In the 24 hours since last I wrote to you, brothers and sisters, 90 more Americans have died from coronavirus than died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. That is, 2,889 coronavirus victims against the 2,799 who died that fateful day nearly 20 years ago. My hope is that grim statistic is more than just a mind-numbingly large number, but a reminder that there are often somber repercussions to ignorance. Most of those coronavirus deaths were preventable.
The difference between those coronavirus deaths and the deaths of September 11, of course, is they did not occur in the midst of the shocking spectacle of mammoth collapsing buildings and shrieking terror-inspired New Yorkers in full flight for their lives, but quietly, unobtrusively, in a hospital bed, or at home.
To put it in cynical terms, September 11th had the better publicist. Even so, in some ways the coronavirus deaths are even more shocking. September 11th was the result of an attack by inimical foreign agents living outside the United States and setting out to murder Americans. The coronavirus deaths, on the other hand, were caused by ignorant Americans misled by the president of the United States. And, of course, Donald Trump is still killing Americans in 9/11 orders of magnitude every single day.
This is Donald Trump using that most insidious enemy of rational thought, the conspiracy theory, to deadly effect. As many of you know, I speak out against conspiracy theories every chance I get. I see conspiracy theories as one of the greatest threats to the existence of our species. They keep us ignorant and chasing phantom enemies when real enemies kill us and pick our pockets. They distract us and cause us to make foolish choices and believe in the lies and follow the teachings of manipulators. They confirm us in the habit of ignorance.
What is a conspiracy theory? It’s an unfortunately named term, really, a marriage of two perfectly innocent and useful words. Of course I believe in conspiracies. And of course theories can be good things. But when brought together they become, to quote Wikipedia, an “explanation for an event or situation that invokes a conspiracy by sinister and powerful groups, often political in motivation, when other explanations are more probable.”
The amazing thing about conspiracy theories is they are immune to changes in fashion. Advocates of conspiracy theories don’t seem to mind how fickle their conspiracies are. For example, one minute Donald Trump is claiming that coronavirus is a hoax invented from whole cloth by Democrats. Next he’s claiming that it was a pathogen deliberately introduced by a laboratory in Wuhan. One minute conspiracy theorists are claiming that coronavirus will “disappear as soon as the presidential election is over.” Now they’re claiming that the announcements of the coronavirus vaccines were deliberately delayed until after the election in order to hurt Donald Trump.
People often speak of the Kennedy assassination conspiracy, as if it’s a single thing. It’s not. Just as there are many religions across the world, there are hundreds of different Kennedy assassination theories. Possibly thousands. Adherents seem wholly untroubled by that, which in itself is troubling.
We can thank the so-called anti-vaxxer movement for much of the public resistance to the coronavirus vaccine. Had that particular conspiracy theory never been mooted, our chances of ending the pandemic would have been significantly enhanced. Thanks to the criminal swindle of a single English defrocked doctor, Andrew Wakefield, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of world citizens will die. Death is all too often what we reap when we sow conspiracy theories, when we allow them to interfere with rational thought.
Sometimes conspiracy theories provide their own kind of poetic justice. In the run up to the election, Donald Trump constantly proclaimed that the election was rigged and, after he lost, that the whole process is and was fraudulent. He has so completely convinced his low-information, ignorant followers of this, that now they are unwilling to vote in the Georgia runoff election. (Indeed, former Trump lawyer Sidney Powell is urging Georgia voters to boycott them altogether. I have no intention of disabusing them of their ignorance. As Napoleon once said, “Never interrupt your enemy when he’s making a mistake.”)
“I don’t care what scientists say,” is a phrase I often hear or read. It is a kind of proclamation of ignorance, an ultimate declaration of blind hubris, and it too often goes unchallenged. It’s what Asimov meant when he said, to paraphrase, your ignorance isn’t just as good as my knowledge.
Another favorite is, “I don’t believe in coincidences,” a logical absurdity. If there were no such thing as coincidences that would be a stunning coincidence. Yet people in defending conspiracy theories make these absurd claims all the time, frequently to the accompaniment of general approbation and dozens of “likes” on social media.
We are in one hell of a mess and we need to get started on fixing that mess right away. Getting rid of Donald Trump is a good start. But we have a coronavirus pandemic facing us just now. Scientists have told us the best way to fight it: maintain social distancing, wear masks, wash our hands, take the vaccine as soon as it becomes available. I might even add, avoid conspiracy theories. Stop giving wings to ignorance.
We are also in the midst of a potential extinction level event, global warming. Science has told us what to do about that. Be responsible with energy use. Vote for candidates who take global warming seriously. Keep your personal carbon footprint small. Boycott companies that flout EPA rules. As climate scientist Katharine Heyhoe puts it, the most effective thing you can do to promote good climate science is to “talk about it!”
If we take the high road, the road of science, the road of rational thought, the road that avoids irresponsible claims and conspiracy theories, we have a chance. Never before in human history has human ignorance been a greater enemy. Only by actively resisting ignorance can we truly save ourselves. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.