Education and Conspiracy Theories

Hey there, it’s been a while… We are still in this pandemic, uh? And there were a few things I wanted to discuss further on.

For those who don’t know, I did a post a while ago (you can check it out here, Science and Politics: Opinion ) talking about how the politicization of scientific subjects has led to a growth in anti-scientific movements, mainly amongst more conservative, right-wing circles. And there while I was discussing this rise, it still remained to be discussed what could possibly lead to this growth. I will try to do a thought experiment, based on experience and some evidence (this is just an opinion piece, after all, an informed opinion piece, but an opinion piece nonetheless).

I want to focus on one specific conspiracy theory, Flat Earth, for our discussion. Flat Earth has always fascinated me, because out of all conspiracies, it is one of the most outlandish and also one of the most easy to disprove (If you look online, there are no shortages of sites, videos, in all languages, explaining simple experiments you can do at home, that show you that in fact, the earth is not flat, there are even explanations for why the earth can’t be flat easily available), and yet, the people who do believe in flat earth are unmoved by said arguments. In fact, rather than moving their by arguing against flat-earth using evidence, they become more convinced that they are in fact correct, and that everyone else is trying to hide the truth for some nefarious reasons, reasons that are quite (pardon me for the unintended pun) unreasonable.

The interesting bit about flat-earth is that, different from other conspiracy theories, that come as a way to explain something we don’t know or can’t understand, the earth “not being flat” is something you learn in school, something most flat-earthers have gone through. And yet, they still became flat-earthers, which lead us to a possible conclusion: They didn’t really learn/understand anything about the shape of the earth in school. If they went through the whole school educational apparatus and still didn’t learn enough to avoid falling into flat-earth, then the school system clearly didn’t work as intended for them.

What exactly would they need to learn, however, to avoid them falling into Flat-Earth? Or into any conspiracy, for that matter? What is currently lacking in our educational system?

I don’t think we actually learn science in school. And I say that as someone who has had experience in science for the past few years, and that for the past two years, was more engaged in the theoretical side of scientific research, while also having gone through regular primary and secondary education.

For those of you who have gone through a similar educational system as I did, this may feel a weird opinion. I mean, you did learn math, you had science subjects in class, you may have had some lab experiments, or dissected a frog, and stuff like that. But there is something missing. We learn scientific stuff, but we don’t learn how we do science, or what is the meaning of science. We are taught for example the fundamental laws of mechanics, but do we ever get to learn how we got to those laws? I don’t think so. The first time I actually had to learn that was in college, and while I enjoyed the experience it still left that slightly uncomfortable feeling that I hadn’t actually learned anything back in high school. We were just given those laws and expected to take them at face value. Why are these the laws of motion and not others? Well, that’s just what it is, because that’s how the world works. We turn science from a process of discovery and exploration into a mechanical memorization game.

And while I’m focusing on science here (as that is associated with the original starting point of flat earth), this is equally valid for other areas of understanding, art and philosophy. It’s actually striking how much we are supposed to learn in high school, and yet after a few years, it’s like we never heard of whatever thing we learned in 8th grade. Unless you are actively engaged with a subject, you forget it. And while it is tempting to say that is just how our brains work, I think there are better ways to address the issue. The issue here being that the schooling system is not built to actually make us learn properly. We learn things in a fairly dogmatic way, quite similar in fact to what you would learn in a religion. No space or time for discussions, for alternatives. You learned the earth is not flat. Why? Because it isn’t. No further questions needed. Which is a shame, because the different experiments to determine the earth has a curvature are quite fun and easy to do.

I want to emphasize here that the problem are not the teachers. Most teachers I had were passionate about their subjects, and were willing to discuss things further. And many teachers I currently meet are also equally passionate about it. But there is only so much a teacher can do in a broken educational system that is more concerned with producing efficient machines to generate profit (again these “machines” are human). That may not be the stated purpose, but isn’t it interesting that subjects that are seen as not very useful have little to no funding? The whole way we teach kids is not an healthy environment for learning.

A teacher may give class to 30-50 students, sometimes even more depending on the country. How do you expect someone to properly pay attention to all of their students during the 1-2 hours they are in class, while also having to deal with 3-4 other classes? While also being underpaid, with lack of proper supplies and resources? There are several elements that need fixing in our educational system, probably we even need a new system altogether. What is that new system? I don’t know, I have no idea, but if we talk to teachers and what they would want to change, we might have an idea. Bring the students into the discussion, they should also have a say in what feels comfortable for them to learn. Let’s say, maybe they don’t find a subject appealing. Okay, then let’s work on making that subject more appealing. Maybe shrink down the classes a bit, pay teachers better and hire more teachers, so they can properly guide and help the students. There are several things we can try, but keeping the same system and just asking students to make more effort is not gonna cut it.

Do I have a solution for people who have already gone down the conspiracy pipeline? No, I don’t. There might be, but it’s complicated.

Do I have a solution to avoid getting into the pipeline? No, but whatever solution it is, it must imply a fundamental change in the way we learn things.

I’ll look for some sources to put here later just so the arguments become a bit more fact-based and again, if you have anything you want to add, maybe something you disagree with, you can comment below.

Update: Some Sources

Conceptual Change: A powerful framework for improving science teaching and learning, by Reinders Duit and David Treagust, provides a more detailed academic discussion on the problems with science learning, and on alternative methods for it. A lot of the point I talked about here with regards to what science teaching is missing are exposed for any of the more academically inclined fellas here.

Young Children Ideas about the Earth in Space, by John Sharp, is an interesting article exploring someone’s preconception and ideas about Earth. Given the context of this article, while not having anything to do with conspiracies, it is interesting from an educational perspective.

Description of Students’ Scientific Literacy Competencies on the Scientific Issue of Flat Earth Theory, by Agus Widayoko et al, is a very insightful case study with regards to how we teach students to acquire information with regards to science, and how to question scientific information. I want to stress that this may not be general for most countries but it does show that these problems do exist.

Flat Earth Theory: An Exercise in Critical Thinking, by Leontýna Břízová et al, is also related, at least in how we can actually use Flat Earth to teach students about critical thinking. This may certainly be a way to improve our current issues, so it’s definitely worth a read.

I also recommend reading Paulo Freire, a brazilian pedagogian who discussed how education could be a tool for social justice, not only in what we teach but also how we teach it, and the relations between the teacher and their students. (Perhaps you could start with “Pedagogy of the Oppressed“)

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