INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of 175+ essays on this website.
Between Alarmism and Denialism
The Corona Conspiracy, Part 10
Global warming, anyone?
There are interesting parallels between the responses to global warming, and to the current coronavirus pandemic.
Before the coronavirus pandemic took off in early 2020, and grabbed the attention of virtually all of our news outlets, climate change was on top of the agenda. Global warming, anyone? Greta Thunberg, remember? There are interesting parallels between the responses to global warming, and to the current coronavirus pandemic. Both topics were heavily politicized, especially in the US, with "skeptics" in both fields contesting the conclusions of science. As we've had "climate skeptics", there are now also "virus skeptics" or "pandemic skeptics", as we have seen in this series of articles. Some, like Stefan Lanka and Andrew Kaufman, even deny the very existence of viruses. Those on the conservative side of the political spectrum see both issues as a non-issue, a ploy set up by a corrupt government (the "deep state"), which aims to destroy our fossil economy or enslave and poison the general population with vaccines.
This has gone to such extremes that wearing masks or social distancing has become a matter of life and death for someculturally if not physically. In these paranoid circles, Covid-19 is rebranded as Covid-1984. Big Brother Bill Gates is watching you! It is good to realize there are extremist positions on both sides. Where alarmists usually tend to get germophobic (the virus is everywhere!), anti-vaxx virus denialists are usually toxicophobic (poison is everywhere!). This seems to be a Fake Debate full of False Choices. In these alt-med circles we are told we can disregard the virusif it exists at allas long as we keep our immune system healthy. Why not do both? Or: it is better to focus on disease prevention than on finding a cure. By all means! But this doesn't help the thousands that are now afflicted by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
This seems to be a human psychological response towards grave existential risks: either become obsessed by it or deny itand everything in between. We might say that the Western world has literally become obsessed by the coronavirus pandemic, as most pages of newspapers that appear today are still covering this topic. Be it the coronavirus pandemic or global warming, all positions between alarmism and denialism seem to have been taken up, as I have illustrated in Table 1.
In both areas, these "skeptics" see themselves as seekers for truth and freedom fighters, against a corrupt and malevolent government. Of course, the labels "alarmism" and "denialism" are loaded with biases. Alarmists see themselves as eminently rational: what else can we do when faced with such a huge risk of a global warming or a global pandemic than take drastic measures to prevent or at least mitigate its effects? And even if the risks turn out to be overestimated, isn't it more advisable to err on the side of caution here? Denialists, on the other hand, see themselves as defending a much neglected aspect of the discussion: either the value of modern civilization (and its cultural achievements) or a view of health that stresses prevention and a natural life style over cure by conventional medicine.
skepticism of conventional science
and sanity to
What both "skeptic" views have in common is a deep skepticism of conventional science. But wait, isn't science supposed to be skeptical in the first place? Real skeptics start with the scientific consensus in a given field, and familiarize themselves with it to the best of their ability, before the idea of discounting a whole field of science can even arise in their brains. Fake skeptics pick and choose whatever they understand of a given field, and fabricate their own alternative theory. They just don't do their homework.
What typically happens here is that self-proclaimed "experts" such as Andrew Kaufman do a selective reading of the scientific literature which confirms their pre-conceived notions. These "experts" usually don't publish in respected scientific journals, but directly address the general public through YouTube videos, often receiving hundreds of thousands of views. Andrew Kaufman is a prime example of this approach, as we have seen, where he selectively reads the virology literature to support his thesis that viruses are actually exosomes (see Part 3 and Part 4). To reach that mistaken conclusion he has to overlook vast amounts of data, from electronmicroscopic photos to genomic evidence amassed by science about viruses, their nature and behavior. He even doesn't even shy away from claiming support from respected scientists such as James Hildreth, where as a matter of fact these scientists in no way agree with his misinterpretations.
Shamelessly claiming deeper insight, Kaufman rejects the scientific consensus about the current pandemic in toto, while at the same time lacking any credentials himself. As he conceded himself, he has never done any virological research, ever. As coronavirus specialist Benjamin Neuman humorously commented, and I am paraphrasing: "I don't claim expertise in psychiatry (Kaufman's field), so a psychiatrist shouldn't mess with virology" (see Part 9). The true test of science happens when a new theory, however speculative or unconventional, is evaluated in the scientific arena through journals and conferences, and not by counting likes or shares of YouTube videos. The very moment these videos are banned by Facebook or YouTube, because they violate generally accepted medical views, these "experts" get an undeserved status of misunderstood geniuses or even cultural martyrs.
