COVID-19 Origins: Conventional Thinking, Conspiratorial Thinking, Crazy Thinking, and Bat Crap Crazy ThinkingRead Now
I have often railed against conspiracy theories in my blog, but I want to make it clear that I make a distinction between conspiracies and conspiracy theories. There have been many verified conspiracies. The cigarette manufacturing companies conspired to hide the fact that cigarettes were harmful. The Nixon administration conspired to maintain its involvement in the wiretapping of the Democratic headquarters in the Watergate Building a secret. The Catholic Church conspired to hide child abuse by their priests. These conspiracies have been exposed and found to be true by detective work backed by internal documents and testimony from witnesses. Conspiracies do happen, and we must take claims of a conspiracy seriously, but only as long as they are backed by evidence. The argument that COVID-19 originated in a lab was originally branded a conspiracy theory, but evidence has emerged, and arguments have been made that have made it more plausible generating a debate within the scientific community. This debate is guided by what we can call “conventional thinking” following the terminology of the Conspiracy Theory Handbook by Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook.
Several scientists have argued that there is strong evidence that the COVID-19 virus, SARS-Cov-2, arose in the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and not in a natural manner. Although the details are highly technical, in a nutshell it is argued that there are some aspects of the SARS-COV-2 virus that are unusual as it contains sequences that make it highly contagious for humans. It is also argued that analysis of viral genomes in bats and other animals make it unlikely that the Covid-19 virus arose naturally. Unlike previous coronavirus disease outbreaks, no viruses bearing a close relationship to the SARS-Cov-2 virus have been found around the Wuhan area, and the WIV had samples of large number of bat coronaviruses that they had gathered in trips to several caves a thousand miles away in another Chinese province. It is claimed that the WIV was carrying out gain of function research, which is research performed to make weak viruses more infectious, and that a grant from the NIH may have funded some of this gain of function research. Recently US intelligence has confirmed that some researchers from the WIV were admitted to a hospital with flu-like symptoms before the Covid-19 pandemic started. It is also known that researchers at the WIV were not following safety protocols when collecting the viruses. Thus, there is the possibility that the Covid-19 virus could have been present or even created at the WIV and released accidentally.
The critics counter that careful analysis of aspects of the virus’ genetic sequence and makeup compared to other preexisting coronaviruses still leaves open the possibility that the COVID-19 virus arose naturally. They also argue that it is questionable whether the Covid-19 virus shows signs of manipulation or optimization to infect humans as per the most current genetic techniques used in the field of virology. They further point out that some people that have entered caves containing populations of bats have become sick with a Covid-like disease, suggesting that these viruses can infect people directly without need for genetic modification. Finally, they argue that the production of vaccines and drugs against Covid-19 benefited from research at the WIV. With regards to the gain of function funding claims, officials such as Dr. Fauci and the NIH director Dr. Francis Collins deny that the grant money that reached the WIV funded any such research.
The above debate is what you get when scientists and other individuals with competing ideas are involved in an exchange regarding complex technical issues. The process of conventional thinking involves skepticism, evaluation of evidence, and coherence. Conventional thinking is not perfect, as it can be distorted by politics, polarization, and emotions, but it is the best method we have at our disposal to generate evidence-based answers to questions. The opposite to conventional thinking is what we will call conspiratorial thinking also following the terminology of the Conspiracy Theory Handbook.
There are several conspiracy theories regarding the origin of the COVID-19 virus. In general, many of them start with the information I have alluded to above and make the leap to argue not only the “certainty” that the virus was produced at the WIV as a bioweapon with NIH funding, but that the Chinese government released the virus on purpose with the goal of bringing down Donald Trump’s presidency or somehow gaining some global advantage over other countries. While conventional thinking and conspiratorial thinking both rely heavily on evidence, conspiratorial thinking involves overriding suspicion, over-interpretation of the evidence, and often results in contradiction. When properly carried out, conventional thinking uses evidence to find the truth, while conspiratorial thinking often uses evidence to justify a prejudice.
Apart from the levels of “conventional thinking” and “conspiratorial thinking” from the Conspiracy Theory Handbook, I also want to suggest two additional levels that lie below it.
In this level, it is argued not only that China developed and released the virus, but that it did so with the support of the deep state within the US government to not only bring down Trump but to control and track the behavior of people through mask wearing and other measures including the implantation of a microchip using vaccines in coordination with Bill Gates and his foundation. In these claims, Dr. Fauci and other government figures not only knowingly funded the development of COVID-19 by China but also coordinated with pharmaceutical companies to enrich themselves and oppose cheaper effective therapeutic alternatives like hydroxychloroquine. While conspiratorial thinking makes the mistake of overinterpreting evidence or using it in a selective way, at the crazy level people make use of evidence only in the most cursory of ways to lay the foundation for an edifice that they erect based on innuendo, hearsay, rumors, ignorance, fear, bigotry, misinformation, and disinformation. But believe it or not, things can get worse.
Bat Crap Crazy Thinking
This is the ultimate level of human folly. Here is where you find QAnon, tin foil hatters, flat Earthers and other such fringe. The individuals in this level are so divorced from reality that their claims often run afoul of mainstream crazy. With regards to COVID-19 origins, they make assertions such as that the disease is not produced by a virus but rather by 5G wireless networks, or that it is not a disease at all but a cover up for sex trafficking by a cabal of deep state satanic pedophiles who torture children and drink their blood. They make claims that COVID-19 vaccines are lethal, that the vaccines themselves can cause COVID-19, or that they change people’s DNA. They also argue that the pandemic is a sham, which they call “shamdemic”.
The effort to understand the origins of COVID-19 is ongoing, but it is far from perfect. Human passions and folly at several levels may stand in the way of progress towards this goal, but hopefully sane people of goodwill guided by science will get us there.
The image by Felton Davis from flickr is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
Power to the people was a slogan used in the United States during the sixties and beyond intended to be an exhortation to free the people from the oppression of the establishment. Although the slogan was originally political, it has been applied to many areas of human endeavor where there are institutions controlling an activity that many people would rather not have anyone control. The process of passing a certain amount of control from the establishment to the people has played out throughout modern history in many areas and is still doing so. Let me give you three examples.
The first example is beer. In the United States after prohibition was repealed in 1933, the majority of beer brewing was carried out by large brewing companies, and brewing your own beer at home was illegal. The situation began to change in 1978 when President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that made brewing beer at home legal. Another bill that had been signed in 1976 by President Gerald Ford had decreased the beer tax on small breweries. This set the stage for many home brewers to enter the beer brewing business as “craft brewers”. The process was further empowered by the state-by-state wave of legalization of brewpubs which started 1982. In 1979 there were 90 breweries in the US and by 2019 there were 5,301 breweries, of which 5,234 were craft breweries that accounted for more than 25% of sales in the 116 billion US beer market. Many people agree that when it comes to beer, giving the people the power to make and sell their own beer has been a positive development.
