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Suicide Pact

May 26, 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.

Good morning, fellow human capital stock! I trust you are all maximizing your productivity, lest you be discarded and ground into meat slurry. Lots to get to from the long weekend, so let’s dive right into the pit of despair, and mind the protein spikes.

Here is the Church, Here is the Steeple…

President Trump likes to wait for days I’m not working to make some of his biggest mistakes. On Friday, he “ordered” states to reopen churches. The Post reports:

Trump did not specify what legal authority he has to back up his threat, and White House officials declined to answer questions about what actions he was prepared to take, leaving it unclear how serious the president is about following through on his declaration.

Wait, you mean this might just be for show? Come now. What say you, Politico?

As is often the case, Trump was long on bravado and short on explanation for how he planned to force his views on state leaders who declined to go along.

“Allow these very important, essential places of faith to open right now for this weekend. If they don’t do it, I will override the governors,” he insisted, before departing as reporters clamored for answers about the purported federal mandate.

Even his Harvard Law-trained press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany, struggled to explain about how the president would implement such an order, dismissing questions about the idea as “hypothetical” and lashing out at reporters for their supposed lack of faith.

Thankfully, my coworkers and fellow human capital stock Nick Little and Jason Lemieux were on the case with a response:

“Trump’s order is unconstitutional and it puts communities in danger, said Jason Lemieux, CFI’s director of government affairs. “To declare churches ‘essential’ privileges religion over secular community groups that provide every bit as much meaning to the lives of their members. Trump is gratuitously spreading a deadly virus in the service of partisan politics.”

“This is a blatant appeal to Trump’s evangelical base, who refuse to accept reasonable limits on practices that cause harm to their members and others in their community,” said Little. “There is no conceivable justification for pandering to an extreme religious element in the midst of a global pandemic. When and how communities reopen should be determined based on scientific evidence, not on electoral calculations and popularity tests.”

We can already see what happens when churches are given the official OK to reopen, because Germany just tried it. NYT reports:

… Germany has plunged ahead after bringing its outbreak under control, reopening houses of worship and allowing the faithful to gather again in larger numbers. That decision has had pivotal consequences, with a new cluster of cases emerging: Forty churchgoers tested positive after a May 10 service at a Baptist church, the German health authorities said on Friday. Six parishioners were hospitalized …

… The new cluster illustrated the perils of trying to restore some semblance of normalcy amid the relentless persistence of the virus. Germany reported 431 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, bringing the country’s toll to 178,281, with 8,247 deaths.

A Mississippi church that defied lockdown orders was burned down last week, which is awful enough, but then it’s revealed that there is an “atomic-A” symbol spray-painted on the site and the words “Bet you stay home now you hypokrits.” Nick Fish, head of American Atheists, makes clear their utter condemnation of the crime:

Words cannot capture how strongly we condemn this heinous act of destruction. I hope that the perpetrator of this crime is swiftly brought to justice and held to account for their actions. No one should face violence of any kind because of their religion or lack thereof. No matter what our disagreements may be, violence is never the appropriate response.

I’m disgusted that anyone would associate a symbol of our community with something so incompatible with our values as atheists. Pluralism, open dialogue, finding common ground, and protecting equality under the law have never been more important than they are today.

The 9th Circuit denies a request to quash Gov. Gavin Newsom’s orders against in-person worship services in California. ABC reports:

In its ruling in the California case, the federal appellate judges who sided with Newsom found the state’s action of shuttering houses of worship due to a health emergency does not “infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation” and does not “in a selective manner impose burdens only on conduct motivated by religious belief.” …

… In reaching its decision, the judges noted that late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson once wrote that if a court “does not temper its doctrinaire logic with a little practical wisdom, it will convert the constitutional Bill of Rights into a suicide pact.”

