Fool Proof 2: Another Dose of Foolish Science

Another year has passed, and another April Fools’ Day has come. Here in the Bruce Museum Science Department, we’d much rather educate than mislead, and this particular holiday gives us a chance to delve into some of the more foolish sides of science. Last year, I chose some of the top scientific conspiracy theories to explore in honor of the occasion. This year I’m doing the same, talking about some of the most interesting, amusing, and intriguing scientific conspiracy theories, and why we shouldn’t take them too seriously.

Please enjoy these voyages into the unusual, and remember: In this discussion, I’m using the word “theory” to mean an unsubstantiated conjecture, not as an established scientific explanation (like the theory of gravity or evolution).

Flat Earth… Again

Flat Earth is one of my personal favorite conspiracy theories, and I discussed it in brief last year. There are people who, despite centuries of scientific evidence (and now photographs and videos from space) proving otherwise, still believe we live on a flat planet. The flat Earth conspiracy theory showed up in the news around this time last year and appears to be circling the internet again after some peculiar statements by Shaquille O’Neal doubting the curvature of the Earth. Since there is no real evidence to support a flat Earth, there is no single dogma that its believers adhere to. Different individuals have different explanations for what’s going on, and in August, a very unique flat Earth perspective was unveiled.

The video titled “There are no forests on Flat Earth Wake Up” has achieved viral status since its release and has been viewed over half a million times.  The premise behind it is that not only do we live on a flat Earth, but that the plants that we call “trees” are barely more than shrubs. According to the author, the flat Earth was once covered in gargantuan trees whose trunks were thousands of feet in diameter and whose leaves brushed the outermost reaches of the atmosphere. These mega trees played host to unquantifiable levels of biodiversity, but they were destroyed by a global cataclysm before the dawn of recorded history.

What proof does the author give for these ancient extinct trees? Where most of us see geologic features like plateaus and buttes, he sees tree stumps and fragmented wood. He finds formations of columnar basalt especially revealing, and believes them to be the fossilized cellular structure of the massive trees.

The Reality

Columnar basalt

Columnar basalt

There is truly something captivating about the idea of a world filled with giant trees, but I’m afraid this concept just doesn’t hold up. Columnar basalt is one of the strangest looking types of rocks out there, but its formation has nothing to do with colossal trees.

Basalt is an igneous rock, the product of magma or lava solidifying. Most matter expands when heated and contracts when it cools (water is a notable exception to this, which is why frozen water, ice, floats!).  Molten rock is intensely hot, and during cooling, can contract enough to crack.

The basalt can contract vertically without much problem, but the horizontal plane is much less forgiving. Initially, cracks begin to form at 90 degrees to each other, but as cooling progresses, the cracks form at 120 degrees, creating the iconic hexagonal shapes. The cracks create points of weakness in the solidifying rock and spread vertically as cooling continues. This results in cell-like columns of basalt rock.

The rate of cooling determines the diameter of basalt columns. Rock that cools swiftly will have very small (less than a centimeter) columns. Rock cooling more slowly forms much larger columns.


Image by Qfl247

Image by Qfl247

What about buttes, mesas, and plateaus? They really do look uncannily like tree stumps. However, just like the columnar basalt, they are quite convincingly explained by geology. Buttes form when erosion is interrupted. If a patch of erosion-resistant rock, called caprock, is layered on top of more fragile rock, erosion will take place in an uneven manner. The caprock protects the softer layers beneath it, and pillar-like shapes slowly form as the unprotected rock around it is worn away.

The formation of mesas and plateaus are very similar, just on a larger scale. These formations aren't unique to Earth, either. There are a wide variety of buttes, mesas, and plateaus on Mars too.


Image by Peter  Haas

Image by Peter  Haas

Have you ever looked up to the sky and seen the crisscrossing lines of clouds left behind by passing airplanes? For some, these are not irrelevant cosmetic tweaks to our sky; they are nefarious signs of a government conspiracy. They call these cloud streaks “chemtrails (chemical trails),” and think they consist of chemical or biologic agents, spread by airplane through the atmosphere in order to modify weather, control population, or even to control our very thoughts and emotions.

