Believing is seeing: Conspiracy theories debunked, part 1

Human brains are great at pattern recognition and, in fact, it’s one of the things that has helped us survive. At its most basic, pattern recognition is simply the brain’s ability to recognize bits and pieces of the whole as the thing, whether it’s a flash of color, a sound, scent, or something else.

This is how infants learn to recognize first their mothers, and then other people. It’s how early humans learned to spot predators and prey. And it’s how modern humans get into trouble or just wind up looking stupid when their pattern recognition turns into pareidolia, which is the phenomenon that makes people see ducks or camels in the clouds, or Jesus on toast.

This ability, however, can extend outside of just things that we see — and we’ve all seen “faces” in inanimate objects, although we’re usually aware that’s what they are, and that any pattern of two circles over some sort of vertical object, with or without another circle or arc or line below, all make us think “face.”

Some people go on to find patterns in things like information, actions, and data, and make connections that aren’t really there. Just like your bath-tub taps and faucet aren’t really two eyes and a nose, the connections these people pull out of their “research” really don’t exist. But don’t tell them that.

There’s one simple problem with all conspiracy theories, and Benjamin Franklin said it best. “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” This is especially true if it’s a really juicy secret, like a big conspiracy. Even if someone involved doesn’t run right to the authorities to confess, they’re still going to mention it to… somebody. We all have that one friend or family member that we would tell anything. Of course, it’s because we trust them to keep our secret.

But here’s a yardstick on how long true conspiracies last. Between the Watergate break-in and Nixon’s resignation was a span of two years, a month, and a couple of weeks. Any conspiracy is a leaky sieve, and we’re currently seeing examples of that in real time.

Yes, conspiracies do exist, but we also know the truth about quite a lot of them now since, by their very nature, they can never remain secret, and a lot of people know this. So there’s a nice hint — the older an unproven conspiracy theory is, the more likely it is to be completely false. So you can give up on the Illuminati, the Rothschilds, the worldwide Jewish conspiracy, etc. If they were real, we’d know it by now. If they were successful, they would have worked by now.

Or, as more than one friend of mine puts it, “If the Jews secretly control the world, why am I not rich?”

Oh, right. That’s the other part of why true conspiracies are so far and few. Not only can a large group of people not keep a secret, they can’t work very well together to pull something big like this off. If you work or go to school, look at the people around you, especially the ones who are supposed to be in charge. Now, ask yourself, “Would they be competent enough to run Conspiracy X?”

Guess what. People in government or high executive positions with major corporations are ten times less competent than the people you mentally looked at.

So here are a pair of wild conspiracies that just… aren’t.

The government controls the weather!

The High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP) was a real thing that ran from 1990 to 2014.  And really, U.S. government, you didn’t have the guts to call it HFAARP to make it sound funny? (Although, really, high-frequency should be hyphenated, so they’re more right than wrong.)

But this project was designed to study Earth’s ionosphere, which is a very important thing to know about if you’re, oh, I don’t know… about to commercialize GPS satellites for everyone, and the ionosphere could definitely have an effect on the information coming from them. That’s the difference between your grandma successfully getting to her bingo game on Sunday and up driving off of a cliff. This was also about the time that satellites became the primary means of transmitting television programs around the world.

And yet… the stupidest conspiracy theories sprang up around what was basically a giant transmitter and receiver way up in Alaska — because they were aiming at the aurora borealis, which happens up there as solar radiation hits the atmosphere. HAARP was basically doing this in reverse. Keep in mind, though, that while the Sun is a gigantic ball of fusion about 864,340 miles in diameter constantly shooting ionizing radiation down at us 24/7, HAARP was a simple array of 180 radio antennas over 33 acres. In comparison, the surface of the Sun is 1.5 quadrillion acres and even though we’re only facing half of that at one time, HAARP is still greatly outmatched in screwing up the atmosphere.

Or, really, doing anything except what it was designed to do. The utter stupidity of the conspiracy theories is staggering, including things like HAARP being designed to change the weather (warning: actual conspiracy theory link) or burn a hole in the atmosphere or even control minds just being laughable through the math in the paragraph above. If HAARP could do any of these things, then the Sun would have done all of them long ago. And even the radiation HAARP was sending up was nowhere near the full spectrum we get from the Sun.

So, no. The government was not controlling the weather or minds or creating earthquakes or any of the other bunch of stupid ideas to come out of misunderstanding what was basically a government and university funded space weather station.

Chemtrails

Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No it’s… a super-secret government conspiracy to spray y’all with stuff and achieve (insert evil villain goal here.) And what are “chemtrails?” Simple. They’re contrails as seen by people who don’t do physics. Basically, they’re ice crystals from water vapor in engine exhaust that instantly freezes at high altitudes. If you live anywhere near an airport or under a flight path, you’ve seen them.