Science denialism has many forms, evolution denial being the most ancient one. Climate change denialism has a decades long history as well, but virus denialism is of more recent origin, though it has had its forerunners as well.
Science is not a democracy, but if 97% of all climate scientists subscribe to the notion that global warming has a human origin and has devastating consequences, both for human society and many endangered species, it definitely means something. Likewise, if the large majority of virologists agree SARS-CoV-2 poses a tremendous risk and COVID-19 is much more than even a heavy flu, because it affects multiple organs including our brain and kidneys, even in younger people, we have to pay close attention to their message. If dissenting or minority views are not accepted by science, it usually stands to reason, because they lack the overview a trained and seasoned scientist has of his or her field. If they have any expertise at all.
This is not to say the measures taken in the past six months don't come with a heavy price in terms of economic recession and social deprivation. But seeing malice and nefarious intent behind this worldwide and coordinated strategy, on top of the selective use of scientific insights and accomplishments, is a sure sign of conspiracy thinking. On the contrary, I would say, finally the world can tackle a problem of this magnitude with coordinated action. If only we could do the same with global warming! It also doesn't mean that we don't need to carefully and continuously re-evaluate this policy whenever the costs outweigh the benefits.
Techniques of Science Denial
Science denialism has many forms, evolution denial being the most ancient one. Climate change denialism has a decades long history as well, but virus denialism is of more recent origin, though it has had its forerunners as well. Since climate change denialism has been with us for a much longer time, it has been analyzed by true skeptics quite profoundly. On the Skeptical Science website, which lists and refutes all the false arguments usually presented by these denialists, I found a nice overview of the many ways conspiracy thinkers try to make their case. It is summarized by the acronym FLICC, which stands for Fake Experts, Logical Fallacies, Impossible Expectations, Cherry Picking and Conspiracy Theories. John Cook, who compiled this taxonomy, co-authored The Conspiracy Theory Handbook (2020), which is freely available as PDF.
When it comes to Fake Experts, Kaufman is a prime example. He bluffs that "the similarities [between viruses and exosomes] have been recognized by scientists, including virologists, and many times scientists have actually said they are the same thing, or they have substantial overlap. Including prominent virologists." Unfortunately, the most prominent and only virologist he specifically mentioned, James Hildreth, rejected this view. The other "virologist" he mentioned, Stefan Lanka, is actually a "no-virologist", because he denies the very existence of viruses. When someone claims that "many times scientists have actually said the same thing as I do" you know he is trying to impress a layman audience, not a group of specialists. Quite often, online petitions are offered as protest against lockdown policies in various countries, signed by dozens of "experts" or concerned citizens, but rarely if ever do they have the relevant expertise. (The same is true about petitions raising doubt as to the validity of Darwinian theory).
Quote Mining and Cherry Picking are also high on Kaufman's list, for he mentions his excitement when he stumbled upon Hildreth's quote (in the context of the HIV virus) that "the virus is fully an exosome in every sense of the word." Adds Kaufman: "Now this was just a great confirmation of what I was already thinking. I was kind of blown away when I read this in a paper. Because this was one of the last papers I looked at. To find that they have come to the same conclusion really helped validate my opinion." As we have discussed, this is just a matter of confirmation bias, simply because no virologist (or exosome expert for that matter) of name and fame would say these things. This quote, quoted out of context, just confirmed "what I was already thinking"the hallmark of amateurism and pseudo-science. And he even concedes "this was one of the last papers I looked at." Does that mean all of the other papers he looked at did not confirm his own preconceived opinions?