A second example is music. Up to the year 2000 six major record labels held a monopoly on the music business. To hear music, people had to listen to the radio, buy records, tapes, or CDs from a distributor, or pay to go to a concert if you lived close enough to a concert venue. Whether a band made it or not depended on whether they were “discovered” by record companies. With the advent of the internet all this changed. People began to download or share music for free with services like those offered by Napster and the many imitators that it spawned, which cut significantly into the profits of record companies and record stores. Musicians started posting their music and their concerts online, gaining followers through social media, and developing and managing their own business brands selling merchandise. Today these independent musicians are part of an industry worth more than one billion dollars which is still growing.
A third example is literature. The big publishing houses had always held a monopoly on which authors got published. They acted like gatekeepers, deciding who was worthy of being published and who wasn’t. With the advent of the internet, self-publishing platforms arose that allowed people who became known as “indie authors” to bypass publishing houses and take their literature directly to an audience. Today these self-publishing authors account for more than 30% of electronic book sales and 17% of print book sales.
The same trend that we have witnessed in the areas of beer, music, and literature have also spread to other areas wrestling power away from the traditional players and giving it to the people. I certainly believe this is a positive development, but what happens when that development extends to reality?
During the last few years we have witnessed a denigration of journalists and traditional news outlets. Piece after piece of investigative journalism has been labelled "fake news" regardless of the validity of the evidence presented. Alternative news outlets have sprung up that promote baseless conspiracy theories to which millions of people have flocked, and an increasing number of people also get their news from questionable social media sources. We have seen the rise of “alternative facts”, and the disregard for truth has become so dire that the Oxford Dictionary in 2016 labelled “post-truth” as the word of the year. This term is intended to describe a situation where facts have become less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal beliefs.
The above phenomenon is not just limited to journalists and news outlets, but it has also affected science and scientists, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people believe that scientists are beholden to powerful interests and therefore are not to be trusted. These people get their science from alternative sites that promote contrarian scientists rejected by the scientific establishment or from social media accounts that disseminate biased science views. We have ended up with a significant segment of the population believing that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu, that masks are not effective, that hydroxychloroquine is effective against COVID-19, and that the COVID-19 vaccines are unsafe. These people who have not taken the virus seriously have served as incubators for the pathogen, and because the more a virus spreads, the more it mutates, this increases the likelihood that more infectious variants will arise that may even be resistant to current vaccines to a certain extent. There are some viral variants that have originated in the United States.
I mentioned the cases or beer, music, and literature as examples where taking away power from the institutions and giving it to the people has been something positive. Beer, music, and literature connoisseurs may decry this process lamenting that the standards for good beer, music, and literature have been degraded. However, what constitutes good beer, music, or literature is in the end a subjective opinion. That, however, is not the case with reality.
Reality exists independent from us and our beliefs. Reality is not an opinion. Alternative realities are not realities, they are fictions. If the glass is filled to half of its volume with a liquid, that is a fact. There is no alternative way to view this reality. Saying anything different is at best a mistake and at worst a lie. We can discuss at length whether the glass should be viewed as half full or as half empty, but that is an interpretation of the reality which is something entirely different. Some persons will argue that differences in the perception of reality by people are to be expected. However, these differences in the perception of reality are only valid if they have a high degree of correlation to the reality. If you are walking towards the edge of a cliff, regardless of the way you perceive reality, you have to be able to identify that what’s ahead of you is the edge of a cliff. If you don’t, you will get hurt or die.
Taking away power from those that report on or discover reality and giving it to the people is not a positive development if the people make up, believe, and promote false realities. This is how we end up with global warming, 911, and COVID-19 severity denial, creationism, vaccine hesitancy, skepticism about the 2020 election, chemtrails, the flat Earth, and QAnon.
Musical note image by ruhbastard, foamy beer glass image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images, book image by OpenClipart-Vectors, and fist image by Tchekele, all from pixabay, are free for commercial use and have been blended into one image.
Philosophy normally follows a top-down approach. Great thinkers put together a view of reality or a strategy to deal with reality which then flows down to their people or is transmitted to other thinkers who repurpose the views or strategies to their particular reality and then it flows down to their people and so on.
For example, the idea of civil disobedience by American philosopher Henry David Thoreau influenced many people in the US. But it also influenced the Indian political leader Mohandas Gandhi who incorporated it into his ideas of non-violence, and this in turn influenced the people of India in their struggle for independence from Britain. The ideas of both Thoreau and Gandhi also influenced the American minister Martin Luther King Jr. who incorporated them into the civil rights movement. When ideas flow in this fashion, they are coherent because they are carefully researched and articulated by exceptionally talented deep-thinking minds.
But have you ever wondered what would happen if the process went in the opposite direction? What would happen if millions of average people participated in crafting a view of reality put together from their combined average wisdom, beliefs, and experience? What ideas would they articulate? What sources of inspiration would they use? Well, no need to wonder anymore because this has already happened and you have witnessed some of the results. It’s called QAnon.
As I mentioned before, QAnon got started when somebody claiming to work at the Department of Energy and to have Q level clearance started posting anonymously enigmatic tidbits of information called Q drops in an image board called 4chan. Most of these Q drops where nothing more than gibberish spiced with innuendo, but people were encouraged to “do their research” and find their meaning. And this they did, spawning a fantastical and dangerous view of reality that has as a central tenet that Trump is fighting a cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who control the world and kidnap and torture children to drink their blood. In this post we will take a look at some QAnon ideas, tropes, symbols, and their origin.
The Pedophile Ring at Comet Ping Pong
The conspiracy that spawned the central pillar of the QAnon world view was derived from Pizzagate. This was the claim that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were running a pedophile operation in the basement of a pizza place in Washington DC called Comet Ping Pong (which has no basement). This claim was put together by 4chan posters interpreting “coded messages” in the e-mails of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, released by Wikileaks. With the appearance of Q, the Pizzagate conspiracy was spun to have a worldwide reach, and involve many other actors engaging in much more than pedophilia.
Controlling the World and Drinking the Blood of Children
These are claims that have been made in the past about Jews. A book still popular in anti-Semitic circles entitled The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in Russia in 1903, claimed that there was a secret plan by Jews to dominate the world. The “blood libel” was a claim that Jews would kidnap Christian children and drain them of their blood to use in religious rituals. Some of the posts by Q and other posters in the 4chan board have been against prominent Jews or Jews in general.
This is supposed to be a potent drug that the satanic pedophiles harvest from the blood of tortured children to consume and sell. This absurd notion was derived from Hunter Thompson’s 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which was made into a movie starring Johnny Depp in 1998.
