Why do I continue to be so obsessed with issues of conspiracies, misinformation, and sense-making? I’ve mentioned that it has a lot to do with my two brothers who walked into a misinformation vortex a long time ago. I was going to say “fallen down” or “got sucked into,” but I’m not sure I agree with the lack of agency those phrases imply. I truly am not sure. I don’t think it happened entirely of their own volition, but neither do I think they are simply victims. Maybe “wandered into” works?
Recently I let one of my brothers know via email that I would stop paying for something that I think should be his responsibility. My email to him prompted a short, sarcastic reply, which in turn triggered a somewhat annoyed volley from me. And then he responded with... an expansive non-sequitur, I guess you could call it. Here’s a highlight:
I don’t say this lightly, you are on the wrong side of history. If you want to know where you would have stood in 1939 Germany, you continue to prove over and over that you would have then, via where you stand now, chosen the wrong side, mass experimentation, compliance to that experiment, and not only being compliments but remaining appallingly silent about the war crimes to the point where you choose not to see them. Not-see-ism [...] I am in utter shock, disbelief, bafflement, that you and your cohort are literally not-sees, choosing to actively be on that side of history, which social scientists call “mass formation.” [...] And I’m sorry, but you and your fascist corporate/big tech big centralized government elitist cohort, you have a sickness that there is no test for. A type of mass mimicry without empathy […] And if you understood totalitarianism, that’s what it does. It kills love.
Did you actually read all that? I don’t blame you if you didn’t. I was ambivalent about whether to share it, but I decided I am not revealing anything personal per se. He is expressing a sentiment shared by a certain slice of our neighbors on this planet. (Also, I discovered recently he has a podcast where he regularly broadcasts this exact same stuff.)
I wasn’t shocked by his actual words (he’s sent me the equivalent before, and several more emails with thousands more words followed soon after this one), nor was I hurt. I don’t accept his version of who I am, just as I don’t accept his picture of reality.
He does seem to feel genuine anguish about what he characterizes as my unwillingness, and that of my “cohort,” to see (not-see… nazi… get it?), and it’s tempting to try and enumerate the reasons I don’t see what he sees. The first problem with that is I don’t know exactly what he does see. But I do have a notion of where I could begin.
The Rebel Wisdom folks recently released a film and accompanying essay called The Religious Wars of the Pandemic Endgame, where they attempt to explain our societal split over COVID-19 through the lens of religious belief. It’s a useful approach, although I think they stretched the idea too far in some ways. One thing I really like about their piece is how it frames our cultural rift as thesis versus anti-thesis, where they summarize the thesis as:
[COVID-19 is a serious disease and global pandemic]. Lockdowns are needed to contain the virus, masks work and need to be mandated, vaccines are safe, people should take the vaccine to protect themselves and others, and vaccine passports will help open things up quicker and encourage those who are hesitant to get vaccinated.
FWIW, I don’t personally agree with every part of this thesis. I would qualify some of those statements and add some nuance, but I still think it basically represents the mainstream perspective on COVID-19.
The Rebel Wisdom piece also summarized the anti-thesis, which I won’t include here, because in my observation it’s not a coherent chain of propositions so much as a kitchen sink of counter-propositions to each part of the thesis. This is why I think the thesis / anti-thesis framing works well – because on the other side of the thesis there is not a dominant counter-thesis per se. There is a collection of irreconcilable claims.
After having engaged with a number of the anti-thesis people, I have the sense that some of them are using something akin to the "reasonable doubt" standard as for criminal cases in court. Many of them don't seem to be pushing a particular counter-thesis, and sometimes there’s not even one they’re willing to stand by. I have found that when their evidence collapses, or even when it is simply probed with reasonable questions, they often simply abandon a position and pivot to something unrelated.
They seem less concerned with the strength of any particular claim than the sheer breadth of counter-claims, which they interpret as reasonable doubt that the thesis position can be solid. Of course this hinges on their a priori distrust of all the institutions and factions on the thesis side, which make the thesis invalid to begin with.
Why me not-see?
Again, I find myself wanting to make it clearer to my brother and his own cohort why I am unable to see what they see, and so I have tried to identify some of the obstacles to my seeing.
The first obstacle is that I don’t know how well I understand what they do see, what their own claims are. I encounter phrases like "apartheid" and "medical experimentation," but this kind of framing depends on accepting a set of basic claims about COVID – particularly perhaps about the nature of (and safety and efficacy of) the vaccines. For example, I don't currently accept the claim that the COVID vaccines are "experimental" so I can't engage with questions that frame vaccination as experimentation. To engage with questions of apartheid and experimentation, or any of this really, I would want to step back and better understand the claims that this framing depends on.
