Conspiracy theorists often employ a range of tactics that do not argue for their position, so much as perform sleight of hand tricks that only seem to point to their conclusion. Most of these tactics we label as informal fallacies. Whether they are cherry-picking results of studies, suppressing counter-evidence, or tossing out red herrings, we recognise these tactics… even if we only do so three hours later while in bed.
One such tactic, which seems substantive but is merely window dressing, is the Bewilder Gambit. It works by seeming to prove a position with technical and complex points but ultimately means nothing. I’ll explain via the Flat Earth conspiracy theory.
The Flat Earth theory has myriad problems. The most devastating problem is the physical world – no, not that the world is round (that is, after all, what they are disputing) but that the physical rules of the natural world actually prohibit the Earth from being a flat disc. Gravity necessitates the shape of the Earth, even Aristotle kind of understood this fact (De Caleo 297a9-21) though he did not understand why. As things come together, he wrote, compression and conversion of the various parts will necessarily form a sphere as the smaller parts fill in the gaps between the larger parts. Aristotle did not have the idea of gravity (indeed, he thinks that things fall because they are heavy), but the shape of the Earth he gets right. Yet, this isn’t the only problem that gravity poses. Things fall, that much is accurate, and the Flat Earthers must answer this problem.
Their solution, according to tfes.org’s wiki page, is something called Universal Acceleration. Universal Acceleration flips the problem: it is not that things fall; instead, the Earth comes up to meet them at the rate of 9.8m/s/s which we consider the rate of gravitational attraction. Let us assume for a moment that the conspiracy theory is true, which is a fun reductio ad absurdum way to argue against conspiracy theories. To compensate for Newton’s inertial laws, the Earth must be continuously accelerating. To anyone paying attention, this means that the Earth will pass the Universe’s speed limit of C within the first year. If the Earth is going to retain any kind of mass, it simply cannot exceed the speed of light. We know it contains mass because you’re reading this right now. Even the Flat Earth theory recognises this possibility and offers up this as an answer:
The presentation ends with the sentence,
As you can see, it is impossible for dark energy to accelerate the Earth past the speed of light.
I am no expert in maths. My abilities in the subject are limited to internalised algebra at no more than four places, multiplication/division at no more than two places. Since I discovered that percentages are reversible (i.e., 50% of 20 = 20% of 50), I can do those pretty effectively. Ask me about imaginary numbers, and I’ll respond with “eleventeen” faster than √-1. So, when the ∂ appears, I figure I’m out of my depth and will take this formula at face value.
Which is precisely what the Flat Earth people want us to think. The questions we are asking about gravity are too uncomfortable for them so they seek to bewilder those asking the question with this impressive looking formula. The formula is not just something that I do not know, but I also don’t know where I begin to look it up.
The tactic is not unique to the Flat Earth conspiracy theory. David Icke uses it in “The Biggest Secret” when he spends all of chapter six on his lineages of the British Royalty. This chapter begins with Babylonian Brotherhood Reptilians moving to Northern Italy in 466 CE (he’s spend the previous chapters getting to this point) and walking us forward through their infiltration of the entire European continent, all the while taking over financial systems and creating the idea of money. The Sovereign Citizen or “Freemen on the land” people use overly complex pseudo-legalese to convince us that signing documents in red ink will unlock millions owed to their non-corporate selves.
This “information” is presented as-is, which to an outsider seems impressive and factual. When reading through Icke’s book, I’m not going to fact-check his lineages. These are matters of objective fact, and I’m going to charitably assume that someone at least verified that they are real. I’m not going to check the legal ramifications of the Magna Carta (which somehow applies to the Sovereign Citizen movement here in the US as well) to make sure that the freemen are citing it correctly (generally, the answer is “no, they are not”).
As skeptics, we are sometimes burdened with thinking that we must retort every argument that the conspiracy theorists make. It is an unreasonable position: no one can have all the necessary information, nor should we expect them to. It’s also unreasonable when we understand that facts do not work against conspiracy theorists. Every study on the subject concludes that facts do not change people’s minds, and that conclusion is exemplified by the fact that even when reading this, most of you will still think that some kind of silver bullet fact will get through to the theorist. Thus we need a different tactic.
When confronted with these kinds of positions, we should, instead, ask, “how is this relevant?” The sleight of hand being conducted here is the illusion that what they are saying is linked to the conclusion when the conclusion is a non-sequitur. So Icke has seemingly connected a living British royal to the city of Ur – that doesn’t mean shape-shifting lizard demons are trying to separate us from the gold standard. It could only prove that perhaps all of these royal families are just really old. Just because clause XXIX of the Magna Carta states that no one shall be imprisoned without due reference to the law of the land does not mean that the presence of a Naval flag grants a get out of jail free card. Their conclusion does not follow from their premise, but it does seem like it could. To an outsider, it may seem like the law is just a confusing jumble of vernacular with the odd bit of Latin thrown in, but the law does not derive its power from a magic spell concocted out of a specific order of words.
In our Flat Earth example, the final sentence is telling because there is nothing in that formula (or series of formulae) that refers to dark energy. It’s thrown in there because it is the CBD oil of explanations for the pseudoscience conspiracy theory crowd: it’s claimed to be effective at whatever it needs to be, but there’s no evidence that it peforms the function that they claim it does. While that maths represents the Lorentz factor, it is irrelevant to our initial objection to Universal Acceleration. The problem isn’t the formula. The Flat Earth theory has already rejected the natural world’s physics, but now it wants to appeal to them to justify something else.
This kind of thing works because they emulate real scientists, academics, historians, and lawyers, but they lack the proper understanding of how the actual work is done. What they offer is more accurately described as a mockery of it. Close enough to fool the people who are already predisposed to believe in it.
We know that Earth is round; we don’t need to know the intricacies of relativity to prove it.