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Could you spot a conspiracy theorist? In an age of cranks, the humble footnote can lead us to the truth

Did you spot him? (Credit: Lionel Cironneau/AP)(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Did you spot him? (Credit: Lionel Cironneau/AP)(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)


April 23, 2021   7 mins

Texts have bodies and they have apparatus. You’re looking at the body of mine now — these sentences grouped in fat paragraphs, over which your eyes are moving, clause by clause, and with which I’m going to advance an argument (quite a simple one, really) about how to avoid being considered a crank, a chump, a charlatan, a conspiracy theorist or, at worst, a credulous, goggle-eyed anti-Semite.

And the apparatus? Well, that’s the machinery that helps you to decide whether or not to take these words seriously. The masthead of UnHerd. The byline. My bona fides, that sketch what I do when I’m not here, brightening your day. And, most importantly, the little numbers that show I’ve attempted some homework and give you the means to mark it. The footnotes1.

The footnote is a small thing, but so much depends on it. Good writers can use it to supply data that might otherwise disrupt the flow of their story. The single most pleasurable element of Matthew Sturgis’s excellent Aubrey Beardsley: A Life (1999), for instance, is the footnote revealing that Dame Edna’s creator Barry Humphries furnished the information that the subject’s name should be pronounced “Ah-brey” and not “Orbrey”2. In fiction, Susannah Clarke and Flann O’Brien have used footnotes to add depth and curiosity to their own strange invented worlds3. In most non-fiction, the footnote (and its sister, the endnote) articulates a covenant of trust between reader and author: an assurance that sources are being used with honesty and integrity. It confirms good and scrupulous work; reveals error, bad faith and intellectual poverty. When it comes to distinguishing the bullshit from the good stuff, the footnote is your friend.

So let’s work through the two examples that made me want to write this piece. They emerged in the last few days from opposite ends of the political spectrum — if such a thing still exists. One went viral, the other failed to spread — though it did provide a glimpse into a deep reservoir of prejudice.

The first came in the form of a scientific paper claiming that face masks were not only useless against the spread of Covid-19, but might in themselves “cause health deterioration, developing and progression of chronic diseases and premature death” [sic]. The study had appeared in the journal Medical Hypotheses in November 2020, but attracted little attention until mask-averse commentators tried to share it on social media — and found that it was being blocked or red-flagged. At which point ‘Facemasks in the COVID-19 era: A health hypothesis’ became a cause cĂ©lĂšbre.

The celebrants were a familiar cast of culture warriors and conspiracy theorists, among them Diamond and Silk, a pair of pro-Trump activists with 2.38 million Facebook followers, Raheem Kassam, co-host of Steve Bannon’s War Room podcast and author of Enoch Was Right (2018), and Naomi Wolf, whose current conspiracy theories about vaccines, time travel and Israel’s influence over Dr Anthony Fauci defy both decency and easy summary. As they posted and tweeted, news sites of the kind unlikely to win a Pulitzer lit up like Diwali, many following the line that “Big Tech tyrants” had suppressed a “peer-reviewed study done by Stanford University that demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt that face masks have absolutely zero chance of preventing the spread of Covid-19”.

Trouble was, this study was neither peer-reviewed nor a product of Stanford University. Its author, Baruch Vainshelboim, is a clinical exercise physiologist with no institutional position at Stanford or apparently anywhere else4. (He did not respond to requests to clarify his status.) His paper appeared in Medical Hypotheses, a peculiar anything-goes journal whose tolerance for fringe ideas has led it to accept papers proposing that that high-heeled shoes cause schizophrenia, masturbation alleviates nasal congestion and Gulf War Syndrome is a form of beef allergy.

Did this discredit him? Not much, according to the American Institute for Economic Research, which praised the editorial ethos of Medical Hypotheses and the “well-published and well-cited” Dr Vainshelboim for “a devastating analysis of the harms caused by widespread, universal masking”. Dr Vainshelboim is certainly prolific. According to Google Scholar he has published six papers in the last 300 days, on subjects a various as lung transplants, cardiorespiratory fitness and handgrip strength in the elderly. And his analysis is devastating, if you care about proofreading or believe that a citation should accurately reflect the source to which it leads.

Vainshelboim’s paper has 67 references. If you go to the trouble of following them, you get the measure of his work. His claim, for instance, that masks cause a build-up of C02 in the lungs – now thoroughly debunked – is supported by an article in Medical Hypotheses that seems as flaky as his own. His assertion that the case fatality rate of COVID-19 is considerably less than 1% is backed up with a paper from March 2020, the earliest days of the pandemic. A study with which he argues the uselessness of masks actually draws the opposite conclusion: “Surgical face masks,” it reports, “significantly reduced detection of influenza virus RNA in respiratory droplets and coronavirus RNA in aerosols.” When the thread of each note is pulled, all that really remains of Dr Vainshelboim’s thesis is his mangled assertion that he is “providing prosper information for public health and decisions making.”[sic]

Bad work like this circulates because it appears to be academic research in the same way that Mickey Mouse appears to be a mouse. Its apparatus — abstract, footnotes, references, tables — beguiles the eye, particularly one already convinced it can discern the shape of an authoritarian New World Order. When challenged, conspiracy theorists often tell their detractors to do their research — by which they usually mean sharing online articles they haven’t quite finished. Dr Vainshelboim’s paper is a perfect addition to the reading list, and can now take its place in a pseudo-scholarly system where rotten sources move endlessly along lines that were established long before Alex Jones or David Icke were born.