Follow the White Rabbit
Originally derived from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carol, the “follow the white rabbit” trope is taken from the 1999 movie The Matrix, where the central character, Neo, played by actor Keanu Reeves, is asked to “follow the white rabbit”. Neo does follow a person with a white rabbit tattoo to a place where he meets those who will free him from the Matrix. For QAnon believers, following the white rabbit means following the path to discover the truth.
Taking the Red Pill or Red Pilling
This is another Matrix movie reference. It’s when Neo choses to take the red pill and learns the truth that is hidden about the world around him.
Where We Go One, We Go ALL (WWG1WGA)
The most recognized slogan of QAnon comes from a 1996 movie directed by Ridley Scott, and starring Jeff Bridges called White Squall. The trailer for the movie also features the words “the calm before the storm” (see below).
During a White House function, Donald Trump uttered an enigmatic reference to “the calm before the storm”, and within days Q alluded to this moment. Q’s followers then interpreted the storm to mean the day Trump would triumph over the satanic pedophile cabal whose members would then be arrested and executed. The storm was supposed to happen around the time Trump would be inaugurated to a second term.
Tip Top Tippy-Top Shape
QAnon followers believe that Trump communicates with them through symbolism and coded messages. But a follower once requested that Q ask Donald Trump to say the specific words “tip top tippy-top shape” as a shout out to the community. A few months later during the White House Easter Egg Roll, Trump said just that and he said it standing next to a person dressed as a white rabbit! QAnons were ecstatic and presented this "evidence" to all as proof that everything was real. The problem with this is that "tip top tippy-top shape" is a phrase that Trump had used on several occasions before the request.
The above are some of the “mainstream” (yes, don’t laugh) QAnon ideas, beliefs, tropes, and symbols. There are other other QAnon beliefs that are not shared by the majority of QAnon followers. For example, some claim the members of the Satan-worshipping cabal of pedophiles are really lizard people who have adopted human form.
QAnon is truly a philosophy by the people for the people. No Thoreaus, or Gandhis, or Martin Luther Kings were involved in crafting it. It is a bottom-up crowd-inspired fantastical narrative about the world, its society, and its people, spun from the interpretation of the cryptic utterances of an anonymous poster in an image board. It is a crazy quilt made from stitching shards of reality with old and new unfounded conspiracy theories, fantasies, coded messages, symbols, and book and movie quotes and stories. If QAnon were the product of some fan fiction community that would be one thing, but millions of people ended up not only contributing to create it but also believing this nonsense. And even more disturbing, some of them were and still are willing to act on their beliefs.
The photographs of Henry David Thoreau by Benjamin D. Maxham, of Mohandas Ghandi by Elliott & Fry, and of Martin Luther King from the Nobel foundation, are in the public domain. The typing image from pixabay by Wallusy is free for public use and has been modified.
By now you have heard about QAnon. This is a group of people whose most known conspiracy belief is that Donald Trump was (or still is) battling a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles, who kidnap children, torture them, and drink their blood. This cabal is made up of politicians, Hollywood celebrities, company CEOs, billionaires, and other personalities in the US and many other countries. The list even includes the British Royal family and the Pope! The cabal is said to control the world, and its members may not even be human (some in QAnon claim they are lizard people masquerading as humans). The inauguration of Trump into his second term was supposed to be “The Storm”, the day he would arrest these pedophiles and execute them. This event in turn would lead to “The Great Awakening” when everyone would realize QAnon was right. This would usher in a new era for humanity with Trump as president for life.
Even though I consider conspiracy believers like global warming or 911 deniers, creationists, and antivaxxers to be self-deluded, the ideas behind QAnon would have struck me not just merely as deluded, but rather as plain bat crap crazy. If you had asked me if a considerable number of people would believe the QAnon conspiracy, I would have answered that QAnon believers, just like flat Earth proponents, would never go beyond being a fringe of a few hundred people.
QAnon got started in 2017 when someone claiming to be a Department of Energy insider with what is called Q-level clearance started posting anonymous messages (hence QAnon) on an obscure image board website known for its sometimes extreme content called 4chan. Some moderators from the site decided to disseminate the utterances of Q (called Q drops or bread crumbs) to a broader audience, and teamed up with content creators for more mainstream sites. A lot of what would end up being the QAnon dogma was inserted into the analysis of Q’s messages in these early days. QAnon mythology borrows heavily from both recent and centuries-old conspiracy theories (some of them with anti-Semitic roots) as well as lines and plots from fantasy books, movies, and television shows.
As the ranks of QAnon swelled, their social media groups and channels multiplied and gained more members aided by influencers and network algorithms. QAnon was boosted by President Trump who is a central character in their beliefs where he is known as Q+. Mr. Trump never renounced the support of the group, and he also retweeted messages from several QAnon believers or sympathizers to his tens of millions of followers. Some Trump allies and members of his inner circle expressed sympathy in one way or another for the group. QAnon adherents started making their presence felt at Trump rallies, and the group began to be covered by media outlets such as Infowars and befriended by political candidates running for office. With the lockdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, tens of millions of idle people took to the internet for entertainment and many of them found QAnon. The movement gave rise to an industry of QAnon merchandise including books and Apps which became best sellers. In three short years, a conspiracy based on a most absurd set of premises was accepted by millions of people some of whom have been involved in crimes and even participated in the storming of the US Capitol.
What is the allure of QAnon? How is it that people end up believing these things? Everyone is taught about science and the scientific method. Why isn’t this education enough to counter at least these extreme beliefs? It turns out that QAnon is more effective at having many people accept folly than science is effective at having the same people accept facts. This may be rooted in the way human psychology works.
Scientists present a view of reality such as the occurrence of global warming or evolution, the efficacy and safety of vaccines, or that the Earth is round. Scientists then explain what evidence supports these particular views. Many people find the evidence persuasive and accept what the scientists are saying, but quite a number do not, preferring instead to believe things that go contrary to the evidence. Why is this? The problem is that the view presented by the scientists is something external to the inner world of many individuals. These individuals are familiar with their view of reality, and they are reluctant to allow something from the “outside” to come into their minds and replace their views regardless of the evidence.
A superficial analysis of QAnon may suggest that it doesn’t present any view of reality or evidence. To newcomers, Qanon seems to present a body of mysterious sounding tidbits of information (Q drops) and invites people to “do their own research” and find out what these Q drops mean. The people that engage in this activity get the impression that they are in control. They believe they are making sense of this information by themselves on their own terms, and arriving at their own conclusions. This is, of course, not true. The unravelling of the meaning of the messages from Q often occurs within the matrix of a chat board or a group that traffics in information that is heavily biased toward certain interpretations. Therefore, when individuals do their “research” and come to conclusions regarding what the Q drops mean, their conclusions are most of the time not theirs but those of the people they interact with.
