Last night PBS aired a documentary about the impact of the anti-Semitic forgery known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the Islamic world today. I was struck by the similarities between this case and the varieties of pseudoscientific creationism that not only continue to circulate in many conservative Christian circles today, but have spread to Jewish and Islamic contexts as well. All that one has to do sometimes is come up with a story that people will want to believe, tell it persuasively, and it will spread and become accepted as “fact” in many circles. And once one has bought into the notion of a conspiracy theory, it is almost impossible to disprove. So what if even the producers of the articles on Wikipedia about the protocols and young-earth creationism are aware that they are bogus, never mind the more important point that no one with relevant expertise and without a particular ideological ax to grind finds them persuasive? That’s just part of the conspiracy!
Once a story catches on in this way, so that its books can be found in bookstores around the world and the story gets repeated and believed on line time and time again, is there anything that anyone can do to make a difference? Scientists talk, and get ignored except for quotes mined from what they wrote that can be twisted to support the opposite of what they conclude. Historians publish and discuss, but who is listening? And of course, even if someone does hear a viewpoint that is contrary to their own and challenges their own, it can simply be chalked up to the conspiracy, whether of scientists or of Jews or of whoever.
I imagine that the similarities between young-earth creationism, Intelligent Design, and anti-Semitic historical revisionism and forgeries, is going to be easy to see for those who do not adhere to any of these viewpoints. And so my point is less to focus on similarities and differences between these hoaxes perpetrated on the public, and more to ask what those with relevant scientific or historical expertise can do to spread truth and stem the tide of lies.
I think that one aspect is to learn to speak confidently about our uncertainty, so as to be able to not merely say “Perhaps” and “Possibly” but a direct and forthright “You have no way of knowing that” and “Your confidence is simply a feeling you have, but it isn’t justified by the evidence.”
What do others think? How do you stop a rumor once it has begun to spread, and become the focus not merely of gossip but of books?