Skepticism is Good but Unchecked Ignorance Can be Deadly

Dennis Maley
As the first real global crisis of the social media/YouTube era, the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned endless conspiracy theories, while deepening distrust in public institutions. The political divide in the United States, which has grown exponentially in recent years, has only compounded this dynamic with camps on both sides of the aisle reflexively echoing positions favored by their team. But why is it that despite knowledge and information being more accessible than any time in human history, we are so susceptible to demonstrably false narratives whenever they support what we'd like to believe?

This week, I was forwarded several videos featuring lay men and women with absolutely zero background in infectious disease, virology, or even science, for that matter—all of which had gone viral online with tens of millions of views through YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. They each shared a common theme: COVID-19 is a hoax, in which the government and powerful elites were using a harmless bug akin to the common cold to erode civil liberties and usher in some sort of new world order. The stay at home orders were only to test compliance while conditioning us for the more extreme measures that will follow.

The videos featured fabricated data and nonsensical extrapolations to prove that there was no reason to shut down sectors of the economy and put tens of millions of Americans out of work via social distancing policies—other than nefarious ones. Some asserted that facts shouldn't matter because they can't be trusted. We should go only with what we see with our own eyes and our gut tells us (a mantra that helped spawn a movement of modern, educated humans that actually believe the Earth is flat and outer space is fake). A deeper dive down that rabbit hole revealed a host of real reasons that have gained broad online popularity among conspiracy theorists and are spilling over to be spread by a dangerous number of otherwise reasonable people.

One claims that Bill Gates, through his foundation, is seeking to use vaccines that will be pushed ostensibly to offer unwarranted protection from the virus some even have him creating, all so that he can do everything from profiteer on vaccines to use them to implant chips that will allow Microsoft or the deep deep state they may be in league with to track every American’s movement. 

Gates is no stranger to being involved in conspiracy theories and when his foundation became interested in vaccines and improving conditions in developing countries, he was quickly associated with the Georgia Guidestones conspiracy theory which holds that a secret group of elites are bent on depopulating the world to less than half a million people so that the planet can continue to absorb the environmental cost of their opulent lifestyles generations into the future. This secret society is supposedly so good at keeping secrets, that they built the mysterious monument and etched all of their instructions for a new world order on it for the whole world to see. Obviously, Gates being behind a global pandemic and funding research into vaccines and treatments plays right into this one.

When Maeve Kennedy McKean and her son drowned in a boating accident earlier this month, the tragedy only added to the hysteria. McKean is the niece of Robert Kennedy Jr., who has famously served as an advocate for the anti-vaxxer movement which grew out of the scientifically-discredited conspiracy theory that vaccines cause autism. Conspiracy theorists alleged online that Maeve was also an anti-vaxxer who was murdered to keep her from exposing the truth. 

Apparently, no one propagating the theory took the time to do much research or they would have quickly learned that McKean was one of four members of the Kennedy clan to publicly rebuke JFK’s nephew on his vaccine stance, calling his position on the subject "tragically wrong," and reminding the world that it was JFK himself who signed the Vaccination Assistance Act in 1962. Then again maybe they just coerced her into the rebuke and she was about to publicly side with her uncle when they made sure she didn't?

Another claims that the virus was caused by 5G cellular networks, which might sound totally absurd if you’re not already aware that 5G conspiracies are nearly as prolific as those surrounding vaccines and seem to have replaced smart meters for the latest smash hit in the timeless death by technology genre.

Conspiracy theories are hardly new and there are few people that would argue that the United States government has not given its citizens reason to be skeptical or even cynical when it comes to trusting the official line on controversial subjects. From the CIA’s long and sordid history of illegally dosing subjects with LSD without their consent or knowledge to obvious holes in the official narratives for events like the Kennedy assassination, the 9/11 attacks, and everything Jeffery Epstein, there is much to be said about our government not being honest with us.

However, individual historic examples of transgressions themselves do not validate theories that are otherwise without evidence, and in a time when the internet can rapidly spread false information to an infinite number of individuals, the results can be downright deadly. 

For example, during the highly-divisive 2016 presidential election, a conspiracy theory dubbed Pizzagate posited that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was part of an elite cabal of pedophiles running a child prostitution ring from the basement of a DC-area pizza shop. The restaurant's owners and staff were harassed, threatened on social media websites, and given negative Yelp reviews before an armed gunman ultimately showed up at the establishment to "check it out for himself," firing three rounds from an automatic rifle while he was there. Fortunately, no one was killed and the gunman was arrested. As for the basement he came to check out, it turns out the building doesn’t even have one.