But, and here is the key to understanding why QAnon is so incredibly persuasive, the individuals don’t know these conclusions are not theirs. As far as they are concerned, they have come up with these new views by themselves. They feel that these new views are not external to their minds, but rather that they have been generated internally. As a result of this, in those initiated into QAnon these new views, no matter how bizarre, have a very good chance of replacing their old views.
Add to this that the process of “research” is fun. It’s essentially a game such as solving a difficult puzzle. You experience the effort of hard work and the thrill of discovery when you connect the dots and make sense of things. This process, of course, takes place with the encouragement, feedback, and praise of those you interact with. But unlike regular puzzles, the “discoveries” made by QAnon folks are about highly emotional issues such as child abuse, which instill raw outrage, and knowledge of the alleged existence of sinister individuals and organizations who control the world and hide in plain sight, which gives the people “knowing” this information a sense of uniqueness, power, and purpose.
Banned from many social media outlets with its major prophesy as yet unfulfilled, QAnon has retreated in disarray, and a number of its followers have left the group due to exhaustion or disillusionment. The group is down, but not out. I expect not only that we will have to continue to deal with them going forward, but that we will also have to deal with future incarnations of this and other related phenomenons which the internet will spawn.
QAnon banner photograph from flickr by Anthony Crider is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
I have often written in my blog about conspiracy theories and those who believe in them. Among the conspiracy theory believers I have mentioned are global warming deniers, as well as antivaccination advocates, creationists, and flat Earth proponents. The newest addition to this list is the COVID-19 severity and mitigation deniers. In past posts, I have addressed some of these conspiracies, explained why they are wrong and delved into why people believe in them.
What I want to do in this post is present my thoughts regarding the similarities and differences in intellectual processes of conspiracy theorists and those of scientists. In doing so I will use as an aid the graph depicted below which is borrowed from an apocryphal interpretation of the Dunning-Kruger Effect (which may or may not exist, but that’s another story) and bears some resemblance to cultural adaptation curves. I don’t claim this graph to be true. I am just employing it to present my view regarding how I think certainty is related to misinformation or incomplete information.
As I have written before, conspiracy theorists dismiss the experience and knowledge of mainstream experts because they consider them to be biased, and only accept input from people that go against the consensus in their fields. Conspiracy theorists believe that even with no scientific training they are as competent as the experts to read the scientific literature and figure things out. Invariably these individuals end up adopting an understanding of reality based on high levels of misinformation or incomplete information that merely reflects their biases. In the graph above this is indicated by the green curve that starts at the lower left hand corner and quickly shoots up to what I call the “Peak of Illusion”. The individuals atop this peak have developed a high certainty they are right based on misinformation or incomplete information. The peak of illusion is a really cool place to be. Everything makes sense and there is no confusion or doubt. I know, because I have been there a few times (see below).
Notice, however, that there is not a lot of room atop the peak of illusion. If the conspiracy theory believers start questioning the misinformation they have accepted or start accepting new information that contradicts previous notions, the certainty that they are right will begin to decrease, and this process will take them tumbling down to the Valley of Despair. The valley of despair is a gloomy place of uncertainty full of “ifs”, “buts” and “maybes” where it is not clear what is real, what isn’t, or what to do next. Most conspiracy theorists are stuck in the peak of illusion and avoid the valley of despair like the plague. Why is this?
I think that one reason why conspiracy theory believers are marooned atop the peak of illusion is that for many people even the illusion of certainty is preferable to uncertainty. Another reason may be that some conspiracy theories have religious undertones that link the faith of the believer to the conspiracy. Thus they may think that questioning the conspiracy is tantamount to questioning their faith. Yet another reason may be that some people find a sense of community in belonging to a group of fellow conspiracy theory believers, who in turn exert peer pressure on anyone questioning the belief in the conspiracy. Conspiracy theory believers may also be so emotionally invested in the conspiracy that they are subconsciously ashamed to admit they are wrong, and any criticism may make them lash out and double down on their beliefs.
Be it as it may, many of the traits that believers in conspiracy theories exhibit are also shared by other people including scientists. Scientists are human. They make mistakes; they get led astray by wrong data, or they may fall in love with beautiful ideas that turn out to be wrong. The vast majority of scientists (including me) have been to the peak of illusion several times during their careers. They know what it is to be confident that they have found the answers just to have their ideas blow up in their faces.
So why aren’t most scientists stuck on the peak of illusion?
The answer is a combination of training and experience. Scientists have been trained in the procedures to evaluate the veracity of ideas and interpretations. They accept the importance of controls, placebos, randomization, and blind experimental protocols. They try to reproduce experiments and observations, and they engage each other in critical discussions. Scientists also have been wrong many times, and they have learned to identify the personal frailties that have led them to be wrong. Thus, by virtue of their training and experience, most (but not all) scientists have learned to recognize the misleading siren song of certainty emanating from the peak of illusion and are naturally skeptical. Ideas must be tested, protocols must be followed, and facts must reflect reality. Self-doubt is essential in science.
Thus, in terms of the graph, the main distinction between conspiracy believers and scientists is that the majority of scientists SEEK the valley of despair. This is because they know that only within the confines of this bleak vale of confusion lies the path up the slope of enlightenment to the plateau of understanding. Granted, this path is not always clear. Progress in science more often than not is a meandering process replete with fits and starts, blind alleys, dead ends, and returning to square one. And what is not shown in the graph is that many paths leading away from the valley of despair can potentially lead back to the peak of illusion. However, as the scientific process moves forward and ideas are tested, accepted, or discarded, sufficiently developed theories emerge that explain the facts, useful applications are generated, and a consensus is reached that an understanding of reality has been achieved at a sufficiently high level of detail. It is only then that most scientists become certain that they are right. And this certainty is not illusory, because it firmly rooted in reality.
Therefore, when we scientists and others who accept science and its methods stand atop the plateau of understanding, look across that vast chasm, and see those people stuck on the peak of illusion denying evolution, global warming, the round Earth, the need for vaccination, or COVID-19 severity and mitigation, we wonder, how can we help them? How can we get them down from there and over to our side?
This is a topic that I will address in other posts, but I believe that helping these people transition from believing in these conspiracies to accepting reality is an important challenge for our time.
The graph by Sciencia58 was modified and is used here under a CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication license.
The Election Conspiracy: The Dire Consequences of Living in an Alternate Reality and What We Can Do About ItRead Now
As I have discussed before, our brains seem to be wired to filter and process our perception of reality based on expectations that we have about the nature of said reality. This may actually be beneficial as it serves as a mechanism to reduce the vast complexity of the world around us to a basic set of actionable premises that guide our response to life-changing events or forces that we don’t control or even sometimes understand. Of course, the problem with this approach is that we may not see or accept those things that don’t fit our expectations and we end up creating and living in an alternate reality. But what happens when this alternate reality collides with the actual reality? You would expect people to change their minds, right? Unfortunately this is not often the case.
