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Like frogs in a pot, we’re being slowly boiled in a stew of disinformation, misinformation, and conspiracy theories.
Have you heard the one about 5G? Back in January, a French conspiracy theory website suggested that 5G towers might somehow be related to coronavirus—maybe it’s something about radiation, or maybe Wuhan’s 5G towers were a cover-up, or maybe it’s all a grand plot by Monsanto. None of this makes sense, but then conspiracy theories usually don’t. That doesn’t mean they don’t have consequences. In April, arsonists started setting cell phone towers ablaze in Britain.
Like the conspiracy theory involving 5G, many (but not all) of the non-reality-based stories circulating via Facebook, Twitter, and your step-dad’s cousin’s forwarded emails involve science. For the most part, scholars and mainstream news outlets tend to ignore these unless and until something gets set on fire. The problem is that now things are quite definitely being set on fire, both literally and figuratively, which has occasioned a whole other set of conspiracy theories (and no, just in case you’re wondering, the Oregon fires were not set by Antifa).
On top of all of this, reputable publications seem more willing than usual lately to give column space to bad faith, pseudoscientific studies—especially if they involve race. Last week Nature Communications published an article that claimed to study “the evolution of social trust” using an algorithm based on head and facial measurements (keep going, it gets worse) in European portraiture (yes, really). Would you be surprised to know that this algorithm reproduces racist ideas that present facial features associated with whiteness as the most trustworthy? No?
The good news—I guess—is that the armies of internet immediately shut that shit down. You can catch up with some of the better critiques here.
But all of this does raise the question: When should you acknowledge/fight back against bad ideas? How much of our precious bandwidth should we allocate to QAnon, anti-vaxxers, evolutionary psychology, and race science? Does public-facing scholarship hurt or help? What do you say when someone you know, respect, or even love starts spouting this stuff? It would be good to get to someone before they start buying Hawaiian shirts or suggesting that the local police department invest in facial recognition software, but how do you do that in a way that doesn’t reinforce the feelings that make such ideas attractive in the first place?
This newsletter is free, which means that I don’t always have fully cooked answers to the questions that I raise. But it does seem clear to me that these different kinds of mis/disinformation and pseudoscientific claims require different rhetorical strategies. A person convinced that Monsanto is somehow implicated in the coronavirus pandemic via cell phone towers is unlikely to be swayed by factual evidence—their concerns likely have more to do with either general or specific experiences related to the alienation and betrayals of global capitalism than anything involving radio waves. They need an intervention, but not from a historian. The editors of Nature Communications, on the other hand, could and should be called to account for publishing barely reheated criminology pamphlets from 1890.
I made a little chart to help me decide when to engage as a scholar. When bad-faith efforts that claim to use the tools and techniques of science are published in high-profile venues, like Nature Communications, it merits a response. If this same study had been published in Quillette, an outlet that exists primarily to troll reputable scholars, I’m doing my best to ignore it.
It’s that left-hand side that I’m less sure about. These sorts of claims, which never even aspire to “science,” require some sort of response through emotional connection, but when? And how? And by whom?
A Place to Start: If you’re interested in learning more about how far-right radicalization actually happens, check out American University scholar Cynthia Miller-Idress’s brand new and super-important book, Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right.
Audra on the Internet: A couple of weeks ago I recorded a fun interview with historian Annie Handmer about science, espionage, and politics. Now you can listen in at her podcast, Space Junk Pod!
Check that registration and mail-in ballot status, one more time: Could voting be any messier this year? Iwillvote.com is a new, nationwide tool that lets U.S. citizens check your voting registration status, apply to vote by mail, or learn about other early voting options. Check it out!