Pandemics, Climate Change, and Conspiracies

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Understanding the world means accepting the fact that things sometimes happen randomly, that reality can be complex, and that certain events may be the result of numerous variables inadvertently colliding, without any conscious forces guiding them. But for the human brain, this concept is often hard to grasp.

Why? One theory is that our brains perceive patterns when random events occur as a way of detecting potentially dangerous coalitions. Many social scientists believe our brains evolved this way because such coalitions were prevalent in the ancestral environment, mainly in the form of neighboring tribes conspiring to invade our own.

And now here we are, in the 21st century, where the world has become way more complex, albeit relatively nonbelligerent in comparison to certain eras in human history, so far. At least in most peaceful nations we can confidently stride to the supermarket without worrying about being ambushed by people with spears.

Credit: Historiam Olim

But even for those of us who live in the coziest of conditions, there is often fear and mistrust, especially of groups that possess more power than we do. Fueled by social media, every conspiracy theory we can imagine is adopted by a certain group of people as an unequivocal truth, and it usually involves the belief that another group is plotting to take advantage of us, and eventually destroy us.

This isn’t to say we don’t face threats, or that any form of mistrust in local and/or foreign institutions is illogical. But these beliefs are often overblown and misguided. One of the most pervasive, and nonsensical, beliefs is that nearly every university, institution, scientist and government on the entire planet has conspired to lie to the public about our role in altering the Earth’s climate, resulting in climate change denial and suspicion over scientific facts.

Irrational conspiracy theories are believed to have spurred numerous violent attacks in recent history, such as the gunning down of 11 Jewish worshipers at a US synagogue in 2018. The gunman was convinced Jews were bringing illegal immigrants to the US to help them take over world governments and destroy the “white” race. The 9/11 attacks, which killed thousands, were carried out by jihadists who believed Islam is under attack by Judeo-Christian nations. Then there’s Dylan Roof, who killed nine people at a black Church in the US state of South Carolina in 2015, and Anders Breivik, who killed 77 in Norway in 2011. Both men were motivated by the belief that they were “defending themselves” from groups threatening the existence of their own race.

Photograph: Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

And now, not surprisingly, irrational beliefs are being spread about our beloved coronavirus. The Chinese created it to control the population and destroy the world, the Trump administration created it to destroy China, American liberals created it to undermine the Trump administration, aliens created it to…. 

Such outrageous rumors, particularly the first one mentioned, have spurred racist attacks, mainly towards Asians in non-Asian countries throughout the world.

In all reality, the coronavirus is the result of some random and not so random events. Epidemiologists suggest it originated in bats, that were then transmitted to domestic animals and spread to humans.

Nobody intentionally created this virus.

But the illogical beliefs and reactions throughout the globe are not surprising when we understand how flawed the human psyche is. Considering the fact that humankind has walked on the moon and sent robots to mars, it’s easy to believe our brains have advanced quite a lot since prehistoric times. And it’s true that, despite the attacks mentioned above, violence around the world has decreased over time (as also mentioned above), in part thanks to increases in global literacy rates through education, democracy and an abundance of resources brought to us by our own technological advancements.

But these are mainly the accumulation of previous discoveries and material wealth, used to finance research into more discoveries, rather than our brains having evolved to where we are now rational, superbly intelligent beings.

There’s no doubt education has improved our situation in myriad ways, making us less susceptible to illogical perceptions of reality.

Credit: EUIPO-Europa EU

But it doesn’t make us immune.  

A cure for the coronavirus may come about with the development of a vaccine. But human induced climate change is much more complex and cannot be solved with a simple shot in the arm. When resources become scarce as a result of more heatwaves, floods and droughts, more conspiracy theories will emerge as to who is really at fault, and violence may become much more pervasive than in the recent past.

Perhaps someday, as an entire species, we’ll harness the ability to distinguish random events from those orchestrated with malicious intent. But until then, we might as well keep a firm grip on our spears.

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