I have previously mentioned several specific reasons why people create and believe in conspiracy theories ranging from feeling safe, reducing uncertainty, and gaining control over their environment to developing and maintaining a positive image of one’s self or group. But I think one general reason why people create and accept conspiracy theories is to explain the discrepancy between their world view and reality. Nowadays there are millions of people in the United States living in alternate realities and accepting and spreading conspiracy theories to explain away the evidence that indicates their world view is wrong.
Thus, flat Earthers claim that the evidence the Earth is round is fake and part of a conspiracy to hide the truth. Antivaxxers claim that pharmaceutical companies are hiding the evidence that vaccines are not safe and cause autism and other diseases. Global warming denialists claim that scientists and the organizations that fund them are faking the evidence for global warming. Creationists deny evolution and claim that atheists aligned with powerful secular interests are attacking religion. Chemtrail proponents allege the government is spraying us with dangerous chemicals. 911 deniers claim the government was responsible for the collapse of the World Trade Center buildings. COVID-19 severity deniers claim that liberals and left leaning organizations colluding with the scientific and medical establishment are exaggerating the impact of COVID-19 and trying to control people using lockdowns, masks, and social distancing.
The latest addition to this list is the individuals that advocate the “election conspiracy”. These are individuals who have the false belief the election was stolen from President Trump by a vast group of republican and democratic election officials, governors, congressmen, and judges colluding with voting machine corporations, the “deep state” and foreign nations. I do not include this group of conspiracy believers here lightly. Although normally I don’t address political issues in my blog, the evidence that the election president Trump lost was not a fraud, as a he claims, is just too overwhelming to ignore or dismiss as a mere “opinion”. Dozens of election officials both Republicans and Democrats, along with recounts, audits, and courts, as well as assessments by fact checkers and government agencies did not find instances of fraud large enough to overturn the election.
Belief in conspiracy theories has consequences at the level of the individual and society, and I think the severity of these consequences depends on two variables. One is the nature and scope of the conspiracy theory being embraced. Flat Earth proponents may only get laughed at, while antivaxxers may influence some people to not vaccinate their children who may then catch a serious disease. COVID-19 denialists may lead people to forgo masks and other mitigation measures that may put them and their loved ones at risk of being infected, while global warming denial activists may hinder urgently needed action on climate change. The other variable that may determine the severity of the consequences of embracing a conspiracy theory is the level of militancy it inspires and the extent to which its followers may become radicalized and willing to act on the premises of the conspiracy to the detriment of their own lives and wellbeing. The poster children for this last variable are the advocates of the “election conspiracy”.
On January 6th the whole nation watched in shock as a mob stormed the US Capitol building while the electoral votes of the American people were being counted. The individuals that did this were so certain that the system had failed them that they were willing to risk everything for their actions. Now many of them have been identified and arrested. They are losing their jobs and businesses, and are being placed on no-fly lists and subjected to non-stop harassment and threats. One of them was shot, and three others died from medical emergencies suffered during the riot. Their actions, besides destruction of government property and damage to American democracy, led to the death of one Capitol police officer and the injuring and abuse of dozens of others. We shudder at the thought of what would have happened if this mob of individuals had been able to get hold of the members of congress inside the Capitol. It has been documented that several people in the mob were shouting “hang Mike Pence” (the vice president) as well as threats to others.
The election conspiracy is a clear example of the dire consequences of living in an alternate reality immunized from facts and evidence. In this state of mind, people’s emotions and fears can be inflamed and manipulated to advance political or social goals in a process akin to selling them snake oil. And the people most susceptible to be victims of snake oil salesmen are those living in these alternate realities.
So how do we deal with this?
Whereas the more radicalized conspiracy believers may be too far gone to be helped, there is a larger mass of people that is unsure about accepting the conspiracy. Some aspects of the conspiracy make sense to them but they are turned off by other aspects. These people are not conspiracy theory believers, but they are conspiracy theory agnostics. I think that these conspiracy agnostics are the people we should talk with. We should address their concerns seriously with evidence and within a framework of respect for their views. But we also need to find what I call “converts” among the ranks of the conspiracy theory believers. Converts are people that have come to their senses having analyzed what they said and did and rejected the conspiracy. These are people that the conspiracy theory agnostics (and even some believers) can identify with. These converts should become the spokespersons against the conspiracy.
We may not be able to eliminate the conspiracy, but maybe we can reduce its spread.
The photograph by of tear gas being used on rioters outside the capitol by Tyler Merbler is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
The Conspiracy Theory that Went Bust
Some of the proponents of the drug hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) have put forward a conspiracy theory to explain the negative results for the drug in some clinical trials. They claim that the scientists running the trials have sold out to pharmaceutical companies and designed the trials in such a way as to make HCQ fail the trials. The alleged reason for doing this is to favor more expensive alternatives such as the drug remdesevir from Gilead Sciences and vaccines or antibodies made by other companies. This convoluted conspiracy theory has grown to encompass a worldwide network of scientists that have sold out in this fashion and to even involve organizations such as the Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization that are also allegedly colluding with the pharmaceutical companies.
This vast network of colluding scientists from different countries using different sources of funding and engaging in behavior contrary to the principles of the organizations for which they work, is not only very unlikely but the most basic tenets of the conspiracy theory are not even coherent. I have mentioned before that the same trial that found that HCQ was not effective against COVID-19 (the Recovery trial), also found that dexamethasone was effective in advanced cases of the disease. Steroids like dexamethasone are cheap generic drugs. Why would scientists colluding with pharmaceutical companies design the trials to torpedo one cheap drug (HCQ) but not another one (dexamethasone)?
But there is more.
Recently the results of the Solidarity trial sponsored by the World Health Organization (WHO) were published. It was already known that the trial had not found HCQ to be effective and this fanned the conspiracy theory, but another result of the trial was that remdesivir was not effective too! Why would the WHO betray their pharma overlords by trashing their drug? The answer is that the WHO didn’t because there was no one to betray. The vast majority of scientists involved in this research are honest individuals who are genuinely interested in finding whether these drugs work against a terrible disease. These scientists designed and performed clinical trials to the best of their abilities to obtain answers. This is how science is supposed to work. No ulterior motives, no deceit, and no conspiracy: just the facts, the evidence, and the truth.
The Accusation that Fell Flat
The attacks on Dr. Anthony Fauci continue due to his resistance to accept that hydroxychloroquine works. Dr. Fauci has stated:
“The point that I think is important, because we all want to keep an open mind, any and all of the randomized placebo-controlled trials, which is the gold standard of determining if something is effective, none of them had shown any efficacy by hydroxychloroquine. Having said that, I will state, when I do see a randomized placebo-controlled trial that looks at any aspect of hydroxychloroquine, either early study, middle study, or late, if that randomized placebo-controlled trial shows efficacy, I would be the first one to admit it and to promote it. But I have not seen yet a randomized placebo-controlled trial that’s done that. And in fact, every randomized placebo-controlled trial that has looked at it, has shown no efficacy. So, I just have to go with the data. I don’t have any horse in the game one way or the other, I just look at the data.”