Alan Jacobs, a devout Christian himself, wonders what the hell the people who insist on reopening churches right now are thinking:

I don’t believe that churches re-opening for business-as-usual, or seeking to re-open for business-as-usual, have assessed the evidence and made prudential judgments in light of that evidence. They have decided to act on what they want to do, and then will employ whatever ex post facto justifications seem best in the moment, according to the arguments marshaled against them. …

… leaders and members of such churches will believe whatever at a given moment seems useful to justify acting on their desires. ’Cause in much of America today, that’s how we roll.

Stop Silencing Us from Being Silent!

The folks behind the Plandemic misinformation video claim they have been silenced. This is ironic, considering how much media coverage they’ve gotten and how many millions of times their video has been seen. We wanted to know what evidence they had for their many outrageous claims of conspiracies and evil plots, so, you know, we just asked. Like, I literally wrote to them and asked.

Benjamin Radford came up with some questions asking for the evidence that backs up some of their claims. The director, Mikki Willis, actually got back to me and said he’d talk to us about our questions. You will be shocked to learn that once he saw the questions he cut off communications. Here’s Ben’s writeup of the abruptly-ended encounter, in which he observes:

If the claims made by Mikovits and Willis in Plandemic are based in truth and facts, you’d think they would be eager to offer evidence supporting their claims. What better way to turn the tables on scientists, skeptics, and journalists than to offer a referenced, fact-based, point-by-point rebuttal to critics who offer them a platform? …

… We have to wonder: Where are their responses? Why are they suddenly so quiet? Why are they afraid to answer questions? What do they have to hide?

Gullibility Monopoly

Kaleigh Rogers at FiveThirtyEight aims to figure out just how much COVID-19 misinformation is out there polluting the interwebs:

So far, research indicates the number of people who actually believe these [false] ideas is dependent on the claim. In [a] Cornell paper, the percent of respondents who both recalled seeing fake news and believing it ranged from 14 percent to 19 percent. This represents a higher percentage of the population actually believing fake news than we saw in 2016. One study published in the Journal of Economic Perspectives found that only 8 percent of Americans both recalled seeing and believing a piece of fake news about the 2016 election.

“So, on average, double the rate of people recalled and believed in fake news in the COVID context compared to what we saw in 2016,” said Douglas Kriner, a government professor at Cornell and one of the authors of the preprint. …

… One of the reasons we might be seeing more people falling for misinformation is the knowledge gap that comes with an emerging disease like COVID-19. There’s a lot we still don’t know about this virus, and that lack of understanding can create a vacuum that is all too easily filled by conspiracy theories and misinformation.

The United States, much evidence to the contrary, does not have a monopoly on gullibility, as a University of Oxford poll shows that 21 percent of folks in England thinks COVID-19 is a hoax. 59 percent think the government is at least partly misleading them about the pandemic.

According to an analysis by Carnegie Mellon University’s Center for Informed Democracy & Social Cybersecurity, fully half of the pro-infection Twitter accounts demanding that America “reopen” are fake. MIT Technology Review reports:

But in a new study, the researchers have found that bots may account for between 45 and 60% of Twitter accounts discussing covid-19. Many of those accounts were created in February and have since been spreading and amplifying misinformation, including false medical advice, conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus, and pushes to end stay-at-home orders and reopen America.

They follow well-worn patterns of coordinated influence campaigns, and their strategy is already working: since the beginning of the crisis, the researchers have observed a greater polarization in Twitter discourse around the topic.

To be fair, every topic on Twitter is instantly polarized. I’m still feeling traumatized from when, years ago, I tweeted positive feelings for Batman v. Superman.

John Gruber asks the obvious question: Why don’t the platforms just make it stop?

If a team at Carnegie Mellon can do this research, so too could a team at Twitter itself. Or Twitter could just use outside teams like the one at Carnegie Mellon. …

… The argument that Twitter and Facebook can’t beat disinformation by banning it is like arguing that email providers can’t beat spam. Spam hasn’t been eradicated but it has been effectively diminished. There’s absolutely no reason Twitter and Facebook can’t defeat social media disinformation to the same degree we’ve defeated spam email. They haven’t done so because they don’t want to, presumably because they consider the “engagement” generated by these bots worth the social destruction they cause.

