Conspiracy theories vs science and how they're not even wrong

I often worry that humanity is going backwards. We struggle to divest ourselves of superstition and misinformation and it sometimes looks as if that's getting worse.

I used to find Flat-Earthers amusing because I always assumed they didn't really believe it and they were just winding people up. But I've noticed that people are now giving it much more genuine credence than they used to. This staggers me.

It's the same with the anti-vaxers who think Bill Gates wants to inject them with a microchip, the people who think an elite population of lizard creatures controls the upper echelons of society and even those who think a conspiracy by Democrats defrauded Trump out of the presidency.

We all generate some fiction with our picture of the world, and our beliefs often feel more important than the facts. Our own picture of the world is often so comfortable that we simply don't care how correct it is. And sometimes we would rather win an argument than uncover the truth.

The thing is, how do we define the truth?

People often use the history of science to try and discredit the truth of science. I can see why. There have been many occasions in history where scientists think they've got it all figured out, only for someone to come along and prove they haven't.

The thing is, though, there are degrees of wrongness. Isaac Asimov explained it best in what has been called The Relativity of Wrong.

Asimov, talking about a conversation he had with an English Lit specialist, said:

… when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.

Black and white photograph of Isaac Asimov.
Isaac Asimov
To clarify one of Asimov's statements above, the Earth is not spherical in the strictest sense. It has an equatorial bulge and is technically an oblate spheroid.

Science takes precautions to justify itself. Many scientific ideas are framed as effective field theories, which means that for scales or energies between X and Y, the theory is correct. A new theory might probe smaller scales or higher energies and 'prove' the original theory wrong, but the original theory is still 'effective' for the scales and energies it encompasses.

Newtonian physics is wrong in the strictest sense, but it's sufficient for most everyday tasks. The moon launch was conducted almost entirely via Newtonian physics, for example. Einstein's corrections to Newton are only needed at high speeds, large energies or big masses.

Science is a process of refinement and scientists are often aware their theories are incomplete. Once again Asimov sums it up nicely:

Naturally, the theories we now have might be considered wrong in the simplistic sense of my English Lit correspondent, but in a much truer and subtler sense, they need only be considered incomplete.

People sometimes see science's admission that it doesn't yet know everything as a weakness, but it's really a strength. It's an awareness that's all too absent from some of the wild speculation and superstition we read about these days. Such theories are not trying to refine anything or offer falsifiable predictions, and they are often weaponised to sow discord.

A quote from Wolfgang Pauli, an early quantum theorist, sums up the bizarre conspiracy theories best. One of Pauli's friends showed him a paper by a young physicist, but Pauli thought the paper was dreadful and crafted the ultimate insult by saying the paper was "not even wrong".

And that's the case with the bizarre conspiracy theories.