This is the comment we would expect from a scientist like Dr. Fauci, Just show him a well-designed study that shows that HCQ is effective and he will change his mind. Makes sense right? But no, HCQ proponents will have none of it. They claim the evidence for HCQ is overwhelming (it isn’t), but it is being suppressed by a massive disinformation campaign (which is really an attempt by responsible organizations and individuals to counter misinformation about HCQ). And they have found another way to attack Dr. Fauci. They claim that the lack of acceptance of the effectiveness of HCQ by Fauci is killing people!
The Yale epidemiologist Harvey Risch and others have stated that back in the 1980s Dr. Fauci refused to issue guidelines for physicians to consider the prophylactic use of an antibiotic (Bactrim) to prevent an opportunistic infection (pneumocystis pneumonia) in AIDS patients because he considered there was not enough data, and this led to the preventable deaths of 17,000 people. They claim that Fauci is doing this again with HCQ and that people who could be saved are dying. This new accusation has reached a fevered pitch with claims that Dr. Fauci is a mass murderer. The notorious HCQ proponent Vladimir Zelenko is circulating a petition to the White House to bring several individuals including Dr. Fauci to justice for “Crimes Against Humanity / Mass Murder”.
There are several things that have to be understood by Fauci’s critics.
The first is that, as I have explained before, the job of doctors is to save their patients and improve their lives, and doctors have the freedom to treat patients as they see fit. On the other hand, the job of scientists like Fauci is to try to figure out what works and what doesn’t based on the evidence. During times when a disease ravages society, the use of many drugs that may or may not work is often proposed. These drugs can be prescribed by doctors, but they should not be endorsed by scientists. There is a scientific discussion that has to take place and the evidence has to be generated and/or evaluated. Dr. Fauci cannot endorse a drug for which the evidence is deficient. In any case Dr. Fauci himself has stated that he had no authority to issue guidelines, but he offered to help with carrying out a clinical trial.
The second thing is that Fauci is not the type of callous person that he is made out to be by HCQ proponents. Just consider that their accusations are remarkably similar to those levied upon Fauci by the notorious AIDS activist Larry Kramer back in the 1980s who besides calling him a murderer also said Fauci was a Nazi who should be put in front of a firing squad. Larry Kramer eventually befriended Fauci and he and other AIDS activists worked together with Fauci to make improvements to the clinical trial system which has saved many lives and given patients more control over the process.
And finally, just consider Fauci’s achievements. Apart from what I mentioned above regarding the modification of the clinical trials system, Fauci has not only made many scientific contributions that have advanced our knowledge of disease as well as developing effective therapies against diseases, but he has been among the architects of major programs such as PEPFAR (President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) which has saved the lives of 18 million (!) people in Africa. In recognition for his work in creating the PEPFAR program, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2008.
Fortunately, this accusation by HCQ proponents that Fauci is a murderer has fallen flat. The vast majority of people understand that Dr. Fauci is an exceptional individual both as a scientist and as a person. The vast majority of people also understand that those levying these accusations against Fauci have now pushed themselves further into a fringe and lost all credibility.
The image of Dr. Fauci ny NIAID is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. The conspiracy sign by Nick Youngson from Picpedia.Org (used here under a Creative Commons 3 - CC BY-SA 3.0 license), the public domain image of hydroxychloroquine by Fvasconcellos, and the public domain coronavirus image by Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM, from the CDC's Public Health Image Library were modified and merged.
Fighting Coronavirus Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories: Fauci, Hydroxychloroquine, and Retracted ArticlesRead Now
Oh dear, so much COVID-19 misinformation, and conspiracy theories, and so little time and space. Let’s get started.
Dr. Anthony Fauci is receiving a lot of criticism from people, ranging from those who deny the severity of COVID-19 and think he misadvised the president, promoting the interests of political elites and the deep state, to those who think he is denying the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine and promoting the economic interests of pharmaceutical companies to the detriment of the interests of patients. These people question his character, and call him a liar, a fraud, a traitor, and a saboteur who should be fired.
As it turns out, these insults are nothing compared to the insults levied against him when he was coordinating the nation’s response to the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The notorious firebrand AIDS activist Larry Kramer criticized Dr. Fauci for moving too slowly in finding a treatment for AIDS, and said he was evil and represented a callous government. Kramer called Fauci a pill-pushing tool of the medical establishment, an incompetent idiot, a disgrace, and a murderer who should be put in front of a firing squad. Kramer compared him to a Nazi and even insulted Fauci’s wife! So what did Dr. Fauci do? He talked to Kramer and other AIDS activists, he heard their concerns, he realized they had a point, and he pushed for changes in the way clinical trials were conducted speeding up the process, making it more flexible, and giving patients a greater voice. He reached out to those who insulted him and worked with them to change medicine for the better and make history. Eventually, Dr. Fauci and Kramer became good friends. Fauci helped Kramer get medical treatment for his health problems, and Kramer made Fauci a character in one of his award winning plays.
So when critics say Dr. Fauci doesn’t care for patients or is beholden to special interests, I am skeptical of these claims. I think that history so far indicates that this is not who Dr. Fauci is. This is not to say that Fauci doesn’t make mistakes, but I certainly believe that he is acting in the best interest of the American people. But can’t people change? Sure, but as far as I’m concerned, the burden of proof is on the critics to produce exceptional evidence that there is a nefarious intent behind his actions.
Another conspiracy theory involving Dr. Fauci states that he has known for 15 years that chloroquine (a drug related to hydroxychloroquine) was effective in hindering the spread of a virus, SARS-CoV, which is 79% related to the COVID-19 virus (SARS-CoV-2), in primate cells in culture based on a study published back in 2005. So it is claimed that Fauci is lying when he says that there is no good evidence for the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine against COVID-19.
Dr. Fauci is a competent scientist, and he knows that cell culture is a very preliminary step when employed to look for effective drugs. He knows that the results obtained with this method may not hold in more complete models that better reflect the complexity of the full organism. For example, hydroxychloroquine did not have either a therapeutic or prophylactic effect in hamsters and monkeys infected with the COVID-19 virus. This agrees with the best human studies so far that indicate that hydroxychloroquine is not effective.
