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A Philosophy of Weaponized Illusion

May 18, 2020

We’re keeping track of COVID-19 pseudoscience, snake oil, fake cures, and more at CFI’s Coronavirus Resource Center. Separate fact from fiction and inoculate yourself from misinformation at

Mondays are already a beast for The Morning Heresy, what with all the catching up from the weekend. Regular readers (all twelve of you) will also have noticed that I’ve been absent on Fridays lately, and will continue to be so for a little while. Of course, that just means more to catch up on come Monday and even longer Monday Morning Heresy posts, for good or ill. Let’s dive in and see if I can even get it finished at a time that still counts as “morning.”

Increased Risk of Death

You really have to start with this blockbuster Financial Times piece by Edward Luce, which fills in a slew of details about how, precisely, the Trump administration blew the coronavirus response and continues to blow it.

Ousted federal vaccine expert Rick Bright goes on 60 Minutes to blow the whistle on Trump and his administration of denial:

Rick Bright: I was the only person in the room [with HHS head Alex Azar], however, that said, “We’re going to need vaccines and diagnostics and drugs. It’s going to take a while and we need to get started.”

Norah O’Donnell: You were the only one to raise that?

Rick Bright: Yes.

Norah O’Donnell: In your complaint, you said that Secretary Azar was intent on downplaying this catastrophic threat. Why would he do that?

Rick Bright: You know, I don’t know why he would do that.

I do! I do! Pick me!

Bright’s opposition to pushing hydroxychloroquine was the last straw for the White House, and they pushed him out. The Post reports on research showing the drug creates “a significantly increased risk of death for certain patients.” Steven Salzberg, meanwhile, calls out Yale Medical School for also buying into the hype:

This is truly appalling. The only evidence of efficacy was the small, badly-run study promoted by Didier Raoult, which has now been contradicted by much larger, better run studies. We now know that hydroxychloroquine is harmful. … As of this writing, many so-called experts are still pushing the use of an ineffective, dangerous drug that doesn’t help, and may harm, people infected with the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. A bogus claim promoted by a self-important, egotistical scientist who published a sloppy study in a journal run by one of his co-authors turned into millions of doses of medication wrongfully prescribed.

The medical journal The Lancet runs an editorial excoriating the administration for gutting the CDC and the federal government’s capacity for handling a pandemic, and takes an uncommonly firm stance on the upcoming election, without actually mentioning the election itself:

The Administration is obsessed with magic bullets—vaccines, new medicines, or a hope that the virus will simply disappear. But only a steadfast reliance on basic public health principles, like test, trace, and isolate, will see the emergency brought to an end, and this requires an effective national public health agency. The CDC needs a director who can provide leadership without the threat of being silenced and who has the technical capacity to lead today’s complicated effort.

The Trump administration’s further erosion of the CDC will harm global cooperation in science and public health, as it is trying to do by defunding WHO. A strong CDC is needed to respond to public health threats, both domestic and international, and to help prevent the next inevitable pandemic. Americans must put a president in the White House come January, 2021, who will understand that public health should not be guided by partisan politics.

Increased Risk of Doing a Heckuva Job

Pew Research shows that belief groups are losing confidence in Trump’s handling of the pandemic across the board. There are groups with whom he has little left to lose; for example, 86 percent of atheists say he’s doing a bad job and 14 say good, when a month before it was 81/19. But also look at white evangelicals: Yes, 75 percent approve of Trump’s performance, but that’s down six points. 24 percent disapprove, and that’s up five.

Meanwhile, a huge University of Chicago/AP survey survey shows that a majority of religious believers in the U.S. think that the pandemic is a message from God that humans need to change their ways. Just, you know, other humans:

Fifty-five percent of American believers say they feel at least somewhat that God will protect them from being infected. Evangelical Protestants are more likely than those of other religious backgrounds to say they believe that, with 43% saying so strongly and another 30% saying so somewhat, while Catholics and mainline Protestants are more closely split on feeling that way or not.

Among black Americans who believe in God, 49% say they feel strongly that God will protect them from the virus, compared with 34% of Latino and 20% of white Americans.

Brittany Bramlett and Ryan Burge look at how Members of Congress put God-talk into their tweets:

… what is notable is that despite the fact that Republican men only send a third of all tweets, they represent nearly three quarters of all tweets containing the word “God,” which we consider to be the most generic and least sectarian religious reference in American politics. …

… Rep. John Shimkus and Senator Marco Rubio were far and away the most likely to use Bible verses in their tweets.

