There is an argument to be made that controversy only thrives if it is given air, but in reality it is not so simple.
Controversy is not inherently bad; without questioning the world we inhabit and the things we take for granted we would simply stagnate (vide: Malta’s political scene). But for controversy to be fruitful, it needs to be grounded in solid evidence.
It is not sufficient to question the status quo, it has to be followed by looking at available evidence, consider new ways of approaching it using tools at our disposal. It is about testing what we know and seeing if ideas or counter-ideas hold up to scrutiny.
So how do we cope with extraordinary claims? Carl Sagan reminds us that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
What is an extraordinary claim? It is not some random person shouting “the aliens have landed” or “water is dry” – those are not extraordinary claims. Those are simply noise.
Consider the world around us – we know the principles behind gravity because there is an established model that explains it. An extraordinary claim attempts to overturn an established model.
This is not inherently a bad thing – indeed we rely on new thinking. However, for an extraordinary claim to work, it needs to achieve two things: First, it has to better explain the existing bank of evidence. Second, it needs to explain the new data it claims to represent.
A major scientific breakthrough is an extraordinary claim that fulfils these two conditions and to achieve this it has to produce a much greater weight of evidence.
In other words, you cannot claim gravity does not exist and we are all held in place by pieces of string unless you can explain the existing evidence for gravity and the overwhelming new data that we are at the mercy of string.
To do so, you will need solid evidence. This is obtained by carefully considering existing knowledge and studying actual raw data and putting it to the test. In other words, “I read this online” does not fulfil the criteria.
There is another layer to this. The claim that gravity does not exist is inherently absurd. It is a non-starter. Why? Because we have overwhelming evidence demonstrating gravity and its workings. It is a vexatious claim.
People make these claims for a number of reasons: the need for attention, the deliberate misunderstanding that knowledge is constantly built and refined, and very often the intent to cause harm.
The need for attention is generally accompanied by much wailing over freedom of speech, yet every claim is open to debate and has consequences – nobody is owed a platform.
The changing nature of knowledge should be seen for the wonder that it is; it enables us to learn new things. Good work requires that we reconsider our data and views based on new discoveries.
The intent to cause harm is much more complex. Consider this example: as an archaeologist, I am constantly plagued by claims of alien life and endless conspiracies.
I have spent a lifetime excavating bodies and they are all gloriously and magnificently human. I have the enormous privilege of spending my days touching humanity and seeing the world they built. I get to excavate this layer by layer, feel the earth through my fingers, watch the results on screen as we analyse things like DNA.
Yet, the onslaught of so-called controversies is relentless. On any given day, my inbox is plagued by vexatious claims (generally followed by personal threats).
When evidence holds up, it does not require threats. The beauty of enquiry is that we can see it right there, before our very eyes. You might wryly comment that claims of ancient aliens are hardly a threat in the present. You would be wrong. These beliefs are rooted in a deeply harmful view of humanity.
Consider the case of Matthew Taylor Coleman, who murdered his 2-year-old and 10-month-old children because he believed they had serpent DNA. Coleman was an avid follower of QAnon. While many of you may be familiar with it as a pro-Trump movement, it is much more complex.
Among other things, it is responsible for unsubstantiated claims concerning paedophile rings, the attack on the US Capitol and its devastating consequences, and rampant misogyny and racism. It is a movement borne of hate, masquerading as the pillar of free speech while flooding the world with disinformation.
Suddenly, claims of aliens and reptilians make more sense. Thanks to constant publicity on the Discovery and History channels they are already part of the collective consciousness.
They have spent decades destroying the idea that humanity is quite capable of building its own world and give grist to nasty ideas that result in death. Fundamentally, these arguments do not just trample on data. They demean all of humanity.
Far from being about freedom, these ideas eradicate it from its very foundations – and the more platforms they are given, the more dire the consequences.