In 1799, the Spanish painter Francisco Goya published a compilation of 80 aquatinted etchings (the Caprichos series) in which he criticized the irrationality and ignorance rampant in the Spanish society of his time. The most famous of these etchings depicts a writer asleep at his desk surrounded by bats, owls, and other creatures swarming about him that in Spanish folklore were associated with the mysterious and evil. The title of the etching, written on the desk of the writer, is “the sleep of reason produces monsters”.
I am writing this post in the year 2021 in the United States, and although a gulf of 222 years and more than 3,000 miles separate me from the Spain of Goya, it is my opinion that Goya’s thinking is very relevant to our society today. In the past few years, we have all witnessed with growing frequency how reason has slumbered in the minds of millions foisting a number of monsters upon our society.
We have seen firsthand how disinformation and misinformation have spread like cancers capturing the imagination and wills of people and spawning things like disdain for journalists and scientists, COVID-19 severity denial, and vaccine hesitancy. We have experienced an unprecedented level of polarization in our society to the point that those seeking a middle ground are attacked and ridiculed. We have seen how millions have insulated themselves from ideas and opinions that go against their beliefs, preferring instead to listen to those that tell them what they want to hear. We have seen the rise of philosophies, narratives, and frameworks of knowledge that run contrary to reality, ranging from isolated unfounded conspiracy theories to warped world views like QAnon.
One example of a particularly dangerous monster is the skepticism regarding the 2020 election. Many Americans have been fed misinformation that this election was a fraud, and many Americans have believed it despite the fact that no evidence has been uncovered that indicates this is the case. And perhaps one of the most memorable portrayals of the mindset of the fraud believers was revealed in Jan 4, 2021 during the Fox Business Network program “Lou Dobbs Tonight” by its host Lou Dobbs who had been a frequent broadcaster of conspiracy theories. Dobbs was interviewing the director of a pro-Trump Political Action Committee (PAC), and he said the following:
We’re eight weeks from the election, and we still don’t have verifiable, tangible support for the crimes that everyone knows were committed, that is, defrauding other citizens who voted with fraudulent votes. We know that’s the case in Nevada, we know it’s the case in Pennsylvania and a number of other states, but we have had a devil of a time finding actual proof. Why?
Many eyes opened wide, and jaws dropped that day. Here it was, revealed in all its brutal matter of fact casualness for all the world to see: the sleep of reason.
Although Dobbs to his credit, and unlike many fraud believers, did admit that there is no evidence for the fraud claims, he then goes on to state that everyone KNOWS that such fraud happened, and wonders why it is so hard to find the evidence. The disconnection is glaring! We normally base our knowledge that something has happened on evidence, therefore lack of evidence cannot support such knowledge. Reasonable people would accept that knowledge that is unsupported by evidence is not trustworthy and, in fact, is not knowledge at all – reasonable people. Only two days later Americans came face to face with the monster spawned by this irrationality when a mob of Trump loyalists stormed the Capitol seeking to overturn the results of the election and to harm or kill our elected representatives.
While many dismiss the storming of the Capitol as the actions of a few, there are millions of people that still believe that there was fraud in the elections. And while most of these people don’t sanction the extreme behavior exhibited by the criminals who stormed the Capitol, these people can vote and request that their elected representatives act on their will.
At the time Goya made his famous etchings, the system of government in Spain and many other countries was a monarchy. In such a system the average citizen has little influence on the actions of their government and how it affects them. However, the United States is a democracy. In this system, the people elect their leaders and can pressure them into taking certain actions. This is the strength of democracy, but it can also be its weakness if a significant number of people who are not acquainted with reality elect and pressure their representatives into supporting fictions. The current modifications to election practices that are being enacted in several states are an example of this.
It is not my intention to issue an opinion on the merits of these modifications, but I just want to point out that these modifications are being implemented mostly in response to skepticism about the validity of the 2020 election. However, because based on the evidence this skepticism is unwarranted, it follows that the enactment of these modifications is unwarranted too. Rather than being proud of the fair and transparent 2020 elections with a historic turnout, a significant part of our population views them with suspicion or is convinced that fraud took place and that something must be done about it. And this, of course, can affect the dynamics of reality. If a substantial number of people elects and pressures their leaders to uphold a fiction, this fiction in terms of its consequences paradoxically will turn into a de facto reality that will affect others.
