The ‘logic’ of Covid-19 denial

Sandra asked:

How am I to deal with people who persist in believing that truth doesn’t matter, e.g., who can say that Covid-19 isn’t real?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

As I write, the UK is battling to vaccinate as many of its citizens against Covid-19 as the supply of vaccines allows. I was fortunate to receive the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccination this week.

First, I want to say something about conspiracy theories in general, then about the concept of truth, and then, finally, about groups of people who have, or seem to have, encouraged the belief amongst themselves that Covid-19 is somehow not ‘real’.

It is axiomatic that a conspiracy, of any kind whatsoever, requires the continued cooperation of all the conspirators. It only takes one former conspirator, or a few former conspirators, to ‘blow the whistle’. This is one of the reasons why in UK law, ‘conspiracy to do XYZ’, where XYZ is a criminal offence, is a worse crime than when a single individual does XYZ.

The idea that the Covid-19 pandemic is a conspiracy would require the cooperation of not hundreds or even thousands but tens of thousands of people. Theoretically, it could be done. All the news reports, where cameras have been allowed into hospitals around the world, could be showing actors rather than patients, doctors and nurses. But each one of those supposed ‘actors’ would have to be in on the conspiracy. Common sense would seem to show that the pretence could not be maintained for any length of time.

A similar point could be made about the so-called ‘conspiracy’ to persuade people to believe that the Earth is round rather than flat. There is an added point to make here, however, that the very idea that it is an a priori truth that ‘things fall down’ is at least partly to blame for the Flat Earth theory. The very first philosophers in the Western tradition believed in the Flat Earth theory. It seems that Thales and Anaximenes both assumed this to be an unquestionable truth. And why not? And yet the principle was questioned by Anaximander, who was the first to see that the question wasn’t about ‘falling’ but about attraction, why objects should be attracted towards the Earth. His answer, although we now judge it to be incorrect, was that things ‘fall’ in order to maintain the symmetry of the ‘cosmos’.

Two millennia later, Isaac Newton proposed that a very small attractive force exists between any two masses which is proportional to the inverse square of their distance times the product of their masses. When one of the objects is the size of the Earth, that force becomes significant, and we call it ‘gravity’.

In the case of Covid-19, a population who are used to seeing spectacular sci-fi epics in the cinema can be partly excused for being tempted to think that the images flickering on their TV screens might be just more of the same. But, as in the case of things falling, there is a better explanation than the claim of conspiracy. The better explanation is that Covid-19 is real, and that, to date, it has killed more UK citizens than died in the Second World War. (The number of deaths world wide still has a long way to go before it reaches the total number, the largest part of which was suffered by citizens of the former USSR.)

Even though it is not the only logically possible explanation, the best explanation for reports of the devastation caused by Covid-19 is that the reports are true. But why must we believe ‘the truth’? No-one is forced to ‘believe’ any matter of fact. The grieving mother who refuses to accept that her son has died in a foreign war, even when his body is returned in a casket, has chosen ‘not to believe’.

Lewis Carroll in Alice in Wonderland saw a philosophical conundrum here. At one point in the story, the White Queen claims to be 101 years old:

‘I can’t believe that!’ said Alice.

‘Can’t you?’ the Queen said in a pitying tone. ‘Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.’

Alice laughed. ‘There’s no use trying,’ she said: ‘one can’t believe impossible things.’

‘I daresay you haven’t had much practice,’ said the Queen. ‘When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.’

— You might think that the same could be said by a ‘believer’ in the Covid-19 or Round Earth ‘conspiracies’. But, generally, they don’t say this because they don’t have the White Queen’s smarts. What they believe is not something they regard as ‘impossible’ but, on the contrary, they believe their theory to be the most likely explanation. This is just not the case.

But if someone says, right out, ‘I know that it is true that Covid-19 is real but I choose not to believe it,’ then there is a much swifter point to make, which was highlighted by the philosopher G.E. Moore. ‘It is raining, but I do not believe that it is raining,’ is known as ‘Moore’s Paradox’. There is no logical contradiction in this sentence, and yet the claim seems impossible. Surely that is truly a ‘last gasp’ basis for resistance by the scorched Earth conspiracy theorist.

Despite this, there are groups of people who have, somehow, convinced themselves and one another that the conspiracy is real. Just this week, British police broke up a party of 400 people. Although this was not reported on the BBC News, according to the Daily Telegraph, it was a wedding party amongst Ultra Orthodox Jews. Could any of the guests have been watching the News, the battling doctors and nurses tired beyond desperation, the body bags and graves? It is entirely possible that a group of people should, for reasons best known to themselves, refuse to watch TV or read newspapers. To me, that is the kinder explanation. The less kind explanation is that the guests were fully aware of what they were doing but chose deliberately to put themselves and all the persons they came into contact at risk from a deadly disease, something that is simply beyond my comprehension.

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