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But it Feels Factual

May 11, 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 centerforinquiry.org/coronavirus.


The Enemy of My Enemy?

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom condemns the arrest of Mubarak Bala, president of the Humanist Association of Nigeria. None other than Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, chair of the USCIRF, said:

Nigerian authorities must immediately clarify Mr. Bala’s situation, ensure his safety, and provide him the full protections he is guaranteed under the Nigerian Constitution and international law.

Religious Privilege or Bust

Today the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two consolidated cases about whether teachers at religious schools count as “ministers,” and are therefore not protected by anti-discrimination laws. Kelsey Dallas at Deseret News has a preview, and some wisdom from our own Nick Little:

The government needs to retain the right to investigate allegations of discriminations in most instances, said Nicholas Little, vice president and general counsel for the Center for Inquiry, a nonprofit organization that advocates against special treatment for religious groups in public policy and filed a brief in favor of the employees.

“I would not support getting rid of the ministerial exception entirely, but I would pull it back so it was truly leadership positions,” he said.

The White House is stopping the CDC from issuing guidelines on “reopening” the country because they’re not ideologically in line with the administration. The New York Times reports:

… White House and other administration officials rejected the recommendations over concerns that they were overly prescriptive, infringed on religious rights and risked further damaging an economy that Mr. Trump was banking on to recover quickly. One senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services with deep ties to religious conservatives objected to any controls on church services.

“Governments have a duty to instruct the public on how to stay safe during this crisis and can absolutely do so without dictating to people how they should worship God,” said Roger Severino, the director of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights, who once oversaw the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation.

A same-sex couple in South Carolina will get to challenge the state and HHS in court over discrimination in foster care services. Lambda Legal says in their press release:

The couple was turned away by a government-funded foster care agency because they, as a lesbian couple, did not meet the agency’s religious criteria, which excludes prospective foster parents who are not evangelical Protestant Christian or who are same-sex couples of any faith. …

… Miracle Hill Ministries, South Carolina’s largest state-contracted foster care agency, denied Eden and Brandy’s application to serve as foster parents after South Carolina requested and HHS granted a waiver of federal nondiscrimination rules for federally funded agencies. In so doing, HHS and the State authorized and enabled taxpayer-funded foster care agencies to use religious criteria to exclude families based on their faith and sexual orientation.

That Goddamned Plandemic Video

Davey Alba at the New York Times has the unenviable task of profiling Dr. Judy Mikovits, the new hero of anti-vaxxer and QAnon conspiracy theorists, turned into an mirror-universe pseudo-whistleblower in the propaganda film Plandemic:

By April, coverage of Dr. Mikovits rose to 800 mentions a day. That month, Darla Shine, the wife of Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive and former top aide to Mr. Trump, promoted Dr. Mikovits’s book in a tweet. Videos by The Epoch Times, a publication with ties to the Falun Gong, and the conservative outlet “The Next News Network” interviewed Dr. Mikovits about the pandemic, generating more than 1.5 million views on social networks.

Then came the video from “Plandemic,” which made mentions of Dr. Mikovits on social media spike far higher. The video was produced by Mikki Willis, who was involved in making “Bernie or Bust” and “Never Hillary” videos during the 2016 presidential campaign. …

Imagine that. Also:

Dr. Mikovits’s newfound notoriety has also lifted sales of her new book. This week, “Plague of Corruption” shot to No. 1 on Amazon’s print best-seller list. The book was out of stock on Friday. Amazon said that the book did not violate the company’s content guidelines.

Of course they don’t.

Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo are trying to keep Plandemic off their platforms. Twitter, not so much:

Twitter responded to The Washington Post by stating that a tweet from Mikovits sharing a different video interview of hers does not violate its covid-19 policy but that the company has removed the hashtags #PlagueofCorruption and #PlandemicMovie from its searches and trends sections.

Tara Halle at Forbes says it’s important to address the claims of Plandemic, but to do so carefully:

Many people who are privately or casually sharing it are saying, “This is interesting. What do you think of it?” Most genuinely don’t know what to make of it. They aren’t trying to spread misinformation. They’re not the types to believe or share conspiracy theories. They’re taken in by the video’s slick appearance and by its use of persuasive techniques and really want to know what you think, so you need to approach them respectfully about it. …

… The people producing this video know what they’re doing, and they’re very good at it. On a subconscious level, no matter what words are being said, this video feels factual simply because of how it was produced. It’s intentionally manipulative. It’s a textbook example of effective propaganda. …

… They probably really want your opinion because they trust you. Don’t violate that trust right off the bat. Use it. How you use it depends on what you know about them already and what’s worked in the past.

Similarly, Samantha Yammine at Nature offers tips for confronting coronavirus misinformation and getting reality more social media play:

Not everyone has the time or skillset to create new material for sharing on social media, but amplifying the messages of those whose work you trust is a helpful way to contribute. Your likes, shares and retweets are a form of social currency: instead of angrily sharing only things you disagree with, use your currency to boost credible work to help make other scientist’s posts go viral.

