarized this research in The Psychologist, a scientific journal. They found, perhaps surprisingly, that believers are more likely to be cynical about the world in general and politics in particular. Conspiracy theories also seem to be more compelling to those with low self-worth, especially with regard to their sense of agency in the world at large. Conspiracy theories appear to be a way of reacting to uncertainty and powerlessness.”
Below is the slide I used:
Sheep is a common term used by chem-trail believers, when operational and research scientists try to convince them that there is no truth at all to their belief. When i spotted the word sheep in the NYT piece, it really hit home with me! I think there are a lot of factors at play here and chief among them is the frighteningly sorry state of science education in America. Take that, and mix in a bad economy with a changing world (in which a high school education alone will not get you into the middle class), and you have all the ingredients. The internet just provides a way for the believers to satisfy their need for confirmation bias.
I ended my talk with quotes from Neil deGrasse Tyson and Carl Sagan:
Well, that’s a new one for me. Have these people not seen photos from WWII aircraft?
Articles like this help inform me on what I might expect as a public speaker, and how to best represent scientific thinking to the rest of the room. We will never be able to convince the True Believer, but we should be mindful of their influence on the group. Inaction allows ignorance to spread. Ignorance is the Achilles Heel of Democracy.
Good article, and I agree with all of it. I also see this with the creationists. What I wonder is why the % of people that fall into this category seems to be growing exponentially? Is it that people who would normally not fall into this category, but are on the “edge” of doing so are pushed over that edge due to the amount of this they are subjected to on the internet, tv or the radio? Or can normally perfectly logical people actually be converted into this type of behavior by constant bombardment from others? I feel like it is somewhat of a “cult” mentality problem.
To be fair, the nutters would point to the Sagan quote as supporting their position, and not entirely unreasonably. While the chemtrail and HAARP folks are certifiable, we on the rational side have to maintain a realistic sense of our own tendency towards confirmation bias, and to recognize that scientific orthodoxy is slow to change (this is, of course, a feature, not a bug – but it’s true nonetheless).
One thing that has struck me when I interact with climate change deniers is that many on my side (not scientists, but laypeople) are just as poorly informed as the deniers. When we don’t effectively teach critical thinking we end up with mindless factionalism.
I had a flight instructor who had modified his post-takeoff checklist with the item, “Chemtrail Gas On”, and the landing checklist with, “Chemtrail Gas Off”.
That’s great. When I have a little time I watch some of these “Ted”-like lectures on chem-trails. They cover every ill known to humans. The believers never ask themselves how human behavior might have changed from the time before jet planes appeared. Unless it is that people have become more cynical and skeptical of scientific and pragmatic explanations of how things work and ‘what’s happening.’ Chem-trailists are a subset of strict ideologists and religious fanatics.
I wonder whether the AMS actively permitted someone to leaflet the room, as conference sponsors are often allowed to do. Alternatively, someone really did “crash” the conference to sow crank propaganda, guerilla-style, in what should be a secure environment. Either possibility is troubling.
I think it does raise some questions about how they got into the room.
My theory is that it was a conspiracy . . . .
Believers in chemtrails conspiracies seem to be strongly correlated with believers in medical misinformation. Health-care charlatanism appeals to people’s need to feel that whatever is wrong with them can be made better without hard work, inconvenience, or pain. It seems like the chemtrails conspiracies tap into that deep well of fear on the part of people who can’t afford to seek real medical attention, and/or who want to feel that they can control their exposure to something that they think “causes” their ailments.
I have a feeling that universal health care (not *insurance*, but *care*) would make a whole lot of these conspiracies die down.
For those folks who do feel motivated enough to engage with conspiracy believers it is well worth reading contrailscience.com and the related discussion forum metabunk.org
These sites do not simply explain contrail formation but also concisely and directly deal with the misconceptions of chemtrails believers.
The regular claims of ct believers are examined in detail by physicists, engineers, pilots, meteorologists and the original source of documents or images (such as the picture of the water tanks from the evergreen firefighting 747 as used in the pamphlet featured in the above story) are revealed and explained.
I actually prefer the term “conspiranoia” to “conspiracy theory”. The second one doesn’t explicitly include the twisted reasoning jumps conspiranoics do in order to support their conspiracy paranoia.
And, since even public radio and TV give them air time in Spain, I think the problem will not solve itself quickly. Does this also happen in other countries?
Nice article, Dan, thanks for sharing!
A drawback of the information age and computer connectivity.
We humans have an innate capacity/need to rationalize/narrate any data we come across. It’s our big advantage in dealing with a chaotic world without much speed, claws, or venom. There’s a cadre that takes the paranoia and rationalizing necessary for survival to an extreme.
Wackdoodles have always been around. Back in the day, their information supply was local, just like everyone else. And their interpretation of the collective local knowledge was clearly nonsense.
But now there is an endless supply of information made of facts, opinions and deceptions, recursive references that turn one speculation into an apparent worldwide consensus and an easy way for the “illuminated” to get all the positive encouragement and confirmation bias they need to stroll off the deep end.
20 years ago, the person who leafleted your meeting wouldn’t have even known there was a conference, much less been able to assemble their glossy advertising.
Thanks. This was a great article. I’ve been having a lot of mental stress from worrying about family members who believe any last thing Alex jones tells them. This article gives helps. Many thanks!
One of the weirdest things about chemtrail conspiracy theory believers is the logistics that they think the government uses…
If you want to kill an insect pest, you get in close and spray insecticide directly onto the creature; and crop-dusting is done at an alarmingly low height; also in Vietnam, Agent Orange was sprayed at treetop level. But when a government wants to dose its citizens it goes up 5-6-7 miles above them!
That’s the great thing about a conspiracy- it does not have to make any sense!