When I was wandering around the DC Zoo this summer, I was thinking how cool it would be to have a "you are here" map of speciation for each critter you were looking at. So I find it very cool that in the latest issue of Science they tried to build just that for Mammals, based on the latest genetic information we've got. A more complete writeup can be found here.
Last night, among a generally jovial conversation around new finds in astronomy, I also was subjected to various out bursts of "electrical theory of mars" (i.e. Mars was carved by machines) and similar Grand Conspiracy ideas about how NASA had hid all this from us. It all came from one new club member, who's previous outbursts had been minor enough I hadn't yet realized he was a full time crank. The reaction from the table was mostly ignore and move on.
But it still amazes me that someone thinks it's far more plausible that tens of thousands of individuals are manipulating scientific information about Mars in a coordinated and consistent way. That they can manage to induct all new science students working on the data into their masonic clan. I guess it makes a good Dan Brown novel, but it maps really badly to reality.
And if the grand conspiracy was just at the kooky fringe, it would be something I could mostly chuckle at and move on. But grand conspiracies have become mainstream fodder. For instance, cable news generating a meme in conservative America that Climate Change is a hoax created by 10s of thousands of scientists to keep their jobs. Really? The next Dan Brown novel is going to be about grad students living 4 to an apartment, eating raman noodles, feeling so clever in their grand conspiracy?
I guess if you're primarily motivated by dollars, have a poor understanding of science in general, and never worked with science researchers before, it might make sense. First, project your basest motivations on others. Then sprinkle gracious ignorance about how science or economics work. Make sure to pass over the fact that if you had the mathematical chops to work out something as complicated as a climate model, and money was your motivator, you'd easily make 10 times as much being a Quant for the financial sector. They heavily recruit out of the physical sciences, many of my classmates from college went that route. But no, the grand conspiracy would rather believe the route to riches is applying for competitive NSF grants instead of credit default swaps and derivative trading.
So why do people believe in the Grand Conspiracy? Because it's comforting. It takes a complex world and makes it simple. Complex problems and motivations are now turned into mythical dragons that some mythical protagonist can go slay, making all right in the world.
The only problem with that: it isn't real. The moon landing wasn't faked, it took a generation of our best minds to get us there, and huge technological advances came out of it. Vacines don't cause autism, they've eliminated a vast number of debilitating diseases that you no longer have to worry about if you live in the west, and are now starting to eliminate certain kinds of cancer. Climate change is not a hoax, it's a real, hard problem, that we're going to need to figure out how to address as a society. Evolution is demonstrated science, we don't need a designer to create complex emergent behavior.
The world of facts and knowledge is one of spectacular beauty, complexity, and wonder, and doesn't need Grand Conspiracies to make it majestic and exciting.