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Saturday, April 04, 2020

More fake fake news news to fear, I fear

Humans are only able to fear one thing at a time. In the end there can only be one thing to be afraid of, I'm afraid

F ranklin D Roosevelt didn't exactly say “We have nothing to fear but fear of fear itself, I fear,” but maybe he should have. The Wuhan coronavirus pandemic is re-ordering our priorities, causing panic not just among the general public but also shaking the foundation of fake news to its imaginary core.

Here's an example: a headline in The Guardian titled “Climate monitoring and research could fall victim to coronavirus, scientists fear.” Is this fake news or is it real, and is there a difference?

We'll get to that in a moment, but whatever it is, I'm afraid it's as predictable as their quote from Petteri Taalas, secretary general of the World Meteorological Organization, who said “The impacts of climate change and growing amount of weather-related disasters continue.”

Let's leave aside grammatical nitpicking and refrain from asking “What weather-related disasters?” and simply note that almost all research is now stopped. That includes most clinical research and almost all basic biomedical research whose goal is to find cures for diseases that will kill thousands of times more than COVID-19.

Thanks to the lockdown, researchers can't get into their labs to work on other diseases: the unis are closed, and scientists at research hospitals must pass a gauntlet of people with infrared thermom­eters and scary gigantic Q-tips before they can get into the building, only to find they can't get supplies and their assistants are all hunkered down at home reading badly written science blogs full of run-on sentences and mixed metaphors.

People can only fear one thing at a time

Humans have a flaw: you're only capable of being afraid of one thing at a time. So Covid-19 spells the end of global warming as a scary thing. Despite the vast scariness of vast plumes of that scary capitalist gas of death, global warming is now between “Can my cat catch coronavirus from me?” and “How can I cook dinner with only two wieners and a Use-By-Aug-2012 jar of pickled bats?” as something to worry about.

It's even killing off identity politics. If there's going to be a hierarchy, whether a hierarchy of oppressed peoples, a hierarchy of things to panic about, or Maslowian hierarchy of needs, in the end there can only be one. That's the risk you take when your ideology is based on emotionalism instead of cold logic, which, technically, is all of them.

Let's be honest: we all saw this lockdown coming. We all knew it would crush our civil rights and cause the market to crash. Yet it wasn't until it was too late to do anything about it that people stopped clamoring for it and started to complain about it. And they're getting basted for complaining.

The internet, it is true, is now stuffed with offbeat cures for coronavirus. But what puzzles me is the people attacking them for being “fake news.“

Example: some people claim that chloroquine works by acting as an ionophore for zinc. This may be true, but it's based on a study that used it at concentrations close to its LC50 to kill cancer cells by inducing lysosome-mediated apoptosis. This isn't exactly what we want. Another one says that high doses of vitamin C may be beneficial. And there are some even more improbable cures out there.

These things may or may not kill the coronavirus, but they will certainly prevent you from dying of it.

But they're only hypotheses, which we in science entertain all the time. Sometimes a hypothesis turns out to be correct and sometimes not, like the idea that eating green unripe potatoes causes schizo­phrenia. It was a nice idea—solanine, an alkaloid in green potatoes, is bad for you, and you should throw away any potato that has green in it, but it seems not to make people insane.

Meta-fake news

Now Twitter, Google, and Facebook are using the coronavirus scare to push the idea that herd consensus = truth. It's a catastrophically bad idea that can only end in a purge of all dissenting opinions. It's a transparent attempt by the big fake media to regain control over the flow of information.

It's not just big corporations. One formerly conservative website has started calling people “virus deniers” and “covid denialists.” It's a universal human trait when people feel threatened: there's safety in numbers, so they attack anyone who refuses to join the herd. Honestly, I'd rather see someone misinterpreting a scientific paper than hunkering down in a basement, or a monastery, or wherever he is, calling people deniers for not doing what he wants. At least the first guy is trying to help.

Herd consensus is not truth, and suppressing dissenting opinions by calling people nasty names will reduce the willingness of everyone, including scientists, to discuss new ideas.

All news is fake news

These two tactics—suppressing ideas as fake news and slandering people for believing something you think is false—are essentially the same. They represent an authoritarian approach to knowledge, and they are the wrong approach. If we explain why an idea is faulty, it convinces people that they understand why it won't work, and they'll stop listening to the cranks. If we try to censor it, people will think we're trying to deceive them or deprive them of a potential treatment and they'll re-tweet the idea forever as if Jesus himself thought it up.

An example is those 5G towers that people are burning in the UK. It was so easy to ridicule the idea that 5G increased a person's risk of the coronavirus that it never occurred to most of us that somebody could actually believe it. Banning the idea just convinced people it was a conspiracy.

The default position for any reader should be that any statement is false until proven true. The more an article conforms with what we want to believe, the more we need to remind ourselves that all news is fake news until proven otherwise. But when the press tells us that the news that the news is fake is fake, it doesn't mean they magically got something right.

apr 04 2020, 6:08 am. edited apr 06 2020, 4:35 am

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