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COVID-19 Conspiracists and Their Discontents

One reason why it’s surprisingly difficult to disprove many conspiracy theories is that they typically contain a real germ of truth, however small. In some places and eras, Jews really were overrepresented among communist cadres and the media. John F. Kennedy’s administration really did propose false-flag operations as an excuse to invade Cuba and assassinate Fidel Castro. Certain aspects of the World Trade Center collapse—including the fall of Building 7—really were odd and unprecedented. Some military video footage of unidentified aerial phenomena really is hard to square with conventional aircraft flight patterns. And then, of course, there are the various detours of the single bullet believed to have caused no fewer than seven entry and exit wounds to President Kennedy and Texas Governor John Connally on November 22nd, 1963.

This same complication applies to unfounded or thinly evidenced theories regarding the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Did the SARS-CoV-2 virus originate in bats sold at a wet market in Wuhan—or an artificial virus created in a bio-lab? Did Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan Central Hospital whistleblower who warned his government weeks before officials locked down the city, really die from COVID-19? Or was he murdered? The whole area of inquiry has become a fertile playground for conspiracists, in part because no one can reasonably dispute the germ of truth behind their theories: the dishonesty and lack of transparency that often has characterized China’s response to the pandemic.

Conspiracism always flourishes when people are faced with uncertain, open-ended sources of suffering or evil. The mind abhors a vacuum of explanation. So when gaps in knowledge open up, the empty spaces are filled with available explanations that, however implausible, seem morally compelling. Usually, conspiracists target the suspected evildoers they had their eye on anyway.

Plagues and pandemics are especially popular feedstock for conspiracism because their causal agents—bacteria and viruses—remain invisible to the naked eye (and were invisible, full stop, until the invention of powerful microscopes). But the Jews targeted by medieval mobs for poisoning wells and other imaginary acts of biological terrorism were not invisible. Nor, today, is Bill Gates, whom some members of the pro-Donald-Trump QAnon conspiracy movement accuse of seeking to undermine the Trump administration now that impeachment efforts have failed. Anthony Fauci, the medical lead on the American government’s response to the pandemic, often is lumped in with this alleged “deep state” movement supporting the Gatesian agenda. An analysis by the New York Times found over 70 accounts on Twitter promoting the hashtag #FauciFraud, with some tweeting as frequently as 795 times a day.

In some cases, the theories are quite complex. In late January, a YouTuber named Jordan Sather proclaimed that the “government-funded Pirbright Institute out of the UK” possibly planned “the release of this disease” through modification of a coronavirus that might otherwise be used to vaccinate birds. The connection to Gates was that the Pirbright Institute once received a grant to study livestock antibodies from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This convoluted theory was given a boost on April 13th by fabulist Roger Stone, who told Joe Piscopo on his AM radio program The Answer that “Whether Bill Gates played some role in the creation and spread of this virus is open for vigorous debate.” He added that Gates “and other globalists are using it for mandatory vaccinations and microchipping people so we know if they’ve been tested.”

Given that anti-vaxxers have been spreading false rumors about vaccines for generations, and that microchip-based conspiracies have been common since the 1970s, it should not be surprising that COVID-19 conspiracists were able to tap into pre-existing networks of true believers (even if the assertion that the deep state has claimed Fauci—perhaps the most trusted man in America since Walter Cronkite—should test the credulity of even the most hardboiled conspiracy theorist).

As for Pirbright—a Surrey-based institute that, when it is not helping evil globalists spread diabolical plagues, dedicates itself to the study of infectious diseases among farm animals—a spokesman for the organization noted that its patent does not include any coronavirus-based vaccine that affects humans, that its work in this area isn’t funded by the Gates Foundation, and that “the patented work cited in the conspiracy theories involved infectious bronchitis virus (IBV) only, and we made four changes in the gene responsible for replicating the virus’s genetic material. This has weakened the virus so it is no longer able to cause disease and [thereby] has potential to be used as a vaccine, but has not yet been developed” (my emphasis).

