When Vladimir Putin murdered my neighbor with a deadly binary agent called novichok in 2018, a conspiracy theory grew up around the tragedy that the killing wasn’t Putin’s doing at all but British prime minister Theresa May’s. The reason? Well, the original assault happened in Salisbury, right? Subsequent novichok traces were found in the immediate surrounding areas, right? And what do we find squatting ominously in the thick of this bioweapons attack in the sleepy county of Wiltshire in the verdant south of England? Why, Porton Down, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory for the Ministry of Defence, that’s what! In other words, what’s the use of having a bioweapons research facility so conveniently situated if you don’t use it on your own citizens and then blame the Russians?
Forgetting the sleight-of-hand that the bioweapons research part of Porton Down was closed in the 1950s, the conspiracy theorist offers no evidence whatsoever for this cockamamie theory apart from one of geographic, if not temporal, convenience. As if we don’t have cars and airplanes with which to transport the stuff?
This is how conspiracy theories start and this is how stupid they can get. And by the way, when I say “conspiracy theories” I mean speculations asserted without evidence positing “explanations” for events based on coincidence or the notion that someone stands to gain. In other words, when your friend inherited a few thousand dollars from his widowed aunt it was because he murdered her, obviously. He stood to gain and there can be no other possibility and I won’t hear any other excuse for it. He’s a murderer, deal with it.
All this conspiracy nonsense, nonsense that all of us on the internet these days must constantly endure, from the notion that the DNC “robbed” Bernie of the nomination in 2016 to 9/11 Trutherism to Deep State QAnon, etc., comes down to a confusion, it seems to me, between two words: possible and plausible. A theory is possible when it is backed by evidence, facts or a reasonable conjecture based in logic. A theory is plausible, on the other hand, if it would make a decent plot for a novel and there is a connectivity, however strained, from one feature of the theory to another.
Human beings like patterns, and as human beings we are notorious for discerning patterns where none exist. We don’t like not knowing, so we prefer a plausible bad theory to no theory at all. This is a tendency that needs to be actively resisted, and this seems a good time to resist that tendency, and a good time to summon quotes from two brilliant but lamentably deceased thinkers to help us resist it. Christopher Hitchens put it this way, “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Carl Sagan put it even better, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
There is no evidence whatsoever, extraordinary or otherwise, that the coronavirus COVID-19 was secretly invented in the United States and is now being used by the Deep State in order to destroy Donald Trump. There is no evidence whatsoever that the coronavirus is a hoax that the Democrats are using to get rid of Trump. There is no evidence whatsoever that Dr. Anthony Fauci is telling lies in an underhanded effort to humiliate Donald Trump. These are all conspiracy theories and they underscore why conspiracy theories are deadly dangerous. These theories have and will cost American lives, and they will continue to do so. That is a sadly unavoidable tragedy.
It’s a tragedy that stems from another deadly pandemic, the mistrust and denial of science. Mistrust and denial of science leads to silly and dangerous things, like the notion that global warming is a hoax. While such ignorance is common among Republicans, I’m sorry to say it’s not unheard of on the left and among Democrats. We need to set the example and lead the way forward. We need to resist this ugly, anti-science tendency amongst ourselves.
I think it’s sad that Dr. Fauci is now receiving death threats because people are unhappy that he makes Donald Trump look stupid and silly. But that’s just a conspiracy theory. There’s a much simpler explanation: Donald Trump looks stupid and silly all by himself without any help, because Donald Trump is stupid and silly. See how easy that is?
I have near the limit of Facebook friends, and while that’s a pleasure on one hand it’s a burden on another. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t receive some frantic message that I simply must pass along that is pure, unadulterated rubbish. Anything from a coronavirus self test (there is none) to a breathless proclamation about the new proposed 28th amendment (there is none) to a claim that someone named Andrea has hijacked my account (no such thing has happened and, as far as I know, Andrea is a fiction). All of which was a mere thirty second google away from refutation, but my messenger in each instance was too hastily frantic to bother.
This is why fake news is a thing, and I don’t mean the kind Donald Trump talks about. I mean actual fake news. This is why we are so misinformed. How quick we are to believe and how reluctant we are to google what we believe! It is a shame because, yes, there really are reliable resources out there on the internet, resources like the World Health Organization, like the Centers for Disease Control, like WebMD, like the Washington Post and the New York Times. Things really can be knowable, and what we cannot know we must be content to not know until better information comes available. Speculation is okay as long as it faithfully remains labelled as such. But speculation has a funny habit of transforming into absolute truth,
These are dangerous times. People’s lives are at stake and bad information can kill them. We all need to be responsible and very careful about what we pass on. We need to diligently practice social distancing from bad ideas, and constantly and thoroughly wash our hands of them.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.