I wanted to write about other things, but I was reading the story of Rachel North in Jon Ronson's "The Psychopath Test" when I read about the invasion of the Plasma Universe people over that Emily Lakwandallah's blog, and the paper from Michael Majerus's last experiment landed on my desk.
There were so many resonances I felt I had to write about this. If you are an amateur astronomer, at some stage you will come across people whose views are wildly divergent from what is accepted by science. Given that this is 2012, we are bound to come across them sooner rather than later. Do you ignore them or engage them?
There are dangers in engaging these people, it's a bit like entering a world of Fun House Mirrors where you can be trapped in endless, increasingly bizarre discussions. Fortunately, most of us will never have the experience of Rachel North, a survivor of the London Underground bombings.
Conspiracy groups insisted that she did not exist, but was a fabrication of an MI6 disinformation group. Leonid Elenin had a related experience, where various fringe groups (godlikeproductions, I'm looking at you) proclaimed he did not exist, and that his name was a code word for Extinction Level Event, but the rejection not of only your existence but of the traumatic experiences you survived is a fundamental blow to who you are as a person.
When you encounter these people, what can you do? You could ignore them. This is what most of us would do. Life is short, and arguing with people who have severely divergent views of reality, and very little willingness to give them up, is a long hard grind that can seem to sap your life away. Rachel North engaged them, she blogged on her experiences, and commented in the conspiracists threads. This bought more disbelief in her existence and death threats (why you would threaten someone who you thought didn't exist beggars belief). Eventually she turned up at a meeting of the conspiracy theorists, to show them she really existed.
Mike Majerus's story was a bit different, no one claimed he didn't exist. He wrote about the evolution of the Peppered Moth. Creationists seized on his work and claimed that it showed that the moths were not subject to natural selection, others muttered darkly the classic work had been faked. Mikes response was to create the most detailed outdoor experiment on natural selection in moths ever.
For six years he climbed trees, patiently observed moths in the early dawn as well as doing his normal work. His massive compliation of data unequivically shows the action of natural selection. Sadly, he died before he could publish he findings, but his colleagues banded together to ensure their publication.
Few of us have the courage of Rachel North, or the dedication of Mike Majerus, let alone the energy of the Bad Astronomer or the quiet patience of Leonid Elenin, what should we do when faced with contrarians? Is it worth our limited time and more meager reserves of courage and patience to face off with these people? After all, despite the best efforts of Rachel, Mike, BA and Leonid the contrarians have not given up their views.
The hard core contrarians will never give up their views, but around them are people who can be persuaded, and when contrarians show up we should keep them in mind. To me, that's why we should not be dismissive, but patiently explain why the current scientific view exists. I like to come at things a bit sideways, to try and get people to think about what the world would be like if the contrarian view was true. Be prepared to repeat yourself over and over again (it helps to have a preprepared list of links you can quickly cut and paste to good sources of information, like when someone claims there is no evidence of water in comets).
You may still think it's too much effort, and it can be hard work when all you want to do is take pictures of the sky, but I'd like to think that in solidarity with Rachel North we can stand up for rationality from time to time.