Reflections on society, politics and nature – vol. 53

This is one in a series of posts with brief notes on society, politics, and nature. I sometimes include short personal notes as well. Click “read more” to see all the entries.

THE TRUTH IN THE SEEDS OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES

There are several relatively obvious truths in the seed of many conspiracy theories.

The medical industry is in it for profit. (Obviously, since we live in a capitalist world and generating profit for the shareholders is the main aim of any business.) The medical industry is corrupt. (Of course, since they are powerful and in it for the profit.) Multinational corporations influence and partly control politicians and media. (Again, obviously, since they can and it helps them in generating profit.) When power is removed from people, and the bottom-up vs top-down balance is too far in the latter direction, it’s obviously not good. (And it happens because there is always a shift between the two.) The current system is rigged to benefit the already powerful. (It was set up that way, so it obviously works that way.)

All of this is obvious. It’s what any moderately informed young teenager knows.

I easily agree with all of this and more. I have known about it for almost my whole life, apart from the very first years.

And yet, I don’t agree with the conclusions of conspiracy theorists.

I know all of this and more, and I still agree with the pandemic measures. They are common-sense measures that history shows works. They are what epidemiologists have studied and found works for decades. They are not something anyone made up now.

I know this and more, and see it as systemic and not something that requires sinister scheming from any one group of people.

WILLING TO SACRIFICE OTHERS TO BE A REBELLIOUS TEENAGER

When I see people who have anti-mask and anti-vaccination views, I often see people willing to sacrifice others in order to make a point. They are willing to sacrifice others so they can be rebellious teenagers.

Yes, I agree with a lot of their reasons. (The ones grounded in reality, not the conspiracy theories). And I don’t agree at all with their conclusion.

I know the medical industry is corrupt. Media is owned by multinational corporations. Politicians are influenced by the interests of big money. Even a moderately well-informed teenager knows that.

At the same time, I know the history of pandemics. I know what history shows us is working and not working in terms of limiting the impact of pandemics. I know something about epidemiology. I know that the pandemic measures we see today are not at all invented now. They are well tested, make sense, and are aimed at limiting the impact of the pandemics. I know that in a time of crisis, the government – which is not “other” but us collectively – needs to take stronger control.

So even knowing all the things I know about the system we live within, I chose to wear a mask and take the vaccine and do the other things. I do it because it’s the responsible thing to do. I do it to protect the most vulnerable among us. I do it because not doing it is not going to help the situation in any way at all.

AUTHORITARIAN POWER-GRAB?

Some people like to say that the pandemic measures is an authoritarian power grab.

This is one of several arguments from the anti-vaccine / anti-mask / anti-pandemic measures crowd that I initially took as a joke, and then realized they were serious.

Here are my responses:

The pandemic measures we see today are not anything new. It’s what we know – from history and epidemiology – works in terms of limiting the impact of the pandemic. Any epidemiologist will tell you that. Anyone who knows the first thing about the history of pandemics and epidemiology will tell you that.

We always live with a huge number of rules and regulations. Most of these are “invisible” to us because they are familiar to us and we have always lived with them. The pandemic ones stand out since they are new. Apart from that, they are not different in nature from what we are already familiar with and live with. Civilization is built on rules and regulations, and the temporary pandemic measures are no different from the thousands we are already familiar with. We have rules for wearing seat belts, not driving drunk, and so on. And now also, for a while, rules relating to the pandemic.

It’s not only the unvaccinated who have their “freedom” and “human rights”. Other people have that too. The vaccinated have the right to not be put at risk from the unvaccinated. That’s why some countries have temporary and additional restrictions for the unvaccinated, and most of these are trivial.

Civilization is built on freedoms and responsibilities. In this case, we all have the responsibility to care for each other and do whatever we personally can to limit the risk to others, and especially the most vulnerable. A few common-sense collective restrictions are a small price to pay for this.

