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S1E4: The History of Skepticism – Why do we Believe in Conspiracies

Last updated on 2020-10-03

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Espiritualidad y Ciencia
Espiritualidad y Ciencia
S1E4: The History of Skepticism - Why do we Believe in Conspiracies

You may be aware of the current situation of general disbelief that we are living in the world. There is a crisis in trust towards all the established systems, mainly towards religion, politics, corporations and science, that is, basically towards all the powers that have traditionally maintained a monopoly on “truth”. And well, we have to be honest and start by accepting that all these institutions have deceived us more or less frequently, but then, if we are not going to believe in the institutions that are part of those systems, then who are we supposed to trust? Ourselves? That seems to be the way.

The phenomenon of manipulation and deception must be analyzed case by case because it doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all explanation. The motivations and methods for making up or disguising the truth, depends largely on the objectives of each entity and ultimately, each individual who belongs to them.

In a previous episode I shared that there have been social experiments that show that human beings have the tendency to form elites to take advantage of the less favored to ensure their survival or simply to maintain their dominant position. It is clear that lying is almost a prerequisite for the simple existence of those elites. Politicians lie to convince their constituents that they are the ones to govern them and then to mask the pettiness they commit. The world’s billionaires tell us that their privileged position is due entirely to their effort and leadership, without counting on their coming from a golden cradle or the influence they exert with their money on the powers that be to enlarge their wealth.

In short, this has always been known and is already considered a necessary evil: Democracy and capitalism perpetuate vices but at least they are not as terrible as almost all other forms of government and organization that we have seen: dictatorships, communism, feudalism, colonialism and most autocracies, even most indigenous communities have such a high record of injustice, irrationality and/or backwardness that they convinced us that the current system is the only sensible alternative. As Winston Churchill said, “democracy is the worst system of government, except for all the others that have been invented.”

The consensus seems to be that lies, corruption and inequity appart, capitalism and democracy are the best we can have so we better swallow the lies with resignation. It could be a lot worse!

But then we are left with two systems that have traditionally been sold as custodians of truth: religion and science. Both of them are nowadays targets of incredulity from the masses and many times blamed for many of the evils of the modern world.

Most religions base their cosmogony on divine revelations, so there are only two possibilities: Either there really are deities that can communicate with the human being and reveal the truth, or everything that is consigned in the sacred texts is made up by humans who either believe that they were inspired by divinity or deliberately misled to give power to their ideas.

If the first possibility were true, we would have to accept that there is only one true religion and the others will be false as well as accept many theories that go against what science has proven in recent centuries. If the reality is that there were people who wrote the sacred texts knowing that it was their own inspiration in not the God who directed them, then there are also two possibilities: that the deception sought a personal or group interest, or that it genuinely sought some type of welfare for the community to which it was directed.

the antropologic case for religon

Well, the latter is precisely what Yu.val Noah Harari raises in his book Sapiens: Religion is the way through which primitive societies made many individuals collaborate for the common good. It goes something like this: When we lived as hunter-gatherers, human beings formed small groups of 10 or 20 individuals who were constantly on the move in search of food and other resources. This was the case for hundreds of thousands of years and then our brain evolved with the ability to maintain a handful of relationships with other people, create bonds of trust and the ability to quickly determine bad intentions or deception in those people.

This is the reason why even today, humans are more or less efficient in judging the sincerity in people we have known for a long time, such as members of our family.

But then, 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, humans discovered agriculture and went from nomadic hunter-gatherers to settle in small plots. Over time these patches became communities, then villages, and suddenly, after millions of years of evolution in small herds, we had to learn to deal with communities of dozens, then hundreds, and later thousands of individuals.

Well, our brain hasn’t had enough time to caught up and we haven’t developed the ability to create bonds of trust with so many people. Rather the opposite, we instinctively distrust individuals who do not belong to the same pack, the same tribe.

The fact is that suddenly we had to cooperate no longer among a few but among thousands and distrust was the predominant relationship. This is the reason why war became our companion from the very beginning of civilization: our instinct tells us that we can only trust our close group, that the “others” will necessarily try to take advantage of us, when not exterminate us entirely.