It is important to counter misinformation and fight for the wills of those who have accepted it or who are considering accepting it. It is important to awake reason and vanish the monsters that its slumber has begotten. Goya understood the danger of the sleep of reason more than 200 years ago, and we must also understand it today, and with more urgency because in a democracy the people have the power to alter the dynamics of reality. And we cannot allow reality to be compromised.
The etching by Goya is in the public domain.
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.
Rejuvenation, Adrenalized Blood, and Adrenochrome: A Scientific Examination of the QAnon Exsanguination ClaimsRead Now
I discussed some aspects of the QAnon conspiracy in my past post. In this post I will look at the alleged science behind a few of its claims.
As I mentioned before, the central belief of QAnon is that president Trump is battling a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles (which includes politicians, Hollywood celebrities, company CEOs, and billionaires) who torture children and drink their blood. But this torturing and blood drinking serves more than merely ritualistic purposes. It is claimed that the blood extracted from young people has the capacity to rejuvenate those that consume it. Furthermore, if the young people are terrorized before harvesting the blood, their adrenal glands will secrete adrenaline into the blood. It is alleged that this blood containing adrenaline (adrenalized blood) is exhilarating and addictive, and the person drinking it experiences a high like no other. It is also claimed that the most sought after form of adrenaline is a compound that is extracted from adrenalized blood called “adrenochrome” which when consumed causes extreme hallucinations and feelings of empowerment and euphoria. Adrenochrome purified from the blood of tortured children by the blood harvesters of this satanic cabal is purportedly also sold in the dark market at high prices.
So what does science have to say about these claims? Let’s first look at adrenaline.
Adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) is a stress hormone which prepares the body for the fight or flight response. It increases blood pressure and heart rate, expands the diameter of airway passages and the pupil, directs blood to the muscles, and increases blood glucose concentration. Adrenaline is the active ingredient in “Epipens” which are used as an emergency treatment of severe allergic (anaphylactic) reactions. The effect of adrenaline on the brain is to increase alertness (like an extreme coffee buzz), but adrenaline is not favored as a recreational drug as its effects are short-lived and a far cry from those of other drugs. Adrenaline is not even classified as a controlled substance by the US government, although its administration has side effects that can be dangerous to some people. The argument that adrenaline is addictive comes from the behavior of people whom we call “adrenaline junkies” who engage in thrill-seeking activities. But the inference that injected adrenaline would have the same effect is unwarranted. A person injecting adrenaline in a calm environment lacks the context of a person sky diving or white water rafting. Not only are there many other things going on in the body of a person practicing an extreme sport that are not going on in the body of a person at rest injecting themselves with adrenaline, but the person using the injection, unlike the thrill seeker, is not acting on the effect of adrenaline, which is part of the adrenaline high for the thrill seeker.
As to the exsanguination claims, one of the problems behind the QAnon belief that these people drink the adrenalized blood of children to get high is that scientists have already tried to deliver adrenaline by oral route and found that it is ineffective. This is because adrenaline is degraded by the enzymes of the gastrointestinal tract. If these people were really interested in deriving an effect from adrenaline, then they should be injecting themselves with the blood instead. But adrenaline can be easily synthetized in a laboratory, and chemical companies sell adrenaline at prices around $156 for 10 grams of the compound. Adrenaline synthetized in a lab is just as effective as adrenaline obtained from a natural source such as blood or the adrenal gland. The effectiveness of a compound depends on its purity and formula not on its source. Wealthy people interested in doing adrenaline should have no problem in buying it or having it made. The cost, logistics, and risk of kidnapping thousands of children, torturing and exsanguinating them, and then disposing of the bodies while keeping it all secret just to get high on adrenaline doesn’t make any sense.
What about adrenochrome?
