Wednesday, 6 May 2020

Outbreak Diary - Day 045

I have had my fair share of dealing with conspiracy theorists. And one of the first things that you need to comprehend is:
No matter how stupid their beliefs are, these are not inherently stupid people.
This is vital to understand for two important reasons.
Firstly, if you dismiss these people as idiots, then you will be putting yourself at risk of assuming that they are ineffectual or inoffensive, when in fact they are often just as dedicated, hard-working, creative and dangerous as any other person can be - conspiracy theories can be dangerous.
Secondly, it puts you at risk of assuming that you are not capable of falling victim to their "dumb" beliefs if you're just smart enough, but that's not the case at all, since these beliefs aren't based on intellect but emotion and common sense. So, if you have emotions, you can fall victim to conspiracy theories, if you're not careful - conspiracies theories can be convincing.

In a way, conspiracy theories are like a virus, they have developed to try to invade weaknesses in your defences. Just as coronavirus can infect you through the weak points of your immune system - it can't get through your skin, so it goes through openings, your eyes and mouth - conspiracy theories, similarly, can't get through your intellectual defences of reason and logic, so it goes through openings in your defences, your emotions and your opinions.
I go into detail about this viral meme model of thought in an earlier blog post, so I won't reiterate it here, but the point is simple - humans make mistakes, in the way we speak, act and think, and some of the most pernicious and deleterious ideas spread by taking advantage of our human weaknesses. Particularly emotions.

This matters because the COVID-19 epidemic is causing a lot of emotions for a lot of people: It kills people and causes harm, to both us and people we care about; it's caused isolation, which is devastating to a social species like human, making people feel alone, upset and frustrated & several people have lost jobs, or had their life ruined by the actions of politicians, or locals, making people feel angry, stressed and trapped.
So, it's no surprise at all that people are falling victim to conspiracy theories. But, there have been an awful lot that have been spread, specifically about coronavirus. I enjoy learning, and I think this is a good opportunity to learn more about why these people believe these things, as well as how to help people overcome these beliefs. And, I find mythbusting fun, so, let's look at some of these theories. I may not cover these all in one blog post, but I'll cover every one that I can.

"The 5G Virus"

The Theory is... that coronavirus is being caused by the upgraded telecommunication network, known as 5G; OR, that coronavirus doesn't exist at all, but rather people are actually falling victim to hazardous radio waves or electromagnetic fields from the new 5G telecommunication network. And to hide this fact, the government invented this "coronavirus", so they wouldn't be blamed for the effects. But why would the government lie about this? Well, it's simple... this way, they can trick people into being Vaccinated!

It's Convincing because... of two reasons. Firstly, I looked into the "Australians for Safer Technology", a group which perpetuates these beliefs, and people there seem to also believe in the anti-vaxxer movement - so in fact this conspiracy theory is a mutation of the "Vaccinations Cause Autism and/or allow Governments to Control the Population" theory. I will talk about vaccines later in this blog post, but if this all seems like a bitter pill to swallow, remember, these people have already drunk the Kool-Aid. All you need to do is believe that the Government doesn't always do what's best for you (and let's be honest, it doesn't) - and then it's easy to build upon that belief to get to anti-vax beliefs.
Secondly, it's convincing because of the close association again. The Coronavirus pandemic is spreading worldwide, at the same time as 5G is being installed worldwide; also, coronavirus spreads invisibly, seeming to hit people at random and no one is safe, just as 5G works via radio waves, which are invisible and literally everyone with a 5G phone can connect. All you need to do is introduce the concept that invisible radio waves can be harmful (and, yes, they can), and you can see why people might believe this...

