Theoretical cosmologist Katie Mack spends a lot of time on Twitter. Mack, at North Carolina State University, joined the platform to talk about science under the moniker “Astro Katie” more than a decade ago. Since then, her fun and informative posts about space have earned her nearly half a million followers. Unfortunately, she says, there are many other astronomy-themed Twitter accounts sharing misleading or downright wrong information. From doctored images to sinister conspiracy theories, Mack has seen it all.
Last week, at the annual meeting of AAAS, which publishes Science, Mack discussed space and physics disinformation—and how it can erode trust in science. She sat down with Science to chat about common space falsehoods, how silly pictures can lead to conspiracy theories, and how to spot something fake before you share it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What are some of the most common space and physics falsehoods you’ve seen online?
A: There’s this one I see all the time, which is the idea that there’s some giant void in space, and here’s a picture of it, and it’s sort of a black smudge on space. [But] that’s not a void. It’s a molecular cloud [where gas and dust block visible light from more distant stars]. There’s also an image from a night sky simulation called Stellarium that claims to show Earth from the surface of Mars, but it’s not. It’s from a simulation. There are images of really improbable skylines, like a sunset with a full Moon next to it. Which is just not possible. There are a lot of images that get cycled around, and there are Twitter accounts that basically track those and point them out in real time.
Q: What’s the weirdest claim you’ve seen?
A: All of them are so weird. There have been a couple of claims going around about the idea that on a certain date, Mars is going to appear as big as the Moon in the sky. One went around a while ago that there was going to be an alignment of planets that was going to change gravity on Earth. It was going to briefly make us all lighter. Those ones were bizarre because they were just so straightforwardly physically impossible.
[Then] there’s this plasma cosmology thing. It’s all about the idea that gravity is not important in space. It’s all electromagnetic forces. That’s a weird one because it’s a small community of maverick “physicists” who are self-taught and have this idea that they’ve developed a new theory of physics. There are a lot of things that show up in my inbox, on my work email, and I put them into a special folder called “independent theorists.”
Q: On the face of it, this seems frustrating, but not necessarily as troubling as health misinformation.
A: The way it goes is that you see something that’s false and you believe it. Right? Some physics or astronomy thing that is false, but for whatever reason you think it’s true. And then you discover that it’s not an accepted idea. All the experts say it’s wrong. And then at that point, either you accept what the experts say, or—if you still think that thing is true—then the experts are lying. And if the experts are lying, then that leads you directly to the conspiracies, right? Because you have to say, what else are they lying about? Why are they lying? Who are these people running the show?
That’s what happens with things like the flat Earth conspiracy, which is not something you can believe in if you don’t believe that everybody involved in the space community is a liar. And if they’re lying, they must be coordinated by some high-up conspiracy, and then that leads into all of the other conspiracies that require some kind of global leader. Once you dig down into it, they all kind of look the same. They all get you to paranoid conspiracies, anti-Semitism, “the elites are holding us down” … that kind of thing.
That’s one of the things that ends up being really dangerous about blindly accepting that some people just don’t believe in gravity. If you get invested enough in that [falsehood], you have to go to a point where you’re believing a genuine conspiracy theory. So, I think that it’s really troubling when things that are just false are propagated and shared and uncritically believed on a wide scale, because a small fraction of those people are going to end up falling down a rabbit hole.
Q: What do you think leads people to share false information in the first place?
A: I think that a lot of times when people share false information about science, they don’t know it’s false. A lot of people don’t have the skills to really evaluate the sources that they’re looking at, or don’t really care. They share a video because it’s cool, and they don’t check where the video came from. They don’t check to see that a bunch of people are replying to the original tweet saying it’s fake. They don’t Google it. Most of the time, I think people share stuff because they think it’s neat and they don’t know that it’s wrong.
When people get more invested, it happens the way that all conspiracy theories happen, which is that people get into the idea of secret information. The appeal of conspiracy theories is that there’s some secret explanation that you can have access to that most people don’t have access to. That’s a big part of the flat Earth stuff, and the Moon [landing] hoax. All of those kinds of ideas come down to the same appeal that conspiracy theories have. It’s easy for people to get invested when they think they’ve found this amazing secret thing. They don’t want to end up with the mundane explanation that, actually, their physics textbooks were correct. Nobody finds that exciting.
Q: As an expert with a big platform, what are your personal strategies for dealing with space misinformation?
A: I don’t put a lot of effort into debunking, because I don’t know how effective that is. And it’s just really thankless. The people who are really invested just yell at you all the time, and everybody else is like, “Why are you spoiling our fun?” There’s no happy ending. There are some studies that show that if you talk about the wrong thing, even in the context of debunking, people remember the wrong thing. It’s really hard to find ways to present the wrong information in a way that doesn’t somehow reinforce it.
What I try to do is share the real information, and I try to share it in a nonjudgmental way. When people ask me a question, and they have a misunderstanding, I try to correct that misunderstanding in a way that doesn’t imply that they’re dumb to believe it in the first place. I try to start from the point of, “It’s great you’re interested in learning more about this. Here’s how you can learn more about it.” It’s really tough because a lot of times, people really do mean well and they just want to share the science, and people get defensive when you tell them that what they’re sharing is wrong.
Q: If a person does just want to share cool science, what are useful fact-checking strategies?
A: The main thing is to know where it came from. A lot of people share things from fake science-y meme accounts called things like “amazing physics,” and [the accounts] just scrape images and videos from other sites and have automatically generated captions. They don’t credit any of the content that they put up, they don’t link to real information about the content they put out. They just share the image or the video. That image or video might be totally fake, it might be something misinterpreted.
I really encourage people never to share that stuff. Never share a video that has no attribution, because you don’t know where it comes from. If you can’t find out where it came from, you should not share it. That would cut down on like 80% of the bad physics and astronomy stuff out there. If there’s something amazingly surprising, always be suspicious. Look at the Twitter feeds of astronomers you follow. If they’re not talking about it, it’s probably not real.