If you do want to make content, aim to fill a gap: address a common point of confusion no one has tackled yet, or find a unique way to share knowledge (for example, through art, dance, rap or pop-culture references).

Abby Ohlheiser at MIT Technology Review looks at how conspiracy theorists exploit YouTube’s algorithmic quirks to boost their messages:

On YouTube, there are real incentives for creators to seek out new audiences, collaborate, or capitalize on controversy, whether they review beauty products, play games, or comment on the news. Collabing with bigger, respected names—or jumping on subculture drama—is a pretty reliable method for any YouTuber to gain views and subscribers. (Before he was banned from YouTube, for example, Alex Jones repeatedly though unsuccessfully pursued an interview with PewDiePie, then the site’s leading creator in terms of subscriptions.) But the difference between weighing in on community drama and engaging with fringe personalities is the potential harm the message may cause.

Health care providers have freaking had it with the conspiracy theories and false accusations of hoaxes. NBC News reports:

[Dr. Hadi] Halazun said dealing with conspiracy theorists is the “second most painful thing I’ve had to deal with, other than separation of families from their loved one.”

Several other doctors shared similar experiences, saying that they regularly had to treat patients who had sought care too late because of conspiracy theories spread on social media and that social media companies have to do more to counteract the forces that spread lies for profit. …

… “I just started crying,” Halazun said. “I thought, ‘What do I believe here?’ It almost made me question myself. Some people are out there who are sitting in their homes, going on these videos and then telling us it’s fake while we’re saving lives.

“I felt like ‘What are we doing this for?'”

Political scientist Henry Farrell recommends five books on the politics of misinformation at, um, Five Books.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say they’ll refuse to get a hypothetical COVID-19 vaccine, 20 percent to 7 percent.

More Fake Fakerson McFakeyface Fakery

The FDA is keeping a running list of phoney COVID-19 products, which includes homeopathic fake medicine.

Oliver Darcy at CNN profiles the propaganda outlet that Trump just adores and that’s sort of like if Fox News and InfoWars had a baby and fed it only raw meat, One America News:

What OAN does offer viewers is a diet of right-wing conspiracy theories and pro-Trump commentary mixed in with wire video news packages that are sometimes skewed to fit its editorial viewpoint through the text placed by the network in the lower-thirds portion of the screen. The network would be mostly irrelevant, confined to the fringes of the conservative news media, if not for Trump’s continued promotion of it.

Nancy Rommelmann at Reason reports on the attempt by Jacob Wohl to frame Dr Antony Fauci by paying someone to accuse Fauci of sexual assault. (This is the same guy who said he was, um, used by Elizabeth Warren.)

Even as the stupidity has been overflowing, EJ Dickson at Rolling Stone reports that “coronavirus parties”—in which folks mimic also-stupid chickenpox parties in order to get everyone infected and then, after being sick, immune—probably aren’t actually happening in any meaningful numbers. He checks in with CFI’s own Benjamin Radford:

…[U]rban folklorist Benjamin Radford [says]: “coronavirus parties” are probably BS. “They’re a variation of older disease urban legends such as the ‘bug chaser’ stories about people trying to get AIDS,” he tells Rolling Stone, referring to a brief spate in the early-aughts when so-called “bug-chasing” parties were subject to extensive media coverage (including a controversial story by this magazine). Such stories fed into a general sense of “moral panic” over the disease, resulting in it sticking around in the public imagination regardless of the lack of supporting evidence. …

… Radford compares it to the outrage over spring breakers storming the beaches in Florida: “a lot of people are tut-tutting over the irresponsible behavior of the younger crowd.” Morally bankrupt Gen Z-ers meeting in the shadows is a much more compelling story than the truth: that people are tired of quarantine, that we’re all restless and bored and depressed, and that some of us are bending the rules of social distancing, however inadvisably, and inadvertently contracting the virus in the process.

Nature reports on the Chinese government’s promotion of “traditional” medicines for COVID-19 treatment, many of which are even being exported to other countries, where they will be equally useless.

The Spanish Flu had its hucksters too. The AP looks back:

One 1918-era doctor recommended that people sniff a boric acid and sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) powder to rinse out nasal passages. Others prescribed quinine, strychnine and the poisonous garden plant digitalis, or foxglove, to help circulation, as well as drugs derived from iodine for “internal disinfection” …

… Popular theories claimed that warming your feet would prevent infection, or gobbling brown sugar, or getting the onion rubdown. A “clean heart” was one supposed preventive, though it is not clear whether that meant the organ or the heart of love. …

… we know so much more than people did in 1918. Yet we’re still hearing lots of Dark Ages nonsense.

Maybe People Just Like Holding Up Signs

In Detroit, would-be churchgoers are protesting their own archdiocese to reopen churches so they can infect or get infected by more people. The Detroit News reports:

“We can go to Kroger to get food for our bodies; why can’t we go to church and feed our souls? That makes no sense,” said [protest organizer Patricia] Stephanoff.