They start as two thin white parallel lines, one behind each outer edge of an airplane’s wings, and depending upon the weather below, they either stay fairly persistent or quickly fuzz out into a less defined pattern. If you happen to be near an airport, like I am, with frequent flights to particular destinations, then you’ll see repeated contrails going the same direction throughout the day if it’s cold enough up there. If you’re in flyover country between major airports in various cities, then you may see a sort of crisscross pattern of these lines going north-south and east-west — which conspiracy theorists absolutely see as a sign that they’re right, but they’re wrong.

What you’re not seeing is the government spraying chemicals on you and, again, it comes down to a total misunderstanding of science. Anything released that high up in the atmosphere — around seven miles — is not going to make it back down here. There are cold temperatures and strong air currents to contend with, both of which would wreak absolute havoc on any kind of chemical or biological weapon.

Not to mention the other little detail: Who would be putting these devices onto commercial planes and getting the crews to shut up about them? Because these are the only jets leaving trails in the sky. Still, people believe otherwise.

There was one recent issue of a commercial jet leaving chemtrails that had an immediate effect on people and it was very well-documented. However, it was a flight out of LAX that turned around to make an emergency landing and, per FAA protocol, dumped their excess fuel on the way in. Unfortunately, not according to protocol, they dumped over a long swath of the south side of the city, managing to hit half a dozen schools — and their students and staff — at the same time.

And… wow. I think I made it to the end, or at least way too much for y’all to read with only two stupid conspiracy theories, but I’ve got at least twice as many more. If you have any you want debunked, and/or if you want more of this, let me know in the comments, and thanks for reading!

Why astrology is bunk

I know way too many otherwise intelligent adults who believe in astrology, and it really grinds my gears, especially right now, because I’m seeing a lot of “Mercury is going retrograde — SQUEEEE” posts, and they are annoying and wrong.

The effect that Mercury in retrograde will have on us: Zero.

Fact

Mercury doesn’t “go retrograde.” We catch up with and then pass it, so it only looks like it’s moving backwards. It’s an illusion, and entirely a function of how planets orbit the sun, and how things look from here. If Mars had (semi)intelligent life, they would note periods when the Earth was in retrograde, but it’d be for the exact same reason.

Science

What force, exactly, would affect us? Gravity is out, because the gravitational effect of anything else in our solar system or universe is dwarfed by the Earth’s. When it comes to astrology at birth, your OB/GYN has a stronger gravitational effect on you than the Sun.

On top of that, the Sun has 99.9% of the mass of our solar system, which is how gravity works, so the Sun has the greatest gravitational influence on all of the planets. We only get a slight exception because of the size of our Moon and how close it is, but that’s not a part of astrology, is it? (Not really. They do Moon signs, but it’s not in the day-to-day.)

Some other force? We haven’t found one yet.

History

If astrology were correct, then there are one of two possibilities. A) It would have predicted the existence of Uranus and Neptune, and possibly Pluto, long before they were discovered, since astrology goes back to ancient times, but those discoveries happened in the modern era, or B) It would not have allowed for the addition of those three planets (and then the removal of Pluto) once discovered, since all of the rules would have been set down. And it certainly would have accounted for the 13th sign, Ophiuchus, which, again, wasn’t found until very recently, by science.

So…stop believing in astrology, because it’s bunk. Mercury has no effect on us whatsoever, other than when astronomers look out with telescopes and watch it transit the Sun, and use its movements to learn more about real things, like gravity.

Experiment

James Randi, fraud debunker extraordinaire, does a classroom exercise that demolishes the accuracy of those newspaper horoscopes, and here it is — apologies for the low quality video.

Yep. Those daily horoscopes you read are general enough to be true for anyone, and confirmation bias means that you’ll latch onto the parts that fit you and ignore the parts that don’t although, again, they’re designed to fit anyone — and no one is going to remember the generic advice or predictions sprinkled in or, if they do, will again pull confirmation bias only when they think they came true.

“You are an intuitive person who likes to figure things out on your own, but doesn’t mind asking for help when necessary. This is a good week to start something new, but be careful on Wednesday. You also have a coworker who is plotting to sabotage you, but another who will come to your aid. Someone with an S in their name will become suddenly important, and they may be an air sign. When you’re not working on career, focus on home life, although right now your Jupiter is indicating that you need to do more organizing than cleaning. There’s some conflict with Mars, which says that you may have to deal with an issue you’ve been having with a neighbor. Saturn in your third house indicates stability, so a good time to keep on binge watching  your favorite show, but Uranus retrograde indicates that you’ll have to take extra effort to protect yourself from spoilers.”

So… how much of that fit you? Or do you think will? Honestly, it is 100% pure, unadulterated bullshit that I just made up, without referencing any kind of astrological chart at all, and it could apply to any sign because it mentions none.

Conclusion

If you’re an adult, you really shouldn’t buy into this whole astrology thing. The only way any of the planets would have any effect at all on us is if one of them suddenly slammed into the Earth. That probably only happened once, or not, but it’s what created the Moon. So probably ultimately not a bad thing… except for anything living here at the time.