Why coronavirus and vaccine conspiracies are implausible
The tricky thing about conspiracy theories is that sometimes they’re true. This is a point that conspiracy theorists often bring up and we cannot simply dismiss them because it’s true, and we will lose credit if we simply deny it. But does that mean we should always presume any conspiracy theory is plausible until proven otherwise? Are they really all on equal footing? Of course not. Here’s why.
How to tell plausible from implausible theories
When I was a kid, I vaguely remember hearing from my left-leaning school teachers that the Brazilian military coup of 1964 had been backed by the U.S. Of course, now in retrospect I realize that this was not a wild claim considering U.S. foreign policy in Latin America during the Cold War, but some on the other side of the political spectrum treated this as a conspiracy theory resulting from leftist bias and anti-Americanism on the part of the school staff. In 2004, however, some documents were declassified and it was confirmed that the Americans were indeed heavily involved. This resulted in the 2012 documentary The Day That Lasted 21 Years.
More recently, many environmental activists in Latin America who accused corrupt politicians and businessmen from colluding to cover up illegal activities such as logging in protected areas have been found dead. Similar cases can be found even in Europe, in countries such as Romania. Human rights activists are also the target of violent retribution by corrupt elites who want to preserve their power at all costs, as is illustrated by the iconic case of Marielle Franco in Brazil, but also many others throughout Asia and Latin America.
Last year, during an investigation of the mega-corruption scheme known as Operation Car Wash, former Odebrecht vice-president Henrique Valladares, who acted as an informant and, among other things, accused the former senator Aécio Neves of receiving a 12.5 million dollar donation to his 2014 presidential campaign, was found dead in his apartment in Rio. Neves belongs to a powerful family, and many in Brazil speculate that he ordered Valladares’ execution. Could it be true? Some believe it is. Some believe it’s an extreme accusation. If true, this would be a pretty scary high level conspiracy. To have a popular presidential candidate, nominated by one of the most mainstream center-right political parties in Brazil, order the execution of an informant would be indeed an instance of a real conspiracy.
So if some conspiracies can be real, how can we tell when they’re fake? Recently there has been some news circulating about Judy Mikovits, a former medical researcher who supposedly uncovered unsettling secrets about supposed dangers of vaccines and was being silenced by a cabal of powerful individuals connected to the government and the pharmaceutical industry. How can we know this is a crackpot conspiracy theory and not a reasonable speculation? In this article I tried to compile a simple and straightforward list of crucial ways in which plausible conspiracy theories differ from implausible ones.
- Who’s the opposition? Regular members of civil society but also academics and politicians who are playing within the system to try to challenge the alleged conspirators (e.g. elected politicians campaigning for human rights, non-profit professionals fighting against illegal logging, etc).
- Who are the conspirators? Undefined groups of people with secretive alliances (e.g. anonymous corrupt politicians in liaison with corrupt business people).
- What is the scale? Small to medium. Real conspiracies usually involve relatively small elites, often within a single country or with limited international collaboration. There are occasional exceptions, but even in those cases, the large scale of the conspiracy has more to do with large numbers of individual actors exploiting the same fragile institutions and loopholes in international law than with actual Machiavellian collaboration between them (e.g. the Panama Papers).
- Are the main institutions involved democratic and transparent? No. It is usually unclear what institutions are involved. When private institutions are involved, they tend to not be public facing, having no commitment to transparency or public accountability (e.g. Odebrecht as opposed to, say, Facebook). When public institutions are involved, they are involved partly (e.g. some politicians are involved but not everybody is aware), the democracy index of that country is usually low, and again there is no transparency or public accountability.
- Is there violence involved? Many times, yes. The opposition is constantly under the threat of violence and many disappear in mysterious ways or are even assassinated in busy streets in broad daylight.
- Is there an open dialogue between conspirators and opposition? No. Again, it is usually unclear who the conspirators are and what institutions are involved. Politicians and business people who are suspected avoid interviews and don’t engage with the opposition. People who try to engage with them often end up dead.
- Are there hiccups in the execution of the conspiracy? Yes: human-rights abuses are uncovered and widely publicized, conspirators are sometimes caught and persecuted under charges of corruption, assassination, etc. Information leaks, people who are bribed for years to remain silent eventually talk, and sometimes the whole plan blows up entirely in a huge scandal (e.g. Watergate, Operation Car Wash, Panama Papers, etc).
- Are rich and powerful people affected? No. The victims of the conspiracy are intangible entities (e.g. the environment), direct opponents (e.g. environmental or human rights activists, investigative journalists, etc), or vulnerable, disenfranchised groups (e.g. poor people who pay taxes that enrich corrupt elites, the subjects of MKUltra, etc).
