Fake news and failure: the circle of (modern) life

Fake news is a very fashionable phenomenon. In other words, the topics that are prone to conspiracy theories and dis/misinformation vary with the popular concerns of the time.

In 1998 a Doctor called Andrew Wakefield was the lead author of a study published in the British Medical Journal the Lancet. The study claimed a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. Subsequently the General Medical Council found Wakefield had been dishonest in his research and struck him off the medical register. Nevertheless Wakefield’s message had found enough of an audience to form the basis of what is now referred to as the antivaxxer movement. The impact of this movement is ongoing – vaccine uptake (not just for the MMR vaccine) decreased in the early years of the 21st century and resulted in several outbreaks of childhood diseases once all but eradicated. Wakefield continues to act as a spokesman for the antivaxxer movement speaking regularly at rallies and directing a film in 2016 called “Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe”.

Last year the predominant theme of conspiracy theorists was that Covid-19 was a hoax, designed to provide an excuse for the authorities to remove our freedoms, or, even worse, to soften us up for some kind of insidious slaughter. Now, with the advent of mass vaccinations, the focus has switched back to the vaccines themselves. Here is an example….

The anti-vaxxers are once again having their day. As is usual with conspiracy theories posted on social media this tweet is very short on references, but is most likely referring to an open letter written by a Doctor Geert Vanden Bossche posted on 6 March 2021. A familiar pattern is emerging and perhaps we see in Doctor Bossche a potential successor to Andrew Wakefield. You can find a fairly comprehensive debunking of Doctor Bossche’s letter here: Countering Geert Vanden Bossche’s dubious viral open letter warning against mass COVID-19 vaccination | Science-Based Medicine

In David Aaronvitch’s 2010 book: “Voodoo Histories: How conspiracy theory has shaped modern history” he describes a number of conspiracy theories, traces their origins, debunks them and examines the motivations of some of their originators. He also ponders their continuing popularity. In particular he examines the many and varied conspiracy theories surrounding the deaths of John F Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana – deaths that continue to inspire many books, documentaries and articles. These were shocking deaths – these three were young and successful – a source of inspiration to many people. The mode of death seemed cruel and arbitrary. Is life really that random and cruel that even people like these can die in this manner (lone gunman, overdose and a car crash)? Are we in some way responsible? After all Kennedy was voted for by the public, we went to see Marilyn’s movies and we bought millions of newspapers and magazines with Diana on the cover. If death can come so easily to people like these what chance do we have? Aaronvitch says: “Conspiracy theory may be one way of reclaiming power and disclaiming responsibility”. Belief in these convoluted explanations gives some consolation, tells us that life isn’t so random, and that these terrible tragedies are not our fault. This brings us back to the anti-vaxxers…

Disease is arbitrary and cruel. Modern medicine has improved to the point where we know many causes of disease, and have many methods at our disposal to fight it, including vaccines. The vast majority of medical professionals respect the science, the research and the trials. They know vaccines work. They also know they work best if taken up by as many people as possible so they are happy to say so. Some though, like Wakefield and Bossche, don’t follow this line – so how do they manage to come to different conclusions from the vast majority of their profession? Well, there are extensive articles written about Wakefield and there are a few already appearing about Bossche, as per the reference above, that tackle their original motivation. However, I don’t want to talk about how they started down this path (I will leave that for others) but I will talk about a particular, very common, bias that many of us suffer from. This is the overconfidence bias, sometimes known as the sunk-cost, or double-down bias. It manifests itself in many ways, but perhaps the easiest way to understand it is we tend to keep going with something we feel personal attachment to. Football fans will bet on their own team even if it’s propping up the bottom of the league table. The more we invest both emotionally and in terms of physical resources the more committed we feel. Sometimes results will tell us that we are not actually following a good course of action (our team is continuing to lose) – but we keep going anyway. We can’t give up now, and the thought of the shame of admitting we are wrong is unbearable. In the case of the lower ranked football team we are just throwing good money after bad. However, if it’s our career or reputation, as in the case of Wakefield or Bossche, the stakes become much higher and it becomes much more serious. If you read Wakefield’s original study it is noticeable it is much less strongly worded than his subsequent rhetoric culminating in his 2016 film. Bossche’s open letter is much less “antivaxxer” in tone than the tweet in which he is referenced. With each iteration and repetition confidence builds. It helps if the theory doesn’t demand anything of those who support it. Many medical professionals, especially in the wake of the SARS outbreak early in the century had warned of a future Pandemic. Most populations and their elected governments paid little attention, and many were slow to act once the Pandemic did arrive. Covid-19 has now killed many, many people. Adopting a conspiracy theory allows us to place blame for those deaths on some shadowy bad-guys (pick your favourite from a list of people more successful than us) and to take some power for ourselves – stopping Bill Gates is much easier to understand than having to deal with evolutionary abilities of viruses. If you believe Covid-19 is not real, and the vaccine superfluous or designed to control/kill us in some way, then no personal sacrifice is required to support the theory. As more people are drawn to the conspiracy the illusion of “being right” is built. Humans are social and we love to mix with like-minded people – so Wakefield and Bossche are no longer less-than-successful medical professionals but instead are leaders within a movement who refuse to submit to the received wisdom of those who denied them success in the first place. Nevertheless they are wrong, and their achievement costs lives rather than saving them, surely the primary aim of any medical professional. However, this failure compounds rather than contradicts the view of the antivaxxers. It confirms their view that there must be a conspiracy and that it is the vaccine and those who promote it who are responsible for such failure. The conspiracy theory is adapted to fit any new information (as in the referenced tweet) and then re-broadcast. Fake news breeds failure, and failure breeds fake news. Double-down and dig in, and hopefully we will be right in the end. Only it doesn’t work out like that, as QAnon protesters now languishing in jail discovered, or, more tragically, the unfortunate Covid deniers/vaccine avoiders who contracted Covid-19 and died.

It doesn’t have to be this way. When something bad happens to us it’s worth checking to see if it’s the result of misfortune and/or our own bad decisions. If you’re leaning towards a shadowy conspiracy of powerful “others” who are trying to do you down then maybe think again. Most people are more concerned with making their own way in the world than trying to make your life miserable. We are all wrong from time-to-time and admitting that is a big step forward. If we can swallow our pride and live in the real world then our chances of a happy, successful, fulfilled life are greatly increased. Oh, and by the way, please take the vaccine.

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