Conspiracy theories: "Reality is crumbling"

Corona doesn’t exist, testing is pointless and the pandemic has been made up – conspiracy theories are on the rise. The problem is they’re coming from supposedly serious scientists. 

Thousands of corona-sceptics take to the streets of Berlin for a "Querdenker 711" demo on 1 August. 
Thousands of corona-sceptics take to the streets of Berlin for a "Querdenker 711" demo on 1 August. dpa

What determines the unity of our society? In the past it was thought to be a common language, a shared culture, faith or set of values that unite a majority – even if it remains divided on other fronts. The fading of such shared cultural characteristics – whether a national language or “western Christian values” – has made society more diverse, but also more compartmentalised. But not even different languages, social codes, religions, value systems and interests can stop the discussion about what a society wants and tolerates – and what it doesn’t. Even what is seen and discussed as a political problem.

The French philosopher Jacques Rancière argued that politics arises precisely from this kind of social “disagreement”. Politics is not a solution to problems but arises from constant squabbling over the question of what is an actual problem, who is allowed to discuss it, and which interests have to be represented in that discussion. As varied and controversy-prone a society may be, it must have one thing in order to be able to argue at all: a consensus on what is accepted as fact and what isn’t. That might sound banal. After all, it isn’t the case that some parts of society deny the existence of gravity, while other parts don’t. But besides gravity, today there doesn’t seem to be a single factual concept which is not denied by one side or another.

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Photo: Helmut Grünbichler
About the author
Eva Horn is a cultural and literary scholar and teaches at the University of Vienna. Her work has frequently addressed modern catastrophes and conspiracy theories that elude human imagination. Her book "The Future as Catastrophe" ("Zukunft als Katastrophe“) was published by S.Fischer-Verlag in 2014.

Following the social debates of the last 20 years, you can see the increasing erosion of a divided reality. Can anyone still remember the World Trade Center conspiracy? Immediately after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, rumours started to emerge – that the Pentagon had been hit by a missile, that the US government had known about the attacks, or that the Twin Towers had been rigged with explosives from the inside. Today we may just shrug our shoulders at these bizarre speculations. But in times when we have the choice between absurdities like “Covid-19 isn’t worse than the flu”, “Bill Gates invented the virus to implant chips in the global population” and “the world’s elite is rejuvenating itself with children’s blood”, the 9/11 theories seem refreshingly sound by comparison. But they also mark a moment in history when completely incompatible interpretations of reality were suddenly no longer a fringe phenomenon but started circulating in society at large.

What's going on right now?

Drastic historical events often elicit stories and suspicions that question the official version of events. People ask what is really going on and what might be the hidden forces behind it. Has anyone profited from the event or have a vested interest in it? Asking these questions doesn’t necessarily make you a conspiracy theorist. It means re-interpreting reality in order to heal its traumatic disruption. At the moment, for most people, this means closely following and absorbing the science about Covid-19. In the past few months, we got a crash course in epidemiology and virology. We talk shop about reproduction numbers and the percolation model. We wear our masks and Zoom until the cows come home. Our reality has changed dramatically, but we still believe in gravity – and in science.

Whether we like it or not, we are currently living in an expertocracy

The key thing about the Covid crisis is the close integration of science and politics. Epidemiologists, virologists and social psychologists are the experts of the moment, and their recommendations get applied quickly and willingly. Whether we like it or not, we are currently living in an expertocracy – a political system determined not by democratic voting or negotiation, but by the demands of the current circumstances. And these demands are, at least in Europe, communicated by scientists.

Yet this has triggered a fundamental distrust of these experts. This distrust drives a small but noisy minority to seriously question scientific knowledge about Covid-19. Early on in the pandemic, medical doctors like Wolfgang Wodarg, an SPD politician and author on various social-medical topics such as childbirth and psychological problems on ships, spoke out. In March he declared that Covid-19 was no worse than seasonal flu. He subsequently demanded for PCR tests, the most common method of testing for corona, to be “questioned in a legally effective manner”. Sucharit Bhakdi, an emeritus professor for microbiology and immunology, went even further than Wodarg and brought numbers into the picture: he currently claims that 80 per cent of Germans are already immune against the virus, and that its lethality, correctly counted, is no higher than that of the flu. While he sometimes correctly criticises details in the computation of offical Covid statistics, he offers confused speculations, blatant untruths and strange conclusions, like his st.atement that having to wear a mask amounts to “torture”.

The artificial creation of scientific dissent

At first glance one may think this is doctors against doctors, a debate among scientific peers. Science lives on controversy. It is no stranger to heated debates, revisions and, most important of all, review. What is remarkable is that Covid-sceptics like Wodarg or Bhakdi avoid this scientific process of self-refining through peer-review. They aren’t publishing their opinions on the virus in journals, which ensure quality through elaborate review processes, but in a bestselling book, on TV or in YouTube videos. Their audience is not the scientific community but ordinary people who are easily impressed by doctorates and medical terminology. The outcome is a debate that might seem to the general public like a scientific discussion. But it isn’t.