I’m very sad for you that you find this difficult to understand.

Sierra County, New Mexico Sheriff Glenn Hamilton has “deputized” 20 Christians so they can be exempt from lockdown orders. He said:

I’m not in any way shape or form attempting to minimize the impact that that’s had on our state on their friends and on their families, but the reality, folks, is that we’re all going to die.

I can’t even.

Okay, now I think people are just making up reasons to hold mass demonstrations. The LA Times reports on a protest at the Capitol in Sacramento intended to communicate to police that folks who had previously protested against stay-at-home orders were not angry at the police who had to arrest them for violating those orders. So, it’s we are still mad about not being allowed to infect each other, but we know the cops were just doing their jobs in stopping us from trying to infect each other, so let’s get together and infect each other to show them how much we appreciate them trying to get us to stop infecting each other.

Our own Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum announced it will not be opening this year for obvious reasons, and yet no one has yet been seen protesting over this.

Most people might be smarter than we think, on the whole, though, as FiveThirtyEight shows that Americans largely opted into lockdown mode well before they were instructed to do so, and most are continuing to do so:

This sort of mass behavioral change in such a short time is significant. It took over 50 years and hundreds of billions of dollars in prevention efforts to lower the percentage of people who smoke in the U.S. from 42 percent in 1965 to 13 percent in 2018. Americans reacted to the threat of COVID-19 in a relative blink of an eye.

Religion, Weirdness, and Dots

Tara Isabella Burton writes at the New York Times about the rise of what she calls (and I guess they call) “weird Christianity,” and no, it’s not a redundancy:

Weird Christians reject as overly accommodationist those churches, primarily mainline Protestant denominations like Episcopalianism and Lutheranism, that have watered down the stranger and more supernatural elements of the faith (like miracles, say, or the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ). But they reject, too, the fusion of ethnonationalism, unfettered capitalism and Republican Party politics that has come to define the modern white evangelical movement. …

… Weird Christianity is equal parts traditionalism and, well, punk: Christianity as transgressive alternative to contemporary secular capitalist culture. Like punk, Weird Christianity has its own, clearly defined aesthetic. Many Weird Christians across the denominational and political spectrum express fondness for older, more liturgically elaborate practices — like the Episcopal Rite I, a form of worship that draws on Elizabethan-era language, say, or the Latin Mass, or the wearing of veils to church.

Scholars Paul A. Djupe and Ryan P. Burge wrestle with the rather sticky question of who counts as an “evangelical.”

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation, with the backing of 22 active-duty Christian chaplains, is asking the Secretary of Defense to discipline an Army chaplain who distributed the book Coronavirus and Christ to other chaplains. RNS reports:

Chaplains from the Army, Navy and Air Force are “horribly aggrieved by the wretchedly illicit and unconstitutional actions of Chaplain (Colonel) Kim at US Army Garrison Humphreys, South Korea,” Weinstein said in a statement Monday (May 4) about garrison Chaplain Moon H. Kim.

At WXPR radio, historian Gary Entz looks back on the astounding feat of the amazing James Randi when in 1959 he blew Wisconsin’s mind:

Born in 1928, James Randi is the founder of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and is better known today as a debunker who exposes fraudulent paranormal, occult, and supernatural claims. He started his career as a professional stage magician in the late 1940s but soon switched to performing as an escape artist. By 1959 he was nationally famous as the Modern Houdini and proposed to replicate one of Houdini’s famous escapes, the Suspended Straitjacket Escape, on Brown Street in downtown Rhinelander.

Writing at the Arizona Republic, astrophysicist Ray Jayawardhana of Cornell University says the coronavirus pandemic recalls the famous Pale Blue Dot photo of Earth, in that it reminds us of our fragility:

Today, perhaps more than ever, the sparse visual serves as a stark, if not painful, reminder of humanity’s vulnerability and interdependence as we wrestle with the havoc wreaked by a pandemic. …

… Today, perhaps more than ever, the sparse visual serves as a stark, if not painful, reminder of humanity’s vulnerability and interdependence as we wrestle with the havoc wreaked by a pandemic.

Likewise, the “pale blue dot” image underscores the awesome fragility of humanity, confined, as Sagan put it, to “a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.” But the picture also represents something else: It is a powerful testament to our collective ingenuity, one that concocted a sophisticated craft to explore worlds far beyond our own.

Sarah Ray of the Atheist Community of Polk County in Florida gets to give an invocation to the board of commissioners. As we humanists so often do, she turn to the wisdom of Carl Sagan:

Carl Sagan once wrote, “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” There is, in the process of governance, much to bear. Let us cherish and celebrate our shared humanness, our shared capacity for reason and compassion, our shared love for the people of our County — and let us root our policymaking process in these values that are relevant to all Polk County residents. In gratitude and in love, in reason and in compassion, let us all work together for a better Polk County.


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.



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