EDITORIAL: Putting conspiracy theories to the test

By Lorraine Connelly

Every year, Rotary clubs nationwide welcome local students to present a speech that elucidates Rotary International’s Four-Way Test, a nonpartisan and nonsectarian ethical guide that Rotarians are encouraged to use in their personal and professional relationships. Before Rotarians think, say, or act, they take a quick mental inventory by asking themselves: Is it the truth? Is it fair to all concerned? Will it build goodwill and better friendships? Will it be beneficial to all concerned? Last month, the Wallingford Rotary Club hosted three high school seniors who shared how they applied the Four-Way Test to a topic of their choice. All the essays were sophisticated, and carefully considered, but one essay stood out. Sanjana Gade, a senior at Sheehan High School, wrote on the issue of conspiracy theories.

Said Sanjana, “While it’s natural to seek the truth, conspiracy theories come with a price when people fabricate and jump to conclusions just to find an answer. Some believe that just because something is online, it guarantees trustworthiness and quality when, in reality, our minds are simply forming shortcuts for our convenience.” As I listened to Sanjana articulate her thoughtful responses, I marveled at her words of wisdom. This generation of students, perhaps more than others in the past, has been unduly burdened by the enigma of conspiracy. Whereas we encourage students to engage in critical thinking, we are living in a society that has increasingly given way to conspiratorial — even illogical — thinking. We have moved away from empiricism and into a new realm of skepticism, division, and polarization.

The Alliance for Science, a nonprofit research institute, has debunked some convoluted conspiracy narratives related to the genesis of COVID and climate change. The former includes such theories as the pandemic was the result of the roll-out of 5G networks, to the belief that Covid was connected to a 2015 Ted talk given by Bill Gates warning of a new pandemic, or that the virus escaped from a Chinese lab and was intentionally created as a biowarfare weapon. According to InfoWars’ Alex Jones, COVID-19 didn’t exist but was a plot by the deep state to take away our freedoms.

There is no shortage of conspiracy theorists in Crackpot Alley. But perhaps the most disturbing narrative rapidly gaining momentum is the flat-Earth conspiracy. The University of New Hampshire’s Casey School of Public Policy conducted an online survey of 1,134 U.S. adults in summer and fall 2021. Among their key findings were that around 10 percent of respondents agreed with conspiracy claims that the Earth is flat, that NASA faked the Moon landings, or that COVID-19 vaccinations are ploys for implanting microchips in unsuspecting recipients.

Are these harmless flights of fancy, or are they indicative of a molten core of anti-scientific beliefs? Environmentalist Bill McKibben was one of the first people to warn of the dangers of global warming some 30 years ago with his book “The End of Nature.” In his 2019 book, “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” he asserts that the fossil-fuel industry knew about climate change back in the 1980s and started building its oil drilling rigs to compensate for rising sea levels. To protect their business model, however, the industry did not publicly admit this. McKibben states, “They spent billions of dollars building the architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation that has spread, with relentless efficiency, the lie that science was unsure about climate change.”

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC), the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change, we now face an increasingly narrow window to mitigate the devastating consequences of global warming. Here in the northeast, it’s been an unusual winter/spring. We had a polar vortex on February 3, and on April 13, the temperature at Bradley Airport reached 92 degrees. It is only the fourth time Connecticut has seen the temperature reach 90 degrees prior to April 15 since 1905, when records were first kept. This pattern goes beyond Mark Twain’s quip, “If you don’t like New England weather, wait a few minutes.” These unusual weather occurrences should give even climate deniers pause.

This year’s Earth Week theme is “Invest in Our Planet.” This pressing task begins by divesting ourselves of conspiracies theories that would have us going down the rabbit hole of deceit, denial, and disinformation, and investing in the preservation of our beautiful planet’s precious resources. Thankfully, the next generation of critical thinkers like Sanjana, who plans to major in neuroscience in college, is poised to speak truth to powerful lies.

Lorraine Connelly is a writer and Wallingford Rotary Club board member.


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