Increased Risk of a Critical Mass of Pain

Jared Yates Sexton, whose Twitter threads are deeply informative and unbearably depressing, explains how Trump’s messianic position among his followers gives him the power to instruct them to not believe their lying eyes:

The Wall is a metaphor. Trump never intended to build it. It’s like a preacher talking about the golden streets of Heaven, something people can imagine and have faith in.

None of this is about governance. It’s about profit through control, like every other cult. … Trumpism is a state of mind, an active denial of the actual reality of America’s past, present, and future. It’s a philosophy of weaponized illusion.

As if to prove Yates’s point, Eric Trump goes on Fox News to say that the coronavirus is a hoax invented by Democrats intended to deny his dad the chance to have rallies, and that the virus will “magically” disappear on November 3.

Alan Jacobs, responding to the big feature on QAnon in The Atlantic that I still can’t bring myself to read, considers what it will take to consider it a religion:

In order to evaluate this view of the matter, I think we need to press hard on the word “adherents.” People who spend a lot of time chasing down Q on the internet don’t really qualify. Even the occasional IRL meetup won’t do it. A movement gains genuine adherents when the costs of belonging to it — financial, social, intellectual, legal — reach a kind of critical mass of pain. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of every church.

And what could be more unholy than an alliance between QAnon and Instagram <gag>influencers<hack>? Insider reports:

[Influencer] Pfeiffer told Insider that she only recently became interested in QAnon “when the narrative we were being presented through mainstream media didn’t seem to be adding up.”

Though she would have never previously shared political ideology with her followers, she feels it’s her duty. “I only started sharing this information recently when I started feeling that I had a moral obligation to my audience to share more important content, given the current circumstances.”

Jack Jenkins reports on a different Q which is also religious and also spreading misinformation. This Q describes itself as “a learning community that mobilizes Christians to advance the common good in society”:

“I’m in complete confidence that if I’m exposed to the coronavirus that either I won’t get it, or if I do get it, that, hey, it will be a few days and I’ll be fine afterwards,” he said. “Because when your immune system is strong — God designed our bodies to fight viruses. And that’s the thing: For me, it’s an attitude and mentality of faith over fear.” …

… [Nutritionist and chiropractor Joshua] Axe then launched into an 18-minute talk in which he promoted “herbal and natural forms of medicine,” argued that positive emotions are crucial to health, suggested “the media” has caused more disease than helped people by promoting “fear” during the pandemic and declared “the ultimate way to protect yourself and your family during any health crisis is to put your faith in God and follow the health principles laid out in the Bible.”

MJ Banias at Vice reports on how conspiracy theorists David Wilcock and Corey Goode are trying to turn COVID-19 and UFO-belief into a religion. I can’t even deal with this:

Wilcock claims that he was selected as a child to be the messenger to humanity by highly advanced “good guy” alien beings who are engaged in an Avengers-style cosmic war with evil aliens, spanning both time and space. Evil humans, whom he calls the “Cabal” or “Deep State,” run a secret space program, he says, and are actively engaged in a quiet war to stop him. He explains that his “Alliance” of unnamed government insiders, secret whistleblowers, alien allies, and followers are waging war against corruption and evil. One of these supposed insiders, Goode, claims that he is a time-traveling empath and a government insider with the secret space program who has been “age regressed” due to his decades-long work with various alien species as a champion and warrior representing Earth. He is in contact, he says, with an alien species known as the “Blue Avians,” and worked in a “support role for a rotating Earth Delegate Seat (shared by secret earth government groups) in a ‘human-type’ ET SuperFederation Council.”

Increased Risk of La Grippe

JR Thorpe at Bustle gathers advice on how to talk to someone who thinks the Plandemic conspiracy theory video is legit:

“Start by actively listening to them on this topic and ask them questions as to why they believe this is true,” family therapist Heidi McBain, LMFT, tells Bustle. This means putting aside your own motivation to change their mind for the time being, clinical psychologist Josh Klapow, Ph.D., tells Bustle. “Until you fully understand what they have processed, how they have processed it and how they have come to their conclusion, your ability to have any meaningful dialogue is simply not as strong,” he says.

Starting the conversation this way and then proceeding to a discussion comparing views makes it more likely they’ll listen, Klapow says. “You are setting up the situation to let them know that while you think differently, you are not having the conversation for the purpose of convincing them otherwise,” he says.

Folks from a hundred years ago: they had crazy conspiracy theories too! It’s like a tradition! Alex Knapp at Forbes looks back to when light bulbs were the era’s 5G antennas and “La Grippe” was treated with phenol powder smoking from a glass ball. (If you ever saw or read The Paper Chase, one of the cases they talk about is Carlill v. Carbolic Smoke Ball Company.)