- Are the conspiracies known before a scandal erupts? Not in detail. Some people in relevant institutions may have their hunches, and there is suspicious information floating around and being investigated by journalists, but there are usually no cult-like communities embracing one or another particular theory about what’s going on. Detailed theories about the operation only appear after the scandal erupts and journalists publish their evidence-based findings.
- Who’s the opposition? Lay people, usually with lower levels of education, and the occasional fraudulent or otherwise felonious academic (e.g. Judy Mikovits, Andrew Wakefield, etc). There are usually very few politicians, academics, non-profit professionals, or experts of any kind trying to change the system from within. Action is limited to protests, lobbying, and spreading information online.
- Who are the conspirators? Quite well-defined groups with clear goals and usually catchy names (e.g. Big Pharma, Deep State, etc). They’re usually in liaison with very tangible and familiar mainstream organizations with which we interact and consume products from, at least indirectly, on a daily basis (e.g. the government, drug stores, etc).
- What is the scale? Huge. Sometimes the whole world is involved. Your country’s government is involved, from local to national level, corporations are involved, the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, mainstream media, the whole of academia, Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, fact-checkers, nobody can be trusted.
- Are the main institutions involved democratic and transparent? Well, when everyone is involved, all degrees of transparency and democracy are represented. The European Union, the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the academica, the scientific establishment are all rather transparent and democratic institutions. Even the United States, with its terrible track record of nonconsensual human experiments, conspiracies to overthrow foreign governments, etc., is democratic and transparent enough to declassify their own documents, respond to public pressure, investigate their own institutions and compensate at least some of their victims. Again, even though these institutions are democratic enough to be changed from within by people who are dedicated enough, somehow it never happens.
- Is there violence involved? Paradoxically, no. Either the conspirators are surprisingly ethical in this regard, or they are super-humanly effective at bribing people to stay silent and covering up murders.
- Is there an open dialogue between conspirators and opposition? Paradoxically, yes. The government is executing a master plan in collusion with Big Pharma but still it holds public hearings to discuss vaccine exemption laws. People who resist official recommendations are the target of education campaigns and incentives (e.g. their children are not allowed in schools), not violence. There is an open debate in civil society and decisions regarding censorship are taken collectively, trying to balance public pressure and recommendations from experts regarding public health.
- Are there hiccups in the execution of the conspiracy? Not at all. All assassinations are covered up perfectly, all people bribed to remain silent stay silent forever, no documents are ever leaked, nobody is ever caught, there is never a scandal.
- Are rich and powerful people affected? Paradoxically, yes. The children of Big Pharma CEOs use Western medicine and are vaccinated just like anybody else in spite of the alleged dangers of these procedures. Just like everybody else, high ranking politicians and CEOs are vulnerable to COVID-19, breathe the air full of toxins spread by chemtrails, are exposed to 5G waves, etc.
- Are the conspiracies known before a scandal erupts? Yes. There are whole communities of enlightened citizens who uncovered the whole truth by searching online. The fact that mainstream media doesn’t report those “findings” serves only to confirm their collusion with the conspirators. Everything serves only to confirm the conspiracy. The very absence of evidence is itself proof that the conspiracy is real. No information could persuade a conspiracist that their theory is false. The theory is completely unfalsifiable.
Coronavirus and vaccine conspiracies
So how does this all apply to vaccine and coronavirus conspiracies? As I hope is clear by now, they are hopelessly unrealistic. The reasons why people believe these theories have more to do with human psychology and our vulnerability to cognitive biases than with corrupt politicians and the pharmaceutic industry, as is explained by Hank Green in this episode of SciShow:
Always trust the scientific consensus
Many people who are unsure about whether they should believe a conspiracy theory or not have the illusion that, in order to make up their minds, the responsible thing to do is do their own research and reach their own conclusions. This couldn’t be further from the truth. It may be surprising to hear this from someone who is very critical of religion and dogmatism, and who promotes freethought and critical thinking, but let me explain why.
We humans have been trying to live peacefully and healthily in society for millennia. It has been a bumpy road, but we have learned many things. One is that prosperity is a result of large-scale cooperation, and that cooperation requires trust. In cooperation, we have created many systems to try to make our lives better, such as legal systems, representative democracy, academia, etc. Are these systems perfect? No. They are bound to make mistakes sometimes. But no system is perfect, so we cannot let this erode our trust in institutions. And science is one of the most important of these institutions.
Science is hard to understand because it is an abstract entity. It is an ever-changing methodology, but also a set of institutions responsible for maintaining and using this methodology in order to make predictions and achieve goals. It involves universities, scientific journals, national academies of science, and international scientific associations. At a global scale, science is essentially a prediction-making machine that takes in large volumes of data and outputs what we call a “scientific consensus”.
