Updated: 2 days ago
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. — Richard Feynman
The theory that COVID-19 is a hoax, currently gathering momentum across the internet, relies on a flimsy foundation: that you are important or special in some way.
You are sooo important, that governments or the Democrats or the “deep state” or the 1% or alien lizards have created this hoax to trick you. That “they” are out to get you. That “they” are out to destroy the economy or destroy (or save) the climate or drink the blood of your children or (insert whatever else you have heard or believe here).
The internet, lack of scientific education, social unrest, inequality, and, in my opinion, the residual effects of decades of Hollywood thrillers (!) are creating the perfect storm for this kind of deluded thinking.
But an important ingredient in the mix is the fairly modern obsession with the self. Self-improvement, self-branding, self-care, selfies… We have gone over a precipice of self-love, into the realms of self-importance.
In the West in particular, we are now encouraged to think that we can do anything – as if it’s some kind of Marianne Williamsonesque birth right. We’re all amazing. We’re all special. We’re all fabulous and fantastic and talented. And we forget that, actually... we’re not.
On social media we talk the talk and pose the pose, without creating any real value… without doing the hard work of building something useful.
Of course we see aspects of this self-obsession in the East too. But places like Japan seem more grounded. It’s often been remarked that Chinese and Japanese psychology is oriented toward the group's mindset and wellbeing, whereas the West places more emphasis on the individual's needs. This might account for the relatively low levels of conspiracy adherents in Japan where I’m currently based. Or maybe there’s a better understanding of science in general over here.
One of the products of the West, is Hollywood. Fantastic adventure movies and thrillers provide us with an escape from the supposedly mundane tasks of the real world such as going to work, doing the laundry, living with a partner you no longer find sexy... Reality – “real life” – shrouded in one’s negative thoughts about it, produces a kind of dull hell. Rather than excitement and arousal, the mundane is punctuated by boredom and the hollow sound of the non-event.
Of course smoking, drinking, and taking drugs helps billions of people alleviate this suffering (temporarily). Hollywood too. But Hollywood is more insidious. The residual effect of Hollywood is that we are perpetually left feeling unattractive, boring, or perhaps even more frustratingly, ordinary. It provides us with a ghastly mirror. When we return from our two-hour trip from the movie/TV screen and stagger into the kitchen to confront a sink-load of dishes, the contrast between the super-hero’s life we’ve just been absorbed in and our own is visceral.
Has Hollywood, in some small way exacerbated further our already existent need to feel special? Does Hollywood provide ground for conspiracy theories involving cliff-hanger dramas about governments, shadowy elites or even alien lizards plotting and acting against us, us ordinary people, us Frodos, us Nemos, meek but ready to take up the call to battle? We are ready, because we have seen it on the screen. Is it true? Have we been called upon by destiny, by our oppressed brethren, by Gandalf, to fight evil. Probably not. The truth is, we’re just not that special or important enough to warrant the interest.
Your life is mundane. You are ordinary. Most of us are. Which means a conspiracy theory probably doesn’t revolve around you or your situation.
Apparently, Richard Feynman loved walking up to people and enthusiastically saying: “You’ll never guess what happened to me today!”… “Nothing.” Thus, in a word, summarising reality for most people, summarising your life.
The point is, nothing happens, unless you are genuinely creating or discovering something extraordinary or are engaged in a fantastic voyage of discovery, either physically or intellectually. Some people are, but most of us aren’t, something we’re constantly reminded of by Hollywood.
Nothing is being orchestrated. Instead, random events occur, affected to some degree or not by the decisions of policy-makers, scientists, and business leaders who have a little more influence on the world than you and I, granted. But are these individuals (or other parties) carrying out grand-scale projects conspiring against you and your kind? Again, probably not. No one is that clever, and even if they were, remember, you’re simply not important enough for them to care about.
In the COVID-19 conspiracy, we're seeing the classic Fight Club scenario: a rebellion against the sorry truth that “You are not special. You're not a beautiful and unique snowflake. You're the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We're all part of the same compost heap.”
