It was only after I had spent the better part of an hour arguing with the 9/11 truthers that it dawned on me what I should have said to them.
It was some years ago, in Vancouver, where we were taping an episode of At Issue, on this occasion in front of an audience. I had noticed a group in the second row, all with the same odd half-smile on their faces, and wondered what this portended.
Sure enough, they accosted us afterward. Why were we, “the gatekeepers,” preventing the public from knowing what really happened at the World Trade Center? My fellow panellists bravely turned and fled, but thinking it best that one of us, at least, attempt to engage them, I remained.
Big mistake. When people are determined to believe something, there is no reasoning with them. All I could think to say at the time was, “Well, I’ve formed a different judgment about these events than you have.”
But what I should have said was: “Are there any conspiracy theories you don’t believe?” I mean, there must be some that are so crazy that even other conspiracy theorists don’t buy them. (“Sure, the CIA killed Kennedy, and yeah, everyone knows the government is using high-flying passenger jets to spray the population with toxic chemicals. But come on: How would you actually go about faking a moon landing?”)
And if they said yes? “Well, whatever it is that makes you not believe those, that’s why I don’t believe yours.”
As I say, that was long ago, in the days before Twitter and QAnon. I’m not sure there’s anything you could say today that would give them pause. The infrastructure of mass delusion is now too well developed.
Take, for example, the anti-vaccine movement. A few years ago, anti-vaxxers could be dismissed as a few isolated loons. Now they are an organized campaign, with Facebook pages and talking points. They seem especially numerous among the populist right.
On social media, you can see them repeating the same phrases over and over, suggesting the COVID vaccines, and particularly the mRNA-based models developed by Pfizer and Moderna, present a new and special threat. “Hey, I’ve got nothing against vaccines,” they will say. “I’ve been vaccinated many times. But not with this kind of experimental drug/gene therapy.” (For the record, mRNA vaccines are neither experimental nor do they involve gene therapy.)
The notion that vaccines might be required as a condition of work or school, or to attend large social events – the “vaccine passport” – seems to inspire a particular terror. “This is exactly what the Nazis did to the Jews” gives you the flavour of it, although the spectre of Communism is invoked nearly as often.
The new breed of anti-vaxxers differ in some respects from traditional conspiracy theorists, as they do not for the most part allege a deliberate plot to poison the public. Rather, the charge is the more plausible-sounding one of groupthink: The near unanimity among the world medical community in favour of vaccination is held up not as evidence of its probable efficacy, but as evidence of the suppression of contrary opinion, much as climate change “skeptics” cite the near-consensus among climate scientists as proof that they must be onto something.
Like conventional conspiracy theory, however, all-the-experts-are-wrong theories depend upon a quite fantastic alignment of improbabilities. It is possible, one supposes, that everyone – all those doctors, all those researchers, all the public-health agencies and regulatory authorities around the world – have been hoodwinked into believing that vaccines prevent infection without undue risk to the public, in either case contrary to fact.
Anything’s possible. But is it probable? Is it even remotely likely? Groupthink is a real thing, but the larger the group, the more exposed they are to scrutiny, and the longer they are under it, the less the likelihood that it can be sustained.
The layman may not have the expertise to independently assess the intricacies of clinical trials, but he can weigh common-sense probabilities – provided he has the humility to understand how little he knows, and the judgment to treat each new data point as merely another piece of the puzzle, rather than conclusive proof of one side or the other.
The conspiracy theorist, on the other hand, seizes on seeming anomalies and context-free factoids, anything that seems to support his prior convictions. There was much online excitement, for example, at the news that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had updated the number of deaths reported since December under its Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) to more than 12,000. The figure has since been revised back down to 6,200 (the higher figure was apparently entered by accident), but never mind.
Unless you looked it up, you might not have known that these are not deaths because of the vaccine – just the number of people who received the vaccine who later died. As the CDC website makes clear, “Reports of adverse events to VAERS following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem.” But even if the true figure were 12,000, and even if all of these deaths were attributable to the vaccine: That’s 12,000 deaths out of more than 340 million doses administered in the United States. One in 28,000. You are roughly twice as likely to be struck by lightning.
The savvier anti-vaxxer, in the face of the overwhelming evidence that vaccines are both safe and effective, retreats into the claim that, while they may prevent infection in the vaccinee, they do nothing to prevent transmission to others. But this, too, is false. Study after study, in Israel, Britain and Finland, has found vaccines produce substantial reductions in transmission of the virus – though the more contagious Delta variant may prove hardier.
I offer these facts, not in any vain hope that they will sway the determined anti-vaxxer, but only to suggest how impervious they are to evidence. Something in us desires to be “in the know,” wised-up to the fools and frauds who profess to know more than we do; some personality types seem more prone to this impulse than others, or less equipped to overcome it.
The war on truth is everywhere these days, enabled by social media and exploited by political and foreign actors: part of the broader “epistemic crisis” that is crippling the democracies. But this is even more serious. When the infodemic meets the pandemic, people die.
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