It is ironic that the people who claim to be "enlightened" or "awakened" are the very same people who offer theories which so clearly and completely contradict everything we know about human interactions and nature.
I recently started doing my skeptical due diligence with a link on Facebook that was connected to the newest conspiracy theory movie, "Thrive", released just last week on 11/11/11 (you can watch the trailer here). If you are unfamiliar with it, this movie is basically Zeitgeist 2.0. It talks about ancient codes "burned into atomic structures", huge energy company conspiracies and free energy technology, as well as the standard Federal Reserve, Rockefeller, and economic policy rants. Supporting these claims are people like David Icke, world-renowned conspiracy theorist who believes that a secret reptilian race controls the world, and our old friend Mr. Chopra. The movie also proffers that the Illuminati (useless conspiracy placeholder) are covering up free energy technology (which contradict the laws of physics) which was given to us by aliens who make coded crop circles, and have crashed on Earth numerous times, which the government covers up. When you align all of the claims that this movie purports to be true, it is hard not to think it is some kind of joke.
I won't go into the specifics here, suffice it to say that there is a lot of Chopra, crop circles, aliens, Illuminati, world-bank, new world order, federal reserve, reptilian overlord kind of gibberish in it. I'm just sad to see actual scientists hoodwinked into giving statements that they did not know would be taken out of context for this so-called "research."
While it may be tempting for the disenfranchised youth to latch onto some of these notions, the movie offers little more than tired, delusional, nonsense.
The theme of the movie is nothing new, and it is rapidly gaining a New Age cult status that deserves a skeptical look. One of the most egregious claims in the movie is that free energy machines are being suppressed by "the man" because it would overthrow the current energy producers. Let's put the notion of an energy conspiracy aside for a moment, as claims without evidence are useless to us here. Let's talk about free energy.
Thousands of Patents, Not One Working Model
Perpetual motion or free energy machines usually refer to machines that can produce more energy than they consume, sometimes indefinitely. In terms of thermodynamics, this would mean that the machine has an efficiency rating over 100%.
There is undisputed scientific consensus that free energy in a closed system would violate the first and/or second law of thermodynamics, rendering the whole notion impossible. Conspiracy theorists do not get hung up on this contention, like most people would, and instead argue that physics is not the problem, it is government suppression. It's not that free energy is caught up in a ludicrously complex conspiracy, it's that it is literally impossible. Just as a rock in your hand will never spontaneously rise into the sky, as governed by gravity, nor will you ever be able to get more energy out of a machine than you put in. You body follows the laws of thermodynamics, as do your cells, the core of the Earth, and quasars out a trillion miles in space. The creation of the universe itself via the Big Bang follows these laws directly. This is why free energy is impossible. Wanting something to be true does not make it more possible. Theorists mention evidence for free energy machines, but someone trying to invent such a device is not evidence.
However, machines which extract energy from seemingly perpetual sources, such as ocean currents or the Sun, are capable of moving "perpetually" (as long as the energy source is viable), but they cannot be free energy machines because they are consuming energy from an external source. Evolution deniers have the same problem understanding thermodynamics. They claim that evolution is impossible because of the violation of the 2nd law, but the Earth is not a closed system, it receives external energy from the Sun, and is therefore an open system. This sort of basic confusion about fundamental scientific principles underscores many conspiracy theories.
Despite the fact that successful closed system free energy devices are physically impossible in terms of our current understanding of the laws of physics, the pursuit of free energy continues, and apparently now constitutes another conspiracy.
For example, patent requests for free energy devices have become so common that the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has made an official policy of refusing to grant patents for perpetual motion machines without a working model. The USPTO Manual of Patent Examining Practice states:
With the exception of cases involving perpetual motion, a model is not ordinarily required by the Office to demonstrate the operability of a device. If operability of a device is questioned, the applicant must establish it to the satisfaction of the examiner, but he or she may choose his or her own way of so doing.
And, further, that:
A rejection [of a patent application] on the ground of lack of utility includes the more specific grounds of inoperativeness, involving perpetual motion.
Even if a patent is granted, it doesn't mean that the invention overturns science; it just means that the patent examiner thinks that it works, or that he/she did not find anything wrong with it. Fooling the patent office in this case does not mean thermodynamics gets throw out the window.
There is not some unnecessary conspiracy suppressing the patents and their inventors, simply put, it's that the machines have never actually, not once, worked.