And so it was, conflict after conflict that we began to kill each other until a solution, or better a workaround emerged: The tribal leaders started creating stories about Gods who watched them from heaven, who chose them as their children, and who demanded total loyalty in return. to provide food, health and long life. That would have been somewhat difficult to believe, but there was a powerful argument: whenever a member of the tribe died unexpectedly or a plague attacked crops, animals or people, the sage of the group would decree that such a tragedy was the punishment for having violated their God’s will. Why? Well, that had to be investigated. they probably reviewed the most recent events in the community and something had to be found. It could be that a couple had had sex without the blessing of the elders, or that a woman with her period had been cooking, or that they had forgotten to make an offering to the divinity.

Anything that was not routine in the community could be suspected of having caused divine wrath. But in any case, something had to be found to strengthen the belief in divine power, and above all to maintain the order of the group.

This sounds terrible but the truth is that fear of divine punishment and respect for authority allowed us to overcome the instinctive distrust between tribes. If the tribe next door feared the same God, then we could rest assured that they also obeyed the same laws. One of those laws invariably was: “You shall not harm your fellow men.” The problem was when tribes with different creeds ran into each other. The “others” are a menace because they do not obey God, so they had to be anihilated or through wars, invasions and conquest, be converted. This way the groups of trust grew to have millions of members who could cooperate to some extent.

Without religion we probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve a global civilization.

Philosophers and early science

However, little by little another type of knowledge was making its way. In the Ancient Greece, humans discovered that the only tools we had to reveal the truth, other than divine revelations, were our senses, our mind, experience and cooperation to discuss and discern through debate. The Greek philosophers brought their observations of the world to the central agora, to debate and eventually reveal some truths.

This way, many advances were achieved, especially in the field of the humanities and some scientific principles because the debate served to refine, to some extent, the fallacies and biases that were inadvertently introduced into their observations.

There must have been philosophers who deliberately lied for their own gain, but it was very likely that their deceptions were thwarted by other philosophers with better arguments. Either way, no matter how much effort and good will they had, there were issues that were simply beyond their mind’s ability to discern. Things like quantum physics, relativity or even mechanical physics, not always corresponds with the intuitive logic of the human being nor can they be analyzed with the simple use of common sense. For this reason, the Greeks failed to find answers important questions such as the origin of life, or the nature of consciousness, or our place in the universe.

But the methods of experimentation, debate of ideas and validation of results as a way of understanding the world, allowed important achievements. The Greeks and in particular Pythagoras, Euclid and their pupils adopted mathematics as a tool to understand the Universe, observing that many phenomena seemed to correspond with the results predicted by equations. We have all studied his principles of geometry and trigonometry which are still applied to architecture, physics, astronomy, navigation, and many other disciplines. Archimedes understood the concept of volume and floating of bodies when he submerged in his bathtub, but thanks to mathematics, he was also able to explain and support his discoveries before other scholars.

Eratosthenes, the skeptic

One very interesting example of early science that caught my attention many years ago, was the case of Eratosthenes, around 225 BC, who was able to measure with utmost precision, the circumference of the Earth using just sticks, sunlight and a lot of patience.

While in the Library of Alexandria, he found a report of observations about Siena, a city located about 800 km south of Alexandria, in which it was said that on the day of the summer solstice (June 21) at noon, the objects (such as the city obelisks) did not produce any shade and sunlight could be seen at the bottom of the wells. This is because this city is on the tropic line (actually, 33 ′ north of the Tropic of Cancer), right under the sun in that part of the year.

Eratosthenes realized that this same phenomenon did not occur in Alexandria on the same day and at the same time. He correctly assumed that the Sun was at a great distance and that its rays, upon reaching the earth, did so in a (practically) parallel manner. This confirmed his idea that the surface of the Earth was curved because, had it been flat, this difference between the shadows in the two cities would not have occurred.