Adrenochrome is a degradation product of adrenaline that is used commercially to promote coagulation and prevent blood loss. High levels of adrenochrome were once proposed to be the causative agent behind schizophrenia, but that theory was not validated. Adrenochrome does not produce the type of hallucinations that other drugs such as LDS or mescaline produce, and it is not used as a recreational drug or even classified as a controlled substance. The false notion that adrenochrome has potent psychedelic effects was created by the writer Hunter Thompson in his 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas which was made into a movie starring Johnny Depp in 1998. As with adrenaline, there is no need to torture, terrorize, and exsanguinate anyone to obtain adrenochrome. It is made by chemical labs and sold at prices of $357 for 250 milligrams.
Finally, does drinking the blood of young people have rejuvenating effects?
Again, drinking blood is useless, but results from animal experiments where young blood is injected point to an effect. This was first observed when the circulatory systems of older rats were linked to those of younger rats (a procedure called heterochromic parabiosis). Sharing a circulatory system with a younger rat did not make the older rat younger, but it did have a rejuvenating effect and increased lifespan. Also blood plasma from young mice can reverse age-related impairments in cognitive decline in old mice. There are ongoing investigations to evaluate if blood from young people could help patients with diseases such as Alzheimer’s although so far it hasn’t worked in small clinical trials. In any case, even if it works, the long-term goal is to isolate those factors in young blood responsible for the effect and use a cocktail of these factors instead of the actual blood. Nevertheless, while the benefits of young blood in humans remain unproven, there is concern that old rich people could try to inject themselves with the blood of young people to increase longevity. However, no kidnapping, torturing, or murder is necessary. You just have to pay the donor, and the process is no different from donating blood for other uses. This also allows the donor to keep coming back to donate more blood and earn more money.
The use of children for the above process would clearly be a different issue, and QAnon believers claim that hundreds of thousands of children dissapear every year (implying that they are used for the purposes of the conspiracy). However, 99% of missing children make it back home. Although some children are indeed kidnapped and abused by perverted people that act alone or as part of pedophile rings, the purpose of these heinous acts is sexual abuse or trafficking for profit. There is simply no evidence for the existence in the US of the massive exsanguination operation that would be required to service the thousands of people that QAnon claim are involved in the conspiracy.
The exsanguination claims of QAnon believers are a mix of some science with fantasy, ignorance, exaggeration, misinformation, and outright lies. It’s a myth, but one that has gained acceptance by millions of people.
Photograph from flickr by RyAwesome is used here under an Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license.
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.
Although I don’t normally deal with politics in my blog, I do deal with conspiracy theories and how scientists determine the truth. In that sense I have written posts about the 2020 election addressing both the election conspiracy and the methodology employed to investigate fraud in the election. In this post I want to address the issue regarding the nature, significance, and validity of affidavits presented by the Trump campaign as evidence of fraud.
One of the often repeated claims in the 2020 election was that Mr. Trump’s lawyers had hundreds of affidavits that indicated the existence of widespread voter fraud. An affidavit is a sworn written testimony by an individual that states that what the individual is telling is the truth. An affidavit is made under penalty of perjury, which means that if it is determined that the individual lied in their testimony they can be exposed to legal consequences. Many people take this to mean that Mr. Trump had strong evidence that voter fraud took place. After all, these witnesses were willing to sign these documents and face the consequences if their testimonies were shown to be false.
However, this is not how an affidavit works. An affidavit merely certifies that a person considers that their assessment of reality is true. An affidavit does not rule out the possibility that the particular perception of reality that the person describes is wrong; it merely states that they consider it to be true. And you cannot prosecute people for believing honestly that something false is true. You have to demonstrate that there was intent to deceive, and in the majority of cases this is very difficult to prove. So the “sworn and signed under penalty of perjury” argument for the validity of affidavits is an exaggeration.
But, what about the claims that were made in these documents?
It is not my intention to go over these claims in detail, as others have already done that. A proper affidavit should just stick to the facts and avoid opinions, hearsay, describing the views of others, and unfounded beliefs. Unfortunately, most of the claims behind the affidavits provided by Mr. Trump’s lawyers were assertions or beliefs that some things had happened, combined with conjectures about possible sinister motives behind these things. Other claims were merely things such as mean looks or rude remarks people had made at claimants, or suspicious things they had seen or heard. The majority of these claims were the product of hearsay, guesses, and speculations combined with ignorance by the claimants of the vote counting process or the voting dynamics. The claims in these affidavits did not hold up under scrutiny and they were dismissed by judges (several of them selected by Mr. Trump) as inadmissible or not credible.
