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Editorial: Conspiracy cranks are not helping the Coronavirus crisis

ONE virus receiving little attention in the mainstream media today is that of the conspiracy theory. Yet social media and the internet abound with such theories about the origins and purposes of the Covid-19 pandemic.
 
There are reasons for the reluctance, not only on this occasion but on others. For a start, some conspiracy theories may be pointing to truths that those in power do not wish to see exposed or admitted. The lack of hard evidence does not in itself prove that a theory is untrue.

We know for certain that conspiracies take place. Theories that the British state was engaged in the development of an atomic bomb, that Britain, France and Israel conspired to invade Egypt in 1956 on false pretences and that the Gulf of Tonkin incident was fabricated in order to justify a massive escalation of the US war against Vietnam, were all vindicated by evidence that subsequently came to light.  

Other theories not only remain free from real evidence in any scientific sense, that they can be tested rationally against known and largely indisputable facts. They are also designed and propagated to serve a particular ideological agenda, to court publicity or merely to satisfy a personal urge to appear to be “in the know.”

True believers develop an aversion to any evidence to the contrary, dismissing all facts which do not fit their theory as fake, peddled by the conspirators themselves or their supposed dupes.     

Which brings us to conspiracy theories currently doing the rounds in cyberspace and conversation about Covid-19 — which, like every major outbreak of disease since the dawn of the internet age, has proved a breeding ground for baseless speculation.

One of the favourites is that the virus has escaped from a bio-military research centre in China, the US or Britain (substitute any other country of choice).

That such secretive work takes place is hardly an impossibility. Some governments argue it is necessary for purely defensive purposes and complies with international conventions.

The existence of the Wuhan Institute of Virology is no state secret. But not a shred of evidence has been produced to link it to the coronavirus outbreak. Attempts to embroider the charge with the name of a “whistle-blowing” researcher have fallen at the first evidential hurdle.

Similarly, a favourite rumour being spread in the US that the Chinese Communist Party and government have caused the epidemic in order to cull an ageing population. Propagators of this theory are also in the forefront of efforts to deny global warming and hold the US “deep state” culpable for the 9/11 terrorist massacre (which other conspiracy theorists claim did not happen in the first place).

Again, the “culling” theory is popular in Britain and France, although it is based on suppositions that elected governments will readily resort to geronticide in order to save money and boost the profits of “Big Pharma.”

Whether combatting Covid-19 will prove a net saver for the state — or big business — remains to be seen. Why the Tories should want so many Tory-voting electors to die before the next general election has not been convincingly explained.    

In reality, a number of top-level scientific enquiries inside and outside China are working to identify the source of the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan. A consensus is beginning to emerge which locates the origins of the virus in the natural world, although it is not yet clear how it could transfer in mutated form from animals to humans.

The main problem with  Covid-19 conspiracy theories is not only that they are, as yet, baseless.

By accident or design, they can also undermine the credibility and influence of scientific credibility and public health advice, creating space for quack remedies. More widely, they undermine a scientific approach to truth, reason and logic.

They also damage the credibility of those who propagate them when theories are shown to lack any basis in reality. 

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