One grain of truth bolstering the vaccine-related subniche of conspiracy culture is that many jurisdictions really do require citizens to get vaccinated for certain common diseases such as measles. And so it is not crazy to assert—as some conspiracy theorists do in the lead-up to more far-fetched accusations—that governments may, in time, impose COVID-19 vaccination mandates if a safe and effective vaccine is developed. What is crazy is to imagine that all of this will be in the service of some kind of Hollywood-villain-style genocidal or thought-control agenda, an idea that emerged during the original SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, and the subsequent Ebola crisis.

Then there’s the anti-vaxxer claim that the ordinary flu-vaccine regime that governments have been promoting for years actually makes people more vulnerable to COVID-19—and since China allegedly ordered more flu vaccines in 2019 than in prior years, this somehow explains why the outbreak began in Wuhan and not, say, Wichita. This theory has been addressed in detail by alternative-medicine and cancer-quackery debunker Dr. David Gorski at ScienceBasedMedicine.org. Among other things, he cheekily points out that “antivaxxers love to claim that the flu vaccine doesn’t work,” which, if true, would undercut the idea that it could cause interference with other viruses. And so, “antivaxxers really need to make up their minds.”

Wireless networks, electrical grids, and cordless devices also have provided conspiracy theorists with rich fodder—since, like microscopic pathogens, they are invisible to the naked eye even as they surround us. (The same is true of the mind-control chemicals supposedly contained in the contrails produced by airplanes. Yet, oddly, with the skies now clear and almost entirely contrail-free during the pandemic lockdown, I haven’t noticed any radical change in human behavior.) And so the timing of the coronavirus outbreak following the rollout of 5G cell technology in many markets predictably served as a dynamo for certain conspiracists—including Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Indeed, the latter added a twist by introducing the further idea that the collective lockdown many of us are now enduring might have been intended to “obstruct #5G rollout and has effectively ended the opportunity for mass public protests, which were our best hope for derailing the 5G robber barons from microwaving our country and destroying nature.”

Such theories, coupled to related claims that energy from 5G towers is the real source of COVID-19, even led to recent arson attacks on British mobile phone towers in Birmingham, Liverpool, and Merseyside. It also apparently led to a train engineer in Los Angeles derailing a locomotive near the Navy hospital ship USNS Mercy. He later explained to investigators that the ship had “an alternate purpose related to COVID-19 or a government takeover,” and that “you only get this chance once. The whole world is watching. I had to. People don’t know what’s going on here. Now they will.” As FullFact.org notes, there are almost too many 5G conspiracy theories to track, and they often contradict each other.

Perhaps the most Jason Bourne-ish conspiracy theory is that COVID-19 did not really involve any kind of wet market in Wuhan, but is actually a “bioweapon.” The germ of truth here is that many nations really have been researching bioweapons for generations, including research on such scourges as Ebola, Smallpox, and Anthrax. In 2001, a handful of Americans were killed by Anthrax delivered through the mail. And in 1979, anthrax spores were accidentally leaked from a Soviet military research lab near the Russian city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), leading to an estimated 100 deaths (although precise details were subject to the usual Soviet obfuscation, including the claim the deaths were caused by tainted meat). China’s autocratic form of government, press censorship, occasionally aggressive foreign policy, and repression of whistleblowers all make the idea that the virus was created by artificial means—instead of ordinary natural selection among animal-borne pathogens—seem like it could be credible, even if there is no real evidence for it.

In fact, the evidence points in the opposite direction. According to a genetic analysis of the virus published on March 17th in the journal NatureMedicine, “if genetic manipulation had been performed, one of the several reverse-genetic systems available for betacoronaviruses would probably have been used. However, the genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 is not derived from any previously used virus backbone.” The scientists noted the similarity of SARS-CoV-2 to bat SARS-CoV-like coronaviruses, concluding “it is likely that bats serve as reservoir hosts for its progenitor,” with the transmission to humans most likely occurring in late November to early December 2019. The fact that bats are mammals living in massive colonies numbering in the millions, and are regularly infected with virus-based respiratory diseases, makes the link to humans all the more credible.