However, I want to point out a much broader issue regarding affidavits. Science has long known that people who are looking for something will tend to find it, even if there is nothing to be found. This is encapsulated in the dictum: “expectation influences perception.” Scientists also know that when an individual is exposed to a certain stimulus, this can influence the individual’s response to a subsequent stimulus. This is a process called “priming”. If, for example, you release the news that a mountain lion is loose in the city (even if this is not true), you deliver a primary stimulus that creates an expectation. If you then provide a telephone number to call in case somebody sights the animal, that phone will be ringing all day. When people thus primed are exposed to the normal stimuli that they encounter day to day as they go about their business, a significant number of them will reinterpret these stimuli to indicate that they have seen the mountain lion.
Based on the foregoing, it is noteworthy that Mr. Trump repeatedly raised the possibility of voter fraud in the months leading up to the election and mentioned it regularly during the process of counting of the votes and afterwards. In view of his extensive social media presence at the time, this could have had a large priming effect on his supporters that raised expectations about voter fraud, and could have led them to interpret any glitches in the system, clerical errors, interactions with other poll workers and observers, and even routine election procedures that they were not familiar with, in the worst possible light. If you are primed to find fraud, especially if the person you voted for lost or is is losing, you will find it.
It is partly because of the above that in this case affidavits alone are not reliable evidence. There has to be additional supporting evidence of good quality that buttresses what the affidavits allege is true. In the case of the 2020 election court cases that were dismissed on their merits, the courts considered that no such evidence was provided to them.
Image by Nick Youngson from Picpedia is used here under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.
Election 2020 – In the Absence of Safeguards, How Do We Distinguish Fantasy From Reality? A Scientist’s PerspectiveRead Now
Elections are normally not considered a scientific topic. However, when elections take place many scientific questions can be formulated about their outcome. For example, “Which candidate obtained the majority of the votes in a given state or in the overall election?” is a scientific question, as it can be answered by counting the votes. Additionally, and more relevantly to the 2020 election, questions about the integrity of the election can also be formulated as scientific questions. However, and this is the key, BEFORE you ask questions and begin searching for evidence that fraud has taken place, you have to define what would constitute “fraud” (as opposed to mere machine glitches or human error), how said fraud would be detected and investigated, and how much fraud has to be present to label the election as “compromised”. Only then can meaningful questions be asked, evidence procured, and valid conclusions reached. Why is this?
Scientists have known from decades of research into the human mind that people with a strong interest in finding evidence for something will find it even if the evidence is not there. Human psychology is such that even people whose intent is honest will filter reality and find patterns where there are none to be found. This is a process akin to finding shapes in the clouds. Defining a priori what constitutes fraud, what should be considered valid evidence for fraud, and how much of it would have to be present to declare the election to have been compromised is an elemental level of protection against human bias. As far as I can tell, Mr. Trump and his team did not do this. Rather they seem to have cast as wide a net as possible which risks ending up with a trove of false positives.
Another level of protection against bias is to recognize that the people best suited to assess whether there is fraud in the election are not those who WANT to find it. This is a very elemental concept in science which has led to the introduction of many controls in the research process. One possible way to control this source of bias is to rely on evaluations of the evidence and the election conducted by people who don’t share your biases, or at least by people committed to place doing their job and following the law above everything else. If enough of these people look at any evidence of fraud presented to them, or assess the procedures followed in the elections and still reach the conclusion that the election was not compromised, then that is an indication that this was indeed the case.
Based on the foregoing, agencies such as the Department of Justice and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, along with several dozen courts and fact checkers, plus multiple election officials, state attorney generals, and governors (many of them pro-Trump Republicans) have not found convincing evidence of foreign or domestic interference in the election, or of fraud at a level that would overturn the results of the election.
These assessments mentioned above involving many individuals of different political persuasions as well as different courts and agencies should have given Mr. Trump confidence that the election results were fair. Instead, Mr. Trump and his team disqualified these assessments, claiming that the people involved at best were indifferent or incompetent, or at worst had nefarious ulterior motives, and may have even coordinated with each other forming part of a massive conspiracy also involving foreign actors.