It’s hard to say why conspiracy theories are so popular, but psychologists believe it is a form of coping mechanism that helps people suffering from anxiety over the random chaos of the world we live in and the litany of dangers constantly threatening us. When it already seems overwhelming to think of how many things are at play, people can have difficulty accepting that mass-scale events can be random, rendering us powerless against them. By assigning a complex theory that a small group of people is pulling the strings, it allows for the possibility that those forces can be exposed and stopped, which acts as a stand-in for control.

The human psyche is aided in this endeavor by a phenomenon called confirmation bias. This simply means that we are wired to more easily accept information that comports with our existing world view, especially from a source who shares it, while we are more likely to reject information that challenges it as being erroneous and often the result of someone else’s bias. 

Because this seems like a disadvantage in terms of species survival, evolutionary biologists have long wondered why the trait would have been rewarded through evolution with the most popular theory being that it was more important to the survival of early humans to trust members of their group or tribe in order to work together against a litany of threats to their survival than it was for those people they trusted to be correct in whatever they were asserting. 

However it came to be, confirmation bias is very real and we have infinite opportunities to observe it in day-to-day life with politics being one of the better examples. Studies show that people are more likely to share an article on social media that they haven’t even read, from a publication whose legitimacy they haven't questioned or investigated, if its headline asserts that the opposition party or its players are somehow in the wrong. What’s more, even if they are presented with information that directly refutes the assertion, they are unlikely to change their position. In fact, they are likely to become more deeply entrenched.

This is because of something psychologists call cognitive dissonance. The term and theory were first postulated by Dr. Leon Festinger in 1957. Festinger was studying cults and observed that when they made wild predictions like a coming apocalypse that did not come to pass, those who held only a fringe belief in the cult’s premise were more easily able to recognize their error, shake off the embarrassment, and chalk their involvement in something so silly up to experience. Meanwhile, those who were more deeply committed could not and would instead double down in positing another equally-ridiculous theory to explain the outcome, such as God saved the world from the cataclysm because of the cult’s faithful service.

The theory is built upon the extreme discomfort observed when such subjects become cognizant of the contradiction, or the inconsistency between the subject’s deeply held beliefs and the differing reality they are confronted with and take actions to ease that dissonance. This can be observed in different ways. For example, someone reimagining past actions to comport with a personal moral code that’s since evolved (Shame on you, I would never have said that!). 

Another example can be found in deeply ingrained habits or physical addiction. For example, everyone knows by now that smoking causes cancer. Everyone also knows that it’s at least as dangerous in the form of second-hand smoke and that by smoking cigarettes in the presence of others they are infringing on that person’s right to avoid the known health risks. Still, many smokers will loudly espouse nonsensical excuses for endangering others by suggesting it’s actually their rights that are being violated or asserting that because there are lots of other things that can give their friends, coworkers, family members and other people they may be endangering cancer, there’s no use in abstaining. You gotta die of something.

Cognitive dissonance is powerful when it comes to political beliefs and has only become more so as our nation has become so deeply divided. If someone is deeply invested in their support of a political candidate, particularly an extremely divisive one, they are all the more unlikely to accept information that suggests they’ve erred in choosing to support them—support that increasingly comes at a steeper and steeper social cost. Never before has political identification been so damning on a social level with the possible exception of identifying as a communist during the red scare. Today, displaying a MAGA hat or a Clinton or Bernie bumper sticker sends an immediate message to many Americans as to what kind of person you are. Upon seeing one, they are more likely to form immovable opinions about you before learning anything.

What's worse, legacy media like television and terrestrial radio, along with new media such as YouTube, podcasts and political websites all designed to be marketed only to one side’s bias makes it possible today for people to consume information literally non-stop without ever having our biases challenged. Wrapping ourselves in a cocoon of self-reinforcing opinions only serves to deepen these beliefs while falsely convincing us that most people feel the same way—or at least the majority of reasonable ones who’ve been awoken to the lies.