Which brings me to my second example. A deep historical one from the fascinating space of the Twitter feed of the former Labour MP Chris Williamson. “This thread,” he declared last week, “is essential reading for anyone interested in creating a better society that isn’t run in the interests of wealthy elites.” The wealthy elites, it turned out, were the Rothschilds, whose name, in this context, seemed not so much an anti-Semitic dog whistle as an anti-Semitic Spinal Tap guitar solo.

The hero of the thread shared by Williamson was Abraham Lincoln, who, it related, had rejected the offer of a 24% interest bank loan from the Rothschilds bank and instead opted to pay his Civil War troops by issuing the greenback dollar. “Democracy will rise superior to money power,” declared Lincoln, in a quote with a plausible citation —  “Senate document 23, p. 91, 1865” — which was then followed by a cry of Rothschild vengeance, attributed to the London Times of 1865. “That government must be destroyed, or it will destroy every monarchy on the globe.” One of Williamson’s followers suggested that this story should form part of the school curriculum.

So where did this come from? Perhaps Williamson wasn’t aware, but the original poster had found these details in an online article by one Justin Walker. It had also attracted the attention of the think tank Modern Money Scotland, and the tax campaigner Richard Murphy, Visiting Professor of Accounting at Sheffield University Management School, briefly an economic adviser to Jeremy Corbyn. Murphy hailed the piece as proof that the banking reforms he favours were “a battle tested (literally) alternative to debt and austerity based economies” — and posted it on his website. Which was unfortunate. Because all the key sources in this article are false — the invention of 19th-century conspiracy theorists.

The vengeful speech attributed to the Rothschilds never appeared in The Times. It is a fiction that has been circulating since the late 19th century, as evidence of English perfidy. (It had some strange fans, and in 1898 received a sustained disquisition in the house journal of the Koreshans, a Florida cult that believed the earth was hollow.) It is often attributed to The Hazzard Circular, but hereby hangs another strange tale: the Circular is an 1880s forgery that purports to reveal a plot against America by a cabal of English bankers — and may have no material existence beyond its excited quotation in the work of figures such as Sarah Emery, author of Seven Financial Conspiracies Which Have Enslaved the American People (1887)5.

But what about the quotes from Abraham Lincoln? The footnote is our friend. There is no Senate document 23 from 1865. Flip the year to 1939, however, and we end up in a Congressional Committee with Senator Robert L Owen, who is sharing a long string of Lincoln quotes in which the President rails against “money power”. And here’s the really odd bit. Lincoln said none of these things. They are words imagined into his mouth by the Canadian money reformer G.G. McGeer in his book The Conquest of Poverty (1935)6. McGeer was an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist as well as a ventriloquist. The Conquest of Poverty argues that Lincoln was murdered by “the ‘secret foes’ of the nation 
 the money dealers, the members of the age-old craft of usury, whose prototypes were responsible for the crucifixion of Christ.7”

Richard Murphy quickly removed the Rothschild quote from his website, apologising for his unwitting circulation of something potentially anti-Semitic. But Abraham Lincoln represents a tougher problem. One of McGeer’s phoney quotes forms part of the argument of Murphy’s magnum opus, The Joy of Tax (2016)8. It’s part of Murphy’s perfectly reasonable case for reducing the power of the markets over the economy. And no wonder it fits so well: it was written in the 1930s, not the 1860s.

The citation is “Library of Congress, No, 23 
 p. 91.” And we know where that leads. Where all footnotes lead. To sources, fair and foul. To those little numbered elements, often ignored, that form the body of the text, and show us its substance, and how it was made, and how to judge it.

FOOTNOTES
  1.  Thanks for looking. You’re my kind of person. And you may be already thinking: is this a true footnote, or is it an endnote? Digital texts blur this distinction.
  2. Matthew Sturgis, Aubrey Beardsley: A Life (1999), p. 30. Humphries heard it from Beardsley’s contemporary, the painter Charles Moresco Pearce
  3. Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell (2004) cites a number of invented occult texts; Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman (1967) cites invented scholarly works on Professor de Selby, who believes that water can be diluted and that night is a product of “black air”
  4. “The author’s affiliation is inaccurately attributed to Stanford, and we have requested a correction. Stanford University has never employed Baruch Vainshelboim. Several years ago (2015), he was a visiting scholar at Stanford for a year, on matters unrelated to this paper.” Email (21/04/21) from Julie Greicius, Senior Director, External Communications, Stanford Health Care, School of Medicine
  5. The quote is read aloud from a copy of the Hazzard Circular in this Congressional hearing from 1935
  6. Gerald Grattan McGeer, The Conquest of Poverty (1935), pp. 186-7
  7.  Ibid., p. 212
  8.  Richard Murphy, The Joy of Tax (2016), p. 60.

Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.

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JohnW
JohnW
3 years ago

Might it not have been a more profitable use of time to unpick the politicised, utterly unsubstantiated b****cks that the Lancet has been publishing for years. The editor is the guy who actually started the whole anti-vax thing back in the 1990s by publishing a fabricated study linking autism and the MMR vaccine, which he refused to withdraw until the final accredited author had his medical licence revoked (the co-authors all withdrew their names years earlier). But because he’s on board with climate emergency, TDS, sex-not-biological etc. he gets a free pass.

Last edited 3 years ago by JohnW
Cho Jinn
Cho Jinn
3 years ago
Reply to  JohnW

More profitable for readers, yes. Less risk for him, no.

Colin Colquhoun
Colin Colquhoun
3 years ago
Reply to  JohnW

Could you give some other examples of b****cks Lancet papers? Are these papers retracted? It seems absolutely possible to me that they do have low standards, but I don’t know to what you’re referring.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago

I can think of two others – those that claimed there had been 650,000 deaths in Iraq when Iraqi hospitals reported 3,800. No idea who was right, or least wrong, but I’d be interested in others.
John Ioannidis wrote a paper in 2005 suggesting that most research is wrong. As he was a professor at the Stanford School of Medicine, I’d guess much of the wrong research would have been medical, and a fair chunk must have appeared in The Lancet, but I don’t know of any other examples.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I think the 650,000 figure is from 2006, and is for excess deaths, while the 3,800 is from 2002, and is for deaths directly attributed to military action.

Athena Jones
Athena Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Ionnadis said, ‘most published research is false.’ Not even the qualifier of getting it wrong.

colinkingswood4
colinkingswood4
3 years ago

The one on hydroxychloroquine that get retracted because of crap data.

JohnW
JohnW
3 years ago

Which was evident even to a non-specialist reader like me, though apparently not to the editor or the peer reviewers. The claimed data were nonsensical on their face.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago

‘Racism is a public health emergency of global concern’ was a recent one. They have also published papers whose research had a very small sample size yet findings were quoted as conclusive and subsequent policy has been based on them

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

very small sample size yet findings were quoted as conclusive
If you mean The Lancet said the findings were conclusive, I’m surprised. They’re usually very clear that small sample sizes mean care must be taken in interpretation. Government policy is another matter entirely, for which The Lancet can’t be held responsible.

Colin Colquhoun
Colin Colquhoun
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Perkins

When you work with monkeys on brain structure, just two subjects is generally acceptable. But you get much clearer and more plentiful data per subject, and of course it’s also much more expensive.
So sometimes a small “sample size” is ok. It really depends on the specifics.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago

That’s true; I wasn’t thinking. Nonetheless, government policy isn’t usually based on studies of monkeys’ brain structure.

Colin Colquhoun
Colin Colquhoun
3 years ago
Reply to  kathleen carr

I couldn’t find a scientific article with that title. I found this
https://www.thelancet.com/racial-equality
This material seems to be comment and editorial stuff, apart from a couple of papers on differential health outcomes by race. I don’t read the lancet, but I do read Nature. Nature and other prestigious science journals publish quite a bit of journalism and comment content. Those materials are not really “scientific articles published in Nature” as such, they are just chat written by journalists who are often freelance and might contribute elewhere. Journalists at the moment have a very strong woke culture, which is bleeding into places like Nature.
Wokism is also affecting the science, even in places like Naure. But it’s not doing so in a really suffocating way yet. Of course, not everything a woke person publishes is going to be inaccurate just because they are woke. Just some of it. It’s not a crime or even unprofessional to publish a scientific study that comes to the wrong conclusion; in fact over time this is likely to be true in some sense of the best work. That’s how science works, and since it’s done by humans it’s always going to have a political dimesion. I think it’s ok to have woke scientists as long as non-woke scientists are not supressed. As a non-woke scientist, I feel we have suppressed ourslves in the past by not bothering to disagree. But I do now feel supressed.
I think it’s going have a backlash over the next decade because the weird political atmosphere is stressing everyone out, but I can’t predict the future. In unherd yesterday Stuart Richie got a face full of bile from the commenters down here, and yet he’s a young energetic scientist who is producing very high quality, non-woke stuff like this
https://academic.oup.com/cercor/article/28/8/2959/4996558?login=true
So I don’t know that we can say that science has been taken over by the woke just yet. Not quite yet, it seems like it might be robust to that problem and adapt quite quickly.

Last edited 3 years ago by Colin Colquhoun
Chris Milburn
Chris Milburn
3 years ago

Check out the Lancet (you can get their email newsletter for free). It’s mostly woke talking points now. Things like “How Racism Remains the Largest Public Health Threat” etc etc etc

Frank Nixson
Frank Nixson
3 years ago
Reply to  JohnW

“Peer Review” is no guarantee of accuracy. (1) Examine the data yourself. Does it support the conclusions? (2) Is there any independent verification of the data, interpretation or hypothesis? (3) Is the hypothesis reasonable based on your own personal experience? Give due consideration to the possibility that your experience may be unusual and that your interpretation may be wrong. (4) Look for confirmation or rebuttal from other sources.

