Conspiracy and uncertainty in the time of epidemics

It is by no means always evident where conspiracy thinking ends and the reasonable suspicion of science begins.

Mark Honigsbaum
14 October 2015
Imagining conspiracies

Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organisation, 2012.

Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General, World Health Organisation, 2012. Wikicommons/ DFID. Some rights reserved.In July last year, a woman appeared in the main market square of Kenema – a  remote diamond-prospecting town in southeastern Sierra Leone – and began ranting about ‘sinister’ goings-on at the local public hospital. Claiming she was a nurse, the woman told the townspeople she had seen doctors injecting patients with Ebola. It was all part of a plot, she said, to introduce the virus to Sierra Leone, thereby fomenting an emergency that would bring humanitarian aid flooding to the country for the benefit of the political elite in Freetown.

At a time when the source of Ebola was uncertain even to western scientists, and rumours abounded about the ‘true’ intentions of foreign medical teams dressed in scary biohazard suits, the woman’s claims found a receptive audience and soon an angry mob was laying siege to Kenema General Hospital, forcing nursing staff to suspend vital care and barricade the gates.

To those risking their lives on the wards each day the idea that doctors were deliberately infecting patients with Ebola beggared belief. But it was not only in Kenema that such conspiracy theories thrived. In Guinea and Liberia, people also refused to believe Ebola was real, whispering that it was a plot by western pharmaceutical firms and European-educated doctors to harvest blood and organs from indigenous populations.

At first glance such theories appear ridiculous and irrational. But are they any more ridiculous than the conspiracy theories about 9/11 routinely voiced at dinner tables in London, or the widespread suspicion of childhood vaccines and distrust of government immunisation campaigns evinced by middle class parents from Oxford to Orange County? Besides, don’t conspiracy theories sometimes turn out to be true?

In 1932 the US Public Health Service began enrolling African-American males in Alabama in a study of syphilis without ever telling those who were suffering from the disease that they had it, or offering them an appropriate treatment. The result is that today the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which ran until 1972, is a byword for racist and unethical medical experimentation. Similarly, it is not difficult to see why Muslim populations in Asia might distrust the motives of polio vaccinators, given the revelation in 2011 that a Pakistani physician had used a bogus hepatitis B immunization campaign to obtain DNA from children in Abbottabad as part of the CIA’s efforts to track down members of Osama Bin Laden’s family.

These were just some of the case studies scrutinised at a conference at CRASSH  that brought together medical historians, political scientists, social psychologists and philosophers to debate questions of “Suspect Science”. What quickly became apparent is that, whether talking about global warming and the denial of climate change, the collapse of the World Trade Center towers, or claims that the World Health Organization (WHO) deliberately hyped the 2009 swine flu ‘pandemic’ for the benefit of vaccine manufacturers, conspiracy is a slippery term: like pornography, we all think we know it when we see it, but the boundaries are a little blurred.  Nor is there a ready rule of thumb for distinguishing what some might regard as a healthy – and highly rational – suspicion of science and the pathological doubt that characterizes more extreme styles of conspiratorial thought.

All of which begs the question, why study conspiracy theories in the first place? One answer is that for all that we might be tempted to dismiss conspiracy thinking as unworthy of critical engagement, belief in conspiracy theories carries very real risks – risks that patients will not present at Ebola Treatment Units until it is too late, for instance, or that parents will think it is OK for their son or daughter not to get a measles shot, regardless of the dangers to their classmates should herd immunity wane. Another is that thinking about conspiracy theories forces historians to think critically about their own methodologies and the extent to which notions about the ‘proper’ weighing of historical evidence draw on pre-conceived ideas about what counts as rational thought. thinking about conspiracy theories forces historians to think critically about their own methodologies and the extent to which notions about the ‘proper’ weighing of historical evidence draw on pre-conceived ideas about what counts as rational thought.

The problem is that unlike those beliefs in witchcraft of the seventeenth century, which can be dismissed as ignorant superstition, or the riots sparked in the early nineteenth century when cholera suddenly appeared  in European cities, by rumours that the medical profession were deliberately poisoning the wells, modern conspiracies are not so easily dismissed as the products of superstitious thinking. 

One reason for this is the recognition that contemporary forms of conspiracy thinking mirror the epistemic values of the Enlightenment – values in which historians are as deeply vested as any other scientist. Indeed, it could be argued that conspiracy thinking is a sort of uber-rationality, one that takes Enlightenment values, such as independence of mind and scepticism about information passed down by so-called experts, to excessive lengths.

The other is the insight that much of what passes for science is itself uncertain. Moreover, modern science does take place in a vacuum but is increasingly the product of defined research programmes – programmes that always have a social and political context. This is as true of ‘climate denial’ – where environmentalists find themselves accused of exaggerating the dangers of climate change in order to protect investments in renewable energy – as it is of public health, and the suspicion, for example, that the reason flu experts advised the World Health Organisation(WHO) to declare a pandemic in 2009 was their dependency on the pharmaceutical industry for research funds.

Never mind that WHO director general, Margaret Chan, admitted at the time that there was no certain way of predicting how the swine flu virus would behave; for the conspiracy-minded, the confluence of interests between scientists and Big Pharma was reason enough to suspect a conspiracy. The result was that the WHO found itself in the paradoxical situation of being damned for being overly transparent about the scientific uncertainty of a pandemic, but insufficiently transparent about the deliberations of its expert advisors and the influence of the pharmaceutical industry.

Was this the same type of conspiracy theory as undermined the efforts of nineteenth century sanitary authorities to persuade European populations that cholera was a vibrio transmitted in faeces, or to persuade rural populations in Sierra Leone and Liberia in 2014 that Ebola was a viral disease spread by contaminated bush meat? Of course not. But that is because modern conspiracies – by which I mean those to which educated populations in developed countries seem increasingly prone – are better understood as responses to the increasing complexity of the modern world and anxiety about the costs of acting ethically and responsibly, whether those costs involve vaccination or cutting carbon emissions.

That is not to say that irrationality and magical thinking do not explain the barmier end of the conspiracy spectrum, only that conspiracy theories occur along a continuum and it is by no means always evident where conspiracy thinking ends and the reasonable suspicion of science begins.

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