Sarah Zhang at The Atlantic looks at the roadblocks to potential COVID-19 inoculation. Even if a vaccine gets quickly developed, which is by no means guaranteed, it’s not going to be easy to get people to use it:

Although vaccine researchers have been able to leverage research on related coronaviruses that cause MERS and SARS to get a COVID-19 vaccine into clinical trials quickly, no human coronavirus vaccine has ever been approved. The novelty of such a vaccine could make even people without reservations about other vaccines hesitate.
A COVID-19 vaccine would also enter a world where the pandemic itself has been deeply politicized, where simply wearing or not wearing a mask, for example, can be seen as a political act. …

… In recent years, experts have attributed the rise in vaccine hesitation, ironically, to the fact that vaccines have been too successful. We rarely see what happens when we don’t vaccinate. The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a visceral reminder of what it’s like to live with a disease with no cure and no vaccine—and perhaps this, some suggest, could scare parents into vaccination.

Officials throughout Europe are also worried about what to do with a hypothetical vaccine once they get it, given the fun bunch that has taken to the streets of late, what The Guardian calls an “alliance of anti-vaxxers, neo-Nazi rabble-rousers and esoteric hippies”:

Even before an effective vaccine against Covid-19 has been developed, national leaders face a dilemma: should they aim to immunise as large a part of the population as possible as quickly as possible, or does compulsory vaccination risk boosting a street movement already prone to conspiracy theories about “big pharma” and its government’s authoritarian tendencies? …

… In Switzerland, where immunologists have proposed that mass vaccinations could take place as early as October, 20% of people questioned said they would not be willing to be vaccinatedx. In Austria, vaccine scepticism was similarly rife, with 18% of those questioned saying they would reject vaccination. …

… While scientists predict that immunising about 70% of the population could be sufficient for the virus to vanish, there are concerns that a noisy minority could seize the narrative around vaccination.

BuzzFeed News has a handy listicle of deplorables, a guide to the fake experts and conspiracy theorists spreading misinformation. Some you are familiar with already, such as the aforementioned Mikovits. Others you may not have heard of, or will be horrified to know are U.S. Senators.

Just as these uncertain times have sparked an uptick in interest in astrology, the same goes for psychics. Salon reports on how Americans are turning to yet another source of baseless guidance:

According to Google search trends, Google searches for “psychic” jumped to a 1-year high during the week of March 8, 2020 — just when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began issuing some guidance on COVID-19. Business review and aggregator site Yelp published an Economic Impact Report that noted that its “Supernatural Readings” business category was up 140 percent as more Americans turned to tarot card readers, mediums and psychics.

Choked Up

North Dakota’s Republican governor, Doug Burgum, gets understandably emotional as he asks his state to end the stupid political fight over mask-wearing:

“I would really love to see in North Dakota that we could just skip this thing that other parts of the nation are going through where they’re creating a divide — either it’s ideological or political or something — around masks versus no mask,” Burgum said. “This is a, I would say, senseless dividing line, and I would ask people to try to dial up your empathy and your understanding.” …

… “If someone is wearing a mask, they’re not doing it to represent what political party they’re in or what candidates they support,” Burgum said, before his voice began breaking. “They might be doing it because they’ve got a 5-year-old child who’s been going through cancer treatments. They might have vulnerable adults in their life who currently have covid, and they’re fighting.”

Remember how a few years days ago when Trump said he was taking hydroxychloroquine? The WHO has halted clinical trials of the drug as a COVID-19 treatment because, as NPR reports, “patients getting hydroxychloroquine were dying at higher rates than other coronavirus patients.” But as we all know, the WHO is in league with Bill Gates and something-something 5G towers, so this is exactly what you’d expect them to do.

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.