The Department of Homeland Security, by the way, says attacks on 5G infrastructure are only going to get worse. ABC News reports:

“Violent extremists have drawn from misinformation campaigns online that claim wireless infrastructure is deleterious to human health and helps spread COVID-19, resulting in a global effort by like-minded individuals to share operational guidance and justification for conducting attacks against 5G infrastructure, some of which have already prompted arson and physical attacks against cell towers in several US states,” the report concluded.

Chuck Schumer is displeased with the anemic government response to COVID-19 scammers:

“Right now what is the FTC doing to these quacks, to these fake scammers who are trying to take advantage of people in a desperate situation? Nothing,” Schumer said Sunday. “A slap on the wrist. They send them a so-called warning letter that has no consequence. You can take this warning letter and rip it up and put it in the garbage.”

“And the word is out,” he said. “You come up with these fake scams you’re just going to get a letter. What does that say to scammers? Join the fun. Make money off innocent people.”

FYI, smoking cigarettes probably does not ward off the coronavirus or make COVID-19 less severe. Also, the virus is mutating, because that’s what viruses do, but that doesn’t tell us much right now. Profs. Jeremy Draghi and C. Brandon Ogbunu write at Undark:

… notions that SARS-CoV-2 will evolve into the Andromeda Strain or become as benign as the common cold prey on our ignorance and fear. Scientists, accustomed to spending years looking for certainty, can often lead best by explaining what we don’t yet know. And right now — while we are still struggling to measure the number of people infected with SARS-CoV-2 and collect other required data for an informed null model — we are ill-equipped to separate the signals of natural selection from the noise of genetic drift.

Increased Risk of “La La La I Can’t Hear You”

Economist Emily Oster at The Atlantic worries that yelling at people to stay home is bound to backfire:

When people are advised that one very difficult behavior is safe, and (implicitly or not) that everything else is risky, they may crack under the pressure, or throw up their hands. That is, if people think all activities (other than staying home) are equally risky, they figure they might as well do those that are more fun. …

Stark messaging may also discourage people from taking reasonable precautions. Public-health officials tell people to wash their hands and wear masks. But because the above-the-fold message is “Just stay home,” people may struggle to understand the purpose of these other pieces of advice. If the only truly safe thing to do is stay home, then how should I think about the mask suggestion? Is it a futile gesture, like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound?

… Ultimately, the public needs to better understand the virus. People need to see, for example, why hand-washing matters—because even if you get a virus particle on your hand, if you wash it off before you touch your face, you will not become infected. People need to be less afraid but more careful. Stark messaging can’t bring that about, but smart messaging can.

The Times tries to make the messaging less stark with a guide to going outside without infecting others or getting infected yourself:

The good news: Interviews show a growing consensus among experts that, if Americans are going to leave their homes, it’s safer to be outside than in the office or the mall. With fresh air and more space between people, the risk goes down.

But experts also expressed particular caution about outdoor dining, using locker rooms at pools and crowds in places like beaches. While going outside can help people cope with quarantine fatigue, there is a risk they will lower their guard or meet people who are not being safe.

Increased Risk of Grave Concerns

A judge smacks down a Chicago church seeking a temporary restraining order against restrictions on public gatherings. ABC 7 reports:

“The harm to plaintiffs if the Order is enforced pales in comparison to the dangers to society if it is not,” Judge Gettleman wrote. “The record clearly reveals how virulent and dangerous COVID-19 is, and how many people have died and continue to die from it.”

“Plaintiffs’ request for an injunction, and their blatant refusal to follow the mandates of the Order, are both ill-founded and selfish,” Gettleman continued. “An injunction would risk the lives of the plaintiffs’ congregants, as well as the lives of their family members, friends, co-workers and other members of their community with whom they come in contact. Their interest in communal services cannot and does not outweighs the health and safety of the public.”

Similarly, a Mississippi federal district court makes clear to a church suing over stay-at-home orders that it is not impressed:

Plaintiffs’ briefing on this issue heightens this court’s impression that this entire lawsuit is nothing more than a deeply misguided attempt on their part to gain permission to endanger their own lives and those of their fellow community members. While this court does not rule out the possibility that indoor church services could be held at acceptable risk by a responsible church if sufficient precautions were taken, it has grave concerns whether the plaintiff in this case is sufficiently aware of the gravity of these matters to enable it to do so.