These are just a few of the many conspiracy theories ricocheting around the Internet. A full catalog would be almost impossible to create, and would quickly become obsolete as old conspiracy-theory strains mutated into new species (much as with actual pathogens). This conspiracism will likely continue so long as people experience COVID-19-related fear and anxiety—emotions that always have been linked to conspiracist movements throughout history.

Even when there is no pandemic to worry about, all of us tend to harbor something that social scientists call a negativity bias—by which bad feelings assert themselves with greater perceived urgency than their positive counterparts. There are more words to describe pain than pleasure. There are more cognitive categories for negative emotions than positive. Bad impressions and negative stereotypes form faster and are more resistant to change than those that are positive. Losing money and friends is more painful to us than making money and friends is pleasurable. In the same way, negative global events generate more attention and causal explanations than positive events. Everyone asks, “Why is there war?” But almost no one asks, “Why is there peace?”—even though a broad examination of human history might suggest the latter question to be more apt.

One reason for this cognitive asymmetry is that human progress typically is made incrementally, in small steps, whereas catastrophic setbacks can occur all at once: Around the world right now, millions of businesses that took decades to build up may now go bankrupt because of a tragedy that has unfolded in a matter of months. Moreover, the mental habits we’ve developed through evolutionary processes are well suited to sensing the presence of large predators, but serve us poorly when the enemy can’t be detected. That’s when our thinking can go sideways, and whole societies become susceptible to conspiracist notions, which often represent mere extrapolations of existing populist political themes. Leaders around the world know this, and are leveraging our uncertainties and anxieties to grab more power, as in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and, especially, Xi Jinping’s China.

This is one of the great ironies of conspiracism: Unjustified fears about fictional conspiracies can themselves be leveraged by governments to facilitate their own very real machinations, which in turn reduce public trust. Thus does the cycle of conspiracism continue.

 

Michael Shermer is the publisher of Skeptic magazine, a presidential fellow at Chapman University, and the author, most recently, of Giving the Devil His Due (Cambridge University Press), a defense of free speech.

Featured image: “Freedom Or Bust” May Day Rally, Columbus, Ohio, May 1st, 2020.

Comments

  1. I grow concerned about the overuse of the phrase “conspiracy theory” these days.

    A conspiracy is a secret collaboration. Many theories that are untrue or assume maliciousness do not assert that the activity is trying to be hidden, or do not assert that it is a collaboration. Easy example: Suspecting that a desire to malign the US response to COVID-19 is motivated by a desire to harm the presidency of Donald Trump is not a “conspiracy theory”. No coordination is needed for people to do this, nor are most perpetrators making an effort to keep their agenda secret. It is an open, obvious effort.

    The use of the phrase “conspiracy theory”, then, seems often to be an effort to malign a theory without having to formulate a rational argument against it. It’s just another “That’s racist!”

    There is a point to be made about the fact that the public’s loss of trust in institutions makes it easier for inane conspiracy theories to take hold. Blame for this belongs much more with the institutions than with the people.

    I am reminded of October 2018 in the US. After weeks of firebombings, ricin mailings, physical assaults, and vandalisms perpetrated by left-wing activists against Republicans, suddenly packages starting being mailed which contained badly misspelled names of prominent Democrats that were all but written in crayon and contained pipes and wires which were very, very far away from being functional bombs. The reaction on the Right was exactly what it should have been - suspicion that this was a false flag attack perpetrated by Democrats just weeks before an election in an effort to change the conversation about pervasive left-wing political violence to one about “Trump supporter violence.”

    Turns out it actually was a Trump supporter - a guy who genuinely has an IQ around 80 and was genuinely that clueless. Or at least, that’s the best information I have :slight_smile:. Democrats enjoyed mocking Republicans for their inaccurate false flag assumption, but the assumption made a lot of sense.

    If we want to see fewer conspiracy theories, it would help if various institutions did more to earn the public’s trust. As it stands, they seem more interested in tearing each other down.

  2. Generally a good article, however, I would take exception to the following statement:

    “That’s when our thinking can go sideways, and whole societies become susceptible to conspiracist notions, which often represent mere extrapolations of existing populist political themes.”

