Opinion: Conspiracy theories are not harmless

None of us is supposed to be here today. The Earth was destined to suffer “end-times” destruction Monday, April 23, a prediction from conspiracy theorists that garnered worldwide headlines during the past few weeks.

What was the evidence for this dire forecast? According to chief conspiracy theorist David Meade, there is a Planet X, aka Nibiru, lurking somewhere far beyond Pluto in the outer solar system. April 23, he said, would feature a singular alignment of the sun, the moon and Jupiter with the constellation Virgo, which would propel Planet X from its mythical orbit into our inner solar system to collide with Earth.

There’s more bull here than facts. The sun-moon-Jupiter alignment occurs every 12 years, yet the world is still with us. On April 23, Virgo was pretty lonely: Jupiter was in Libra, the moon between Leo and Cancer, and the sun visiting Pisces (see space.com). And NASA has stated again and again that Planet X doesn’t exist — the only place it orbits is in Meade’s head. He and his co-conspiracy theorists don’t trust NASA. They think it stands for the Nonsense Aeronautics and Space Administration. So, of course, do the flat-earthers. Also the folks who claim the photos of the moon landings were either faked on a Hollywood movie set, or are real and reveal NASA’s cover-up of alien lunar inhabitants.

It’s easy to laugh off such conspiracy theories as harmless entertainment. But they aren’t. They manifest the dangerous victory of superstition over reason, of make-believe over facts — with dangerous consequences. As pointed out by The Economist, a false conspiracy theory that takes hold, such as ones against vaccines and immunization, or the cause of AIDS or Ebola, can result in the spread of deliberate misinformation, disease and death.

Repeated end-times pronouncements pose another danger: the insidious notion that we no longer need to take the long view of human affairs, of wisely stewarding the state of the nation or the planet. Such crackpot notions can reach the highest levels of government and policymakers. Remember James Watt, President Reagan’s secretary of the interior? Charged with stewarding the nation’s natural lands, parks, forests and wildlife, he famously defaulted, proclaiming that we don’t have to protect the environment because the end times are at hand.

Pseudoscience conspiracies are deceptively attractive; they proffer easy, simplistic solutions for a tough, complex world. They imply that all predictions are equal and equally trustworthy. They’re not. Here are three straightforward tests: Are they based on facts or flapdoodle? Are they produced by verifiable analyses of real data or by cockamamie beliefs and hand-waving? And what’s the batting average? For end-times predictions, it’s zero — hey, we’re all still here after countless doomsday pronouncements, including the most recent ones in 1995 and 2012 of a Planet X-Earth collision, or the 2012 Mayan calendar fiasco.

Real science, on the other hand, is batting close to a thousand for the life-and-death predictions we depend on: How fast and where will Zika or Lyme disease spread? How long before the Ogallala Aquifer is depleted at current rates of use and recharge across the Great Plains? What is the fate of coastal cities with climate change and rising sea levels? What critical facilities and population centers are in the immediate path of killer tornadoes or hurricanes? Accuracy, here, isn’t optional, unlike end-times prophecies.

Here is a prophecy you can take to the bank: The next end-of-the-world proclamation will also go pffft. The day after the doomsday will rise with the sun in the east. What is less sure is whether the pseudoscience crowd will finally realize this simple truism: You can’t do the same failed thing over and over again and expect a different result.

— Leonard Krishtalka is director of the Biodiversity Institute and professor in the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Kansas.