Lies and Truth about Science
Divide and conquer: misinformation and hatred in the age of instant media
By John K. White
Edited from the original article
It is important, especially in times of crisis, to ensure that what we read and share is true by critically reviewing the available data and analysis. Uninformed daily online chat is particularly dangerous in times of conflict, disaster or infectious pandemic. Imagine an Arabic phone game with billions of Internet connections. Chances are that the final version of the message that comes out on the other end will not look like the original, altered by systemic errors and the biases of each of the relays. How do you separate truth from misinformation, fact from fiction?
It is important, especially in times of crisis, to ensure that what we read and share is true by critically reviewing the available data and analysis.
In addition to systemic flaws in interpersonal communication, different perceptions of meaning and nuances of language multiply the imprecision of our messages. The nature of knowledge and understanding is blurred by inherent subjectivity and our own biases, and in many cases, it is difficult to distinguish between right and wrong. Is the earth flat? Does the sun orbit the earth? Was COVID-19 created by a virology laboratory as part of a Chinese government conspiracy? Alas, the ability to refer to any authority has been lost in our anti-intellectual world. “Cui bono? Who benefits from this?” should always the first question asked, and “Can these claims be independently verified?” is the next.
Certainly, healthy skepticism is essential, and we must always be wary of the source and motivation of the messages we receive. But we all defer to others, to our trusted proxies. Unless we have been there, how can we know for sure? And, as it becomes increasingly difficult to hear anything but our own voices in the echo chambers of social networking, yes-men and troll farms are everywhere, amplifying the nonsense.
On the shoulders of giants
The first telephone message was transmitted in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell who, after spilling acid on his leg, called his assistant in the next room with apparently controlled anxiety: “Mr. Watson, come here, I would like to see you”. Many of us learned this story at school. Less well known is the place where the telephone was invented, Brantford or Boston being generally indicated as the place of invention. In fact, Bell was not the inventor of the telephone, a feat that we owe to the Italian Antonio Meucci some 20 years earlier in New York City (Resolution 269 of the 107th U.S. Congress).
‘The nature of knowledge and understanding is blurred by inherent subjectivity and our own prejudices, and in many cases it is difficult to distinguish right from wrong.’
Whether the inventor was Meucci, Bell or some other pretender, a working telephone would not have been possible without the scientists and engineers who preceded them, including the Italian Alessandro Volta (for the electric battery), the Englishman Michael Faraday (for induction) and the American Joseph Henry (for the electromagnetic relay) to name but three. As Newton said, “If I have been able to see further, it has been by standing on the shoulders of giants who have gone before me.
Today, billions of us use e-mail every day, a tool that a group of U.S. government-funded researchers invented. The first Internet message was sent on October 29, 1969, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, using Arpanet, a new packet-switching protocol sent from computer to computer and developed for use by the U.S. military. Fortunately, even though the first Internet message was rather disappointing – “LO”, the first two letters of the word “LOGIN”, because Stanford’s computer crashed after sending the second letter – and not as obvious as Bell’s call for help, the impact was just as great since the number of Internet connections went from two – from UCLA to Stanford – to 15 in 1971 and 37 a year later, to several billion today.
The COVID-19 pandemic
On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) – an agency of 194 member nations dedicated to promoting health, ensuring global security and serving the vulnerable, as stated in its mission statement – declared the outbreak of COVID-19 to be a pandemic.
Not yet fully aware of the dangers, International Women’s Day parades were held March 8 on the streets of Madrid and other cities, while in the United States business continued as usual, with one congressman even declaring, “It’s a great time to get out and go to a local restaurant. In England, despite the WHO declaration, the annual Cheltenham horse races were held from March 10 to 13. Subsequently, a national emergency was declared in the United States on March 13, while the United Kingdom closed its doors ten days later.
‘The number of Internet connections went from two – from UCLA to Stanford – to 15 in 1971 and 37 a year later, to several billion today.’
Countries around the world introduced restrictive containment measures, temporarily depriving citizens of their fundamental freedoms, to fight an invisible and pernicious enemy. In Ireland, the annual St. Patrick’s Day parades have been cancelled across the country and pubs have been closed. You know how serious things are when the Irish cancel a party.