The less radical position on the conspiracy spectrum, where COVID-19 is acknowledged to be a virus, but that governments’ response to it is some sort of power-grab seems marginally more plausible. And perhaps, to some degree, this is happening – certainly in Singapore where tracking has gone almost Orwellian, involving drones, wrist-bands and apps (source: friends who have just returned from there). But you, and Ian Brown, are giving waaay too much credit to the British and US governments if you think this is the flawless execution of a strategic masterplan. They just aren’t that good or organised.
Grand architects of order and chaos don’t exist
If this is a hoax, let’s attempt to find out who the grand architects behind it all might be by starting with the some questions about what it would take to fool people.
My uncle recently died, apparently it was COVID-19-related. When I mentioned this to a COVID-19 conspiracy theorist, I was faced with the question “Yeh, but how do you know it was COVID?”
Well, of course I don’t. The doctor(s), or nurse(s), told my aunt, who then witnessed my uncle die in an isolated room via FaceTime because no one was allowed near him.
Let’s see… if my uncle’s death was a hoax, there would have to be some nefarious players involved in order to support the goof and set up the sherade.
We’ll take the path of least resistance:
Let’s say it only takes one or two influential doctors or nurses in this particular hospital, who are part of the conspiracy, to coerce other doctors and nurses into setting up an elaborate series of protocols involving a ventilator and an isolated room, having given the fake diagnosis.
Why would these doctors conscribe to the conspiracy in the first place? Let’s keep it to two plausible reasons already shown to motivate people in the past:
money (i.e. they’re getting paid off (by who?)); or
principle (i.e. they are ideologically aligned to the conspiracy – perhaps they are cult members).
Fine, but neither of these reasons hold up to any degree of scrutiny.
Presumably a certain amount of doctors and nurses need to be paid off up and down the country, and across Europe and the rest of the world in order to maintain the illusion. The invoice for the mysterious “they” is going to be hefty. Is this the price worth paying? How much for a doctor? Does a nurse charge less? Only “they” know of course, but maybe their agenda is worth the price. If “they” are the rich elite, perhaps money is no object. But what’s their motive? Conspiracy theorists will come up with a range of answers here, and worse, provide “evidence” for them. But for the sane person, answers melt away.
Regarding the possibility of ideological alignment, cult involvement, and/or brain-washing, again the amount of players involved – doctors and nurses who, by the very nature of their profession are pre-conditioned to want the best for people – who would need to be coerced, again becomes difficult to process. How exactly would this cult, or “they”, influence these people to such a degree and to such coordinated perfection? What are their means of information distribution and influence? Who is behind such an effective communications campaign?
Maybe my uncle himself was just a hoax. Maybe he never really existed. Maybe this is a set up just to fool me, a blogger with an audience of approximately one (me). Maybe I don’t have a real-life reference point on any of this. Maybe the story of my friend’s father-in-law, who also apparently died due to COVID-19, is the same as mine: a hoax.
Let’s say my uncle was just a hoax and never actually even existed. Why am I seeing all this coverage on the news? Are the media in on it?
Maybe the media are creating a veil. Maybe they are in cahoots with the “deep state” or the lizards. Or is the media being tricked or paid off too?
Do conspiracy theorists think that “mainstream media” is cooking up the whole COVID-19 story, somehow maintaining a relatively consistent narrative across the world, despite their various political and editorial leanings? How such an operation be coordinated – the amount of players involved, the consistency of the messaging – is beyond anyone who’s witnessed even a medium-sized group of people undertake any kind of project.
Or is this an example of “they” tricking “mainstream media”? How? By paying acolytes to give false on-the-ground reports? By paying other acolytes to feign extreme illness and death? Maybe. Probably not though.
Again, who’s pulling the strings here? Who – which group of people (or aliens) – has the capacity to manipulate so many disparate minds in order to create the illusion that COVID-19 is real? And again, if the media are not the victims of the hoax and are part of it, would “mainstream media” be doing this out of financial or ideological reasons?
The fact is, we love a story
Randomness is too difficult, tiresome and unsexy for the human mind. It’s why we need stories to mobilise ourselves, crucially with a good (us) vs bad (them) backbone. We love a story... we’ve loved them since childhood.
As a proponent of science, I try my best to think in terms of properties and probabilities, rather than “evidence”. It’s why I won’t say that COVID-19 is definitely not a hoax. Maybe it is. But it most probably isn’t. It’s most likely a real virus the human immune system is not adapted to dealing with; and that a small percentage of people find extremely difficult to fight off, either for genetic reasons and/or reasons relating to prior health conditions; and it most likely originated either in a wet market in Wuhan or in a laboratory within the Wuhan area (either as a human-made virus for research purposes or not).