Successful and pervasive conspiracy theories tend to have a few things in common. For starters, they tend to deal with immensely-complicated issues that most people have no underlying understanding of. The 5G hysteria is a good case in point. In order to really dig through this, someone would need to thoroughly understand electromagnetic radiation, radio propagation (the way waves travel when they are transmitted), ionizing (x-rays, etc, that can penetrate) and non-ionizing radiation (that doesn't have enough energy to remove electrons from atoms and molecules), wavelength and frequency (number of cycles of a wave that pass a reference point per second described in units called hertz: Hz), modulation (adding information to an electromagnetic wave), the difference between analog modulation and digital modulation, resonance (what frequencies can penetrate what objects) and much, much more.

5G does use a frequency that is considered in the high range, however, it's still below the level of the infrared spectrum. For perspective, far above the light spectrum is the UV spectrum and you have to go higher still to ultraviolet before it becomes ionizing, which is nonetheless a level we get in acceptable levels in everything from sunlight to dozens of electronic devices we interact with regularly. In fact, your cell phone itself is far more capable of emitting higher levels than you'd ever experience from a 5G tower unless maybe you were leaning against it for a really long time, same as existing ones. However, lacking an understanding of that science, it’s just as easy for someone to posit an equally-reasonable sounding theory about how 5G will kill us all, and if someone has a deep bias toward such anxieties, they’re likely to buy into it.

Like most things requiring time and energy, most conspiracy theories usually tie into someone’s profiteering—even the political doomsday variety. Whether it’s political ends in terms of swaying people’s vote toward a candidate that will benefit other, more rational interests or selling people survival food stockpiles, there’s money to be made. Likewise, the billion-dollar market for supplements, vitamins and other natural/organic/homeopathic products is often a target-rich environment for such bunko artists.

A few years ago, I became aware of the alkalized water craze. People were paying good money for water that was supposedly engineered to bring their bodies back into proper pH balance, which was supposedly being disrupted by the highly-acidic modern diet of heavily-processed foods, which itself had the supposed negative effect of creating an environment where cancerous cells could more easily thrive. Even better, the "fitness trainer" explaining it in an online video promised that because cancer cells cannot survive in an alkaline environment, it would insulate you from being diagnosed with a deadly disease feared by all. Of course, this was all being kept secret so that you could be sold the much more expensive (and dangerous) pharmaceutical treatments. 

If you lack a basic understanding of how your body regulates its pH, the explanation might sound reasonable, especially if it also sounds like the expert has a much deeper understanding than you possess. And, because no one wants to get cancer, there’s an inherent bias that makes us more open to a reasonable-sounding explanation as to how something can prevent it. 

The misapplication of science, however, is pretty simple. Healthy bodies have a pH of about 7.4, which is slightly alkaline (in liquids, 7 is neutral, anything lower is acidic, while anything higher is alkaline). Your body is really good at maintaining that pH of 7.4. It has to be. Your total body pH is not going to change much beyond the range of 7.4 to 7.6, because functioning lungs and kidneys won't allow it to, as it's one of their primary functions.

The higher acidity in urine or breath strip tests is not a measure of total body pH. Instead, it simply reflects what your body is dispelling in order to keep that balance. Drinking a bunch of alkalized water just gives your body a different job to do in regulating pH, which is reflected in the higher alkaline levels of those excretions. Furthermore, while the immediate environment around cancer cells can become acidic, this is due to differences in the way that tumors create energy and use oxygen compared with healthy tissue. In other words, the acidity is the byproduct of the cancerous tumor, not the reason for it. And while cancer cells cannot survive in an overly-alkaline body, it should be noted that neither can healthy ones. The only thing alkaline water does is make excretions from your breath and urine more alkaline than they would otherwise be. Period.

Another of my favorites in this arena regards seasonal allergies. Many in the holistic health arena claim that eating raw honey procured from your local area will help you build resistance. Trees, grasses, and weeds release pollen into the air to fertilize other plants. People who suffer from allergic rhino-conjunctivitis (myself among them) have an immune system that mistakenly interprets pollen as a threat and releases antibodies that attack the allergens, triggering the release of chemicals called histamines into the blood. Histamines cause the runny nose, itchy eyes, and other symptoms we suffer from. 

The idea is that because bees are pollinators, eating their honey will cause you to build up a resistance to local pollens. However, since it's trees (such as oak, elm, maple, alder, birch, juniper, and olive) grasses (such as Bermuda, timothy, sweet vernal, orchard, and Johnsongrass) and weeds (such as ragweed, Russian thistle, and English plantain)—none of which are pollinated by bees— that cause seasonal allergies, there's no basis for the theory, let alone the fact that there wouldn't be nearly enough in the honey to have any such effect anyway. Virtually all scientific studies into the claim support the conclusion that honey has no impact on the symptoms of seasonal allergies, yet there's still big money being made on the debunked premise. 