Taking a closer look at the strategies these Covid-sceptics use, we see a clear template. The approach is similar to that of the infamous climate change sceptics who, on the payroll of oil companies or conservative think tanks, have portrayed environmental topics as scientifically “controversial” for the past 20 years. Their goal was to cast doubt in the existence of the hole in the ozone layer, in man-made climate change or in the harmfulness of insecticides like DDT. They were scientists, but - lacking expertise in the field - they unleashed a fake “debate” which wouldn’t have existed otherwise. The science historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway described the strategies of these “merchants of doubt”. They operate by cherry-picking details, quoting out of context, criticising methods of measurement, and overblowing counter-examples. Last but not least, they launch personal attacks against individual researchers.

The strategies used by today's Covid sceptics are fatally reminiscent of this arsenal of smoke grenades: from Wodarg's complicated statements on the unreliability of PCR testing and Bhakdi's criticism of statistics from the Robert Koch Institute, to the shitstorm against Prof. Christian Drosten by the taboloid newspaper Bild. The artificially created cacophony of "scientific" dissent is intended to create the impression that the experts themselves do not know what is actually going on, or, worse, that they are liars.

The tragic thing is that scepticism is also an essential part of real science. Scientific knowledge keeps changing, as scientists question the finding of their colleagues. The past few months have seen a steep learning curve about a pathogen that nobody had much of a clue about. Modes of transmission, immunity, the course of the disease and its consequential damage - new insights are constantly being added to what we know so far. Scientific knowledge is never set in stone. However, this seems to be a widespread expectation. Science is expected to tell us how things actually are now and forever – not “as far as we know”.

“Just Google it”

The problem is that this fluidity of scientific knowledge has now led to a strange diffusion of knowledge in the public sphere. We might even call it a “democratisation” of science, if the results weren’t so dangerous. Thanks to the self-proclaimed sceptics, their YouTube lectures and digestible polemics, everyone with or without knowledge of the field can now feel like a researcher and expert. “Just Google it” has become the mantra of sceptics and conspiracy theorists of all convictions.

Anyone can research an “alternative truth”. As is well known, online search algorithms give the user the results that seem to confirm their existing views based on their previous search history and preferences. On social media such as Facebook and Twitter fake or sensationalist news are forwarded six times more often than normal news. You find what you are looking for, your ideas are confirmed, and the results are thrilling – what a life as a researcher!

We are experiencing a division into incompatible realities that can no longer communicate.

At first glance, this seems an act of intellectual autonomy. “Thinking for yourself” is the battle cry of the Enlightenment. The “lateral thinker” is the epitome of the critical mind – and unfortunately now also the name of the “Querdenker” corona-sceptic movement from Stuttgart. With a view to climate change sceptics and the conspiracy theories around 9/11, the sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour already noticed in 2004 that “criticism” has recently shown a dangerous tendency to dismiss facts in the service of political agendas. Once criticism had consisted of exposing seemingly natural facts, such as gender, as a set of social constructs. Today, the reverse seems to be the case. Scientific “matters of fact”, as Latour puts it, are now being liquidated through a cacophony of self-made dissent in order to transform them purely into “matters of concern”.

In this politicisation of knowledge, factuality itself dissolves. Climate change? Maybe there is no such thing, let's wait and see! Covid? Just a flu. Conspiracy theories revolving around Covid demonstrate how this kind of politicisation increasingly pushes the boundaries of the field of debate to the point where discussion becomes impossible. The usefulness of wearing masks, the costs of the lockdown or the data protection of tracing apps can of course be reasonably debated. But not the question of whether Bill Gates created the virus in order to implant mankind with microchips.

The politicisation of facts

At the time, Latour advised that this politicisation of factuality should be recognised and had to be worked with. But things aren’t quite that simple. Besides the fact that we can’t simply sit out either climate change or corona, this erosion of factuality has caused a largely invisible division of society in recent years. This division of reality is much more serious than the difference between right and left, rich and poor, migrants or nationals. What we are experiencing is a division into incompatible realities that can no longer communicate.

It is impossible to debate with people who are less afraid of Covid than of a global conspiracy that has either “made up” the virus or “deliberately created” it. A large, unfortunately often silent majority in Europe lives in a reality in which science is valid. It expects that politics - for example, in matters of climate change - will be guided by this knowledge. However, there is a growing, very heterogeneous minority that defines its reality completely differently. The fact that this group is so heterogeneous has something to do with the diverse sources and standards of information that make up their reality. The internet is a hodgepodge of statements, the validity of which cannot be verified in any way – it offers a landscape full of tunnels that lead into fantasy worlds, like the famous rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland.

What we are currently witnessing is the collapse of the unity of reality. This may not be as new as is sometimes claimed. And it may not just be the fault of oft decried social media. It is, I believe, rather a mindset, a mixture of doubt and gullibility, which leads to an erosion of knowledge and of reality. This erosion of knowledge leads to an erosion of the political. Political dissent is only possible on the basis of a shared reality. It is no longer possible to argue or hold a political discussion with someone who believes in completely alternative realities, or who no longer even cares about the truth of their own assertions. Even a divided society still has a unity – the unity of dissent. If this unity is disbanded, there will be nothing left to argue about.

This essay was adapted from the original German for the English edition by Elizabeth Rushton.