Policy makers need science because policy makers are trying to achieve goals such as “keeping the population healthy” and “minimizing unnecessary suffering”, and in order to do this they need to answer questions such as “what makes people healthy”, “what reduces violence”, etc. The scientific consensus provides answers to these questions. These answers don’t necessarily represent the ultimate truth, but they are our best guesses of what truth is at any given moment.
Science makes mistakes, just like any machine malfunctions, but this is no reason to throw the machine away. To ignore the global scientific consensus because of the mistakes it has made is like getting frustrated because your car broke again and saying “enough! I’ll build my own car!” even though you’re a dentist. The scientific consensus doesn’t tell us what the ultimate truth is, it tells us what are the safest assumptions to make. It doesn’t eliminate risk, but it minimizes it. And that’s why all public policy should always be based on the scientific consensus. To do otherwise is to put the population in higher risk than it needs to be.
And the beauty of science is that, if we disagree with the scientific consensus, we are encouraged to challenge it. We can get a degree in medicine, make our own controlled experiments about the dangers of vaccines, publish them in scientific peer-reviewed journals, and get them replicated by independent researchers. If you get all this done, congratulations: you’ve changed the scientific consensus. Then, and only then should policy-makers assume those theories to be true.
Do you disagree with the scientific standards themselves? With what counts as proof and what doesn’t? Again, you’re encouraged to challenge them. You can study epistemology and the philosophy of science, publish your objections in philosophical journals, promote your epistemic principles in relevant conferences, publish books, team up with the academics and scientists who sympathize with your work, start non-profits and even lobby the government to change the scientific establishment. Science is a living organism. It is constantly growing and changing. And we all can be part of it. There is no conspiracy.
[Science] works. It is not perfect. It can be misused. It is only a tool. But it is by far the best tool we have, self-correcting, ongoing, applicable to everything. It has two rules. First: there are no sacred truths; all assumptions must be critically examined; arguments from authority are worthless. Second: whatever is inconsistent with the facts must be discarded or revised. We must understand the Cosmos as it is and not confuse how it is with how we wish it to be. The obvious is sometimes false; the unexpected is sometimes true.
— Carl Sagan
Many skeptics and science enthusiasts say “it’s ok to not have an opinion about things you don’t understand”. Although I agree with this partly, there is an crucial caveat. This only applies to two situations: inconsequential opinions that do not affect our actions, and ongoing debates around which there is no consensus among experts. If you’re not a physicist and somebody asks you what interpretation of quantum mechanics you think is more likely to be true, you are perfectly entitled to say “I have no idea, I have no opinion about this”. There is no consensus on this debate, and it is inconsequential for most of us. But few beliefs are inconsequential.
A little reflection will show us that every belief, even the simplest and most fundamental, goes beyond experience when regarded as a guide to our actions
– William Kingdon Clifford
Even when the available data seems insufficient, we are still forced to make assumptions, because any decision is always based on assumptions, and life doesn’t stop for us to collect data. We constantly have to make decisions, with or without comprehensive information. If you’re not a doctor, and somebody says they’re unsure about whether to vaccinate their children or not, so they ask about your opinion, it would be extremely irresponsible to say “I don’t know, I’m not a specialist, I have no opinion about this, do what you feel like”. People are literally dying in the hundreds from preventable diseases because people choose to trust their gut-feeling. In such a situation it is our moral duty to defer our opinion to those of specialists, and encourage everybody else to do the same.
To reject official recommendations and trust our own conclusions instead, no matter how careful we may have been in our online research, is like building our own car during our free-time, following online tutorials, and thinking it will be better than the ones made well-established automobile manufacturers. Official recommendations are not the gut-feelings of politicians. They are the result of whole teams of specialists working full-time exactly to understand a problem and find the best solutions. You cannot do better than them. It is arrogant and harmful to think you can.
- What should we believe? The importance of epistemic responsibility in the information age — Ariel Pontes
- Anti-Vaxxers, Conspiracy Theories, & Epistemic Responsibility: Crash Course Philosophy #14
- The Science of Anti-Vaccination— SciShow
- Vaccines: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)
- The Conspiracy Theory Detector: How to tell the difference between true and false conspiracy theories — Michael Shermer (Scientific American)
- Why people believe weird things — Michael Shermer (TED Talk)
- The pattern behind self-deception — Michael Shermer (TED Talk)
- Reasonable doubt — Michael Shermer (TEDx Talk)
- The Ultimate Conspiracy Debunker — Kurzgesagt