    There is ample evidence to suggest that populism is a perfectly natural response to high rates of foreign-born citizenship. Historian Niall Ferguson has suggested that it occurs when rates of foreign-born citizenship reach around 14% and is most likely to happen when combined with an economic downturn- something that has occurred three times in America’s history, and seems to be occurring everywhere in Europe where this threshold has been reached. The only exception to this rule seems to be Australia, where an extremely strict merit-based system reassures the public that migrants will not be competing for working-class or lower middle-class jobs.

    It’s about our Moral Foundations and our WEIRD psychology, to use the terminology developed by Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. Simply put, if you are born into a relatively affluent, secure and comfortable environment, and have educationally aspirational parents, then the Moral Foundations which are universal throughout the rest of the world, common to the bottom 60% of the Western society and which basically equates to ingroup preference, will be switched off and you will likely be a cosmopolitan liberal. If you are less fortunate, you will be normal, which is to say the same as the vast swathe of humanity in the rest of the world.

    This difference is made manifest most strikingly, in the strong preference for the familiar. It’s why migrant populations group together whenever they transplant themselves from their country of origin to a new environment. The attachment is to culture, not race or ethnicity, is witnessed most succinctly in Britain, where 2nd or 3rd generation people of colour have been fully integrated into British culture, but high levels of migration from white Eastern European migrants of culturally distinct origin has led to a sentiment opposed to mass migration.

    It’s about the preservation of existing culture, of social norms and customs, more than anything else. Something which the cosmopolitan liberal abhors with their obsession with universalism and oikophobic prejudice. Their intolerance of their social subordinates is based on the mistaken belief that experience and the process of education can ‘correct’ this fault, when it is the circumstances of educational family background which is the deciding factor.

    All of which distracts from the main point. Mass migration is only good at a macroeconomic level, and only when one discounts the negative repercussions at a detailed level. When we look at the income spectrum the top 20% benefit, whilst the lowest paid suffer. For the worst-paid this amounts to a 6% to 8% pay cut, and for those somewhat further up the economic ladder the decline in wages is closer to 4 to 5%- at least when the rate of foreign-born citizenship reaches 14%.

    A far bigger issue is the impact of migration on labour participation rates, particularly amongst the less well-educated. Over a 34 year period the 14% figure for foreign-born citizenship equated to a 2% overall reduction in rates of labour participation. This might not seem like much, but if you are in the bottom 40% of the population and happen to be male, it might mean you are somewhere just under 10% less likely to secure employment. This contains hidden cost in terms of incarceration, drug addiction, family break-up, single motherhood and mental health- which are never costed at the macroeconomic level. Often second or third generation minorities are hit the worst, with labour participation rates 5% lower for these communities, than for the majority population.

    All this skirts the main issue that Brexiteers were more concerned about unelected and unaccountable bureaucracies in Europe and as well the baleful influence of creeping transnationalism. If you are James O’Brien and follow the same blogpost on EU regulations, then you will know that there is little in the way of EU regulations that impacts our daily lives, although personally I would look more to the ECJ and ECHR and the current supremacy of European courts, on this issue.

    But this entirely misses the point- it’s not EU regulations individually which cause a problem, it’s EU regulations collectively which stifle prosperity and cause stagnation. EU bureaucracy and it’s regulations effectively protect existing corporations from competition from new entrants to the market, in the form of small businesses. The cost of regulatory compliance is simply too high, until a business reaches certain economies of scale- and the EU knows this, because that is the way the regulations were designed.

    The result of this is a general reduction in the number of jobs in many European economies- because it is often at the newer and more innovative end of the marketplace where processes are at their most labour intensive. Critically, the types of varied work that occur in new enterprises are the most rewarding, on a personal level, and the most conducive to the building of human capital. Th upshot of all this is that whilst the US has seen a decline in it’s overall share of the world economy from 37% to 31% as Asian economies rise, the EU has seen a far sharper decline of 31% to 17%.

    That’s what happens when you clog up the valves of innovation that new businesses represent. It’s worth noting that one the few European countries which has managed to keep pace with world innovation, producing a disproportionate rate of Unicorn businesses, is Sweden- which shares the UK’s cultural disdain for EU regulation and maintains scepticism over the prospects of monetary union. To quote Niall Ferguson, “regulation is the disease of which it pretends to be the cure”.

