From David Maughan Brown in York: Beyond reason

February 6th

Regrettably, the ‘Q’ in the placard being held aloft by ‘QAnon shaman’ Jacob Chansley in the above photograph, does not stand for the Quartermaster whose role in life was to equip James Bond with ever more sophisticated technological devices with which to outwit and, where necessary, try to kill Blofeld and the other evil villains of Ian Fleming’s fictional world.   Problematic as the delusion that he had been sent by Fleming’s Q might be in a United States absurdly awash with semi-automatic rifles and other assorted lethal hardware, the delusion for which Chansley is a figurehead is not just the isolated delusion of a single deranged individual, but a bizarre moral panic shared by a very significant number of people.  What its adherents believe is, for those less delusional, literally unbelievable: President Trump is waging a secret war against an elite of Satan-worshipping paedophiles led by the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton who have a nasty habit of drinking children’s blood and will at some point, preferably very soon, have to be arrested and executed.   It is almost as unbelievable, but in this instance true, that nearly 75 million people voted for Donald Trump in November, an unknown but not insignificant number of whom are QAnon conspiracy theorists whom Trump has approvingly described as ‘people who love our country.’

Not an orderly queue

The absurdity of the QAnon conspiracy would be laughable were the belief not to have been held fervently enough to have motivated a significant portion of the rabble who stormed the Capitol on November 6th in what has been described as the most significant assault on democracy in the US in the past two hundred years.  QAnon came to mind yesterday evening as I watched the Channel 4 news coverage of the online abuse to which NHS staff in UK are being subjected by equally delusional Covid-19-deniers.  Nurses working themselves into the ground, in some instances all too literally, enduring 14 hour shifts in their efforts to keep Covid patients alive in ICUs, traumatised by the deaths of the very many who are beyond saving, are being accused of being lying prostitutes, and worse, whose comments on social media about what they are going through are held to be nothing more than crude attempts to cover up the fact that, in reality, the hospitals are empty.  Consultants who go public about the difficulties the hospitals are facing are being sent abusive death threats.   This is several stages beyond the level of insanity needed to believe that 5G phone masts are responsible for causing Covid-19, and potentially far more damaging in the long term than going out and trying to burn down a few 5G masts:  many of the staff in our underfunded and overstretched NHS have already been pushed to, and beyond, their limit, and being rewarded for their sacrifices by vicious abuse seems likely to result, as soon as the immediate crisis is over, in a exodus of the staff essential to the survival of the NHS. 

So what is going on?  What is it that not only enables such delusions to gather momentum and infect so many people, but also that allows so many of those people to feel free to direct virulent and ignorant abuse at professional people who know what they are talking about?  Recent OECD figures indicate that 91% of US citizens between the ages of 25 and 64 have completed high school education, and 47% have a post-secondary degree; the equivalent figures for the UK are 79% and 46%.[1]  QAnon believers in the US are not confined to the 9% who didn’t complete higher education, as exemplified by Marjorie Taylor Greene, a recently elected Republican Congresswoman graduate of the University of Georgia, who is an outspoken QAnon supporter who apparently has a habit of ‘liking’ social-media posts calling for violence against elected Democrats and claiming that both 9/11 and the multiple school shootings in US are staged events.   I cannot pretend to know what going on, but it is clear that ‘universal’ education, as currently practiced, is not succeeding in vaccinating enough of the population of either the USA or UK with sufficient rationality to protect against infection from wholly irrational and potentially extremely damaging conspiracy theories.

This being the case, what can be done to protect the vulnerable, and try to preempt the long-term damage that social media, feeding off deranged conspiracy theories, can do to individuals, and through them to precious and indispensable institutions like our NHS?  Freedom of speech is precious, but it isn’t an absolute right:  nobody has a right to stand up in a crowded theatre and shout ‘Fire!’ when there isn’t a fire.   One safeguard against that happening lies in the fact that shouting ‘Fire!’ in those circumstances could hardly help but draw very immediate attention to the person doing the shouting. Twitter-handles and Facebook accounts, by contrast, can be linked to made-up email accounts that enable trolls to retain their anonymity.   Is there any reason in a democratic society, where the rule of law is respected, for social media companies not to require verifiable identification from their users?  Those companies are currently investing substantial resources in taking down offensive posts, but usually only after they have already done their damage to the recipients.  Why should people who want to exercise their right to freedom of expression in ‘free’ societies not be expected to be held accountable for what they say?  

Trying to find ways of making sure trolls can be held accountable for their media posts is, however, a case of trying to lock the stable door long after the horse has bolted.  The prior question must be what could those of us who have spent their lives as educators have done, and what can our successors now do, to try to instill in our students some kind of rational defence against the siren attractions of ever more deranged conspiracy theories?


[1] https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cac.asp

from Anne in Adelaide, South Australia: A Portal into another World.

February 1, 2021.

Our Christmas present from Seattle USA, from my daughter and family there, arrived late. Australia is having problems with shipments from across the world: books from Amazon, Aldi’s Chinese specials, cars, furniture and all those nick-knacks in the 2-dollars shops. Amongst the presents was a PORTAL, the latest device from Facebook, a counter to Amazon’s Alexa’s Echo.

My Kitchen Portal reviewing our bird watching by the seashore

I like the word, ‘portal’. It has currency in the computer world but as a child, I devoured The Lion, the Witch & Wardrobe, the Narnia books, by C.S. Lewis. What a marvellous story. The part where Lucy, playing hide-and-seek, is hiding in the cupboard amongst the winter coats and suddenly feels a cold draft behind her captivated me, as it did so many of my generation. (Do kids still read? Sorry!! – do kids read the Narnia series?). Now THAT was a portal, a magic portal into a world of good and evil, of temptation, suffering and fortitude. I suppose not much different to the world we find ourselves in – without a portal to escape away from.

This Christmas-gift-Portal, a communication device, with its wide 10-inch screen, now sits on our kitchen counter between the set of knives and a more distant toaster – sadly, it won’t teleport me to Seattle or to Capetown.

It is about the size of an horizontal iPad with built-in Alexa and video calling using Messenger and Whatsapp. I know Facebook is unpopular in many circles but this device is amazing. Maybe I cannot see the ‘cons’ yet. The 13-megapixel wide-angle camera (114 degrees) follows you in the room so your caller has a sense of place and activity. It makes a Zoom call look boring. With the Portal you can add people to your call using Whatsapp. I am not sure how many people can be in a family or conference call. With our family spread across the world this is a delight! Other Apps can be added – we direct Spotify through the stereo speakers and back woofer.

When I am alone in the kitchen the Portal streams my photos from Whatsapp and Facebook in a random manner. And it becomes a portal into my past life. I am seeing images from our travels 8 years ago.

In a way seeing these happy images is disturbing because I realise that as time passes in our world, locked down with Covid-19, there will less ability for us to do what we used to do relatively easily. Will we be able to take up our cancelled holidays with alacrity? If this world-wide travel shutdown continues this year, as it appears it might, that will be 2 years taken off our lives when we might have seen our families and taken journeys to distant places.

Our planned April 2020 trip to Indonesia to sail on Seatrek Bali’s beautiful phinisi, the Ombak Putih, to remote islands will not take place in April 2021 although our booking was transferred. April 2022? Will we be fit enough to go? Will the company be still in business? Our challenge this week is, once more, to open up the files on insurance policies and see if we can take the claim further now that travelling this April 2021 is out of the question.

Seatrek Balli has 2 phinisi that sail through the Indonesian islands

We have flight credits for Indonesia’s Garuda Airlines, Qantas, Jetstar and Air New Zealand. All have use-by dates. At the moment, we can plan a local intra-Australian trip – book flights and accommodation – but might find that it is cancelled due to the on-again, off-again border closures. One person wrote in the weekend papers that he had had 3 trips to Queensland aborted due to Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk closing borders.

Another example – yesterday, the Western Australia Premier – on a few hours’ notice has shut down the whole of Perth and SW Regions for 5 days because a single case of the more virulent virus has escaped from a quarantine hotel into the community. What about people there on holiday or planning a holiday in the short term? It must be beyond frustrating for the travel industry.

The virus is rampant is many parts of the world and the incidents of new variants bubbling up in such places makes me think that we are not going to be on top of Covid-19 for some time. We all looked to vaccines to be our way back to ‘normal’ life and luckily many vaccines are proving effective. BUT – how to vaccinate the world? The challenges and obstacles are considerable – the cost seems to be only one of the issues – hoarding by richer countries – corruption in many countries – lower effectiveness of some of the vaccines which have not been tested by the west (Sputnik) – slower production. And of course, there are the rabid anti-vaxxers – mostly in the USA courtesy of Past-President Trump. While all this is going on, won’t the virus be mutating? Of course, it will be. Normally, viruses become less deadly. Will Covid-19 follow this ‘rule’? The good news is that this virus apparently mutates slowly.

https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02544-6

I am thinking that our new Portal will remain our window into our past, revealing the open, free lives we led only a year ago.

I must not complain. It can become a habit! Yesterday, I took our three-quarter blind Cairn-terrier, Roy dog to the local park for a late-afternoon very slow walk; he sniffed his way from tree to tree. Cricket (in traditional whites) was in progress on the Kensington Gardens Oval and families were packing up their picnics while children screamed around the playground. And while I was admiring the huge lemon-scented gums along the creek, I managed to record a family of laughing kookaburras singing their iconic ‘song’ of chortles and gurgles. Here they are. (PS. Did you notice the blue skies?).

The laughing Kookaburras

from David Vincent in Shrewsbury, UK: Anti-Vax

Edward Jenner

July 7. After half a year of the pandemic, we should be immune to shock at the responses to it.

But this morning there is published a finding which is startling and depressing in equal measure.  A survey conducted by YouGov, an entirely reputable polling organisation, has found that almost one in six British adults will ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ refuse a coronavirus vaccination when one becomes available.  Another 15% say they are not sure what they will do.*

We expect this kind of anti-science in the United States, where according to the latest research, only a third of the population believe in secular evolution, a century and a half after Origin of Species.**  But Darwin is our man, indeed my man, born and educated in Shrewsbury (his parents, for an unexplained reason, are buried in the churchyard of Montford parish church, just down river from my village and some distance from the town where they lived).  Surely we are beyond so irresponsible a rejection of medical research.

In the popular history of medicine, Edward Jenner lines up with Alexander Fleming as a hero-discoverer of life-saving remedies.  In 1796, as every textbook tells it, he vaccinated James Phipps, the eight-year-old son of his gardener, with cowpox, which gave him immunity to the disfiguring and frequently lethal illness of smallpox.  Crucially Jenner not only applied a remedy which was already being investigated, but conducted a series of tests to prove that it had worked with young Phipps and later triallists.  There then followed the first public legislation in the field, with Vaccination Acts in 1840, 1853 (the first to make the vaccination of children compulsory), 1867 which tightened the regulation, and 1898 which introduced a conscience clause for parents still opposed to the practice.

The last of the 19th century Acts reflected the power of the anti-vaccination movement which had grown up as regulations were introduced.  In the present moment, Leicester is in renewed lockdown, at least in part because of the failure of sections of the population to observe social distancing advice.  Here is the same city in 1885, with up to 100,000 anti-vaccinators marching with banners, a child’s coffin and an effigy of Jenner:  “An escort was formed, preceded by a banner, to escort a young mother and two men, all of whom had resolved to give themselves up to the police and undergo imprisonment in preference to having their children vaccinated…The three were attended by a numerous crowd…three hearty cheers were given for them, which were renewed with increased vigor as they entered the doors of the police cells.”***

The Victorian era was notable not so much for the progress of medical science, which for the most part was more successful at diagnosis than therapeutic intervention, but for the growth of mass literacy, which turned every citizen into a consumer of the printed word.  With newspapers came advertisements for every kind of quack medicine.  With the Penny Post of 1840 came the machinery to distribute products by mail order, using stamps as currency.  The most credulous were not the newly literate farm labourers whom Jenner had treated, but the confident, educated middle classes.  In 1909 the British Medical Association, alarmed at the success of patent medicines, conducted an inquiry into the market:

It is not, however, only the poorer classes of the community who have a weakness for secret remedies and the ministration of quacks; the well-to-do and the highly-placed will often, when not very ill, take a curious pleasure in experimenting with mysterious compounds.  In them, it is perhaps to be traced a hankering to break safely with orthodoxy; they scrupulously obey the law and the Church and Mrs. Grundy, but will have their fling against medicine” (BMA, Secret Remedies (1909), p. vii).

Facebook and other sites, which bear a criminal responsibility for the resistance to orthodox medicine, are merely the inheritors of a long tradition of self-medication weaponised by commercial forces and facilitated by communication systems.  The medical profession itself has not always been as secure a bastion against these pressures as it might wish to be seen.  It took twelve years for The Lancet finally to retract the article it published in 1998 falsely claiming that the MMR vaccine caused autism.

It is, of course, possible that if and when a vaccine is made available, there will be less resistance to it than is now threatened.  History offers scant comfort that this will happen.

* https://www.telegraph.co.uk/global-health/science-and-disease/one-third-uk-may-not-get-coronavirus-vaccine-one-developed-new/

**https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/02/11/darwin-day/

*** https://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/history-anti-vaccination-movements