Over the past few years, I have exchanged many arguments with what I call irrational skeptics. These are people that defend various conspiracy theories ranging from global warming, 911, and COVID-19 severity deniers to antivaccination advocates, creationists, and chemtrail and flat Earth proponents. All these people share the common trait that they are immune to evidence against their ideas, and that any attempt to discredit their ideas will be considered further proof of the existence of a conspiracy. In this sense, I do not see any difference between these irrational skeptics and Mr. Trump and those that support his election fraud claims.
Of course, I am not naïve. I know full well that there may be political and other types of motivations behind the claims of the Trump campaign that have nothing to do with a desire to find the truth. But the intention of this post is not to speculate about motivations. My goal is just to address the elections from a scientific perspective. And in that vein, I want to propose a thought experiment. I want you to consider what would have happened if Mr. Biden had contested the results of some of the states he lost employing exactly the same methods and arguments used by Mr. Trump and his team.
Suppose that Mr. Biden had selected a team of “colorful” lawyers to find voter fraud. Mr. Biden’s team could have pointed to the fact that Biden was ahead in early voting in some states such as North Carolina but that later this trend reversed, as an indication that something ”strange” happened. They could have gathered affidavits from people that thought they had witnessed something suspicious or irregular going on. They could have interpreted every glitch in the system or any clerical error in the worst possible light. They could have interpreted videos of election workers going about their jobs to suggest irregularities and edited portions of the videos in suggestive ways to make their case. They could have relied on testimonials of selected “experts” that exaggerated their credentials. They could have put forward statistical analyses of voting data based on questionable assumptions. They could have alleged that their observers were not allowed enough access to the vote counting process. They could have even named their lawsuit the “Medusa” lawsuit (Kraken/Medusa - get it?).
My question then is: If Mr. Biden and his lawyers had searched for evidence of voter fraud in some of the states he lost employing these sloppy or questionable procedures, would they have “found” evidence of voter fraud of a magnitude and nature similar to that found by Mr. Trump’s lawyers in other states? The point of this exercise is to consider whether, in the absence of safeguards against human bias, the normal impressions people derive from their assessment of reality, coupled to the glitches and mistakes present in any election, can be spun to construct a narrative of fraud.
I will leave it up to you to answer this question. But if your answer is “Yes”, then it should be obvious that unless rigorous and well-defined procedures are employed to analyze the integrity of a process such as elections, it is impossible to distinguish fantasy from reality. Scientists know this to be true for science which is why they use these procedures. Assuming there is an honest interest in finding the truth, why can’t we accept the same procedures are necessary for evaluating the integrity of elections? And if we accept this is the case, why can’t we accept that any investigation that was carried out without following these procedures is not trustworthy and its premises are questionable?
Election 2020 image by conolan from Pixabay is in the public domain.
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.
This blog is supposed to be a science blog, so I try to keep it non-political. Science is the best method we have to discover the truth about the behavior of matter and energy in the world around us. Furthermore, science makes it possible for human beings of very different religious, philosophical, and social persuasions to come to an agreement on issues pertaining to the natural world. In order to keep this capacity, science should not intrude into those areas that are not of its competence such as values, morals, ethics, religion, political views, etc. However, this is a two-way street. Politics, religion, and other disciplines of human thought should not intrude into the scientific realm and thwart the scientific quest for truth. So what are scientists to do when this happens?
Hurricane forecasting is a difficult scientific discipline. There are many variables involved in predicting the path of hurricanes, and many of these variables are not yet known or even understood well enough to make long-term predictions. These limitations are well known and are woven into our current hurricane forecasting system. Citizens are always informed of the likelihood that a hurricane will affect certain areas and to what extent to the best of the abilities of the scientists and the effectiveness of the technology at their disposal. However, it is imperative to understand that the prediction of the path of a hurricane can sometimes change from one day to another.