The contagion spread and the deaths increased exponentially at first and then stabilized in most countries. By the end of April, there were 3.3 million infections and 230,000 deaths worldwide. The 1st of May was marked by a quiet joy, as many people in Europe were able to leave their homes for the first time in more than six weeks.
How an epidemic became a pandemic will be analyzed in the coming years, especially how so many people in the West were infected when so few were, relatively speaking, infected in China and other Asian countries. Preparedness, one-party state control and understanding the basics of science and epidemiology will be the first aspects to be analyzed.
It is however far more important to discuss the effects of asymptomatic infection and the use of masks to limit community transmission, as there are still conflicting guidelines on whether or not to wear a mask. We should be working together to limit transmission to poor countries, preparing a better response to a possible second wave and future pandemics instead of fighting over whether masks are a common necessity or not.
A campaign of anti-science misinformation
A week after the WHO statement, U.S. President Donald Trump told a White House briefing on March 19 that “no one could have predicted that there would be a pandemic of this magnitude,” a lie as crude as it is brazen, and one that sows the seeds of dereliction of duty by a government that washes its hands of responsibility.
Accusations against China were subsequently hastily assembled. In an interview with Reuters, on April 29, Trump said the virus was a Chinese election ploy, saying “China will do everything it can to make me lose the presidential race. The next day, at a White House briefing, he said he saw evidence that the virus was created in a laboratory at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. When pressured to share the evidence, he refused to elaborate, adding, “I’m not allowed to tell you”. One wonders how the origin of one of the greatest health emergencies in modern history would not justify full disclosure!
Recriminations against China will continue at least until after the US elections in November, as part of a campaign of anti-science disinformation. No one should be surprised that these claims will be repeated again and again in the months to come, a tactic taken from the propaganda manual of Joseph Goebbels who, without being the pioneer of “illusory truth”, knew the importance of repeating a lie often enough for it to become truth.
‘Sensationalist tweets and tabloid sound bites are designed to provoke disinformation and ensure frenzied rhetoric and anti-intellectual ramblings…’
The same assertion that the Chinese government was responsible for the pandemic was echoed by various experts from the American right. It was never clear how these experts could know more than the agency designed to oversee global health, or the US secret service which announced that the virus was neither man-made nor genetically modified. The trolls had a field day.
Some in the U.S. administration even suggested that COVID-19 was a biological weapon, an accusation straight out of a Hollywood movie. Of course, Trump has no real interest in digging deeper in a systematic way to establish the facts, preferring to sow division with lies, innuendoes and half-truths. It is him against the old world order, fighting against an evil Chinese network and the tentacles of chaos spreading everywhere to oppose him. His sensationalist tweets and tabloid sound bites are intended to provoke disinformation and ensure frenzied rhetoric and anti-intellectual ramblings, thus placing American society in a permanent state of rebellion.
Pseudo-science and fake news
In response to President Trump’s assertions that the United States was not responsible for the devastation of its economy, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on April 30, “Some U.S. politicians have ignored the facts and defamed China in an attempt to evade responsibility and incompetence in the fight against the pandemic.” Are Trump’s angry accusations serving to mask his inadequacy in the face of an avalanche of alarming news 24/7?
Some of the “news” is clearly false and propagated by journalists pursuing a biased agenda. It is already difficult enough to keep up with the news, as information from all sources is disseminated, but even more difficult if it is manipulated. On April 30, Trump announced a “Warp Speed” operation to provide 100 million doses of vaccine by November 2020. Alas, this statement is also not in line with reality because, despite its Star Trek-like science fiction aspect, nothing can travel faster than light, except for certain electromagnetic waves, and then only at the quantum level.
‘It is already difficult to keep up with the news, as information from all sources is disseminated, but even more difficult when it is manipulated.’
Add to this the assumptions about the beneficial action of anti-malarial drugs, bleach injections and UV absorption, and you can see how dangerous and even deadly pseudo-science and false news can be. We are all willing to follow guidelines, and often even obliged to do so in times of uncertainty, but we all hope that our leaders know what they are doing.