But then another federal judge reverses North Carolina’s restrictions on gatherings. The News & Observer reports:

Saturday’s order pointed out that while only up to 10 people are allowed inside for religious services under Cooper’s stay-at-home order, that same standard doesn’t apply to other entities, such as businesses that are limited to 50% capacity, and funeral services, which allow up to 50 people.

“The record, at this admittedly early stage of the case, reveals that the Governor appears to trust citizens to perform non-religious activities indoors (such as shopping or working or selling merchandise) but does not trust them to do the same when they worship together indoors,” states Judge James C. Dever III’s ruling in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina Eastern Division.

Sheriffs in rural North Carolina won’t stop churches from holding services either, though I guess they’ll talk to them? WRAL reports:

Rather than simply standing down, the three agencies prefer to educate ministers and their congregations of the need for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic and how indoor services fall short of meeting that goal. Still, they said they don’t plan on citing anyone for violating the order.

A Wisconsin hair salon sues the state over stay-at-home orders, claiming that it is a “faith-based business” and therefore exempt from, you know, everything.

Meet Alaska State Rep. Ben Carpenter, or, rather, don’t, ever:

“If my sticker falls off, do I get a new one or do I get public shaming too?” Rep. Ben Carpenter (R) wrote Friday, sharing his dismay at a new requirement for legislators returning to the Alaska Capitol amid the novel coronavirus pandemic. “Are the stickers available as a yellow Star of David?” …

… “Can you or I — can we even say it is totally out of the realm of possibility that covid-19 patients will be rounded up and taken somewhere?” he said later in an interview with the Anchorage Daily News, arguing that officials are overreacting to the virus with limits on people’s liberty. “People want to say Hitler was a white supremacist. No. He was fearful of the Jewish nation, and that drove him into some unfathomable atrocities.”

Believe it or not, some churches aren’t sure about the wisdom of getting loans from the Small Business Administration. Robert Downen at the Houston Chronicle reports:

… religious leaders continue to debate the pros and cons of accepting federal help. To some, the idea is unpalatable because of its potential consequences on the separation of church and state.

“The funding of a church is as much a matter of worship as it is a matter of accounting,” said Bart Barber, a Farmersville, Texas-based pastor. “I worry that churches who are bailed out by the government may wind up confusing the government, the public and their own memberships about who meets the material needs of churches, potentially to the detriment of God’s glory and the advancement of the faith.”

A Michigan priest is using a bright green squirt gun to shoot holy water at people in their cars, and I am totally in favor of it because it’s just so weird and even the church seems to agree that it’s funny.

Increased Risk of Being Poisoned

The Ninth Circuit is reviving a church’s case challenging California’s mandate for health insurance to cover abortion services.

Polygamy is no longer a felony in Utah. Now it’s more like a parking violation.

The EPA, now run by the Party of Life, gives the green light to the water-contaminating toxic chemical perchlorate, which has been linked to fetal and infant brain damage.

Increased Risk of Reproducability Crises

Keith Kloor at Wired wonders why the New York Times keeps hanging on to the Navy-UFO story:

Yes, several Navy pilots had seen a whitish, oval object hover over the ocean before darting away; but no, that didn’t mean it was an alien aircraft, as the main source for the scoop seemed to imply on CNN. But the Times has stayed on the beat. Over the last few years, the paper has published more than a dozen UFO-related stories. … Does any of this really matter? It’s certainly odd that a story so few seem to take seriously keeps landing in the headlines, especially at this juncture.

Filed under: Crises you didn’t know were crises, but now that you think of it, yeah they’re bad news. The field of geology is facing a “reproducibility crisis,” according to a group of geologists writing in Nature:

Too often, rock samples are not archived or shared. It is common for samples to be held by researchers in private collections instead of in accessible, curated institutional archives or museums. That’s a problem, because different geoscience teams cannot check each other’s work to test whether published results are robust and can be replicated.

According to astronomer and Galileo biographer Mario Livio, Galileo never said “And yet it moves” to his inquisitors, but don’t let that dampen the power of the sentiment behind the myth:

Trust in science. That’s my main message. What is good about science is that it self-corrects. The self-correction sometimes takes a very short time and sometimes take a very long time. It could take sometimes decades, or maybe even centuries, but eventually it self-corrects. It is generally not wise to bet against the judgement of science. In a case such as climate change, or a pandemic, when the fate of life on our planet is at stake, it is absolutely insane.

Okay, here’s some good news. We’re finally going to get a Captain Christopher Pike show with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds. That’s if new TV shows can ever get made again.

Linking to a story or webpage does not imply endorsement by Paul or CFI. Not every use of quotation marks is ironic or sarcastic, but it often is.