On Feb. 22, “Mad” Mike Hughes, daredevil stuntman and limousine chauffer, met his end. He died at age 64 near Barstow, California, after crashing to the ground in a steam-powered rocket he built for himself.
Why did Hughes launch himself in a rocket? As he explained it, the goal was to take a photo from space to “prove” the Earth is flat. He’d been trying for years.
“I don’t believe in science,” Hughes told the Associated Press in 2017 as he prepared for a launch sponsored by a group called Research Flat Earth. “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.”
“I don’t want to take anyone else’s word for it,” he said in a February 2018 BBC interview. “I don’t know if the Earth is flat or round … I just couldn’t dismiss it (flat Earth theory) after four to five months researching this.”
In a video profile published by NBC in 2018, Hughes spoke about how he came to believe in flat-earth theory while doing “research.” He also spoke about finding places on Earth that were flat.
“You start finding these places that’s flat on this planet,” Hughes said in that interview. “Kansas is flat. I’m telling you, I’ve been there, it’s flat.”
In a trailer for the 2019 documentary Rocketman, about Hughes’ experiments in rocket-building, Hughes said: “I believe in the geocentric, flat-Earth model.”
In March 2019, Hughes survived an initial launch in his rocket after reaching an altitude of nearly 1,900 feet. His next attempt – which took place on February 22 of this year -- was his last.
Video of that final attempt shows the rocket’s drag-chute apparently separating almost immediately upon takeoff. With no parachute, the rocket crashed to the ground.
Many may find it hard to believe anyone still adheres to a theory so obviously ludicrous, but the flat earth conspiracy has gained popularity. Flat-earthers accuse NASA and the international science community of concealing the “true” nature of the Earth.
In 2017, Aric Toler, a researcher at the fact-checking site Bellingcat, found a bizarre subset of flat-earthers who may be “inspired” by the “alt-right” movement.
“Lacking a grasp on gravity and basic physics,” Toler wrote, “many flat earth believers assert that it is impossible to be ‘upside-down’ on Antarctica, and only a flat earth would explain why penguins do not fall off into space while at the ‘bottom’ of the world.”
So much for centuries of science. But Hughes’ death by gravity isn’t the only example of how conspiracy theories can cause real harm.
Take the anti-vaccine movement, which has been blamed for the resurgence of diseases like measles that were all but eradicated from developed nations.
Anti-vaccine sentiments are typically driven by the false claim that vaccines cause autism in children. Fear of autism has opened the door to a host of “alternative medicine” disinformation offering miracle “cures” for the condition.
One of the most dangerous examples is known as MMS, or Miracle Mineral Solution. Though it has been billed as a treatment for autism and a variety of ailments from HIV/AIDS to cancer, it is actually an industrial bleach. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned against the solution, listing harmful effects such as severe nausea, dehydration and acute liver failure. In April, Amazon.com banned the sale of a book recommending the fake “treatment” on its website.
More recently, an email hoax perpetrated in Ukraine led to mass protests in which demonstrators attempted to block hospitals and buses containing evacuees from Wuhan, epicenter of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak. BuzzFeed reported that a viral email claiming to be from Ukraine’s health ministry told readers that some of the evacuees were suspected to be infected with the virus. Although the evacuees were on their way to a medical facility where they would be under quarantine for 14 days, there was no suspicion at the time that any of them might have already contracted the virus.
Often, miracle cures and flat Earth theories are dismissed as “harmless” amusement or personal quirks rather than disinformation. As “Mad Mike’s” failed rocket experiment shows, the stakes can be far higher.