JohnW
JohnW
3 years ago
Reply to  Frank Nixson

That was certainly true of the HCQ ‘paper’ the Lancet published as soon as Trump supported HCQ treatment. Simply the amount and range of data made it obvious it had been invented (e.g. the number of hospitals in Africa that were claimed to have supplied computerised patient data).

Val Cox
Val Cox
3 years ago
Reply to  Frank Nixson

Repeatable and reproducible.

Paul Hayes
Paul Hayes
3 years ago
Reply to  JohnW

The Lancet has been rightly criticised for publishing rubbish but the “whole anti-vax thing” – meaning the MMR scare – was started by incompetent journalism.

JohnW
JohnW
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Hayes

On the anti-vax stuff, I’m afraid the press picked it up from the Lancet, not the other way round. To quote Nature, “[I]n 1998, Andrew Wakefield and his colleagues published a … paper in The Lancet” promoting “a non-existent connection between autism and the MMR vaccine”. “[I]n 2010, Wakefield was struck off the UK medical register for misconduct by the country’s General Medical Council.” What Nature fails to mention is that The Lancet only retracted that paper after he was struck off (i.e it enjoyed the prestige of the journal for 12 years). In 1995 The Lancet published another article by Wakefield that claimed measles vaccination was associated with inflammatory bowel disease. More recently, the Lancet published a piece claiming that sex is not biologically determined.

Last edited 3 years ago by JohnW
Colin Colquhoun
Colin Colquhoun
3 years ago
Reply to  JohnW

More recently, the Lancet published a piece claiming that sex is not biologically determined.”
That’s a really big deal. Was it a “piece” or a scientific paper? I can’t find it.
The wakefield stuff is more forgivable in that it’s poor science, but it was at least trying to be science. It’s a scandal for sure, but it’s just poor work in the end. Claiming that sex is not biologically determined is another kettle of fish. That’s anti-scientific and someone needs to be fired for that.

Jed Hughes
Jed Hughes
3 years ago

Using the folk remedy of applying mud poultices to battle-wounds was derided as being “anti-scientific” by our doctors during World War One: some soldiers listened to the doctors, and died. Others benefited from the penicillin or whatever, and lived. I am not suggesting that you rush to embrace every new idea or every alternative therapy, but please try not to be closed-minded. 😉

Last edited 3 years ago by Jed Hughes
Paul Hayes
Paul Hayes
3 years ago
Reply to  JohnW

You haven’t followed my links. In 1998 The Lancet published the Wakefield paper together with, among other things, the Chen and DeStefano takedown. That article explained in plain language why the Wakefield paper was rubbish and included an explicit warning aimed at journalists.

Jed Hughes
Jed Hughes
3 years ago
Reply to  JohnW

As regards “sex not being biologically determined”, I have read loads of newspaper articles down the years which have suggested that eating certain types of foods, or taking certain supplements, while trying to conceive will influence the resulting gender of the baby: is that a million miles away from what the Lancet article stated, I wonder? (I have never read the Lancet in my life, but I put the question.)

As for the M.M.G.M. vaccine (if one is going to refer to the first two diseases by their non-medical names, then one should be consistent and call the third german measles, not rubella), so many parents have been conversing on the bus or wherever, and the same phrase has cropped up: “he was alright till he had the vaccine, then we noticed something wrong with him”. Too many people have reported this – ordinary people, with no axe to grind and no agenda. Anecdotal evidence should never be ignored: it is one of the main factors which prompt scientific research in the first place. If that research contradicts the anecdotal evidence, then a good scientist will wonder if his experiment has replicated the real-world scenario accurately enough, or if it needs to be refined.

Athena Jones
Athena Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  JohnW

That’s a pretty massive generalisation. People have been questioning and protesting about vaccination since it was invented. Historical record makes that clear.
Why is there more noise today? Because there are more vaccinations, vastly more and increasingly experimental, poorly tested, and, in the case of Covid, rushed.
Sensible parents should question why their child is being injected more than 50 times today in the first five years of life, beginning within hours of birth if not in utero, when it was 2-3 times at older ages in the early Seventies. And children are not healthier, with serious and chronic disease in kids rising faster than it is in adults.
Responsible parents, many of those involved with Andrew Wakefield, will question vaccination if they see a child dead or injured because of it. In fact studies reveal that the majority of parents who question vaccination are professionals and highly educated, therefore more than capable of doing the research. It also reveals that they were ‘good’ parents according to science-medicine in that they obediently followed vaccine schedules until a child was damaged.
At the point we decide people should not be free to choose which medical treatments they have or to which they subject their children, then we have thrown away the gift of freedom for which millions fought and died in two world wars.
The Lancet may make mistakes, but, as a proponent of good medicine, it should be open to all research.

