The habit of believing things without evidence is uniquely dangerous. I think it is one of our most dangerous habits. Because such habits are so dangerous such beliefs are unethical. Perhaps nowhere is that more obvious than during a pandemic.
Incidents that generate a lot of anxiety are uniquely susceptible to the virus of Conspiracy theories. The international coronavirus pandemic that started in Wuhan China at the end of 2019 was a spectacular example of that. During the pandemic coronavirus conspiracy theories were generated as explosively as microbes in a Petri dish. The comedian John Oliver put it well: “Coronavirus has created the perfect storm for conspiracy theorists.”
To begin with, early on many conservative pundits, including TV personalities, actual doctors, Talk Show hosts, politicians, and others claimed that the seriousness of the pandemic was grossly exaggerated. The Internet film Plandemic was viewed 8 million times. According to John Oliver, this film was “a pseudo-documentary with a hodge-podge of conspiracy theories.” It seems likely that this show is what spurred R.M. of La Broquerie Reeve Lewis Weiss to make his remarkably unfounded statements about Covid-19.
In that film Judy Mikovits claimed to be a whistle-blower. She was a former scientist at the National Cancer Institute who was now an investigative journalist looking at Covid-19. In the film there was a swat team surrounding her house, so her claims must be real. So people thought. Actually the swat team surrounding the house had nothing at all to do with her claims. There was no connection at all to Judy Mikovits. This was a blatant attempt to make her look like a serious whistle-blower, but she was really just a serious blow-hard. She was one of the people who claimed that wearing a Covid-19 mask actuated your own Covid-19 virus. She also claimed that closing beaches as some American States were doing was “insane,” because that kept people away from the healing viruses on the beach. The only thing insane, according to Oliver was Judy Mikovits.
Examples of conspiracy theories spreading without an inkling of truth to them, include the claim that masks that people around the world were urged to wear were themselves dangerous and could amplify the virus rather than protect against it, because you could become sick from the virus already inside your own body. Another theory was that Bill Gates was responsible for starting the virus or at least was responsible for keeping it going because he wanted to gain control of the vaccines when they were developed so that he could capture the market and also implant a chip inside them so that he would gain control of the world. Another example, is the claim that the new 5G Internet network is to blame for the CV-19 pandemic. The only thing astonishing about these theories is the number of people that subscribe to them without evidence. Another theory, promulgated by conservative pundits of various stripes, was that the virus was being over-touted by Democrats in order to defeat Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election
According to the Kennedy School in Harvard “over half of Americans endorse at least one conspiracy theory.” The School also pointed out that given the transmissibility of the disease conspiracy theories are dangerous even if only a fraction of Americans succumb to them and as result ignore best practices such as social distancing. Some on-line conspiracy theories have already had some worrying real world consequences. Minimizing the harmfulness of Covid-19, for example, led to people not taking the virus seriously and hence failing to protect themselves, leading to the people getting harmed or passing on the virus to others.
Conspiracy theories are dangerous but those involving an international pandemic are particularly dangerous. As Julian Kestler-D’Amours reported,
“Researchers say conspiracy theories about COVID-19 are spreading at an alarming rate across the country — and they warn misinformation shared online may lead to devastating consequences and push Canadians to shun important safety measures.”
“I think that people should be enormously concerned,” said Aengus Bridgman, a PhD candidate in political science at McGill University and coauthor of a study published last month on COVID-19 misinformation and its impact on public health.
The study found the more a person relies on social media to learn about COVID-19, the more likely they are to be exposed to misinformation and to believe it, and to disregard physical distancing and other public health guidelines.
About 16 per cent of Canadians use social media as their primary source of information on the virus, Bridgman said in a recent interview.
There were other studies as well. Another study published in May at Carleton University indicated 46 per cent of Canadians believed at least one of four unfounded COVID-19 theories: the virus was engineered in a Chinese lab; the virus is being spread to cover up the effects of 5G wireless technology; drugs such as hydroxychloroquine can cure COVID-19 patients; or rinsing your nose with a saline solution can protect you from infection. In other words nearly half of Canadians believe such nonsense.
The fact that the scientific process and issues about Covid-19 are poorly understood, the financial pressures many people face, and given the frustration that has been growing amid restrictions people’s freedoms has amplified the problem with the disinformation circulating. All conspiracies are dangerous, those conspiracy theories circulating during a pandemic are peculiarly destructive.
During such times people really need the best available evidence to make reasonable judgments that affect the safety of themselves or their loved ones. It is not a good time for beliefs based on insufficient evidence.