Anyone in the sciences (and most in any other field) could tell you: we will never run out of questions. There’s a lot we don’t know—but we do know the questions will keep coming. There are countless things to be curious about: amyloid proteins, biofilms, curiosity itself. Even having “focused” my studies in science illiteracy, there are myriad facets (yet more questions) to dive into (what makes science interesting to some and not others? What level of literacy would be sufficient to engage in the science issues most relevant to one’s community? How do we reconcile science education—which, for a vast majority, ends in high school or college—with the unending march of science and science knowledge (among experts)?)
STEM communication researchers here at Texas Tech University are asking questions just like these every day—and chasing the answers for months or years. Highlighting their work is the heart of what this blog is meant to be about (with reflections on research, musings about science, and insights into doctoral school life thrown in).
This space is for questions and answers—we’ll highlight the publications and presentations of the Media & Communication College’s STEM communication research—but it’s also a space for the wonder that accompanies those queries and discoveries. We’ll wax eloquent about fascinating findings in the science world and ponder the imponderables we come across along the way. We’ll cultivate a comfort with uncertainty while being certain of one thing: we’re not going to run out of questions any time soon.
In the words of one of my favorite authors of all time, Bill Bryson: “We live on a planet that has a more or less infinite capacity to surprise. What reasoning person could possibly want it any other way?”
2017 marked the first International (one might say global) Flat Earth Conference. Participants arrived from around the world (though across might better fit the zeitgeist) to share camaraderie and speculation that the Earth is as flat as it appears from our limited perspective on this blue planet.
If those who read this are a representative sample, about 84 percent of you share the majority belief that the Earth is a globe, according to YouGov (2018), but around 5 percent are doubtful, and around 2 percent are flat-out convinced this big blue marble more resembles a pancake. Just think—if they were right, it would make cartographers’ jobs so much easier.
Science may have a lot to say about the shape of the Earth, but little research has investigated the group claiming otherwise—“Flat Earthers.” Some of Texas Tech’s science of science communication researchers set out to change that with a study published this last summer: “Flat-Smacked! Converting to Flat Eartherism.”
The authors—Alex Olshansky, Robert M. Peaslee, and Asheley R. Landrum—report previous work uncovering that upwards of 50 percent of the U.S. population is liable to latch onto at least one form of conspiracy theory—they have “conspiracy mentality.” This mentality is emotion-based, sprouting from paranoia, cynicism, distrust (particularly of government, institutions, and people in positions of power), and a sense of one’s own relative powerlessness. Flat Earthers are reported to have higher-than-average conspiracy mentalities and to have encountered Flat Earth-supporting YouTube videos in their recommended feed after first watching other conspiracy clips (such as those claiming the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and 1969 moon landing were fabricated).
To further investigate how converting from spherical Earth to flat Earth belief takes place, the researchers interviewed 20 Flat Earthers at the 2018 Flat Earth International Conference. Conversion to Flat Eartherism was gradual for the interviewees. The most common path from mainstream theory to conspiracy theory routes through multiple Flat Earth videos (initially accompanied by doubt), and followed by a creeping awareness of one’s inability to debunk the videos’ claims.
Those with higher-than-average conspiracy mentalities and lower science knowledge are more vulnerable to credulity when they encounter Flat Earth videos, but what brings most people to the videos in the first place appears to be viewing other conspiracy theory videos, and subsequently having Flat Earth ones become recommended viewing.
“Once you perceive you’ve been lied to,” the authors write, “a natural instinct is to want to know what else you’ve been lied to about; you are then motivated to dig for the ‘truth.’”
Natasha (Strydhorst) Unsworth
is a first-year doctoral student at Texas Tech University’s College of Media & Communication. Her research is focused on science communication—specifically the factors contributing to and consequences associated with science illiteracy.