Jed Hughes
Jed Hughes
3 years ago
Reply to  Athena Jones

I thought that the notion of children being “injected fifty times” seemed a bit implausible, so I typed “what is the vaccination schedule for British children” into a search-engine, and I was astonished by the results. I urge readers to conduct a similar internet search. They should remember to count a 6-in-1 vaccine (yes, there is such a thing) as six vaccines, and they should remember to count a vaccine which is given annually for perhaps ten years (it stated age two to the first year of senior school) as ten occasions.

I am not saying that doctors and scientists are all up to something, but it seems to me that they haven’t half committed themselves (and us) when it comes to vaccines. I hope that we don’t all come to regret their boldness.

(The webpage https://vk.ovg.ox.ac.uk/vk/uk-schedule seemed as good as any, by the way.)

Last edited 3 years ago by Jed Hughes
Paul Hayes
Paul Hayes
3 years ago
Reply to  Jed Hughes

Doctors and scientists are well aware of the “too many too soon” concern – and why it’s unfounded.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

Did you see the footage of Hancock walking down Downing Street with mask on, then ripping it off the second he was through the door of number ten and thought the cameras weren’t able to see him? He decided to pose in a mask where it was not required by the law or regulation he had invented himself and to remove it where it was required by his own rule. If the health secretary thinks face masks are just for posing in, in public, outdoors, for the purpose of signalling virtue and obedience, but serve no real purpose in preventing the spread of the virus or reducing the chance of being infected why are you worried about what reasons other people have for not wanting to wear them? There are photos of Johnson and his pals all sitting around a table, unmasked, in close proximity to one another, too.

Dominic S
Dominic S
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

And now one photo of Gove sitting with Netanyahu and others, preparing to enforce new restrictions on us, but wearing no mask himself.

crawfordwright
crawfordwright
3 years ago

Instead of unpicking the so called conspiracy theorists Mathew could have followed the same crumb trail and see if there was any evidence at all FOR face masks. My attempts at this end up in a circular discussion going between governments and WHO pretty much saying “probably not but they signify that there is a pandemic and raise fear levels”

colinkingswood4
colinkingswood4
3 years ago
Reply to  crawfordwright

Exactly. The papers agsint them might be poor quality, but so are teh papers in favor of them if you bother to look into them in any depth. Most seem to bundle n95 respirators (for which there is reasonable evidence of efficiency) alongside the pointless surgical masks and then draw the conclusion that masks “work”.

Paul Hayes
Paul Hayes
3 years ago
Reply to  crawfordwright
Neil Wilson
Neil Wilson
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Hayes

“but there is a strong signal in this data that wearing a quality mask properly and consistently protects the wearer and especially protects others.”

Which is the key failure. People don’t do that and therefore system effects dominate. The appeal to that is the same as saying “we all just need to stop eating meat and smoking weed”. It’s not going to happen.
Which is why when you get out into the real world there is little to no impact to mask wearing from any study that isn’t low quality statistical curve fitting to a belief.
Texas has removed the mask mandate. Where is the spike in deaths? That’s more than sufficient evidence that masks are no longer required.
Now if you are wearing a mask you are saying “I believe I’m infectious and I really ought to be in bed. Or I’m irrational”.

Last edited 3 years ago by Neil Wilson
Russ Littler
Russ Littler
3 years ago

Well, call me a conspiracy theorist if you must Mr Sweet, but would it be to outrageous of me to ask that you produce the scientific, peer reviewed study which proves that covid-19 has been identified and isolated in human beings, using an RT-PCR test? Or what about the “scientific” study on the CDC website that shows masks don’t stop a virus? What you call a “conspiracy theorist these days, used to be called investigative journalism. You should try it some time Mr Sweet, it’s enlightening.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

Why is my comment waiting for approval? Who will approve it? Why are you so babyish and determined to make yourselves look like ridiculous hypocrites, pretending to champion freedom of speech, then putting comments you disagree with on hold?

John Standing
John Standing
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Alison, do you have a site of your own?

Colin Colquhoun
Colin Colquhoun
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

They are legally the “publisher” of our comments I think. So I think they can be sued over them in theory. Not absolutely certain. It’s certainly their private site, so they can do what they like.

kathleen carr
kathleen carr
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

I got ‘pulled over’ for using the well known abbreviation of Richard in connection with the surname Turpin. They now don’t like me using the name of second wife Henry 8th. They seem to have some sort of alternative dictionary of offence

Sidney Falco
Sidney Falco
3 years ago

“Conspiracy theorist” is such a hackneyed and inappropriate catch-all that it has lost all meaning.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Sidney Falco

Traitor is the original expression and far, far, better.
Sadly the days when their heads were exposed on London Bridge to be feasted on by hungry Red Kites* are long gone.

