The past couple of years have shown that in the absence of clear, accurate information, conspiracy theories can blossom. And while some are harmless, others can be more sinister.
Newsweek has compiled a list of popular conspiracy theories from over the years that have all been debunked.
Is the Earth Flat?
One of the most popular and curious conspiracy theories still circulating today, flat Earth theorists postulate that our planet is a flat disk rather than a globe.
According to The Flat Earth Society’s webpage, the Earth is flat because “the surfaces of bodies of water has been shown to be level” and “we don’t even have a full shot of the Earth rotating from space.”
The theory is an odd one since scientists worked out that the Earth was a globe over 2,000 years ago. As the late astronomer Carl Sagan popularly explained, the Greek scientific writer Eratosthenes noticed that shadows cast in different locations in Egypt were different lengths at the same time of day.
How could the sun’s light be falling at different angles at the same time unless the Earth was curved? Incidentally, Eratosthenes was also able to roughly deduce the Earth’s circumference using this method. He lived between the years of 276 BCE and 194 BCE.
Is Global Warming a Hoax?
This is another prominent conspiracy theory, and one that has crept out from little-known internet forums and into mainstream discourse.
Former President Donald Trump once wrote in a since-removed tweet that “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive,” according to The New York Times—though he since reversed his stance on this, saying in 2020 that “nothing’s a hoax about that. It’s a very serious subject. I want clean air.”
Reuters reported earlier this year that advertisers on social media had promoted false and misleading claims about climate change as the COP26 climate conference was getting underway.
Climate change is a well-documented phenomenon, and one that could easily take up this entire article.
Temperature data from four separate sources, the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the Hadley Center Climatic Research Unit, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Berkeley Earth, all show an almost exactly similar and marked rise in Earth’s baseline temperature from the 1880s to today, with recent years being the warmest.
According to Cornell University in October 2021, more than 99.9 percent of peer-reviewed scientific papers agree that climate change is not only real but mainly caused by humans, according to a survey of more than 88,000 climate-related studies.
“The Earth’s climate is changing in response to increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and particulate matter in the atmosphere, largely as the result of human activities,” notes the American Chemical Society.
Do Vaccines Cause Autism?
Particularly relevant today as the U.S. and other nations continue to grapple with vaccine hesitancy in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Public concern about this was sparked in the 1990s when Andrew Wakefield and colleagues published a case series in The Lancet journal which suggested the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine may cause a greater risk of behavioral disorder in children.
As one report in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry noted in 2011: “Despite the small sample size [of 12], the uncontrolled design, and the speculative nature of the conclusions, the paper received wide publicity, and MMR vaccination rates began to drop because parents were concerned about the risk of autism after vaccination.”
Today, the scientific consensus is that vaccines do not cause autism and there is no link between the two.
A 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study focused on vaccine antigens—the substances caused by vaccines that help prevent disease—given to people in the first two years of life. It found that the amount of antigens received was the same in children with autism and in those without autism.
One vaccine ingredient in particular, thimerosal, has also been studied and disproved as a cause of autism.
“Since 2003, there have been nine CDC-funded or conducted studies that have found no link between thimerosal-containing vaccines and ASD,” the CDC states. “These studies also found no link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and ASD in children.”
Was the Moon Landing Faked?
Ever a thorn in NASA’s side, some proponents of this conspiracy theory claim that the 1969 moon landing was faked by the U.S. in order to strike a blow to the Soviets in the space race, or for other dubious reasons.
Arguments for the theory include that some photos of shadows on the moon are not parallel, suggesting studio lighting; that the U.S. flag set up on the moon appears to be waving in photos despite no wind on the moon; and that no stars are visible in the sky in photos from the lunar surface.
All of these can be explained. The shadows on the moon are not parallel because the moon’s surface isn’t perfectly flat. This effect can be reproduced here on Earth.
The U.S. flag appears to be waving but is not; the top of the flag is supported by a pole in order to make it look as though it’s flying, and it looks wrinkled “because it’s literally been screwed up for four days en route to the moon,” explained Anu Ojha, discovery director of the U.K.’s National Space Centre, in a lecture at Royal Museums Greenwich in London.
And there are no stars in the lunar landing photos because the surface of the moon is brightly lit by the sun. As keen photographers will know, capturing brightly–lit situations requires a fast shutter speed and a small aperture.
This means the camera will take good photos of bright things but relatively dim things won’t show up. Try taking a night-sky photograph on a phone camera without giving it any exposure time to see this effect on Earth.
Do Aliens Exist?
This is a tricky one. Whether aliens exist or not is impossible to debunk entirely based on current scientific evidence, because we haven’t combed every corner of the universe—far from it.
But some theorists have gone further, stating that aliens have actually visited us, or at least sent a message that we’ve received.
Avi Loeb, a Harvard University astrophysicist, co-authored a paper in 2018 that considered the possibility that the mysterious interstellar object ‘Oumuamua (discovered in our solar system in 2017) could have been made from “a new class of thin interstellar material” possibly of artificial origin based on its observed characteristics, or even “a fully operational probe sent intentionally to Earth vicinity by an alien civilization.”
Yet at the same time, projects specifically set up to look for aliens, like the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), have thrown up nothing conclusive despite decades of peering into space.
Curious transmissions from space, like the famous ‘Wow!’ signal (detected in August 1977 by Ohio State University’s Big Ear radio telescope) have also captured public attention. However, experts have previously noted that the signal was never repeated and is not conclusive.
Other signals from space have caused excitement, but often these can be explained by natural phenomena rather than aliens sending us a “hello.”
Scientists are still looking. The James Webb Space Telescope is due to assist in the search for alien life, for example. But in short, while it’s impossible for us to say that aliens do not exist, the broad scientific consensus so far is that we haven’t noticed them yet.