Political personalities or celebrities that are followed closely by millions of people can play an important potential role in the preparedness against an impending hurricane. These individuals can raise awareness quickly about the need for people to protect themselves and what they have to do. However, for this potential to be realized there needs to be close cooperation with weather scientists as well as reliance on the most up to date forecasts. This brings us to hurricane Dorian and President Trump’s tweet. The facts of this SNAFU are well known and you can read about them in several media outlets, so I will just gloss over the most salient aspects.
On September 1 close to 11 AM Mr. Trump, tweeted that the state of Alabama would be among the states most “likely hit (much) harder than anticipated” by hurricane Dorian. It seems that Mr. Trump was basing his tweet on dated information from 5 PM on August 30 that included the possibility that within 5 days large areas of Alabama would have a 5-30% chance of experiencing sustained winds of 34 knots (39 mph), and the southeastern corner of the state would have a 5-10% possibility of receiving winds of 50 knots (58 mph). According to the Beaufort Wind Scale, a wind speed of 34 knots is the wind speed that will break twigs and small branches from trees and make walking difficult, whereas a wind speed of 50 knots can break or uproot trees and cause considerable building damage. However, by the time of Trump’s tweet, the predicted path of the hurricane had moved eastward and now only the southeastern corner of Alabama stood a 5-10% chance of experiencing sustained winds of 34 knots within 5 days. The inclusion of Alabama in Trump’s tweet and the language he used alarmed many people who read it or heard about it, and they started frantically calling the office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Birmingham, Alabama, which issued a tweet contradicting the president’s assertion.
Over the course of the next few days, Mr. Trump defended his tweet with several pieces of evidence. One was an actual NOAA weather map that had been altered with a line drawn over Alabama. Another was one of the so called “spaghetti plots” that displayed a few potential hurricane tracks over Alabama. However, these devices are not weather forecasts. They are very preliminary and inaccurate plots that scientists use to make the cone plots of probability for forecasting the hurricane’s path. It seems that Mr. Trump did not know this.
The most serious thing that happened was that NOAA’s management sent an agency-wide communication to all its weather service personnel telling them to “only stick with official National Hurricane Center forecasts if questions arise from some national level social media posts which hit the news this afternoon” and not to “provide any opinion.” This was widely interpreted by both present and former employees of NOAA as pressure from the higher ups not to contradict the president and received widespread condemnation. At the time of writing this blog, the latest reporting on the matter indicates that the president himself directed his staff to pressure NOAA’s management to disavow the Birmingham office, which the president denies. (Update)
I want to state the following regarding this issue. Both the president and NOAA have the duty to serve the American people to the best of their abilities. This means that:
1) If the president is going to issue a communication regarding a potentially shifting weather phenomenon like a hurricane, he has the obligation of basing it on the most up to date information. For this, the president has to request to be briefed accurately and also educate himself on the subject. There is nothing shameful in this. A person can’t know everything. Additionally, it also means that the president should quickly admit mistakes and vow to ensure that they don’t happen again, as opposed to doctoring weather maps or producing dated or deficient maps to defend his claims. Admitting a mistake and taking efficient corrective actions is not a sign of weakness. We are all humans. We all make mistakes. People understand this and can relate to it.
2) NOAA has a duty to not only provide education to the president, but also to coordinate with him to avoid confusion, recrimination, and loss of confidence in the agency.
However, what the higher ups at NOAA did, which was essentially chastise their scientists for providing the most up-to-date information to the people of Alabama, is unacceptable. When the president of the United States speaks, or in this case, tweets, his words can have far-reaching consequences. The Birmingham office should be commended for their quick action in defusing a tense situation created due to a presidential communication based on deficient information.
A modern society cannot face challenges effectively when the message delivered by science is nullified by political considerations. This is especially true when the well-being of human beings is at stake, as is the case with the possible path and impact of hurricanes, and is made more relevant today by the fact that global warming is contributing to the strengthening of hurricanes. Unfortunately, not only is Mr. Trump skeptical of climate change reports put together by his own scientists, but his administration has also been actively opposing the efforts by scientists to educate society to address this issue. The pursuit of the scientific truth is something to be cherished and promoted, not something to be met with reprimands, disavowal, disbelief, or ignored altogether.
The Dorian Forecast Graphics by NOAA are in the public domain.