I wonder if anyone else can relate to how I misspent my youth, endlessly arguing in YouTube comments, on Facebook posts and even with friends and family, trying, probably obnoxiously, to advocate science and rationality. Looking back, some interactions definitely make me cringe. I do not think I brought anyone who believed in the “flat earth” around to my way of thinking, nor did I have any success in proving that vaccines work. In fact, despite its patent absurdity, I was probably unable to stop people from consuming perhaps the worst alternative “medicine” of all time: industrial bleach.
At the time, I genuinely believed that simply providing scientific evidence and explanations would change minds, despite the generous lacings of naïve and cocky condescension I included in every comment. I now realise just how patronising my approach was: I was implying that people were uninformed and insulting their intelligence. While it is certainly true that some people who hold these pseudoscientific beliefs know little about science, many highly intelligent, well-educated, and otherwise wonderful people will tell you, with a straight face, that the moon landing did not happen, Bush did 9/11 and that global warming is a deep-state hoax to destroy the middle class. These people have often spent countless hours researching the subject and there is often some, albeit incorrect, interesting and persuasive logic to their points. Many have prepared arguments to rebut each of your simpler points and, in subjects that I am not well-versed in, I have been taken to the limits of my understanding by flawed, but well-reasoned arguments. These intelligent, dynamic and determined people often form the core of content creators which keep a pseudoscientific ideology alive. They produce the viral response videos which keep people believing, their passion and strength of belief draws in undecided viewers and their charisma keeps people sharing and clicking. It is, then, not as simple as fifteen-year-old me once thought to pry people away from the seductive intrigue of being “in-the-know”, being part of one of these pseudoscience communities, being a member of this new internet cognoscenti.
Cambridge University Students Against Pseudoscience, or ‘CUSAP’, is a new society which aims to take a better-informed approach to combatting pseudoscience. The society arose when a group of friends were discussing the noticeable and sudden uptick in dangerous misinformation and pseudoscience being disseminated online during the COVID crisis. We were looking for a student society to join which aimed to tackle this specific problem in an effective manner. We found many wonderful ‘skeptic’ and ‘rational’ societies, but none which focused specifically on arming students to combat this new digital threat. CUSAP was founded to address this gap and to try and learn and educate about how to approach this extremely difficult issue. We have hosted wonderful speakers in our short existence to date and learned much about the psychology and epidemiology of misinformation, conspiracies and anti-scientific thought. We hope to create a society which doesn’t take a rude or haughty position towards those we hope to persuade, whilst still maintaining a robust, persuasive and uncompromising defence of scientific and logical principles.
I would like to welcome anyone who is interested to attend our events, whether or not you agree with us, and I invite anyone to join us in our campaign to help push back against pseudoscience. There’s plenty of content to come and lots fun to be had along the way!
Luis Fernandes | Founding President, Students Against Pseudoscience