Another conspiracy theory that is making the rounds concerns retracted articles published in the scientific journals, The Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). These two journals published studies where scientists examined a database of patients treated with hydroxychloroquine and concluded not only that hydroxychloroquine was not effective, but that it was also harmful to the patients. The results of these studies led to a temporary halt of several hydroxychloroquine trials taking place worldwide. However, when the studies were examined by scientists, numerous discrepancies in the data and problems in its analysis were detected. Letters signed by more than one hundred scientists were delivered to the Lancet and to the NEJM outlining these problems. The journals expressed concerns about these discrepancies, and the authors of the articles retracted them when they were not able to dispel these concerns with the company that provided them with the hydroxychloroquine dataset.
The conspiracy argument alleges that the publication of these articles proves that there is a concerted campaign by the scientific establishment to discredit hydroxychloroquine at the expense of the lives of people who could benefit from it, just to embarrass president Trump for advocating the use of this drug. The conspiracy theory argues that this scandal demonstrates that scientists have lost all credibility.
However, what this argument ignores is that it was scientists who detected these problems and alerted the journals, and the journals proceeded to raise concerns with the authors, and the authors acknowledged those concerns and retracted the articles when they could not address said concerns. That this happened is not a scandal. Scientists make mistakes all the time. In fact, that is the strength of science. The only reason that science can be right is because it can be wrong. In this case, error was detected, addressed, and removed. The scandal would have been if the problems with the articles had not been addressed and the articles had not been retracted. The fact that the opposite happened is an indication that science worked the way it should, and vindicates our confidence in the scientific process.
Finally, another conspiracy theory involves the claim that countries that have embraced the use of hydroxychloroquine are doing better than countries that haven’t. Therefore, the unwarranted rejection of hydroxychloroquine by the health care systems of some countries has led to many preventable deaths. Those that espouse this conspiracy theory do not make any efforts to address other variables that could explain these differences. For example, there is the number of infected people that spread the disease initially in the country (more disease spreaders equals more infections and more problems with the health care system). There is the timing of the spread of the disease (earlier spread means less time to adapt). There is the constellation of drugs and procedures that are used to treat patients (how do you separate the effect of hydroxychloroquine from that of other drugs and/or procedures). There is the age and health of the population affected (younger healthier people are less susceptible). There is the strength and effectiveness of the mitigation measures employed (older sicker people could have been protected better in one country than in another another). There are differences in reporting what constitutes a COVID-19 death from one country to another. If these and other variables are not considered and controlled for, the claim does not go beyond a mere anecdote.
The misinformation and conspiracy theories I’ve mentioned are but a fraction of all the bilge that’s out there, but what they all have in common is that they are part of an effort to disqualify mainstream science and scientists as they deal with COVID-19 and evaluate hydroxychloroquine and other drugs.
The image of Dr. Fauci ny NIAID is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license. The image of hydroxychloroquine by Fvasconcellos is in the public domain.
One of the cornerstones of science is reproducibility. This means that if one scientist performs an experiment and gets a result, then other scientists should be able to perform the same experiment and get the same result. This also means that if one scientist evaluates something and makes an observation, other scientists should be able to evaluate the very same thing and make the same observation. This is the way scientists convince themselves that what other scientists find is true. This is also how scientists build a consensus. But if the gold standard for acceptance of experiments and observations as true among scientists is reproducibility, what is the gold standard for the acceptance of experiments and observations as true by those who are not trained scientists? How is a layperson to decide if what scientists are saying is true?
The answer to this question is that, to a certain extent, the criterion is also reproducibility. People interested in reproducing some results of scientific experiments and making the same observation made by scientists can also do it. For example, you see all those amazing pictures of planets and galaxies, but how do you know they are true? How do you know if scientists did not just create these by manipulating images? Well, you can buy yourself a telescope or go to a place where they have one.
I’m not an astronomer, but a long time ago I visited Fuertes Observatory at Cornell University. The observatory has a 12 inch telescope with a clock drive mechanism to compensate for the Earth’s rotation, which means you can take timed exposures. These types of telescopes are no longer used by astronomers, so the observatory is operated by the students in the Astronomy Department and is open to the public. I spent several nights there and hooked up my camera to the telescope to take pictures of heavenly bodies.
I took a photograph of the planet Saturn and its rings.
I was also able to photograph Jupiter, and I managed to capture the two large equatorial belts of the planet in the picture. When I took a longer exposure, I could make out Jupiter’s largest moons, Callisto, Europa, Ganymede, and Io. These moons were observed for the first time by Galileo in 1610.
I took a picture of the moon. You can clearly see large craters with a lot of lines radiating from them such as Tycho (large crater at the bottom of the picture) or Copernicus (large crater at center left of the picture). The light areas are called highlands, and the dark basaltic plains are called maria (seas in Latin).
I was also able to take this picture of the Andromeda Galaxy with its two satellite galaxies, the dwarf elliptical galaxy NGC205 (the fuzzy bright spot below the center of the picture to the right) and the dwarf compact elliptical galaxy NGC221 (the large bright spot to the left of the center of the picture).
So I verified that some of these planets, planet features, and galaxies that you read about and see pictures of are true. They are there to see for anyone who takes the trouble to look at them the right way.
The above is just merely making an observation, but you can also perform experiments. I wrote a post regarding a famous experiment that you can execute in your own home to reveal that light has wave-like properties. Similarly, there are dozens of books, videos, and websites describing many classic experiments that people not trained as scientists can perform by themselves. So you see, you don’t have to take the scientist’s word for it, you can actually do these experiments and make these observations yourself!
Unfortunately, there are limits to this approach.
My photographs are nowhere near as fabulous as the detailed close-up pictures of planets and galaxies obtained by space probes or space telescopes, and I can’t build a probe or a telescope and launch it into orbit or send it to faraway planets. There are certain experiments and observations that require specialized equipment that is very expensive and requires special knowledge and training to use. There are certain experiments and observations that may involve cooperation between many scientists and hundreds of other people to make things work and may require years to carry out. Performing these experiments and observations in your backyard or in your basement over a few days is simply not possible. What do you do in these cases? How do you verify that what scientists find is really true?
The answer is: you can’t. Like I wrote in a previous post, for some things we rely on several safeguards to maintain scientific integrity such as scientists trying to reproduce each other’s results and the reporting of scientific misconduct to research integrity agencies. But the question is: When hundreds of scientists from different fields come together and agree that their results point in the same direction and reach a consensus, when several competing scientists check each other’s results and find them to be true, when research integrity agencies and other scientific review boards find no evidence of scientific misconduct in the process that generated this consensus, do you then trust the science and the scientists?