According to chemtrail theories, only some condensation trails are sinister. The ones they’re most concerned with are those that don’t dissipate swiftly, or that form grid-like patterns in the sky. They see their fears proven true when they look at photographs of barrels in airplanes, thinking those barrels must contain the chemical agents used to seed our atmosphere. Could the government be using chemtrails to secretly control us?  Might pharmaceutical companies be intentionally sickening us by poisoning the atmosphere so they can sell us more drugs?


Image by Ironhide

Image by Ironhide

The term mentioned before, “condensation trails” (or contrails) is the accurate way to refer to these phenomena. Condensation trails aren’t full of mind-altering chemicals. Rather, they’re about the least intimidating substance you can imagine: Water.

A jet burns through a lot of fuel while cruising at high altitude around the world. One of the byproducts of the combustion of jet fuel is water. Though the engines are blowing out hot air, temperatures at high altitudes tend to be rather cold. Condensation trails form when the moisture emitted by the engines encounters the cold air and freezes, condensing into puffy white lines of cloud. It takes a moment or two for the water to freeze, which is why there can be a gap between the condensation trail and the plane. Condensation trails can also form in the wingtip vortex, a swirling region of changing air pressure at the tip of an airplane’s wing.

There’s nothing particularly chemically threatening about condensation trails. There is some debate over what role they may be playing in climate change, but they definitely aren’t altering our moods. As for why some condensation trails linger longer than others, it’s just a matter of humidity. In conditions of low humidity, they dissipate. When you have higher humidity, they persist.

Subliminal Messages

There are seemingly endless ways that the modern world is infringing upon our privacy, and advertisements are sneakily creeping into ever more aspects of our lives. One variety of advertisement that attracts a lot of superstition is subliminal messaging.

A subliminal message is a signal or message that is only registered by the subconscious mind and not consciously perceived. A subliminal message might be a hidden vocal track on a song, or if you’re watching a movie and a split second of “Visit the Bruce Museum!” appears, but you aren’t aware you saw it. Your brain recognizes the message even if your conscious self does not. Some people are afraid that these sorts of subliminal messages are common, and possibly even prompting us to do nefarious deeds.

There are therefore two main concerns of subliminal messages: Are they widespread, and can they affect our thoughts or behavior?

Are They Widespread?

In short, no. There’s no evidence for any sort of widespread campaign of influencing behavior or opinion using what is traditionally considered subliminal messaging. One could argue that product placement in media and similar subtle advertising serves a similar purpose, though. Numerous studies have shown that product placement influences what we feel and what products we buy, and there’s no denying the ubiquitous nature of product placement these days.

So no, fast food chains aren’t splicing secret messages telling you to eat hamburgers into Disney films, but yes, they may be influencing your opinions by paying to have your favorite characters eat them.

One place where you do sometimes encounter subliminal sensory input is in film, especially horror moves like The Ring or The Exorcist. In order to create an uneasy feeling that the viewer cannot explain, films like these will splice eerie images into their film, appearing only for an instant, and often not consciously recognized.

Do They Work?

You know you want to.

You know you want to.

It’s good to know that we aren’t being assaulted by a barrage of subliminal messages, but what if we were? How much could we be made to do and think based on a split second of sensory input which we don’t even know is happening?

No one has ever jumped off a cliff because a secret voice hidden beneath their music told them to, but there are some ways that subliminal messaging can affect us. Negative subliminal images can make people feel more negative about the content they were spliced into, and positive subliminal images create a more positive impression. There is evidence that subliminal advertising might work too (though remember, there still isn’t anything to suggest that subliminal advertising actually occurs). Under scientific testing, people who are thirsty begin craving a particular brand if that brand is subliminally suggested to them. However, people who weren’t thirsty weren’t affected.

Subliminal messages appear most effective when they’re subtly nudging you in a direction you were already primed to move in. If you’re craving a visit to the mall, a subliminal message telling you to go shopping might make it more likely, but if you feel more like hiking instead, it’s unlikely that your mind will be changed.

Even though some varieties of subliminal messaging can induce slight changes in behavior, it’s no reason to panic. None of the tests showed particularly dramatic results, and many other studies showed no response to stimuli at all. A subliminal message might make an already thirsty person want Gatorade, but not want to move to Texas.

It is interesting to find a conspiracy theory with even a little bit of scientific backing, though!

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow