“MIT Professor Exposes ‘Egregious Error’ & Evidence Tampering in US Report on Syria Sarin Incident.” Pretty good headline, right? You’ve got a qualified expert from a prestigious university, discussing verifiable facts; even if you’re a born skeptic, you’re going to head into that news story with at least a crumb of trust in its accuracy. Maybe, you think, this expert knows something everybody else missed about April’s chemical-weapons attack in a rebel-held part of Syria—the one many nations accused Syrian president Bashar al-Assad of having ordered. But in this case, at least, that trust would be misplaced.
Part of the issue is the media outlet that ran the story. RT is a state-funded Russian propaganda outlet that, like its mother country, openly backs Assad. But the second issue is harder to spot: The MIT professor in question, Theodore Postol, isn’t a sarin gas chemistry expert. He’s not even a chemist. The chemical evidence he presented to RT was came from pro-Assad YouTuber and Infowars contributor Maram Susli. And while Postol has freely admitted that the (debunked) science he cites is not his alone, the fact the he’s serving as the mouthpiece is no coincidence. (Postol did not respond to our request for comment.)
In some neighborhoods of the internet, all it takes to start a conspiracy theory is Photoshop, a webcam, and confidence. Susli—aka PartisanGirl—has thrived in that environment, parlaying a college chemistry degree and a series of conspiracy-minded YouTube videos into a new kind of internet authority. But when conspiratorial musings bubble up into the mainstream web or cable news, it’s not because Don Lemon or Ashleigh Banfield took PartisanGirl seriously. To make it in the major leagues, a conspiracy theory—or any other kind of hoax—has to find a voice with a mainstream claim to credibility. A voice like Postol’s.
But Postol is hardly alone. You’ll find PhD-laden experts denying climate change, or claiming that the Sandy Hook shooting was staged. The Seth Rich conspiracy (which claims high-powered liberals had the Democratic National Commission staffer killed for leaking emails) only reignited after a private investigator reiterated claims that Rich was in contact with Wikileaks prior to his death. Their seeming authority gives their statements a ring of credibility, which is enough to get you air time on Hannity.
Authority figures abusing public trust has been an issue in the US since “doctors” traveled the countryside in the 19th century. But over the last few decades, conspiracy theorists have learned how to peddle their snake oil in shinier bottles with official-looking labels. It’s a page torn from what researchers call the tobacco playbook: When scientists proved in the 1970s that smoking damaged your health, the tobacco industry found and touted the credentials of other scientists who disagreed, muddying the water enough to make laypeople confused, apathetic, or both. Since then, issues like climate change, and vaccines have gotten the same treatment—often paid for with corporation-linked funding.
Such efforts create the illusion of debate around scientific issues that have already been proven definitively. However, the contrarian “experts” touting the dissent are not only awash in conflict-of-interest cash, but possess tenuous expertise. “Your bullshit detector should go to at least yellow alert when any author or talking head prominently displays ‘PhD’ next to their name,” says Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City College of New York and author of Nonsense on Stilts: How To Tell Science from Bunk. Prominent climate change deniers are often not climatologists. Linus Pauling, the guy whose diet advice made you think Vitamin C cures the common cold, was a physicist—but he’s done wonders for the supplement business.
“We see this strategy all the time in advertising with celebrity testimonials, which is perhaps why we’re so prone to accepting it,” says Adam Klein, who teaches courses on propaganda at Pace University. “Adam Levine is no doctor, but there he is selling acne products to the masses.”
But even if an expert’s credentials seem to check out, they might still be bogus. “There’s a lot of false credentialing going on, especially at PR firms masquerading as think tanks that aren’t subject to peer review,” says Lisa Graves, executive director for the Center of Media and Democracy. Take, for example, the employees of the Center for Immigration Studies: you’d expect them to be immigration policy experts, right? Trouble is, CIS is actually a xenophobic hate group, founded by a longtime nativist. And these days, you don’t even have to be part of an organization to build an expert-sounding resume: many online journals will publish your research, valid or not, as long as you pay them first.
…To Conspiracy Theories
Junk science isn’t the only realm that trades on the illusion of academic expertise. “The most efficient way for a conspiracy theory to get traction is for elites to make those claims to the media,” says Joseph Uscinski, a political scientist at the University of Miami. He gives the example of James Tracy, a former professor at Florida Atlantic University who claimed that the Sandy Hook elementary school mass shooting was a hoax created by the Obama administration to bolster support for gun-control laws. “That made national news,” Unscinski says. “If it was just some dude on Twitter, nobody would have cared.”
The sarin gas and Seth Rich conspiracy theories proceeded in almost exactly the same way. A reporter for a Fox News affiliate allegedly fed private investigator Rod Wheeler false information about the Seth Rich case, including the detail that evidence of Rich’s contact with Wikileaks had been found on his laptop. All Wheeler had to do was repeat that alternative fact for the claim to seem credible enough for the likes of Sean Hannity (who long amplified the voices of faux-expert birthers) and Newt Gingrich to get behind it. (Wheeler, who once went on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News show to warn America about roving gangs of marauding lesbians, has since recanted his report.)
Whether backing conspiracies or climate denial, these strategies work by burying the truth beneath a lacquer of unfounded authority and faux academia—and people fall for it every time. “I call it information laundering,” says Klein. “Conspiracies grow in communities like Reddit or Twitter, which can act as incubators. Then they graduate onto more respected websites and political blogs, until sometimes, they’re picked up by mainstream news outlets as ‘trusted information.” This is one case where conspiracy theorists actually have it right: the system is rigged.
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