There are a lot of different and sometimes conflicting counter-claims to the mainstream claims about COVID, the vaccines, etc. Is COVID a hoax, or is it a bioweapon? That's an unfair oversimplification of two counter-claims I'm familiar with, but suffice it to say it's noisy out there, and it's hard to engage with noise. Was the pandemic planned, or are bad actors exploiting a pandemic that happened to develop? Exploiting it for personal gain, or for ideological reasons? These are all different claims, and they're worth looking at separately. I don't know which of the many claims you currently accept.
This second obstacle is a sort of Occam’s Razor / game theory test of the reality that many anti-vax arguments lean on – the idea that the vast majority of doctors, scientists, journalists, bureaucrats, etc all around the world are engaged in a gigantic lie or delusion. The CDC? Lying. Every mainstream news source around the world? Lying. Countless doctors, nurses, and other health professionals? Liars or fools. What about the doctors and nurses I know personally? Liars or fools.
What does it mean to claim the CDC or all of mainstream media are lying? Which of the countless people working in those organizations are lying? How do the lies propagate down through the ranks? Why are so many people lying? It would have to be a staggering number of people. How are they all made to lie?
When I have asked those questions, I have gotten hand-wavy non-answers like “follow the money” or questions like "don't you see how the 'official numbers' benefit Pfizer?" Importantly, I have no problem accepting that many elite corporate leaders are corrupt to a degree or that some are downright sinister. And I can acknowledge that powerful elites and big pharma (etc) would indeed benefit (and have benefited) from things being a certain way. That still doesn’t explain how these big lies supposedly propagate down and across through countless regular workers, how almost all of them are made into liars or useful idiots.
It's not impossible that the vast majority of scientists, journalists, etc are wrong, and that a relatively tiny number of heroic outsiders and fringe figures are shining a light on the real truth. It's just extremely unlikely. There are definitely reasonable questions and challenges to the mainstream narrative – regarding suspicious patents here or alarming corporate executive soundbites there – but these questions push things into gray areas. Gray areas should only drive more questions and deeper investigation. Gray areas are not enough to justify the level of certainty needed to frame things as war crimes and call people nazis.
My view is that there are a lot of natural checks and balances within big organizations and society in general, not to mention normal chaos, incompetence, etc. Regardless of what sort of big "plan" would benefit pharma companies writ large or a handful of elites, for example, I haven't seen a plausible picture of how a plan would get enacted down through the ranks of workers, and also across the vast majority of doctors and nurses, scientists, journalists, bureaucrats, etc. who have agency and their own, often competing incentives. My operational view is that if all of these disparate, competing entities have settled on a consensus narrative around something, then that is the most credible narrative. I will disagree with pieces and details, and my "certainty" will vary, but the core narrative is very hard to simply reject.
Interestingly, when any mainstream source publishes something that fits the anti-vax narrative, then anti-vaxxers share it widely. Suddenly mainstream sources are worth listening to after all. Often folks share things without important context, like when the CDC director said recently that most people dying from COVID-19 had at least four comorbidities, anti-vaxxers shared it like crazy. But they neglected to include the parts that made it clear she was specifically referring to deaths among fully-vaccinated people. From where I sit, this looks dishonest, or at least like confirmation bias. I admit it undermines my trust in anti-vax arguments more broadly.
As a final word on this, I definitely think that powerful people and corporations have exploited aspects of the pandemic and the pandemic response for their own benefit, enriching themselves to obscene degrees, but that's not the same thing as engineering a big top-down plan that requires the complicity of countless rank and file workers. So yes, there are threads of genuine corruption and outright crime, but again that's not the same as claiming the whole tapestry is corrupt.
The third obstacle is down at the evidence level. My brother says there are “mountains of evidence” supporting the propositions he accepts as true, but that perspective is conditioned on the idea that all of the official sources are lying or wrong and can be removed from the equation. Otherwise, relative to "official" sources, the mountains he’s talking about appear pretty small and marginal.
A second problem is that a lot of the evidence itself is unconvincing (to me, so far). Just as one example, anti-vaxxers point to Israel and Gibraltar, and I have spent time looking at these cases in the form of evidence offered by the anti-vax side that the COVID vaccines don't work. But in citing data from Israel and Gibraltar, the anti-vax folks are committing very obvious base-rate fallacy errors. They either don't understand the evidence they are using, or they are lying on purpose. Or maybe there's different evidence from Israel and Gibraltar that I'm not aware of.
