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Friday, October 30, 2020

Two utterly bonkers conspiracy theories

More evidence that we scientists need to stay the heck out of politics

A few weeks ago, the editors of Nature magazine wrote this line, which could go up against the 1948 headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN” as the most obvious case of press bias in history, and in case we ever needed it, evidence that we scientists need to stay the heck out of politics:

Joe Biden's trust in truth, evidence, science and democracy make him the only choice in the US election.

The problem with the statement is not just that it's puzzling why a UK science magazine thought it wise to tell Americans how to vote. It is that Kamala Harris, not Joe Biden, is the real Democratic candidate. Wisely, Nature didn't speculate on how long Biden, who appears to be showing early signs of dementia, will be able to hang on to office, or for that matter to life itself, but it is clear that the Democrats don't expect him to be around very long if he wins.

Nature has published several other articles, admittedly not as entertaining as their claim about Biden, in which they accuse Trump of interfering with esteemed international organizations like the World Health Organization (which parroted false information from the PRC government during a major health crisis), and the Paris Climate Accord, which was a wrongheaded attempt to solve the supposed climate crisis by pressuring western countries to pay for it.

They falsely accused Trump of lying about the dangers posed by the coronavirus, in an attempt to blame him for the 200,000 US deaths attributed to it. They even repeated the long-discredited slur, invented by our American news media, that he has been “tacitly supporting white-supremacist groups.“

Some of this may be explained by a failure to recognize that an increasing percentage of what our US news media write is intended to support their partisan political goals, with truth being a mere secondary consideration. This fact has not gone unnoticed by the American people, many of whom now consider the advertisements for penis enlargement to be more accurate than the news.

But here's the real issue: it is not the job of the president of the United States to do what we scientists want. It's also not the job of the federal government to create new spending programs every time there is a supposed crisis, no matter how urgent it may seem at the moment. And as hard as it may be to accept, it is not its job to accede to the wishes of advocates clamoring for more funding for their pet political causes. The job of the federal government is to create the foundation for prosperity and growth in our country by enforcing property rights and individual liberty, and then to get out of the way. When they do this, the other problems invariably solve themselves.

This is why Americans elected Donald Trump, and he has succeeded spectacularly: despite his occasionally bombastic tweeting, he extricated us from the quagmires of attrition that his predecessors got us into; he created peace between the Arab states and Israel; he re-negotiated the unfair trade deals that we had been stuck with; and he eliminated the misguided support of Iran and the fake climate treaty the NGOs had tricked Europeans into signing. Not least among Trump's virtues (as his supporter see it) is that he is the first president in a long time to have kept most of his promises.

His opponents have been driven to near insanity. Pelosi acted like an angry child ostentatiously tearing up her copy of his speech. The fake story about Russian collusion did enormous damage to our relationship with Russia, an important country that ought to be an ally against terrorism. The barrage of other fake stories, too numerous to list here, just cemented public opinion that the press cannot distinguish truth from fantasy.

It's not who, but why

If you're going to vote against Trump, vote against him because you don't like the improved economy or the lower taxes or the absence of new wars, not because of fake stories about Russian hookers or spurious claims of lying or of talking about grabbing things that cannot, in all honesty, be grabbed, or because some political hack at some magazine called him a this or a that, or because you don't care for the phraseology of his tweets.

As for the virus, it is beyond bonkers to blame Trump. Examples like this among scientists and scientific magazines illustrate the corrosive effect of the reliance of science on government funding. The fact that our salaries are underwritten by federal grants means we are changing from disinterested bystanders into supplicants whose only concern is to grab a bigger share of the public's money. This automatically alters our perceptions and our political views and it harms the reputation of science.

Virus hobgoblins

The second bonkers conspiracy theory is also based on politics. It's motivated by recognition of the corrupting nature of politics, beautifully expressed many years ago by H. L. Mencken:

The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

This doesn't mean, however, that every menace is imaginary. It's reasonable to wonder whether a lockdown of the entire population, which stops scientists from working on a cure for the virus, is a good solution. It's utterly bonkers to claim that the virus doesn't really exist.

There is far more than just an RNA sequence out there. People have been mutating it. We have cryo-EM structural studies showing what it looks like, and hundreds of biochemical studies showing how it infects people, what receptors it binds to and how it affects our cells and our immune system. These conspiracy theorists would benefit from learning more virology.

The fact that some group at the CDC tried unsuccess­fully to get their virus experiment to work does not mean that the virus doesn't exist. And the fact that a dissident Chinese virologist tried unsuccess­fully to prove that SARS-CoV-2 was engineered, apparently on the theory that the PLA's goal was to weaken America by killing off our aged people who have diabetes, does not mean that it was not. As always, when an idea or an experiment fails it simply means we learn nothing of value from it.

But it's a sad fact that a bonkers theory also tends to weaken your credibility. After seeing all the scientific errors in these virus theories, people will discount anything else you say, even if it should make sense. When your magazine uses well-known falsehoods to tell us how to vote, people will wonder about your ability to distinguish truth from politics. You gain nothing and lose a lot.

It's great that people are exploring unconventional ideas. These should be encouraged, not censored. It's what made Western civilization great. But it would be nice if people based their ideas on evidence and reason. It would be even nicer if people could be more skeptical, just once in a while.

oct 30 2020, 4:23 am

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