What a Conspiracy Theory Looks Like to a Skeptic
A main argument against conspiracy theories is usually that the scale of the alleged cover-up is so immense as to be ludicrous, and that there is no evidence to support such a structure. To skeptics then, using the moon landing hoax conspiracy theory as an example, most arguments look like this:
So many unrelated pieces would have to fall into place, so many things that we know about the world would have to be wrong, so many disciplines of science would have to completely off that most conspiracy theories face a burden of proof that is insurmountable. Admittedly, there have been real conspiracies. The planning of Lincoln's assassination was a real conspiracy, but the moon-landing was not. For free energy theories proposed by Thrive to be accurate, the entire energy industry would have to be silencing every inventor, paying off every thermodynamics professor, and muffling every investigative journalist in the developed world. The alternative of course is that free energy is simply impossible and therefore not legitimately pursued; the preponderance of evidence leads us to that conclusion, not "the man."
Arguing with Myself
Here is just one of the many responses that I got after mentioning my points about the movie:
This represents one of the most classic of conspiracy theorist tactics. It is one thing to say that I have dark shades on or that I not ready for this kind of "expansiveness", but anyone can do that. It is harder to provide evidence for one's own argument. Conspiracy theorists retreat into a corner where the only thing that makes sense to them is their conspiracy's interpretation of reality. Science, evidence, and government be damned, if it does not agree with their point, it is simply too "closed-minded."
Furthermore, once I kicked this new-age hornet's nest, the real believers began to shout at me. This is the sort of argument that passes for wisdom in these kind of circles:
I would be surprised if you could decode that. Obtuse use of all-caps and grammar aside, this is the kind of argument that is supposed to refute my claim that free energy is impossible.
Just because the universe is hard to understand and many times mysterious, does not mean that anything goes.
My guess is that most people do not want to expend the cognitive resources to work their way through such ramblings, and it ends up being accepted as "enlightened" speech by the rest the conspiracy community. If the idea is to enlighten the public, speaking in a garbled New Age language does not help their case.
What can skeptics do to counter-act such arguments? In my experience, these are typically intelligent people who have put their efforts into theories that only could be true, without relying on evidence or skepticism to sort through them. Getting a conspiracy theorist to converse on rational terms is then the objective, supplanting the seed of skeptical doubt the ultimate goal. However, if you run up against the kind of opposition that I have, perhaps you should jettison and try to promote critical thinking to people not so entrenched. Charging headlong into the lion's den is admirable, but dangerously unproductive.
In argument, conspiracy theorists are assuming that because the rational point of view disagrees with their own, that skeptics are missing something. It is not that science wants to say free energy is impossible, it is impossible. For there to be right answers to anything, there have to be wrong answers as well.
Scientists will be the first people to tell you that we do not know everything. Indeed, we would be out of jobs if we did. There are wonderful things about the universe still waiting to be discovered, that much is undeniable. But unless we are at the center of a black hole, the principles of nature still apply. The workings of the world are not illuminated by what if's and maybe's, but by evidence and reason.
Doubting one of the most fundamental properties of nature, the kind of principle that would literally take a miracle to overturn, in order to support a technology that has no plausibility does not make sense to the skeptical movement or to science. It may very well be that hardcore conspiracy theorists and skeptics are bound to fight forever, in a sort of immovable object/unstoppable force kind of arrangement.
Conspiracy theorists, like the ones who support Thrive, cannot claim scientific evidence only when it lends to their point and then deride science for not being open-minded when it does not. That's not scientific thinking. The weight of evidence is important.
But again comes the contention that science is too hard-edged or closed off from "the truth." Scientific inquiry does not mean giving every point that everyone makes equal consideration if we have a mountain of evidence to say that the point is absurd. It might seem that no legitimate scientist or agency gives conspiracy theories much credence, but that is because they are consistently in opposition to scientific knowledge.
Movies like Thrive are not anything new in theme, they just recycle the same old debunked and irrational claims until the audience is whittled down so far that only the most faithful remain. As skeptics, we should do our part to keep these claims in their proper framing, but the hope of their elimination is as fragile as the human psyche upon which they rely.
Kyle Hill is the newly appointed JREF research fellow specializing in communication research and human information processing. He writes daily at the Science-Based Life blog and you can follow him on Twitter here.