Even if you are against a general movement towards more restrictions (which I personally don’t see at all), not taking the vaccine and not wearing a mask is not the way to do it. It’s profoundly irresponsible and puts others at risk. These measures come from what we know from history. They come from epidemiology. They are not at all new. They are not what some authoritarian leaders came up with to increase their power.

The alternative to these pandemic rules is overflowing hospitals that have to turn away people who desperately need help. The same people who now complain about the pandemic measures would complain about that too, especially if it impacted them or someone close to them. (This seems to not be much of a concern to those against the pandemic measures.)

Maybe I am in a minority since I have been fascinated by history and science since before school age, and this includes the history of pandemics, medicine, and epidemiology. (I also studied this at the university.) To me, the measures we see in the world today seem like common sense. And, in most cases, what I see is a great deal of restraint. In most cases, stronger measures would be better in terms of reducing the impact of the pandemic, and the governments chose milder measures for political reasons. The politics, in almost all cases, moves the measures in a milder direction. Not a stronger one. That, in itself, should tell people that this is not about some authoritarian power grab.

FEELS GOOD TO BE INCLUDED, SEEN, FEEL YOU HAVE SPECIAL KNOWLEDGE

Why do people get into conspiracy theories? Including the ones related to the pandemic measures? (We can see most of the anti-mask / anti-vaccine arguments as forms of conspiracy theories.)

They may go down internet rabbit holes and get into internet echo chambers.

They may feel that these views speak to their values. They care about people and the Earth, and these views – on the surface – seem to fit into those values.

They may already have an outsider identity, so this fits with and reinforces that identity. It feels familiar.

It feels good to be included and seen, and they feel included and seen in these groups since they all share similar views.

It feels good to feel you have special knowledge. It feels good to assume you have uncovered something hidden and that you know something many others don’t. You get to feel special.

They may trust the views of certain people, even in areas these people have zero credentials in.

It feels like a kind of adventure. It can feel exciting. There is drama.

They may have a victim identity, and many conspiracy theories fuel that victim identity. They are victims of an evil group of people trying to control them.

Some aspects of how the world works may be new to them, and they go a bit overboard with it. They lack the experience and maturity to have a more nuanced and grounded view.

Others tend to respond to them as if they are immature idiots, which makes them dig in even deeper.

In some ways, I can’t help seeing it as a dynamic that sometimes happen between teenagers and parents. The teenager gets insistent and perhaps angry because he or she doesn’t feel seen or understood by the parent. And the parent sometimes react by mirroring this anger and reactivity back. The solution is to help the teenager feel seen and understood, even if we don’t agree with their logic or data, or if we agree with those but not the conclusions.

DO PEOPLE REALLY BELIEVE THE MORE EXTREME CONSPIRACY THEORIES?

Of course, we never really believe any story. What we are know they are not true the way our superficial mind takes them to be. Many parts of us know they are not true the way we take them to be. Many parts of us know we cannot know anything for certain. Somewhere in us, we know what’s happening. We latch onto a story and pretend – to ourselves and others – it’s true in order to find a sense of safety.

That aside, in a more conventional sense, do people really believe conspiracy theories, and especially the more extreme ones?

I am sure there are individual differences. And I suspect many don’t actually really, honestly, believe them.

They hold onto them more as a form of reactivity. It may be more an expression of pain and a kind of tantrum.

To test this, I have offered some who hold more extreme conspiracy theory views a bet. For instance, you say that the vaccine is intended to kill off people. Within how many years? And how many? Would you be willing to take a bet, where you set the conditions for whether it goes one way or the other? If this does happen, I give you $10,000 (and put it in my testament in case I die before). If it doesn’t, you give me $10,000.

So far, nobody has taken me up on it. And that tells me they may not really believe it.

Somewhere, they know they cannot know. Somewhere, they know it’s likely nonsense.

Somewhere, they know it’s more an expression of reactivity.

HUMAN RIGHTS?

I keep being baffled when people talk about human rights in connection with vaccine pass.

A vaccine pass may be required for entering restaurants, concerts and so on.