When it comes to Conspiracy Theory Kaufman's scores are high. He is Immune to Evidence, becaus he doesn't recognize the iconic electronmicroscope photo of a coronavirus even when he sees it, mistaking the spikes on the virus for supposed viruses on a human cell. He doesn't even consider the evidence provided by genomic science, which has produced thousands of whole genomes of SARS-CoV-2 by now, adding evidence to the theory that there's a malignent virus going around the world, and possibly mutating to even more harmful variants in the process. He can play the Persecuted Victim since he lost his job some months ago, as soon as his university got wind of the cranky ideas about health and disease he was communicating through online media. And he sees Nefarious Intent behind the co-ordinated action of the various countries all over the world to combat this new virus. In his mind, this can't be anything other than a planned operation to get humanity vaccinated with poisonous vaccins, or even chips that will change our DNA. I am serious.
Conspiracy theories are are shot through with these logical fallacies. In many cases they are contradictory. As to viruses, Lanka and Kaufman deny their very existence, but Zach Bush, another alt-med celebrity, argues that the SARS-CoV-2 virus can't possibly be harmful because viruses are everywhere. That is of course a non sequitur. Among the thousands of viruses that live happily in other species, a few can change ("spill over") so they can enter and thrive in human cells, and thus become harmful. Some smart-arse denialists argue that people only die with the virus, not because of the virus, because they have so many underlying illnesses. This overlooks the fact that the virus may pull the trigger, and without it they might still have lived longer. So yes, people with underlying illnesses have a higher chance of dying because of it.
“groping through a fog of ignorance”
This is not to say one cannot question the received scientific view of the current pandemic, and the best course of action to combat the virus. Legitimate questions can be asked as to its case fatality rate, the efficacy of masks, the reliability or even usefulness of vaccins, or the relative importance of droplets over aerosoles in the spreading of the virus. SARS-CoV-2 has undoubtedly been the most investigated and commented upon virus of all times, mostly due to the advanced technology of whole genomic science. At the time of its predecessor SARS-CoV-1, it took months to decipher its full genome, not to mention against which astronomical costs.
And yet, scientists are still struggling with many of its aspects. As Matt Ridley wrote (in May) in The Spectator:
We know everything about Sars-CoV-2 and nothing about it. We can read every one of the (on average) 29,903 letters in its genome and know exactly how its 15 genes are transcribed into instructions to make which proteins. But we cannot figure out how it is spreading in enough detail to tell which parts of the lockdown of society are necessary and which are futile. Several months into the crisis we are still groping through a fog of ignorance and making mistakes. There is no such thing as 'the science'.
This pervasive ambiguity and ignorance about all things SARS-CoV-2 tempts some people to turn to conspiracy theories about its origin. Postulating a simple and single cause behind this pandemic (China, 5G, Bill Gates, the New World Order, Lucifer) betrays the complexity of this phenomenon, and overlooks the need to use all the science we have to improve the situation. Misinformation and self-proclaimed experts definitely don't help. On the other hand, isn't the virus such a single cause? Kaufman, by taking the virus out of the pandemic, creates a completely new type of complexity: he needs to explain where all these thousands of people are dying from. Or how so many infections can arise from a single meeting in a pub. Or how genomes assembled in different countries show tiny variations. A puzzle he will never solve.
How do we find the sane middle ground between both alarmism and denialism, hysteria on the one hand and paranoia on the other? By listening to science and taking its findings seriously. And by understanding we are part of the problem, if we don't change our behavior, in terms of invading and ruining nature and its scarce resources. And that includes leading a healthy and sustainable life style, as well as taking all the necessary precautions so that we don't get infected, nor infect our fellow human beings, with this new virus.
When you think about it, conspiracy theories are inevitable when you deny a scientific consensus. How else do you explain how all the world's scientists agree on something that you don't believe? -- John Cook, Denial 101x
 Matt Ridley, "We know everythingand nothingabout Covid", www.rationaloptimist.com, 9 May, 2020.
83 Vaccine Myths from docbastard.net
To all those who claim SARS-CoV-2or any virusdoes not exist: the virosphere consists of 4 realms, 9 kingdoms, 16 phyla, 2 subphyla, 36 classes, 55 orders, 8 suborders, 168 families, 103 subfamilies, 1421 genera, 68 subgenera, 6590 species. Take that. https://talk.ictvonline.org/taxonomy/
A summary of early parts of this series has appeared in the Dutch magazine Skepter 33(3), September 2020, as "Viruses don't exist" (covering Parts 1-5). German: Skeptiker (December 2020); English: Skeptic.org.uk (January 2021)
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