*( Thank you Hilary Mantel)

Russ Littler
Russ Littler
3 years ago
Reply to  Sidney Falco

It’s a term invented, and used by the CIA to discredit anyone who got too close to the truth. You’ll notice the term “tin-foil hat” also gets thrown about these day to squash an argument, but what they never do is provide hard evidence to counter that claim.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago

The article reminds me of Alan Sokal’s famous paper “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, the footnotes of which cite real sources backing up his ridiculous claims. For example, and from memory, Einstein’s theory of special relativity is sexist because it assigns a privileged status to the speed of light – a view actually proposed by some famous postmodernist prattler. 
Sokal submitted the paper to the ‘journal’ Social Text, who were so impressed by a Professor of Physics spouting their sort of babble that they published it. They were somewhat embarrassed to learn it was a hoax, intended to expose their charlatanry.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ian Perkins
Starry Gordon
Starry Gordon
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Perkins

And yet none of its practitioners was impressed or embarassed enough to stop doing it. However, some humorist of the era published a Burroughsian hash / cutup of it soon after its appearance, so someone got some good out of it.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago
Reply to  Starry Gordon

Practitioners of postmodernism may have continued as before, but those of us who wondered if we were missing something realised we probably weren’t.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

Most people do not believe conspiracy theories are the literal truth, as I have said many times before, they are myths, legends, fairytales, in that they may be entirely fictional and yet contain great truth.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

What people believe and what they say they believe may not be the same.

ian k
ian k
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Perhaps it would be useful if you could give us some examples of myths, legends. fairy tales that are entirely fictional but contain great truth. It would be better if these could be in the context of current events. I personally would prefer to base my opinions on data. so I would believe what is posted on the ONS site for example well before anything that was a fairytale.. But perhaps you have a deeper truth known only to the cognoscenti?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  ian k

Anything written by Shakespeare?

ian k
ian k
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Well I do not think novels. plays, Aesop’s fables etc would fall into the category of conspiracy theories. I think the author is talking about beliefs such as 9/11 controlled demolition theories, Clinton running a paedophile ring from a pizza parlour in New York, fake lunar landings, Bill Gates inoculating us all with microchips, Holocaust denial. I personally have only ever met one person who believed in any of these, but he held to this belief with religious fervour. There was not a shred of doubt in his mind. I would think that believers in any of these conspiracy theories do not have any doubts.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Macbeth?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  ian k

Christianity, the Immaculate Conception, Virgin birth, Resurrection and other implausible tosh for starters.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

I think you’re right. There are lots of urban myths about the parentage of various members of the Royal Family. I don’t believe any of them individually, but I believe the meta-myth, which is that this Royal Family behaves as all royal families have always done, without any specific rumour needing to be true.

Simon Baseley
Simon Baseley
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

” Most people do not believe conspiracy theories are the literal truth
”
Most don’t have to believe in a conspiracy theory for great harm to be done. The case of Andrew Wakefield and the MMR vaccine illustrates this perfectly. Social media has provided fertile ground for those who believe that the very absence of proof indicates that something is being hidden, never mind those mischief makers who support their theories by citing non-existent material, correctly believing that few if any will bother to check it.

Jed Hughes
Jed Hughes
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Some conspiracy theories may be entirely fictional, others may not. Some may contain great truth, some others may contain a little bit of truth, still others may contain no truth. The kind of people who HABITUALLY latch onto conspiracy theories are just daft hap’orths, of low self-esteem, who feel the need to sound “knowledgeable” in the pub.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jed Hughes
Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

So it’s the part of my comment describing the health secretary walking down Downing Street with his mask on, outside, where it isn’t required, then ripping it off the minute he thinks the cameras can’t see him, inside, where it is required, you don’t approve.

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
3 years ago

I completely agree with you but there are 2 main issues that prevent the common reader from doing this analysis:
1) Most news article don’t even have a footnote with the original source: “Cambridge scientists say …” with not even a link to the publication
2) Most scientific articles are not open source and hence unavailable to the population (unless you know sci hub).
These 2 factors make it almost impossible to double check the veracity of mainstream media articles.

Jed Hughes
Jed Hughes
3 years ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

It doesn’t help that there always seems to be a scientist or doctor somewhere who will issue a “newsworthy” quote, almost on tap. This quote will then be sensationalized, of course.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

These 2 factors make it almost impossible to double check the veracity of mainstream media articles.
I disagree. It’s true many of them don’t cite a source, but it’s usually not that hard to track down the original. And while scientific papers are often paywalled, the abstracts generally aren’t, and the papers are often discussed on open sites such as Nature Briefing, especially when they’ve become newsworthy or controversial. It’s not always straightforward and simple to check the veracity of mainstream media articles, but it certainly isn’t almost impossible.