Thanks in part to Marie Curie, we know that high-energy radiation is harmful (gamma rays, X-rays, UV). She and her daughter Irene, both Nobel Prize winners, died of leukemia after laboriously separating radioactive material from their ores. Madame Curie, who was the first to use radiation for imaging diagnostics, would not have wanted anyone to swallow UV light. Unless we reproduce all the experiments carried out to date (and assuming there is no deception), we must rely on established science.
There’s nothing magical about science
Also known as the principle of simplicity, Ockham’s Razor is a proposition that simple explanations are almost always preferable to elaborate conspiracies. Did man really walk on the moon? There is a lot of evidence for this, and you can even bounce a laser off the moon to measure the distance between the earth and the moon using one of the mirrors left behind by astronauts. We can also be sure that the Earth is not flat, nor supported by a ring of elephants standing on a large turtle. No one needs to waste time debating this certainty.
Aristotle believed that heavy objects fall faster than light objects, and most people held similar beliefs until Galileo and Newton showed that gravity made no difference between a feather and a lead ball. It wasn’t until 1971 that Apollo 15 commander David Scott dropped a 30-gram hawk feather and a 1.3-kilogram aluminum hammer on the moon to verify Galileo and Newton’s statement.
Particle physicist and University of Manchester science professor Brian Cox then replicated the same experiment on Earth in a silo-sized NASA test chamber to confirm the same result (Cox used a feather and a bowling ball). With no wind resistance, the two objects fell together and hit the ground at the same time.
Sowing doubt and division
Today, the politics of disinformation is never a quest for truth. Rather, it is about Obama, the government that wants to ban weapons, the Russians against the West, Islam against the West, and probably now China against the West. Are we going to waste yet another generation hating each other? Why so much chatter about what is obvious to everyone? To sow doubt and division. To avoid asking the most difficult questions, such as why is universal health care not a basic human right, why is work not accessible to all (a four-day workweek is an obvious solution to unemployment), or why was the supposedly richest nation in the world not prepared for a pandemic?
The real story here is one of misinformation. It is about debating absurdities to sow doubt about authenticity and obvious facts. And who are they, these diabolical globalists who want to take away your weapons and stamp 666 on your forehead? The Illuminati? The Gnomes of Zurich? More like rich libertarians who want to keep their billions in their offshore accounts. Unfortunately, no one gets too excited when Jeff Bezos makes enough in a month to cover the entire country’s health care costs. Or that the wealth of American billionaires jumped by almost 400 billion dollars in April, at the same time as more than 30 million Americans lost their jobs. The simplest answer is often the best. Global cooperation is not the beginning of a world government.
‘The real story here is one of misinformation. It’s about debating absurdities to cast doubt on authenticity and the obvious facts.’
How can we be sure that COVID-19 started in a market in Wuhan? We have to rely on qualified experts because it is the most credible explanation, based on the best evidence available to date. Why believe a vague assertion that “some people probably think it was in a laboratory”, even though this hypothesis is often repeated by social media? The same goes for 5G, which is said to be the cause of the coronavirus or the crazy ideas about injecting bleach and UV light.
It is thus unlikely that Bill Gates created the COVID-19 virus to be able to vaccinate us all in order to get even richer or to control the population and introduce a world government because he is an atheist and in cahoots with the king of globalists, George Soros. One can have reservations about the fortune Gates has accumulated and the little taxes he and other billionaires pay, but he did not create a virus to make even more billions by selling microchip vaccines. However, anyone can “read” Gates’ infamous plan online on their favourite disinformation platform. Some of the comments are even grammatically correct.
Always question the validity of the source!
The U.S. president will say that the coronavirus or climate change is a hoax to create confusion because he does not want to recognize any authority other than his own or praise the cooperative efforts of others. America is always beautiful, exceptional and caring. But when the discourse is strewn with “some,” “many think,” and “they say”, doubt is the only truth available to us.
Whether hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir and plasma injections from cured patients can help treat coronavirus, without causing arrhythmia among other problems, requires a controlled program and more antibody research according to the latest medical reports. Even seemingly far-fetched ideas can be helpful, such as a peanut butter sniffing test, as suggested by a Canadian doctor, or the fact that nicotine can reduce infections, according to a French study. In the absence of an effective vaccine and until the virus is better understood, only time will tell what works and how effective ad hoc practices are. We cannot expect consensual explanations, but we can always use the best science and common sense as a guide.
