Arab conspiracy theories and mistrust of science

From the flat earth theory, to meteors serving as God’s punishment for demons, Emad Moussa discusses some of the conspiracies that have been developed and justified by some through Islamic scriptures, and how this relates to a distrust of authority.

Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously unseen regions of star birth for the first time. (NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI via Getty Images)

NASA is the key word, the cliché negative enough to discredit any new astronomical discovery. If it is NASA, so to speak, it is a ruse, a front for the Masonic conspiracy to reshape the world and destroy religion.

This is the argument that an increasingly prominent group of Arab/Muslim conspiracy theorists have adopted. You see them in Arab astronomy forums and social media groups, as well as in the comment sections of popular Arabic news networks.

While their demographics stretch from the Atlantic to the Arabian Gulf, Moroccan commentators seem to dominate the conspiracy theory line and are the loudest in using religion and particular interpretations of the Koran to refute scientific facts.

The claim you hear over and over, the Quran says the earth is flat and that NASA is deceiving the world by saying it is round.

“Muslim/Arab flat earthers mindlessly trample on a long and rich legacy of Islamic scientific empiricism, especially in astronomy. Many Muslim scholars as early as the 9th century, relying on ancient Greek writings, proved that the earth is a sphere. They also used scripture, drawing on its multi-layered and multi-level content, to substantiate their findings.

A grander claim, space is just a dome and the stars are just ornaments. Meteorites, they say, are God’s way of punishing demons who try to penetrate the earth’s dome and ascend to heaven.

Then… James Webb’s images came out, prompting a whole new level of trivializing astronomy that made ancient mythologies look like a scientifically sound endeavor.

This was exacerbated by Webb’s images being released near the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing; it just justified skepticism and denial. After all, plots are never random and rely on algorithmic and numerical models.

Flat earth theories and other related conspiracy theories are nothing new or limited to certain ethnic or religious groups. Modern flat earth claims only developed as an organizational belief in 1956 when Samuel Shenton, a British conspiracy theorist, founded the International Flat Earth Research Society.

Shenton replaced empiricism and rationalism, the product of over 2,000 years of accumulative scientific research, with the so-called 19th-century “Zethetic Method,” developed from a flat earth and relying only on sensory observations and intuition.

Part of Shenton’s cosmology was based on his interpretation of Genesis, that the Earth was a flat disk surrounded by an impenetrable wall of ice (now they claim it is guarded by NASA to stop people from falling off the edge).

This effectively means that space is an illusion and gravity does not exist, and this inevitably makes Webb’s images a hoax. The fact that $10 billion was poured into the project and nearly 10,000 specialists worked on it only confirms, not refutes, NASA’s deep investment in shaping our perception of reality.

Flat-Earth Arabs and Muslims share almost identically different flat-earth beliefs with other flat earths “globally”. But they differ in applying an exaggerated religious interpretation to their beliefs. They have turned the Qur’an into a book of physics and used it to refute any scientific fact that does not completely match literally and conceptually (as they see it) with the scriptural description of natural phenomena.

The problem with this approach is that it gives an absurd theory a sacred, transcendent dimension, making disbelief in it an act of blasphemy, abandonment. Almost similar thinking to Daesh, but in science.

Worse still, flat earth Muslims/Arabs mindlessly trample on a long and rich legacy of Islamic scientific empiricism, especially in astronomy. Many Muslim scholars as early as the 9th century, relying on ancient Greek writings, proved that the earth is a sphere. They also used scripture, drawing on its multi-layered and multi-level content, to substantiate their findings.

Now that we have physically stepped outside our world and observed it from beyond, none of the scientific, religious or even observational assumptions should matter. After all, evidence is as real as breathing, right?

Despite all the evidence, it is still deeply frustrating to try to reason with flat earthers, especially religiously oriented ones, using standard scientific methods. Scientific denial has less to do with empirical evidence and more to do with distrust of authority and cognitive biases.

Like climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, the flat earth is a conspiracy theory fueled by a general distrust of standard institutions. Disenchanted with political reality, conspiracy theorists see the world through pessimistic filters, where all authority figures and institutions, including the scientific community and especially NASA, are only there to exploit them. At least from a social point of view, Kelly Weill in her book Off the Edge, makes a strong case that believing the earth is flat – like other conspiracy theories – has sent many believers down a rabbit hole of social alienation and broken family ties.

For the same reason, people are willing to believe in ideas that don’t match the dominant cultural narrative, which is seen as a shadow of “invisible forces at work”, aka, the government and its arms like the media and education. the system.

Overexposure to such ideas, thanks to social media and YouTube, creates a sense of community among conspiracy theorists; as such, it generates an illusion of consensus and validity.

Additionally, social media’s recommendation algorithm has been known to push people with some interest in fringe beliefs toward like-minded individuals and groups; as such, increasing their belief system and increasing their numbers and visibility online.

This is certainly true of Arabs, whose distrust of largely autocratic authorities is high. It is emphasized by the views that corrupt governments are contrary to the correct religious practices of the people.

But not all flat earthers are poorly educated or easily impressed. Some know enough physics to throw in some scientific terminology and facts, providing an illusion of fluency.

When confronted with errors and inconsistencies in their argument, they still maintain their beliefs and become overly argumentative, often shifting the focus from the topic to the person challenging their beliefs, classic ad hominem.

Today is one month since @NASAWebThe first image of him is revealed! 🥳

On the right is that image from the infrared observatory, showing the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster.

The Hubble view on the left shows the complementary nature of telescopes over a wider range of wavelengths!

— Hubble (@NASAHubble) August 11, 2022

This is the result of a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where people who possess minimal knowledge about a topic tend to overestimate their cognitive abilities. Inevitably, this produces and is compounded by an underestimation of one’s ignorance. It is a case of ignorance not knowing itself.

The English philosopher Bertrand Russell once described this cognitive paradox as the problem of the whole world, “…where fools and fanatics are always so sure of themselves, and the wisest people are so full of doubts.”

For Arab conspiracy theorists who use scriptures as the supreme scientific authority, ignorance acquires a divine value and becomes sacred.

Some say flat earthers are a dangerous fringe cult on par with anti-vaxxers who endanger public health. Others see them as a harmless minority that we should ignore.

What is certain, however, is that it is probably futile to try to remove most of them. Their engagement only accentuates their sense of marginalization and victimization; therefore, it confirms their prejudices. Also, don’t suggest they take sleeping pills to avoid sleepwalking and then falling off the edge of flat land. Many of them do not believe in pharmaceuticals.

Above all, whatever you do, don’t take out your frustration like Buzz Aldrin punched a conspiracy theorist who verbally abused him, saying the moon landing was fake.

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer specializing in Palestine/Israel politics and political psychology.

Follow him on Twitter: @Emperor

Have questions or comments? Email us at: [email protected]

The opinions expressed in this article remain the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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