A man with a watch knows what time it is. A man with two is never sure. – Anonymous
I’m surrounded by conspiracies. There was an excellent Tank Riot podcast the other day: Conspiracies, Part 6, which was mostly about the JFK assassination and the Zapruder film in particular. One point that Viktor made (loosely paraphrased): In the olden days, when some public figure was assassinated we all read the news reports, which were mediated by a professional class of interpreters, and we more or less knew (or thought we knew) what time it was. With the Kennedy assassination, though, where we had a source of objective truth (the Zapruder film), it didn’t make things better; instead, it made things much, much worse, serving as the raw material for an endless parade of conspiracy theories.
Or Climategate (of course), which Kevin Drum had a nice item on today (Quote of the Day: Climate Denialism), where the eponymous quotation was of Al Gore (as interviewed by John Dickerson in Slate): “What in the Hell Do They Think Is Causing It?”
If the people that believed the moon landing was staged on a movie lot had access to unlimited money from large carbon polluters or some other special interest who wanted to confuse people into thinking that the moon landing didn’t take place, I’m sure we’d have a robust debate about it right now.
Or there were all those beautiful shots of what surely was an upper stage of a (Russian, presumably) rocket venting propellant over Norway:
…of which Phil Plait in his excellent Bad Astronomy blog had many interesting things to say (Awesomely bizarre light show freaks out Norway), but which prompted a set of blog comments the most memorable of which was this one by user Billy:
Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia all denny [sic] having launched a rocket at that time. Also, for it to be a rocket the spiral is too symmetric. To me this looks like a vortex of a very strong energy force. Perhaps a temporary black hole because of some thing happening to the earth’s magnetic field? I’m 99.9% sure this was not man made; at least not with anything that I know of…
To the above: NO WAY is that a rocket.
See? He’s 99.9% sure. He’s quantified his level of certainty. He’s being scientific.
Sigh. What began with the JFK assassination has picked up steam since we got the Internet. If you’re willing to ignore conflicting data and focus only on finding confirmation for your a priori opinions, Google is perfectly happy to let you enclose yourself in a snuggie of comforting factoids. Meanwhile, real engineers and scientists, people who have to make rockets go up and governments recognize the catastrophe that climate denialists would inflict on our descendants, people who measure their ideas not against what they want to believe, but against what actually is, labor on.
Update: Russia comes clean: Yeah, it was an upper-stage failure of a submarine-launched missile. So, what do you think the chances are that Billy is hard at work recalibrating his estimates in light of this anomalous data? Yup, I agree: Somewhere around 0.1%.