Neil Colledge
Neil Colledge
3 years ago

This subject matter requires broad and thoughtful perspective, not least because perception is all. Seeking the big picture, taking these declared conspiracies with a pinch of salt, and trying to remember that billionaires are human too, even if it sometimes seems otherwise, is not such a bad starting point.
Dr. Klaus Schwab (Head of The World Economic Forum) has ordered that we all become “green” and now take global warming seriously. He realises that if we all fry, his children and grandchildren will suffer horribly too. It is therefore true to say that we are all in that particular boat together.
Robert Kiyosake writes that the wealthy will NOT accept a loss, the wealthy will NOT accept the threat of their money being stolen, the wealthy will do everything possible to protect their wealth and perpetually be on the winning side. The wealthy will NOT tolerate anything being published, contrary to their own interests, by newspapers or magazines they own (or sponsor). Perhaps this does make them monsters, but who in their position would not do exactly the same as they do (I probably would).
We consider Churchill to be a National Hero, yet were it not for his powerful lobbying of the great powers, to switch to crude oil, there would likely have been fewer murderous middle-east wars over the stuff, and our air would be cleaner today ……. Everything in this life should be measured with an eye to both sides of the story. The Late Prince Philip served his wife intelligently and perceptively, yet he was famously, often rude and nasty …….
Bill Gates declared in an interview that his Pfizer vaccines may kill some recipients (which they have) but that the vaccines are still a public good & will drop infection rates. Vaccines do seem to have fulfilled their purpose successfully (if figures are true) ………. billionaires (allegedly) advocate if not actively enforce, birth-control & sterilisation in Africa (where I was born) or are at least accused of desiring this outcome. One could argue that it is obscene to deny a young woman the joy of becoming a mother, yet what use is this blessing if the child cannot be fed or clothed properly, increasing the heartbreaking risk of premature death anyway ……
For me (whatever examples we pick on) there are good actors, average actors and very bad actors. Elites are not all manifestly bad. The world is not that crazy. We wouldn’t have Universities, Hospitals, Charities or Computers without their generous contributions. By the same token Charities are not all squeaky-clean. Some are suspected of pimping and using disadvantaged girls as prostitutes, reported by mainstream media ……
Are we to condemn Jimmy Carter as being a poor President, yet overlook the fine example he has set and the many good works that he has done as an elder Statesman …….. Are we to praise Mandela as a shining beacon of hope and forgiveness, yet overlook him being filmed dancing AND singing “Kill The Boer” at a funeral, not long after his release …… Are we to praise the wisdom of Mohandas. K. Ghandi for his inspirational advocacy of non-violence, yet overlook his racism and the humiliating, disgusting way he behaved towards his young female guardians …… Are we to condemn my friend’s scientist father Leonidas Marinelli, who as part of The Manhattan Project, oversaw the destruction, blackening and poisoning of the ocean around Bikini Atoll, yet overlook that he invented the magnetic body scanner that prevented terrorists boarding planes and (perversely) patented a medicine that treated radiation poisoning.
Not all Russians who support Mr Putin are bad actors, warmongers or dirty spies and (quite frankly) it is a lame intellect that condemns the violence of one party, whilst overlooking the violence of another. Other readers may argue that these random examples are not the most brilliant ones. This is not really important.
All we can do in our own lives is to get rid of our own stupidities and avoid bad people, everything that angers us about others can lead to a deeper understanding of ourselves, Despair is the conclusion of fools, conspiracy theories are not always true and nowhere near as simplistic as they seem.
As many greedy, evil actors as there are intent on destruction, there exists still as much in this world to be grateful for and optimistic about. The point is that the intelligent man (who I attempt to represent) is constantly curious & wondering, while the fool (on occasion a die-hard a conspiracy theorist) is always dead certain about everything.
The only Absolute in this world is an (Absoluut) bottle of vodka. No grand theory exists to explain the world (conspiratorial or otherwise). Something either works or it doesn’t!

Last edited 3 years ago by Neil Colledge
Jed Hughes
Jed Hughes
3 years ago
Reply to  Neil Colledge

I shall probably never get to know what kind of adviser Prince Philip really was to his wife. When it comes to those who support Putin, they may not all be bad people, but they are helping to sustain bad acts; so I suppose that they are “bad actors”, in a sense. I agree wholeheartedly with the general thrust of what you said, mind, so thank you.

Oh, regarding “bad actors”… I hold that many conspiracy-theorists spread their belief in such theories in order to bolster their self-esteem by “sounding knowledgeable”; well, do you remember when it was fashionable for certain types to sound knowledgeable by criticizing the standard of acting in “Crossroads”? In fact, the actors and actresses were brilliant! Their work was made harder because the programme was shown five evenings a week, so there were lots of lines to be learnt and the episodes had to be filmed “as live”, meaning that there were not multiple takes available. In addition, because the serial was about a motel, there were relatively few places where the action could be set (the kitchen, the foyer, the back office, a bedroom, which would be much the same as another, but not many other places), which meant that relatively few regular characters could be incorporated into the cast, so the regular cast-members were pretty much always “on duty”.

That did not stop the moron class from slating the actors in Crossroads. They are the same kind of people who will instantly say that Pele was the greatest footballer of all time, purely because that is what “everyone else” says. They have quite possibly not seen a single minute of footage of Pele, or of any other of the usual contenders. (Pele might or might not have been the best; I neither know nor care, but I acknowledge that his name would go in the hat for consideration.)

Neil Colledge
Neil Colledge
3 years ago
Reply to  Jed Hughes

Interesting you should mention Pele. I have a millionaire uncle in Brazil (Campinas) who shares the same birthday as me. We spent a marvellous Christmas there. I don’t know if this is still true, but Pele was absolutely loved in Brazil, regarded as an exemplary role model of honesty & integrity. The only thing I remember about Pele’s football, is his celebrated overhead kick scoring goals. This is another piece of random information, with which to mark Sunday morning.