    So please, let’s stop with the nonsense about “Populism”, and call it what it is- Democracy in action. Many might find they have more sympathy for opposing viewpoints, if they could be bothered to take the time to understand the people who hold them. Beyond that, it might help if the media didn’t keep choosing the most extreme outliers in any group, to represent the larger mass of popular movements. Most people protesting right now are just worried about their livelihoods, the prospects of surviving in a far less hospitable economy and the potentially higher number of people who will die from lockdown, as opposed to COVID-19.

    After all, the Right could just as easily point to the fact that a number of Bernie supporters were secretly taped expressing the view that they wanted to lock conservatives up in reeducation camps, after the election. Ultimately, mischaracterising a whole demographic with a tiny minority is a framing device, as divisive as it is dishonest. Let’s stop. My apologies to the author for taking umbrage at a simple choice of words- but there is a growing tide of cosmopolitan liberals who simply refuse to understand that ordinary people have different ways of looking at the world, and different goals from them.

  3. Yes, populism has become the slur to help some people try to avoid having to accept other people’s democratic rights. Refusing to accept that Greek pensioners should have their pensions cut in order to pay back German and French banks? You’re a populist.

    People need to stop using this word, as it shows a real lack of awareness, as it is their rights being eroded by unaccountable organisations like the EU as well.

  4. Leaders around the world know this, and are leveraging our uncertainties and anxieties to grab more power, as in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and, especially, Xi Jinping’s China.

    Still a blatant and unashamed cherry-picking. Why not add to this honor list the presidents or prime ministers of Italy, France, UK, Spain, Belgium, as well as a great deal of the US’ governors ?
    I’m badly surprised by the constant endeavour of Quillette to mitigate, even cover the ugly management of a bunch of western leaders (which sends a number of us to the final ruin) as innocent blunderers or even poor victims of the circumstances. That shouldn’t be surprising from the MSM which are establishment propagandists, even more in “war time”, but Quillette? Very strange!
    In this incredible man-made mess, I however single out the honest, consistent and brave stance (on the whole) of the Swedish, Dutch, German leaders who have resited the mortal assault of the hysteric. Trump has been rather good and sane so far among this huge insanity. Africans did very well ( what is not usual) but I guess they had not the luxurious choice to make them poorer.

  5. Quillette: Where Pedestrian Thought Lives.
    Seriously, man. Yes, anti-vaxxers have it wrong. Yes, the 5G conspiracy theory is looney tunes. However, guess what? Just as not every person who didn’t vote for Hilary is a deplorable, redneck neo-Nazi, so too then, let’s just momentarily consider that perhaps not every lockdown or Covid skeptic is a nutjob screaming “lizard people”.
    For starters, and I’m someone who is very grateful for every vaccination I ever got as a kid, it really is the case that flu vaccines have a low efficacy rate: about 20-30% on average. I think the efficacy rate of the H3n2 flu vaccine in 2017/18 was 10%. This is not conspiracy. It just is. And so the idea of a vaccine coming to our rescue is not altogether realistic.
    Second, just because some nut tried to burn down a 5G tower, doesn’t mean the hysterical overreaction to Covid, and a lockdown that guarantees an economic collapse, is now a model of sanity.
    Third, enough with the digs at the pro-Trump faction every second contributor to Quillette feels obligated to make. Left wingers have had tons of their own tetchy conspiracy theories (Putin rigged the elections!), dingbat scare stories (all those crap Armegeddon predictions by the world renowned scientist Al Gore) and selective science (Bill Nye the Butt Stuff Guy).


