Arab conspiracy theories and mistrust of science

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

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

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

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

While their demographics stretch from the Atlantic to the Arabian Gulf, Moroccan commentators seemed to ride the conspiracy theory line and are the most vocal in using religion and peculiar interpretations of the Koran to refute scientific facts.

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

”The Muslim/Arab earthlings unthinkingly trample on a long and rich legacy of Islamic scientific empiricism, especially in astronomy. Many Muslim scholars as early as the 9th century, based on ancient Greek scriptures, established that the earth is a sphere. They also used the scriptures, based on their multi-layered and multi-level content, to corroborate their findings.”

A more extravagant 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 dome of the earth and ascend to heaven.

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

This was made worse by the Webb images that were released near the 53rd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing; it simply claimed skepticism and denialism. After all, conspiracies are never random and are based on algorithmic and numerical patterns.

Flat earth theories and other related conspiracies are nothing new, nor are they limited to certain ethnic or religious groups. Modern flat earth claims only developed as an organizing creed in 1956 when Samuel Shenton, a British conspiracy theorist, founded the International Flat Earth Research Society.

Shenton replaced empiricism and rationalism, the product of more than 2,000 years of accumulated scientific research, with the so-called “Zetetic Method” of the 19th century, developed by a flat earth, and based only on sensory observations and intuition.

It was based in part on Shenton’s cosmology his interpretation of Genesis, that the Earth was a flat disk surrounded by an impenetrable wall of ice (now claimed to be guarded by NASA to keep 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 has been poured into the project and nearly 10,000 specialists have 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 the various flat earth beliefs with other flat earth people “globally”. But they differ in applying an exaggerated religious interpretation to their convictions. They have turned the Qur’an into a book of physics and used it to refute any scientific fact that does not line up perfectly literally and conceptually (as they see it) with the biblical description of natural phenomena.

The problem with this approach is that it gives an absurd theory a sacred and transcendental dimension, making disbelief in it an act of Kufr, apostasy Almost Daesh-like thinking, but in science.

Even worse, flat earth Muslims/Arabs mindlessly trample over a long and rich legacy of Islamic scientific empiricism, especially in astronomy. Many Muslim scholars as early as the 9th century, based on ancient Greek scriptures, established that the earth is a sphere. They also used the scriptures, based on their multi-layered and multi-level content, to corroborate their findings.

Now that we have physically ventured 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, or is it?

Despite all the evidence, it remains 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 bias.

Like climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers, flat earth is a conspiracy theory driven by a general distrust of standard institutions. Disillusioned 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 there only to exploit them. At least socially, 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.

By the same token, people are willing to believe in ideas that don’t align with the dominant cultural narrative, which is seen as a shadow of the “invisible forces at work,” namely the government and its arms such as the media and education. system

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

Furthermore, the social media recommendation algorithm is known to lead people with some interest in fringe beliefs to more like-minded people and groups; as such, increasing their belief system and increasing their numbers and visibility online.

This is true for Arabs whose distrust of the mostly autocratic authorities is high. It is accentuated by the views that corrupt governments are antithetical to the correct religious practices of the people.

But not all flatlanders are uneducated or easily impressionable. Some know enough physics to give some scientific terminology and facts, providing an illusion of fluency.

When faced with fallacies and inconsistencies in their argument, they still hold their beliefs and become overly argumentative, often shifting the subject’s attention to the person challenging their beliefs, the classic ad hominem.

It’s been a month today @NASAWebbFirst image revealed! 🥳

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

The Hubble view on the left demonstrates the complementary nature of telescopes over a wider range of wavelengths! pic.twitter.com/tOHmklQgaM

— Hubble (@NASAHubble) August 11, 2022

This is the result of a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people who have minimal knowledge of a subject tend to overestimate their cognitive abilities. Inevitably, this produces, and is accentuated by, an underestimation of one’s own ignorance. It is a case of ignorance that does not recognize itself.

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

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

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

What is certain, however, is that trying to dissuade most of them is probably fruitless. Involving them only emphasizes their sense of marginalization and victimhood; therefore, it confirms their biases. Also, don’t suggest they take sleeping pills to prevent sleepwalking and then fall off the edge of the flat earth. Many of them do not believe in pharmaceuticals.

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

Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer specializing in Palestinian/Israeli politics and political psychology.

Follow him on Twitter: @Emperor

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

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

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