For the average person, the acceptance of a scientific consensus that depends on experiments and observations that are too complicated for said person to reproduce or sometimes even understand in detail, depends on trust. And herein lies the problem we are facing today. This trust is being eroded by those that seek to disavow science. There are many people who maintain that scientists are lying to the general public and faking or misrepresenting their data because they have sold out to corporations, the government, or other organizations. Among those who hold this view are those who deny the severity of COVID19 or the effectiveness of mitigation measures, those who deny climate change, those who are opposed to vaccination, those who advocate creationism/intelligent design, and those who accept various conspiracy theories ranging from 911 being an inside job to Chemtrail or flat Earth proponents
Science is the best tool we have to discover the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us, and scientists are the specialists who train for many years to wield this tool effectively. Those who wish to subvert the truth to defend harmful products, promote political or religious views of questionable validity, or peddle conspiracy theories that are at odds with truth, know very well that in order to be successful, they must disavow science. This is because science is the only discipline that can prove them wrong. And the best way to do this is to break the trust that people would otherwise have in science. Once this is achieved, people become impervious to facts, and we transition to living a fiction.
The photographs belong to the author and can only be used with permission.
A group of skeptics who deny the severity of the coronavirus and the need for or effectiveness of the lockdown, recently piled up on me on Twitter bombarding me with dozens of tweets presenting their arguments with links and videos that “proved” their point. I decided that it was pertinent to write a blog post to deal with these issues.
Recent results of preliminary antibody titers against the coronavirus in New York State have revealed that an estimated of 14.9% of the residents of the state (24.7% in New York City) have antibodies against the virus, which indicates they have been infected. The skeptics pounced on this and similar data from other places to argue that the true death rate from COVID19 is lower than had been calculated based on confirmed cases (which we knew already). So for example, if this number (14.9%) can be extrapolated to the total US population of 330 million people then 14.9% is 46.2 million people, then with 64,000 deaths so far from COVID19, the true death rate due to the virus is 0.13%. They claim this shows COVID19 is no worse than the flu for which the overall death rate is (as can be calculated from data from the CDC) about 0.13-14%. Thus, they argue, the lockdown was not justified, we harmed the economy for nothing, this whole thing has been a hoax perpetrated by the fake news media, and the so-called experts like Dr. Fauci have egg on their faces.
Even if you are not a scientist, I hope you smell a rat in this argument. You have probably seen the social media posts of healthcare workers and residents from places like New York, Italy, and Spain stating that they had never seen something like this before. You may even know some of them. You have also seen the images. Morgues overflowing, bodies piling up, patients lying on the floors in corridors, shortages of personal protective equipment, and overworked health care workers coming down with the illness right and left. These people have dealt with the flu before, and this ain’t no flu. Indeed, in New York and in the U.S. as a whole, there was a spike in deaths compared to the past.
So what’s going on?
First of all, the influenza cases presented in the CDC website are the influenza illnesses that show symptoms. This is important because as much as 50% of the influenza infections may be asymptomatic which indicates that the true number of infections, and therefore the true influenza death rates, are overestimated (I have made the mistake of quoting these inflated deaths rates for influenza too). You cannot use one figure derived from antibody titers in a calculation and compare it to another figure derived from symptomatic illnesses.
Also, let’s not compare apples to oranges. The death rate in a region will depend on various local factors such as how early mitigation was begun, the population density of the region, how many people introduced the virus to the community, the quality and quantity of the health care, the overall health of the people, etc. Therefore it may be misleading to extrapolate the 14.9% total infection rate derived from antibody titers in samples from the State of New York to the whole country. According to the titer results, 2.9 million people are estimated to have been infected in New York State. If you take into account that New York State had 18,274 deaths, this is a death rate of 0.63 % for COVID19 in New York State. If you take the titer results of a 24.7% infection rate for New York City, which has a population of 8.4 million (2,074,800 infected), and has 12,287 confirmed deaths due to COVID19, that gives you a death rate of 0.59% (and using these death figures is an underestimation due to the time lag between infection and death, and the undercounting of COVID19 deaths). These figures are considerably higher than the flu’s overestimated rate of 0.13-0.14%, which is really closer to 0.04-0.05%. Although calculations from titers and numbers in other regions yield different death rates, all estimates are higher than the flu’s.
Be it as it may, the antibody titer estimates are preliminary and there are several problems with the test kits used and the methodology employed to obtain the samples. We don’t know yet what the true number of infected people in the United States is, but we know this. So far we have had 64.000 deaths. If these deaths occurred as a result of even 10% or 20% of the people being infected (an unlikely high number for the country as a whole), that means that there are 90-80% of people who have not yet been infected. Thus there is substantial potential for more infection and more deaths, at least until herd immunity sets in. Depending on the local situation, the only thing protecting many people from COVID19 infections right now is mitigation and/or the lockdown. The only consistent thing about the preliminary antibody data so far is that it has not revealed very high titer estimates, which indicates that the mitigation/lockdown measures have been successful and were needed. And this makes sense, mitigation and lockdowns are working here and in other countries today and have been shown to have worked in the past too.
There are also additional things to consider. COVID19 spreads faster than the flu and asymptomatic carriers can spread the disease for a longer time than the flu. Additionally, many people infected in the past with one strain of the flu have cross immunity to current strains of influenza and others have immunity due to the influenza vaccine. This limits the number of people that influenza can infect. On the other hand, COVID19 is a novel virus, and there is no immunity against it in our population. The number of people influenza can infect is limited, while the number of people that COVID19 can potentially infect is much higher (at least until herd immunity sets in). In a population without immunity, mitigation, or lockdown, this virus can spread like wildfire leading to steep increases in the number of infected, hospital admissions, and deaths depending on the quality of the health care system and the overall health of the population. Finally, the SARSCoV2 virus, which produces the COVID19 disease, is different from the flu virus, not only at the level of the virus, but also at the level of the disease.
So, it’s not true that COVID19 is no worse than the flu, and it’s not true that social distancing and the lockdown were unnecessary. People who promote this misinformation and spread conspiracy theories are harming our society. However, the majority of people that do this are not evil. In fact, what they are doing is predictable, and we have a good idea why they are doing it. People are being laid off and facing the loss of their livelihood, and these people are genuinely concerned about their future due to circumstances they can’t control. They are angry and afraid for their loved ones and for themselves, and they fear the uncertainty of their economic situation more than they fear the virus. It is understandable that these people will fall for the simple “us vs them” arguments peddled by conspiracy mongers who are essentially selling them snake oil. But I have a message for these people.
Spreading misinformation and lies, and protesting irresponsibly with no masks or social distancing is unnecessary. There is no need to smear the truth and be unsafe. The lockdown can’t go on forever, and everyone including those who had anything to do with putting it in place want to end it. We just need to do it in a responsible way that does not lead to a full-fledged second wave of the virus that overwhelms our health care system. Getting involved in the process and working with the system is better than attacking it. Call your representatives, learn about the local situation with respect to COVID19 and how it’s being dealt with, offer to get involved in the process, and contribute ideas to reopening while respecting and heeding the advice of health experts. This is the way to go.
Conspiracy sign by Nick Youngson from Picpedia.Org used here with modifications under a Creative Commons 3 - CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Coronavirus image by Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM, from the CDC's Public Health Image Library is in the public domain.