The next step was to measure, in Alexandria, the angle that the sun’s rays formed with the vertical, which by construction is equal to the angle whose vertex is in the center of the Earth (see upper graph). This angle turned out to be 7.12 degrees. The other thing he had to find out was the distance between Siena and Alexandria. It was not exactly known so he paid an assistant to measure the walking distance between the two cities. He found the distance to be 5,000 stadia. Eratosthenes made the calculations with the help of Pythagoras’ mathematics and concluded that the circumference of the Earth measured 360 · 5000 / 7.2; that is, 250,000 stadiums. Although there are no exact data, it is known that the stadium is equivalent to about 160m (currently 158m is usually taken). Therefore, 250,000 stadiums are approximately 250,000 * 160/1000 = 40,000 km. This is equivalent to a radius of 6,366 km or 6,286 if we take 158m, against 6,371 km that are admitted today.

This story is particularly interesting because it shows that even in the Ancient Greece, one single person could have an enormous scientific impact when there is willingness to find the truth, with the use of a system to corroborate, discuss and confirm theories. But above all, this story shows the power that gives us doubting the prevailing knowledge and accepting different truths when the necessary evidence is provided and protocols are followed to reduce the effect of our biases. By the way, if flat-earthers were to repeat the experiment by Eratosthenes, they would find the same results on which modern science is based.

Of course, this power in the hands of the masses was very dangerous for the prevailing powers at the time, so as soon as the Roman Empire spread to the territory of Egypt, Julius Caesar himself is said to have set fire to part of the Library of Alexandria and a couple of centuries later, the library would end up falling completely in the middle of fighting between Jews and Christians, that is, in one of the many wars between “them and us”.

And thus, science is born

From there we had to wait for more than 1,000 years of a very slow progress of science in what is known as the dark ages. For 10 centuries, humanity resisted the advancement of science and the only truth that was widely accepted was that of the sacred books. Of course, wars between the followers of each text were the order of the day and we had to go through the infamous crusades, holy war and other atrocities.

We had to wait until the Renaissance, which was called that precisely because it was the rebirth of the ideas of Ancient Greece, to continue advancing and evolving into a modern society. But what was known at the time as the knowledge revolution, was rather, as Noah Harari puts it, a revolution of ignorance. We dared to accept that there were things we didn’t know, that there was no book that had all the answers and when we finally accepted we could be wrong. That was the door to advance towards knowledge. It is doubt and not certainty what pushed us towards enlightment.

And so, after all this journey through history, we can recognize that our skepticism of established knowledge has a very deep and well-justified foundation. By nature, we distrust those in power and have the instinct to investigate on our own and find the truth. But this research cannot outright ignore everything that thousands of people have discovered before us.

Imagine if each doctor had to invent penicillin on his own or learn to remove tumors by trial and error. Would you be willing to be operated on by a “skeptical” doctor who does not believe in the theory of modern surgery? Would you trust your money to a bank that does not believe in modern theories of economics or financial mathematics? Would you buy a cell phone from a company that doesn’t believe in semiconductor physics or that decided to invent the microprocessor or LED screens on its own?

We have made all the breakthroughs as a species by drawing on the knowledge accumulated over thousands of years but also by doubting at all times and by being willing to accept new truths when supported by rigorous method, strict testing, and the backing of the academic community. For two and a half centuries we accepted Newton’s mechanical physics as the absolute truth that governs physics in the Universe, but along came Einstein and rethought many of those laws in light of new observations, very complex mathematics, and the support of hundreds of researchers who worked with him. Many resisted his ideas but the weight of evidence prevailed.

This brings me to the last point I want to address: Skepticism is our most powerful tool, but only when used by rigorous, disciplined people who are also skeptical of themselves. To investigate, you have to doubt your own observations, contrast them with other researchers, look for strategies to reduce the biases of your own mind, test alternative theories to rule out other possibilities, and so on.

The good thing is that this system is not the monopoly of large universities or of any government. If we want to know the truth about vaccines or about the economy or about global warming it is not enough to spend many hours in Internet forums or watching YouTube videos. You have to go to academia, spend years studying accumulated knowledge, break your head with advanced mathematics, with chemical equations, spend hundreds of hours in laboratories, field experiments, conducting clinical studies. Knowledge is not exclusive to anyone but it is not available to anyone either.


PS: Do you know who is the one in this article’s photo? Write it in the comments!

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