The Reality is... the first theory is debunked very, very quickly. 5G towers don't create or spread viruses, and in several places where 5G does not exist, people are getting sick, so we can put that aside.
As to the other theory, that the radiation is making us sick, that's also easy to dispute. When radiation of any kind, including radiowaves, are harmful to organic matter, they can't "target" specific cells. Just look at UV radiation - it can cause skin cancer, and whilst skin cancer can metastasize and spread, if it ever does affect you, it has to affect the outer layer of your skin first. This also debunks the idea that this is causing our bodies to react and release toxins, since you would have to see it on people's skin. But sick, toxic or cancerous skin doesn't look like healthy skin, and since bumps, rashes, growths & skin discoloration aren't symptoms of COVID-19, we know that radiation isn't the cause.
The fact of the matter is that 5G isn't very different from 4G. The main difference (and what makes it so much faster) is that it uses a higher frequency of 1,000 megahertz, instead of the 100 megahertz of 4G, which is why it's much faster. But, because the frequency is higher, it means it can't spread as far, which is why they're putting up more towers, to allow 5G to cover more area. And whilst 5G is on the same EM spectrum as UV rays, X-rays and gamma radiation, do you know what else is on that spectrum? Visible light. Radio waves would have to become visible before they could be a high enough frequency to be dangerous.
Now, it is possible for even these radio waves to dangerous if they also have a low enough wavelength, to results in dielectric heating via microwaves. However, 5G doesn't use microwaves, because they're dangerous. Microwaves can cause burns but there's a much simpler reason why we know 5G doesn't use microwaves. Microwaves are non-ionizing and don't cause skin cancer or target lung cells, but do you know what body part is really vulnerable to microwaves?
       (WARNINGI find this interesting, but this is really gross)
Eyeballs. Microwaves can very easily denature proteins in your eyes, by literally cooking your eyes, causing severe cataracts and blindness. So, we know 5G isn't dangerous because: a) You can't see it and b) You can still see.

"The Chinese Biological Weapon"

The Theory is... that COVID-19 isn't a naturally evolved virus, a mutation of the SARS coronavirus, but instead a bio-engineered weapon, developed by the Wuhan Institute of Virology. According to the institute's own Wikipedia page, they were doing research on the SARS virus, to see if it they could infect humans with it. That's the smoking gun right there! And hey, doesn't the WIV's logo look suspiciously similar to the Umbrella Corporation - a fictional company from the Resident Evil games whose goal was to infect humanity with a deadly virus?

It's Convincing because... there a lot of associations, fickle though they be. But, the main reason appears to be that people find randomness hard to comprehend or hard to come to terms with. If 30 people stand in a room, and 15 people randomly die because of micrometeors, that's a tragedy; but if 30 people stand in a room, and 15 people die randomly because of a sniper, that's also a tragedy, but it's easier to come to terms with because we understand why it happened (i.e. an evil person is responsible, they chose to do it).
The scales of justice have tipped, because it was weighed down by "evil", and so we push it back the other way to balance it - we simply have to kill/capture/punish the sniper. But, when people die randomly, the scales of justice tip, but there's no way to push them back... because nothing actually weighed it down. That makes no sense to us...
So, this is why people blame China, because if China did it, then to make the world fair, balanced and right again, all we have to do is punish China. Unfortunately, people who honestly believe this have been attacking random, local Chinese people - it's disgusting, bigoted and wrong, but it makes sense when you follow the flawed logic to its conclusion.

The Reality is... the Wuhan Institute of Virology was trying to understand the last SARS epidemic, and was trying to understand if humans were at risk of the non-human SARS virus, that's found in horseshoe bats in China. The virus they were looking at was different from the current one (although also found in bats, the pangolin/bat strain that appears to have mutated into novel-SARS-coronavirus-2 has a different genetic make-up). Considering the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic exists, it's good that places like the WIV were trying to see if it was possible, and could be prevented. Unfortunately, this lab doesn't have the ability to engineer a virus like the novel coronavirus, because as much as they were researching transmissibility, they couldn't have engineered the old virus to alter its gestation, virulence and transmission. That kind of bio-engineering is beyond a lab with their resources, but natural selection could allow for a virus to develop randomly with relative ease. If you understand how genetics work, it's the only explanation that makes sense.
Also, as a side-note, the Wuhan lab's logo looks nothing like the Umbrella logo - the picture people have shared is actually a picture of the logo if a biotech company from Shanghai, not Wuhan, and the company in question, doesn't operate anymore - that picture is several years old.

"The Total Hoax Proposal"

The Theory is... that COVID-19 does not exist, at all. News stories regarding the virus are fake, all of the statistics for infection and death are made up; or it's just exaggerating some commonplace epidemic, such as the common cold. All scientists or politicians presenting these coronavirus claims as fact are either paid disinformationists, lying for personal gain or they are falling victim to these lies. The truth is that nobody is sick from this coronavirus at all, and all of the social distancing and isolation rules are just to take away people's freedoms, and keep people controlled, using fear.

