When Tim Berners-Lee and others created the architectural foundations of the world wide web, they did so with the vision of openness, idea sharing, and trust. Human nature has a way of making things more complicated, of course.
The underbelly of the internet is the same as that of humanity at large. Deception, misinformation and manipulation are older than language itself.
The snake oil salesmen will always be there, yet we want to believe that we have found the magic potion, that we have seen behind the curtain and know the truth that others are blind to. So, how then do we know shit from shinola?
Debunking false information takes dedication and effort, Brandolini’s law tells us that ‘the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.’ The picture looks even grimmer when we also consider the finding from Vosoughi et al that lies spread faster than the truth online (Science Vol. 359, Issue 6380).
In the information age there is seemingly an equivalence given to knowledge and opinion. We’ve all seen it in some form or another and, to varying degrees, we all accept it.
It is vitally important to be open-minded but in the words of Prof. Kotschnig ‘keep your mind open, but not so open that your brains fall out’ (check out the similarly titled Tim Minchin song).
Anyone who has ever tried to get a large number of people to keep a secret such as a surprise party or business project will know that the more people are involved the harder it becomes to stop tongues from wagging and spilling the details. And yet when notions such as flat Earth come along, we are asked to somehow believe that we have been coherently lied to over centuries by every advanced civilization on the globe and for no apparent financial or other gain. It doesn’t pass muster, yet for some the belief persists.
Here we are in the midst of a global pandemic and yet we don’t have to look far to find those who are totally, utterly convinced that the novel coronavirus is a fabrication so that some sinister biological agent or nanobot can be secretly administered via the vaccines.
Ask yourself, if you were an evil billionaire with this goal then is that really the way you’d achieve your goal? If a single vial of vaccine escapes the chain and is subjected to analysis then you risk global exposure. You’d need the support of every single person who ever handles the vaccine, from lab scientists to logistics workers to nurses. It just wouldn’t be cost effective, and billionaires love cost effectiveness.
Yes, there are the unforeseen consequences such as the correlation of clotting and the AstraZeneca vaccine, yet almost all of us understand that every medication has the potential for side effects. Accidental death from taking paracetamol is more common, yet this and the harms of many other medications are often ignored in the public sphere.
The boring reality
The boring reality is that medicine and science are not trying to kill us and if they were then we’d be dead or chemically sterilised already. Instead life expectancy and quality of health have been increasing for over a century, in a way not seen at any other time in our history, and this is thanks to scientific methodology and medical advances.
If we want to see conspiracies then consider that the Liberal-National Coalition has used public money to pork barrel key electorates. Regardless of your political orientation this must be seen as corruption and conspiracy. Similarly, the fossil fuel lobby gives significant cash donations to political parties and uses its influence to seek protections for an industry that is driving the environmental crisis, killing most of life on Earth and risking the collapse of civilisation. Those are real conspiracies.
The price tag of conspiracy theories
It is easy to forget that conspiracy theories come with a price tag; in that they steal our attention and effort away from the real problems and divert it towards a labyrinth of uncertainty. There is a parallel between the coronavirus outbreak and the climate emergency: both have been exacerbated by the denialism and complaceny of a vocal minority.
If we are to have any chance of achieving a sustainable future then let’s not waste our effort on conspiracy theories when we have conspiracy facts to contend with.