  6. And there is this by the CDC.
    My figures may be a bit off, but the vaccine efficacy is often not great: i.e. 10% in 2004/5, 21% in 2005/6, 19% in 2014/15 etc with a high of 60% in 2010/11. So I’ll cop to some sloppiness with my figures, but yeah the figures don’t show that flu vaccines are sure shots.
  7. I agree with Geary. I like Shermer’s work and I agree with 95% of the article. But he weakens his argument by making it political. I note that he could not resist a dig at Netanyahu, who unlike the dictators he mentions, was democratically elected multiple times. It must be those uneducated rubes. And here I thought we Jews were supposed to be smart. There goes that stereotype (Grin). Conspiracy theorists and populists are separate and distinct groups. Conspiracy theorists believe that there is an evil secret group of elitist businessmen, government officials, Jews (pick your group) that gets together and secretly controls policy. Populists sometimes (not always) play to group anxieties about being left behind and/or perceived victimhood.

    For example, Critical Race Theory, which holds that white men are responsible for all evil in the world plays to fears and anxieties. It is a populist movement. But the theory does not suggest that all white men get together and secretly plot ways to screw over blacks and women. We just happen to be evil (Grin). More rationally, you can recognize that globalism and the move towards a knowledge economy has left people behind without assuming that all highly-educated people purposely plotted to screw over blue-collar workers.

    Can you believe it! Those stupid rubes actually think there is some “deep-state conspiracy” They think that distinguished long-serving, government employees, lied to a FISA court, citing a report that they knew to be discredited. They think that these officials edited out exculpatory evidence in emails. The rubes even think that the FBI spied on the Trump campaign. Further, they think a group of high-ranking officials got together to set up Trump’s National Security Adviser with bogus charges. The idiots actually think that the FBI pressured him plead guilty by threatening his son and made a secret side deal with the attorney defending him. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous???

    Ah, wait a minute………

  8. Sometimes the best evidence that the Left is crazy is provided by left-wing people themselves, willingly and eagerly.

    This Guardian article is chock-full of standard left-wing fallacies.

    1. It claims that a movement isn’t “bipartisan” because some of its support comes from the Right. Apparently the Guardian uses the same definition of “bipartisan” as Barack Obama!
    2. It fanatically declares that people are “far-right” because they’ve past participated in the Tea Party movement.
    3. It acts as though “grass-roots” must mean “no participation from people who have ever organized anything before.”
    4. Far more serious evidence of astroturfing in left-wing movements is never accepted as atroturfing by the same people who breathlessly insist that there mere act of registering internet domains en masse is proof of astroturfing here.
    5. Several of the links in the article don’t nearly support the claims that the article attributes to them.
    6. The article claims that the fact that members of the group have supposedly been targeted by racist messaging means that they ARE racist. The messaging? See for yourself - a forum post listing data debunking anti-white racism arguments.
    7. The Guardian article says that a member of a group whose leaders have ties to the Reopen movement was shot to death in his home during a police raid. Apparently this statement by itself is intended to make the group look bad (imagine using “random black guy killed in his home during police raid” as an argument that black people are bad!). But it gets better - here’s the Guardian’s link supporting that claim - it’s to another Guardian article, and this article says that he was asleep when police shot and killed him!

    All in all, what we have here is a typical left-wing circlejerk: Anything right-of-center is racist by definition, so it deserves to be attacked, and because it’s been attacked, that proves it deserves to be attacked! And nothing with a whiff of right-of-center belief is “bipartisan” or “grassroots” or any other “good word”, because Republicans don’t get good words! Read your AP-approved thesaurus!

    Thanks @rodmclaughlin, for giving us a timely reminder of how weak the propaganda that powers the Left is, as well as the astounding lack of basic scrutiny that left-wing people apply to their own claims before sharing them (memo to Guardian’s editors…).

  9. «Leaders around the world know this, and are leveraging our uncertainties and anxieties to grab more power, as in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and, especially, Xi Jinping’s China.» – Dear author, please, fuck yourself with a cactus!

    I’m afraid that the editors do not care too much about their reputation, allowing such a piece of shit to float on this site.

  10. Not being a scientist I have to go with what the government tells us is the cause of the illness we are calling a virus. These are the same people who said Florida would be under water by now, so, I tend to doubt a lot of what the government says.