At this stage I think I need to give some sources for why I think this. My opinion is formed from discussions and writings among statisticians, epidemiologists, physicians, and other scientists including:
Dr. Siddartha Mukherjee: cancer physician and researcher.
Dr. Michael Osterholm: director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP)
Dr. Sam Harris: neuroscientist
Nassim Nicholas Taleb: mathematical statistician, former option trader and risk analyst (predicted both the financial crash in 2007-8 and a worldwide pandemic of the sort we’re seeing now)
Interestingly, Harris and Taleb have had several run-ins in the past. Taleb, in particular has been particularly disparaging of Harris. Yet, according to the conspiracy theorists, they are ready to come together on this particular issue. Again, for what reason? And who coerced them? Unless of course these high-functioning intellectuals are not part of the conspiracy but are being duped themselves.
Back to the wet market. If you look at video footage of such places, see below for Wuhan, and you know the slightest bit about biology, you’ll probably suspect that these conditions – all sorts of different living and dead species of animals lying next to each other, on top of each other, bleeding out, battered – provide fertile ground for diseases and viruses to fester and spread.
Swine flu, thus far, has escaped the conspiracy theory label. Swine flu viruses do not usually infect humans, but they can. Which means a virus has been known to pass from pig to human. Is it really inconceivable that a virus from a bat (perhaps one from the multitude seen in the video above), could be passed on to a human, perhaps or perhaps not via a pangolin or some other animal? This is not conspiracy, it’s biology. It’s the same biology that tells us about swine flu. It’s the same biology that tells us if cells are cancerous or not. It’s the same biology that tells us our body needs water to survive. Why does this need to be a conspiracy?
Perhaps because of our thirst for a good story. The evolution of viruses and the random spread of those viruses throughout a bat population and the random interaction between a bat (and perhaps another animal) and a human is not a good story (Although Hollywood did an OK job with Contagion, mainly because it focussed on human suffering and drama rather than randomness).
A more exciting story, one that feeds off social unrest, self-importance and pure delusion of the David Ike variety, is that this is a hoax, concocted by who knows who for who knows what reasons. The details don’t actually matter (as you discover the more you talk to the theorists) because the foundation of the story is compelling enough: that I am important, combined with the classic good (us) vs bad (them) narrative. It’s very exciting.
We have been reiterating this theme in story format for millennia, the big hits involving the Abrahamic god. The Christian story, in particular, is a belter. Here, we have good vs evil big time. No space for the boring ambiguity and grey hues of tough science, randomness and probability… instead, it’s all out theatre. Again, self-importance is the key. Of course planet earth (flat at the time) is the centre of the universe. Of course satan is out to hoax us – to hoax me. Me me me. And of course, there’s a superhero to latch on to: Christ.
Christianity is one of the starkest examples of humankind’s desperate need for meaning. And, as with the COVID-19 conspiracy, it is based on appropriating properties, misunderstanding probabilities, and finding “evidence” through the process of bias confirmation.
To think that George Soros, alien lizards, governments, “deep states”, or anyone else is orchestrating this whole thing is to go back to the dark ages of superstition and madness.
Are “they” really the grand architects of order and chaos? Or is this a deluded fantasy based on the shaky foundations that we are so special and important that there has to be some force to fight against?
You are not special, but you are a miracle
We are not special in the Hollywood sense. There are no “bad” guys out there, spending time and money plotting and acting against us. It’s more boring than that: there are dishes waiting to be washed, kids needing to be taken to school, and taxes due. Viruses arise and governments mishandle the situation. In terms of day-to-day drama and excitement for Average Joe and Josephine, a spat with the spouse or a colleague, or a spilled glass of wine on the carpet, is about as good as it gets.
But, you are also a miracle. You are the miracle of life, and the miracle of life is worth contemplating. Not from the vantage-point of a Hamlet, Othello, or Juliet, but from the vantage point of the universe itself. To sit with the realisation that life, your conscious experience, is in itself a miracle and a gift, is worth contemplating and one that I cover in these three posts: