If we’re going to convince the vaccine hesitant, we need to tackle conspiratorial thinking,Dave Hahn,The Skeptic

We began waking up to the reality of this pandemic about fourteen months ago. By 20 March 2020, the virus had claimed its 10,000th victim. This grim milestone would only be a fraction of the death count a year later. As the disease spread, conspiracy theories spread with it. In the beginning, the conspiracy theories and theorists primarily caused panic by focusing on the apocalyptic nature of the disease, exaggerating the deadliness of the contagion as they did during the Ebola outbreak of 2014. As the infection rate rose along with the corresponding deaths, the theories and theorists began shifting tone. In late March, everyone should have stood up and paid attention when the first 5G cellular tower was lit on fire in the village of Melling. This act of arson was followed shortly by the immolation of two more cellular towers in Aintree and Aigburth.

The three towers would be followed by dozens more. Each one essential to the transmission of cellular communications. Each tower emitted harmless radio frequencies that allow us to download movies, games, and I suppose, make the occasional phone call as well. We know this kind of radiation is harmless as Einstein’s Nobel prize-winning paper described in 1905 that only electromagnetic frequencies above ultra-violet can affect chemical changes. Yet, the towers were set ablaze based on a pseudo-scientific conspiracy theory that 5G causes Covid. By early May, 76 more towers had been torched based on this unsound belief. As the towers went up, their glow should have been beacons of warning that we, as a civilisation, were not only going to be fighting a physical virus but a social one as well.

Panic was always going to be part of the equation. Pandemics are like that, and panic can take many forms. My current state governor, Andrew Cuomo, threatened the public with a state-funded hand sanitiser release because the panic-stricken were being exploited by those hoarding the fluid. Toilet paper had vanished from stores in the non-bidet parts of the world. There was a brief period around this time when the conspiracy theories died down a bit, which was taken as cause for hope. That hope was misplaced.

What was apparently happening was that the conspiracy theorists were waiting to discover what the official story was before launching a salvo of claims against it. According to one of the most important academic papers on the subject, conspiracy theories run against official stories as a matter of necessity. While the world waited for the medical, scientific, and governmental officials of the world to inform us of the situation, the conspiracy theories waited to find out the specifics they were going to scream “fake!”. Faces familiar to skeptics began offering CAM treatments for defeating the virus and subsequent infection. Jim Bakker began selling a silver solution and was shut down by the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Alex Jones similarly was shut down for selling a silver-based toothpaste. This list includes Brazilian president Jair Balsanaro and former U.S. President Donald Trump’s unsubstantiated faith in hydroxychloroquine, long after it was proven to be ineffective at treatment. Trump also, in a press conference pitched sunlight and bleach as a treatment as well.

These claims were, at least, made by people who believed the virus was real. While they pushed their wares in the name of profiting from others’ likely infection, the virus was an actual virus to them. However, there was no shortage of people claiming the virus was not real, that it was an inert thing activated by those 5G towers. Some claimed that this entire pandemic was foretold in an obscure paper financed by the evil duo of Bill Gates and George Soros. Currently, their dialogue has shifted, and we should be very concerned by the head start that their push has.

Writer/podcaster Noah Lugeons wrote a book (and an article for this website) in which he places significant responsibility for the spread of the virus on religion. The responsibility is of significance in the U.S., where Christian religious organisations have found a sympathetic legal system willing to grant them novel extra-legal rights; however, religion is not the cause of the global problem we are facing right now.

It was not religion that burned down the 5G towers last year; it was a conspiracy belief. It is not religion that created the idea of a Gates/Soros plan to inject everyone with microchips to… well, that part of the conspiracy theory is unclear. While Lugeons would likely respond by pointing out that the Venn diagram in the United States between people who believe in these conspiracy theories and those who also have a religious belief will be a circle, they are not necessarily related. Very few mainstream religious groups reject vaccination, for instance, even the Vatican is sidestepping their usual condemnation of anything derived from abortion for this pandemic.

As of this writing, 25% of Americans will refuse the vaccine if offered, with another 5% undecided. The refusal comes down to one of two things: fears that the vaccine is either ineffective or unsafe (Callaghan et al. 2021). Hopefully, we can set the former group aside as infection and death rates have plummeted since the vaccine rollouts began. The latter group is fed by conspiracy theory claims that are a familiar song: evil giant pharma overlords seeking profit (this conspiracy theory only makes sense in the U.S.), dangerous RNA technology turning us into mutants, and the planned genocides of Gates/Soros/Rothschilds.

The current battle is for the hearts and minds of the population. Convincing enough people to get the vaccinations is going to require overcoming conspiratorial thinking. This is not an easy task as conspiratorial ideation appeals to people emotionally. Psychological studies show that conspiracy theories attract those with intense levels of confidence but low levels of inquisitiveness and humility. The problem has been the view of mainstream society’s inattention to this subject. The perception has been that conspiracy theories and theorists were fringe beliefs occupying the more obscure corners of the world and the places on the internet decent folks avoid. We know after Brexit, after Trump’s presidency, and now during the pandemic that these theories and those that push them have severe effects that cannot and must not be ignored.

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Anti-vaxxers had a head start when it comes to winning the hearts and minds of the Covid vaccine hesitant – it’s time for the rest of us to catch them up
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