It's Convincing because... well, do you know anyone with coronavirus? Personally, I do, and based on the death toll I know many must, but several people don't. For them, it's easy to say that they can't see this virus near them, despite how "deadly" it's supposed to be, so why would they believe it? After all, if were so deadly, shouldn't they be able to see it in their backyard? Heck, even if someone does get sick that they know, it's easier to assume that it's not some new virus, but just a very bad flu.
But, what really motivates these people is either fear of losing control - if you lose your job and have to stay home and can't meet your friends, you are essentially surrendering your freedom and losing control of your life; OR, it's a kind of weaponized bewilderment. Because they're unable to understand how this is possible, they simply don't accept that it is.
I am a skeptic, so I can understand the desire to doubt something purported as true despite how widely-held such claims may be, but there is a difference between doubting the veracity of a claim that we all hold to be true, and outright denying it with the counter-claim that it is not true, and the person proposing it is a liar.

The Reality is... that the coronavirus pandemic does exist, and that COVID-19 is currently infecting billions and killing hundreds of thousands (at time of writing). And whilst it is true that we all need to be wary of how much power the government has over us, the fact is that social distancing is the most effective method of stopping this virus, and as a result we need to surrender some of the basic freedoms such as freedom of movement & freedom of association, for the sake of everyone who is vulnerable to this virus. It's a sad fact that all forms of security takes with them a degree of freedom and convenience, and when people protest these en masse, in the midst of a viral pandemic, they're just putting themselves and others needlessly in mortal danger.

"The U.S. Biological Weapon"

The Theory is... that COVID-19 isn't a naturally evolved virus, a mutation of the SARS coronavirus, but instead a bio-engineered weapon, developed by the C.I.A., which was smuggled into Wuhan, China and released there, so as to harm China's economy, and tarnish China's reputation, making it appear disease-ridden, dirty and underdeveloped.

It's Convincing because... the C.I.A. is a secretive agency, and it has been involved in its fair share of controversies and America has been known to try to step in and affect world politics. So, spreading a virus specifically to harm another country doesn't seem too far outside of their scope.
Plus, from the very beginning President Trump, the WALRUS, has been blaming China, calling COVID-19 the Chinese Flu, and wanting to specifically ban travel to and from China. This also relates back to what I said above with the Chinese bio-weapon theory, but note, the claims blaming China tend to come from the West, whereas these claims blaming the U.S. seem to come from Europe and the East - it's all about scapegoating, passing the buck, and finding someone to blame for this, so long as that someone isn't yourself. And it becomes the worst in times like this when there isn't someone to blame for the outbreak - because it means you can't relieve that built up tension.

The Reality is... America has been the worst affected by this virus. At time of writing, America has had over one million persons affected, and over seventy-thousand dead (more than the next two worst-affected countries, combined). The reason for this is because America is a perfect storm for this kind of virus - it has a whole lot of people, densely populated, with freedom to move around, and with an economy that allows people to travel interstate and internationally with ease. It also hasn't suffered from a great many pandemics as some countries in Asia have been, so it was completely blindsided by this virus. Also, America had been cutting back on funding for departments regarding infectious diseases since this new government took office, and unfortunately there has been a fair amount of  mismanagement on the part of President Trump and his staff regarding protocol, government oversight and misinformation, which allowed this virus to spread through America as far as it has. The point is, if the C.I.A. had manufactured this virus, then why would it not have greater security in place to protect it from a virus that it manufactured? That doesn't make any sense. If the goal was to denigrate China as disease-ridden, then why would it allow itself to become infected, and allow it to be so much worse on American soil than any other country?
Just as damning, the same evidence that proves China didn't manufacture this virus also refutes America, or in fact anyone from manufacturing this virus. Not only does evidence that it was engineered just not exist, but several studies have shown how this is a natural mutation, evolved from a SARS coronavirus.

Those seem to be the most prominent of conspiracy theories... at least, they're the ones with any meat on their bones. There are a couple of other ridiculous claims like "the Jews did it" and "eating oregano will cure you" which, whilst some people believe them, the only reason people believe them are due to other pre-existing beliefs, and the only response to them is "well, that's just not true.
I might cover them in a later blog post, but for now, I hope this has helped you to learn a little more about the mistakes people make in their reasoning, and how to try to avoid making them yourself. This took a stupidly-long amount of time for me to write, so I apologize for the long wait, but hopefully what I have to talk about in the future won't take so long.

Until then, I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and I hope this helps to disabuse you of your misbeliefs...