  11. Wuhan virus getting out of the Wuhan lab which was doing perfectly legitimate research in support of advances in viral infection treatments while having abysmal safety record is not a goofy conspiracy theory. That, similarly to any accident or crime investigation is a reasonable scenario to check and follow or eliminate. We did land on the moon and Chernobyl did happen. There is a danger in mixing the idiotic with the possible.

  12. I couldn’t agree more with your comment. I would add that the use of the term conspiracy theory is not only silencing legitimate disagreement or dissent but any discussion at all. This is becoming very apparent in the last few months with the pandemic and the censorship shown by Facebook and YouTube.

  13. People who write about conspiracy theories rarely point out one very salient fact: the United States government does, in fact, engage in a lot of very shady and highly impactful conspiracies. In other news, we’re seeing pretty solid evidence that a conspiracy inside the FBI and the Democrat party tried to sabotage the Trump administration (and succeeded). To be perfectly frank, the FBI and CIA have done nothing but conspire about things since they were founded. Conspiracies – or at least serious deception – underlay the beginning of the Spanish-American, Vietnamese, and Iraq wars, and probably our entry into WWII as well. A US president not so long ago was booted from office because of conspiring to spy on his opponents. Add to that that most everything on the news is obviously bullshit. If people believe weird shit, it’s because they have no reason whatsoever to trust most of the information they’re given or the people giving it to them, and plenty of reason to believe that what they’re being told is specifically designed to manipulate them.

    Just a thought: if elites want the proles to believe in fewer conspiracies, they should try to be less conspiratorial!

  14. Russia Collusion is interesting. On the one hand, Rachel Maddow spun wild conspiracy theories night after night for about 3 years. These were frequently hour long monologues linking everything in the news to her theory that Trump was an asset of Russian president Putin. In the end, not one single thing Maddow ever reported on made it into the final Mueller Report (except facts like Moscow is the capital of Russia).

    On the other hand, many believed there was a conspiracy in the “Deep State” to at least weaken (or worse) the Trump presidency by getting Trump’s National Security Advisor fired and then prosecuted; and also disseminating the information obtained via a suspicious dossier compiled by a British foreign agent with the help of Kremlin associated sources. This led to wire taps of innocent Trump campaign workers. The dossier was funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign. The media still dismisses all of this as a “conspiracy theory” even though none of the facts are contested. They can all be found in sworn Senate and House testimony, and the IG report.

  15. This is a great article, and I agree with most of its content. For a latecomer to the article, I was surprised to see how much heated commentary there was. I had to redo CTRL-F to see how many times the author has mentioned Republicans (zero) and Trump (once) in the article to make sure I had not missed something as according to several Quillette Circle poster, the contents of the article were politicised - which is unfortunate for what is a great article.

    Let me start by saying the following. I agree that the term Conspiracy Theory must be used with care particularly in an era in which truthful/scientific/accurate information is so difficult to come by, but appears to have been used mostly correctly in this article. Let’s revert back to the Enlightenment, and use scientific method to determine whether or not to include a certain issue inside the bucket of conspiracy theories.

    In statistics, and hypothesis testing, you first need to set up your null hypothesis correctly. Remember that the null hypothesis is almost always set up as “the sky is blue”. So

    1. Vaccines do not cause autism
    2. Bill Gates is not interested in implanting computer chips in people( or creating a virus such as Covid-19 through grants to rogue organisations)
    3. 5G does was not the root cause of coronavirus
    4. The Government is not wanting to implant microchips in its peoples
    5. Coronavirus was not manufactured in a lab (i.e. it is naturally occurring)

    You then establish the confidence interval / power of the statistical testing. The most classical confidence interval is 95%, although 99% is also often used. the P-value can give you the “exact” probability of observing a result as least as extreme as the one that is being observed (eg. autism) assuming that the Null hypothesis is correct. There are many other statistical techniques that are used in scientific studies.

    Once you’ve identified the most appropriate statistical method, you would work through datasets (time series and cross sectional) that would seek to provide the relevant correlational data to be able to either reject or fail to reject the Null. A good scientific study is one that will be replicable in other populations/settings. A scientific mindset is one which is impartial to the outcome of the result.

    Care should also be taken in identifying spurious correlations.