‘When the discourse is strewn with “some”, “many” think and “they say”, doubt is the only truth available to us.’
To even suggest that bleach is a possible solution rightly calls into question the validity of the source. We could have a very good discussion about the disinfecting effectiveness of light in killing germs, viruses and other contagions on surfaces. Ultraviolet light can also kill virus-laden droplets in the air in public places. A scientific approach would also better calibrate the extent of the virus rather than relying on infection-related mortality rates, which are essentially unknown without universal testing.
Sadly, obvious absurdities remain, such as the inference that hospitals are empty because their parking lots are empty (hospitals have been overwhelmed in parts of Europe and New York City, where life and death choices have been made on the fly like in a war zone triage), or that 5G networks weaken the immune system, thereby facilitating viral infection (in the Netherlands, an attack on two 5G towers nearly brought down the emergency network). Instead, we should be debating whether extended 5G data networks that will control more of our data are an invasion of our privacy.
It is crucial that reality prevails over fiction
The press has a problem of a lack of rigour. Everyone has an agenda, altruistic or not, and one has to take into account limited resources or tight deadlines. But reality must prevail over fiction. That’s one of the reasons we have peer-reviewed academic literature. This does not mean that all articles dealing with nature, science or applied physics are entirely accurate, but it does minimize the risk of bias. Of course, we can all be wrong, as was the idea of a flat earth, a sun orbiting the earth, or Aristotle’s false theory of gravity, the validation of which had been unchallenged for nearly two millennia, but not willingly and not for lack of trying. Science builds and destroys, but it is always in search of truth. That is why we demand references and why deception is not permissible.
‘Science builds and destroys, but it is always in search of truth. That is why we demand references and why deception is not permissible.’
When almost all the peer-reviewed scientific literature states that the earth is getting warmer, we should take note of it. Even a climate change skeptic, Berkeley physics professor Richard A. Muller, confirms that anthropomorphic warming is real. He has done his own analysis, tracing temperatures back to 1753, using station data and proxy data such as tree rings and coral growth, corroborating IPCC data linking the rise in global average temperature to a definite increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. As Muller said, “the perfect fit between warming and CO2 emissions suggests that most – perhaps all – of the warming over the past 250 years has been caused by humans.”
Interestingly, Muller found that temperatures only rose in two-thirds of the 36,866 recording stations in the study of data collected worldwide, but actually dropped in the other third, demonstrating that local temperatures cannot be used to extrapolate an average global temperature. Climate should not be confused with weather, as climate change skeptics often do.
Charlatans threatening our future
It is perhaps not surprising that the United States chose not to participate in an international fund-raising event organized by the European Union on May 4 this year, which raised $8 billion for research into coronavirus vaccines, treatments and diagnostics.
Perhaps we need a cultural correction, along with the next stock market correction, to realign sustainable practices with existing resources. Over the past two months, the luckiest among us have learned to live with less and keep the essentials. “What do I need less of? “has become a mantra of gratitude.
‘Perhaps we need a cultural correction, along with the next stock market correction, in order to realign sustainable practices with existing resources.’
In any case, our defences must be underpinned by objective science and a concerted plan to make clear decisions. In some cases, the way forward will be based on knowledge, possibly incomplete, but never on nonsense. Charlatans do not deserve to be the protagonists of our future. Crooks only sell faded dreams.
The earth isn’t flat. The sun doesn’t orbit the earth. Neil and Buzz did walk on the moon, as well as ten other astronauts after them. COVID-19 is not a Chinese government conspiracy. Repeating lies doesn’t make you a rebel, it only shows you’re someone whose opinion doesn’t make sense. When your evidence is biased, your other statements become inadmissible like the fruit of a poisonous tree. Facts don’t need to pass an approval test. As Marie Curie aptly noted, “Nothing in life is to be feared, only understood. We need more scientific rigour and less nonsense.”
The truth is out there. We may have to search for a long time, but we must seek it. Trust in science, beware of lies, and don’t let yourself be overcome by hatred.
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John K. White, a former Professor of Physics and Education at University College Dublin and the University of Oviedo, is the editor of the energy information service E21NS and the author of Do The Math! On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). Do The Math! is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.