But for people that come into such debates with a bias toward believing that pharmaceutical companies are always trying to profiteer and keep you sick while keeping hidden ancient knowledge as to how to heal ourselves naturally, it often creates a very discomforting cognitive dissonance when they are confronted with numerous fact sets that quickly dispel a number of deeply-held beliefs that, like political identifiers, can come to represent an enormous part of their self-identity and the prospect of jettisoning so much of it at once is just too daunting. So, like political identification, they simply reject the data sets.

In both cases, the subject will often create a self-serving dynamic in which all supporting information is accepted and all competing information is written off without consideration because of its source having been compromised. Confront me with evidence that my beliefs are wrong and you must be with them. The mainstream media can’t be trusted, someone with opposing ideologies can’t be trusted. The publication reporting your facts are fake news, while my sources are legit. Really? The New York Times said that? It’s obviously not true because they said it. They want my favored politician to fail. That other publication is supported by Big Pharma and Big Agra, both of which don't want you to know about natural cures, etc. 

This sort of circular feedback loop can serve to insulate their minds from the discomfit of cognitive dissonance, each answer relying on another assertion that answers the facts they are confronting with a new conspiracy or bias. We call this dynamic infinite regress, or in its earliest known use in an old Hindi parable, Turtles All the Way Down, in which the explanation of what holds up the Earth is a turtle, to which it spawns the follow-up question, what holds up that turtle? Another larger turtle, and so on, all the way down in infinity. The prime mover (or god) paradox is similar. If the universe is so complex, then someone would have had to create it, only if someone were capable of creating something so complex, wouldn’t someone have had to create them as well? True knowledge must be knowable in a vacuum and cannot rely on an infinite number of unprovable theories attempting to support each other. 

Again, this is not to say we should be sheep, that we should not question everything, investigate and explore. In our current crisis, there is still much that is unknown about the SARS-COV-2 coronavirus, including how soon world leaders were aware of the risks, or whether it jumped from bats to humans through another species in a wet market or was accidentally released from a nearby lab where red flags had been raised years earlier regarding the risk of studying engineered coronaviruses thought to be able to cross into human populations. Was it in any way engineered, or is it, like most infectious disease experts believe, more likely to have been cooked up by Mother Nature? Did the Chinese government know more at the onset than they told the world in order to save face? Did ours? All of these things are possible, as is the possibility that there were even more nefarious elements to what occurred, along with the possibility that there were none. The danger arises when titillating possibilities morph into accepted narratives without having been proven—when believing someone could or would become enough. 

There’s an undeniable benefit to a healthy degree of cynicism for these and many other subjects. Our federal regulators have too often failed us in proclaiming the products and practices of deep-pocketed special interests to be safe when they were known not to be. Pharmaceutical companies have absolutely put drugs on the market while hiding known side effects, even those that could be deadly. And our governments have lied to us on far too many occasions to mindlessly follow elected officials, assuming they’ll always do the right thing. That said, it doesn’t excuse ignoring science and facts whenever they don’t align with what your instincts want to believe. We are in the midst of a crisis in which ignorance is not only dangerous but can be deadly. Hence, it’s no time for ignorance to be celebrated, or for science and objective reality to be discarded. Demonstrable facts, now more than ever, matter.

Dennis Maley is an editor and columnist for The Bradenton Times. With over two decades of experience as a journalist, he has covered Manatee County government since 2010. He is a graduate of Shippensburg University, where he earned a degree in Government. He later served as a Captain in the U.S. Army. Click here for his bio. Dennis's latest novel, Sacred Hearts, is available here.

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Reader Comments
Chad D
APR 22, 2020  •  It's really sad that you have this platform to help inform people...and all you do is talk in circles and deceive the masses. I must've hit a nerve...wake up before it's too late. If you can't connect the dots on this hell being shoved down our throat..then YOU! my friend are the one most ignorant.
Chad D
APR 21, 2020  •  https://youtu.be/q6l_jUCnbts
Alan Randall
APR 19, 2020  •  The writings and knowledge shared by Dennis Maley amazing!


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