As another example, I've also looked at a number of claims about myocarditis as a common side-effect of the vaccines, and it turned out that many of the examples (examples shared on social media by anti-vax folks) that I spent time looking into were easily dismissible (some of the deaths happened before vaccines were available and in a couple of cases before COVID-19 was even a thing; there were worse examples too). Is this sloppiness, or is it intentional dishonesty? Maybe there are better examples, but wasting my time on so many dismissible ones put a bad taste in my mouth. It felt dishonest – like the people hadn't actually clicked into the links themselves and/or hoped others wouldn't.
One more example has to do with claims about the situation in Australia. There was a period of time, for example, where I was seeing a lot of claims about how Australians were not allowed to leave their homes at all. The "evidence" was mostly people simply making the claim. For my current job, I have interacted several times a week for a year now with various people based in different parts of Australia, and at no time were people there broadly prohibited from leaving their homes. What should I conclude from such conflicting evidence? Reasonable conclusions would land somewhere in the realm of "maybe" – not nearly enough to justify confident rhetoric about widespread tyranny and comparisons to nazi Germany.
Most of the time I just see noise without evidence at all. Like anytime a doctor, scientist, or journalist points to anything favorable about one of the vaccines, I'll see a torrent of comments about how the person is being bribed or extorted. It's just supposed to be a given. It's never supported by anything concrete.
I hesitate to mention as well the people early on who were sticking keys to their skin and claiming the vaccines magnetized their bodies (keys are made of a nickel-brass alloy and not even magnetic!). Also, the people standing up in town halls and brazenly misrepresenting their credentials or ranting about satan. Or people like Dr Tenpenny who says the vaccines will turn people into cyborgs who will be hooked up to 5G networks and enslaved (or something?). I don't think these kinds of cranks discredit the entire anti-vax side, but they add unhelpful noise.
In terms of who *is* worth listening to, I hear regular references to various people who I am aware of. I'm superficially familiar with some of the ideas they advocate, and I am willing to give them more of my attention. But I would go back to the question of claims. I have a hard time committing to watch a 90 minute video without first knowing what basic claims it is making / supporting. Otherwise it's like being dropped into the middle of a deep conversation and trying to reverse engineer its basic thesis and structure.
This is a big one for me. The 4th obstacle is that I'm not a subject matter expert in viruses, vaccines, etc, and nor are most people. So in conversations about this stuff it's hard to avoid dead ends where Person A cites CDC data, and Person B says the CDC is lying. Or where Person B cites Robert Malone or Reiner Feullmich, and Person A says those guys are discredited.
These are dead ends because Person A and Person B are both relying on proxies and heuristics. Irreconcilable ones.
Most of us, as persons A or B, haven't done first hand lab work or field research. We can't be certain about what we are claiming, whether it's about the data or about who's trustworthy and who's lying. Instead, we point to the work of other people that we have made our best efforts to understand, which is what I mean by proxies.
Also, I am using heuristics. I can't vouch for the data or its provenance, because I'm not a subject matter expert in the trenches. So I use consensus as a heuristic to assume the data can be trusted. I don't trust scientist A or B per se, but I trust the consensus of scientists (which has built in checks and balances, etc). The stronger the consensus, the more I trust its conclusions. That said, I understand that this is my heuristic and that it's only a heuristic, which means it's validity is limited and subject to challenge and change. It's also a fallacious heuristic (appeal to authority), FWIW. I'm probably using other heuristics as well, and I try to make a practice of self-reflection to suss them out. I think it’s a good exercise for anyone who takes a position on any issue.
A Final Word
Circling back to what I said at the start, all of the above makes me doubt that I could arrive at a common understanding of these issues with my brother or most anti-vaxxers. We're just too far apart. It's okay with me for us not to have a common understanding, but I'm in favor of getting to a place where we don't assign hateful labels to each other.
I don't know whether even that's possible, partly because all the anti-vaxxers I know behave as if they are 100% certain in their beliefs. As for me, I would rate myself at maybe 80%. The ratio has a lot to do with the dynamic I described under obstacle 4. I can only be so certain about this stuff, and I can more easily imagine myself moving towards less certainty than towards more. That would be ok with me.
It doesn't make sense to talk about any of these specific issues in a meaningful way if the area is highly emotionally charged for either party, if either party feels >95% certain in their views.
Anyway, all of this was an attempt to describe *how* I think about things and less about *what* I currently think. I hope that makes sense.
That's where I'm at.