I registered today to a conspiracies unconference. I don’t know much about the event yet (and may ultimately be unable to attend), but I probably wouldn’t have registered at all if not for the attractively named book Nasa/Trek: Popular Science and Sex in America by Constance Penley. Penley’s basic observation is that interest in science, science fiction, and some of what we call pseudo-science are all fundamentally the same sentiment. She calls it “the yearning to get a personal grip on that seemingly distant realm” of science and technology.
In a way Carl Sagan said a very similar thing in the opening of The Demon-Haunted World, which Penley quotes. He writes about a cab driver who wanted to ask him about science – by which he turned out to mean Nostradamus, Atlantis, and aliens in Air Force freezers. As Sagan told him there was no evidence for all that, his enthusiasm turned into glum. Sagan writes that the cabby was “well-spoken, intelligent, curious”, that he “had a natural appetite for the wonders of the Universe”, and that he was “widely read” – about this fringe stuff.
Sagan’s point is to lament the blending of science and nonscience. But let’s put that a side for a moment. What’s interesting for Penley, and now for me, is this guy’s deep curiosity about the world. A science fan’s curiosity.
Why is this helpful?
For one, it helps me understand some “becoming a skeptic” stories in which people mention how previously they were into fringe stuff. For example this Guardian piece by Neil Denny (the man behind my favorite podcast!), in which he describes how he had been interested “weird phenomena” like Bigfoot and UFOs. Then he had a revelation (his word) – incidentally, reading The Demon-Haunted World – and this morphed into obsessive reading of popular science. (Neil also writes about the science fiction he read, before and presumably after, and remember how Penley thinks sci-fi is part of the same mix).
I am also reminded of an DisinfoCast, a conspiracy theories podcast. I once listened to an episode about ancient Egypt and star constellations and stuff. It wasn’t difficult to find faults in the argumentation, but I did feel a vaguely familiar, well, vibe, reminiscent of skeptical podcasts. Something about the curiosity for stuff that is not necessarily relevant to the here and now, and the “truth against lies and distortion” theme.
Obviously I don’t mean to say that their conspiracy theories are true, just that there’s something in the form factor that reminds me of organized skepticism.
I wonder if people who went through a “conversion” (I hope that’s not an offending word in this context), would agree about this point. But then the next question would be – if interest in science, pseudo-science, and science fiction are basically the same, why are some people into one combination of them and not the other? And how comes some people “convert” and others don’t? Do “conversions” always go in the same directions?
In a more personal reflection, I think I probably find the whole idea surprising (and illumintations) because for me science has always been what the teach you at school. On the other hand, my curiosity about science is way less deep and personal than that of some other people, and there may be a causation here, though I am not sure in which way it runs.