    1.Vaccination and Autism has been tested / and re-tested, and I have not seen reported anywhere any reliable datasets (e.g. increases in the rates of autism following MMR vaccinations) that would link MMR vaccines to autism.

    So unless anyone can provide any reliable datasets that can be replicated, then it is clear that this items belongs in the bucket of conspiracy theories.

    Most recent evidence from 2019

    Meta-study analysis

    And there is a very long list of studies that I could have posted here.

    1. Bill Gates and chips: this one is harder to prove using datasets. But again the principle is the same, someone (an investigative journalism team? and ex colleague whistleblower) would need to come up with a smoking gun which substantiates this claim and allegation.

    I would content that this would be the biggest story in journalism if it were ever to occur. So it’s not like there is no incentive for people no to find the gun should it exist. But until there is a gun (with fingerprints and smoke), this one is so wild that one needs to de-facto include it in the bucket of conspiracy theories. If this were not the case, then nothing would be capable of being included in the bucket of conspiracy theories (including wild allegations).

    1. 5G: Conspiracy theories abound. And 5G appears to be the source of all evils and all ills.

    But fortunately, the null hypothesis should be fairly easy to test on this one (i.e. whether 5G causes Covid-19). You would have to demonstrate that countries where 5G has been rolled out to the most cities have a higher infection and mortality rate. I suspect that this analysis will crumble after you include Iran, South Korea and many others.

    So although I have not discussed whether 5G boils water or causes cancer, I am highly confident that this claim should be included in the bucket of Conspiracy theories (though as I said, the empirical tests would be quite easy to establish).

    But FullFact.org is a good place to start

    1. Governments and microchipsTesting this hypothesis would require a cross-sectional hypothesis (and the answer may well vary by time periods), and I suspect the answers will overwhelmingly be - at least in the 21st century and for democratically-elected governments - NO.

    Had the technology been available, would I have put this beyond Hitler or Stalin? Of course not. Would I put it beyond a Communist government including China? No.

    But for the large part and in the West, this proposition appears absurd. So for the likes of the UK, US, Canada, Australia etc, the burden of proof will be very high, and in these countries, I have not seen any level of evidence that would suggest this is even the slightest probability, so I am quite comfortable lumping this into the bucket of conspiracy theories [even though this might have been outside of it if we were in era of the Soviet Union in the post-WW2 period, or Germany in 1941]

    1. Coronavirus created in a lab:This has been tested back in March
      https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/03/200317175442.htm
      and again here
      https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/22221751.2020.1733440

    So thus far, these results meet the replicability test, and though the evidence is still emerging, there is nothing thus far that suggests that Covid-19 did not originate naturally in bats.

    But there are only a handful of studies thus far though they seem pretty definitive. So erring on the side of caution, I would therefore suggest that it is a bit early to definitively move this into the bin of Conspiracy Theories, though the move is certainly in that direction.

    Briefly on the politics: you cannot put it past politicians - whether on the left or on the right - to use the human predisposition (which is particularly pronounced in some groups) to believe such non-evidence backed claims - to their advantage and to the disadvantage of their political opponents (i.e. consolidating power). I would contend that people who are more prone to easily believe wild claims (i.e. whether they are inside the conspiracy theory bucket or not) - without supportive evidence can be more easily manipulated. This would be hard to argue against. But this does not mean that you(or everyone like you) was gullible in voting the way you did.

    Someone may have had valid reasons or beliefs to vote for any leader, but it’s also just a factual observation that that leader (or his or her advisors) would not have played into the fears or emotions of people to gain the vote (e.g. Identity politics with the Democrats, fake-news and conspiracy theories for some Trump supporters).

    I see Quillette as a place where free though does live (and free speech encouraged). But what we all need to do is to take a step back, and try agnosticism when evaluating claims, and if we are dissatisfied with the results, not to see it as an attack. Another important component of the Enlightenment values and principles is to be able to take stock and hold up a mirror when the empirical evidence runs counter to one’s ideological position (or not shining the most positive evidence on the political party that we may have voted for).

    Real conversation and debate can only occur if we all leave ideology at the door.

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