It clearly has nothing to do with human rights.

Also, what about the rights of those who are at most risk if they are infected? Don’t they have an equal right to be in safe environments knowing that the other people are vaccinated? Isn’t the health and safety of others more important than your rights to eat at a restaurant? To me, there is no comparison between the two.

This is what I wrote, in Norwegian, in response to the human rights – vaccine pass argument:

Hva med rettighetene til de som er mest i risikogruppen om de blir syke? Synes det ofte blir oversett. De har krav på å kunne være i mest mulig trygge omgivelser og vite at de de omgås tar ansvar og er vaksinerte. I et samfunn har vi friheter og ansvar, og vaksine har med å ta ansvar. Jeg er også nysgjerrig på hva dette har med menneskerettigheter å gjøre. Sist jeg sjekket hadde de ingenting med restaurantbesøk osv. å gjøre. Synes det er mye rar retorikk og svak logikk rundt dette.

THE UPSIDE OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES

What are some of the upsides of the current flourishing of conspiracy theories?

There is an original seed of truth in many of them. They invite us to see this seed of truth, and sift it out from all the rest.

They invite us to learn better discrimination. To identify logical fallacies. To evaluate how reliable different sources of information are. To judge how reliable certain types of data are.

They invite us to be more intellectually honest.

NORMAL VACCINE REACTIONS

Some seem concerned about the short-term effects of taking the vaccine, and specifically the third dose.

My view is:

I don’t care about short-term discomfort if it helps me do my part. If it can limit the severity of the illness if or when I get infected, and if it can reduce the risk of being infected which in turn reduces the risk of passing it on to people who are more vulnerable. (And the research so far shows all of that is valid.)

Also, if my body responds to the vaccine, it means it works. It’s a very good thing. The third dose typically produces a much stronger immune response than the two previous ones (possibly ten times as strong), and that’s exactly what we want. That’s what helps us with the new variants of the virus, including the current omicron.

A stronger short-term response, with a bit of discomfort etc., is exactly what we want.

JANUARY 27, 2022

CHOOSING BAD SOURCES OF INFORMATION

Why do some choose to believe non-experts when it comes to vaccines and the pandemic in general?

I suspect it’s because they are looking for whatever fits their existing worldview.

If they generally distrust experts and the “establishment”, they’ll prefer to get their information from other sources even if it’s likely nonsense.

It feels more comfortable.

And yes, I know that the mainstream view within science is always provisional and up for revision. The way we look at things now will be outdated at some point in the future. Still, it’s the best we have. The mainstream science view on vaccines and how to best deal with pandemics is founded on centuries of real-life experience, research, and solid theories supported by vast amounts of data from all around the world. And there will always be people who disagree, both within the field and especially outside. That doesn’t mean they are correct. In nearly all cases, they are not.

LIKE CHILDREN WHO DISCOVER THAT THE WORLD IS NOT AS INNOCENT AS THEY THOUGHT

With some conspiracy theorists, I have an image of children who discover that the world is not as innocent as they have thought and go crazy with their catastrophic thoughts about it.

Of course, the world is full of corruption. Of course, businesses are in it for the money and not for altruistic reasons. Of course, big-money influences policies. Of course, some people get seriously ill or die from vaccines.

None of that is in dispute.

And yet, that doesn’t mean there is some vast conspiracy.

A great deal of the problems in the world is systemic. They are natural consequences of the systems we have created.

THE PROBLEMS WITH SINGLE STUDIES

Some folks against vaccines, mask-wearing, and so on refer to research papers to support their view.

Often, these are not really studies. They are papers written by folks with no credentials in the field. They are only presented in a way that makes it look scientific at first glance.

And sometimes, these are single studies that found something else than innumerable other studies. They go against the mainstream. It’s always like that in science. There will always be outliers. And often, they are outliers because they use a too small sample size or otherwise bad methodology. For these outliers to have any value, their findings need to be replicated by several other studies using solid methods. A single swallow does not a summer make.

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