Last edited 3 years ago by Neil Colledge
Athena Jones
Athena Jones
3 years ago

The problem we face is that the label ‘conspiracy theorist’ if flung around today without substance, simply prejudice.
Those who question certain agendas are called conspiracy theorists when they might simply be insightful pragmatists.
The fact is, everything should be questioned if we are to retain and defend our freedoms. Powerful systems like the scientific system of enquiry and its ‘cult’ modern medicine must be questioned if science is to be true to its system and medicine is to be safe.
Many of the questions dismissed in regard to Covid, as conspiracy theories, may turn out to have substance, but too late, if those who raise such questions are summarily dismissed.
We already face the problem that modern science sold its soul to Government and corporations long ago and is no longer as reliable as it once might have been. Everything it seems is for sale to the highest bidder and that is dangerous for humanity and the planet.
The conspiracy theorists may turn out to be our only hope of salvation. Long may they prosper, whether qualified or not.

David McGonigle
David McGonigle
3 years ago
Reply to  Athena Jones

Want to know what’s less reliable? People talking mince on the internet from a position of pure unadulterated ignorance.

Jed Hughes
Jed Hughes
3 years ago
Reply to  Athena Jones

I agree with you, Athena. If the experts came off their high horses and treated “unqualified” people like me less patronizingly, then we might begin to trust them again. Or, to put it another way, I was brought up to say sorry when I made a mistake: well, Ferguson, Vallance and Whitty have made loads, yet they haven’t uttered a word of regret. (“Revising ones figures”, nicely and quietly, doesn’t count.)

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

It would seem the surname of the health secretary is forbidden. We are not allowed to name the man who has ruined the lives of millions of people, caused harm to millions of others, destroyed the livelihoods of millions more.

jim peden
jim peden
2 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

I recently joined unherd after watching many of Freddie’s exemplary interviews so I only just came across this post and the earlier one in which you mention both (Han)c**k and Johnson. My guess is that you fell foul of some silly algorithm which checks text for ‘offensive’ words. I’ve encountered these elsewhere when an advert I tried to place for cotton threads was declined – the reason being the thread colours: Gunmetal (deemed to be weapons) and Bing Cherry (trade name). It’s possible that the unherd system forwards any suspicious posts to a human and that leads to delay in acceptance. I do happen to agree with you about he-who-shall-not-be-named.

jim peden
jim peden
2 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

I just submitted my comment and it was immediately marked as ‘awaiting for approval’ [sic]. So I won’t mention any dodgy names in this one and let’s see how it goes.

jim peden
jim peden
2 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Aha, my post without any names got through straight away. QED.

David McGonigle
David McGonigle
3 years ago

The conspiracy is not their effectiveness. The squeaky wheel anti-mask crowd frame this as being about control and overreach and couldn’t give 2 f*cks that it’s really about public health or the needless spreading of a killer disease -mainly because it hasn’t directly affected them yet. And they seriously couldn’t give 3 f*cks about anyone else.

Jed Hughes
Jed Hughes
3 years ago

You’re absolutely right! If a strain which mainly affects younger people emerges (and becomes dominant because the other, elderly-affecting strains have been curtailed by vaccination), then the kiddies, and the sub-65 adults who think that are rebels, will soon put their masks on. I shall take mine off and laugh at them.

It is obvious to me that there are pros and cons to wearing masks, and I cannot work out whether they are good or bad overall, but I do not believe that this Government would use them as a tool with which to control us, for control’s sake. (By the way, compare the disquiet among Conservative M.Ps. about our Covid policy with the utterly uniform, almost sheeple-like attitude of Labour, the Lib.-Dems. and the Scot-Nits.) I do believe that the British medical establishment seek to control us “for our own good”, mind, but I don’t think that masks are part of that agenda. Lots of other things are, though, so I couldn’t rule it out, but I think that masks, like the 20-sec. wash, the 6-ft. rule and ubiquitous sanitizing lotion, were simply a desperate attempt to get a grip on this emergency.

The Government, scientists and doctors should start treating us like adults, however. They should take the time to explain things to us (why has there been no public information film about mask-effectiveness, with a latter-day Magnus Pyke demonstrating the principles involved), and they should admit when they have made mistakes, moved goalposts or simply changed their minds. This would marginalize the conspiracy theorists and also our god-awful, sensationalizing media.

Last edited 3 years ago by Jed Hughes
Francis MacGabhann
Francis MacGabhann
3 years ago

Interesting article. It would have been considerably more interesting if the author didn’t feel the need to waste half of it showing us he knew all about such things as text bodies, apparatus and footnotes like the class swot.

Last edited 3 years ago by Francis MacGabhann
Jed Hughes
Jed Hughes
3 years ago

I couldn’t have put it better myself! Newspaper journalists are taught to keep their work brief, to the point, and easily understood. I wish that the authors on Unherd would do the same.

Jeff Mason
Jeff Mason
3 years ago

I wish the author would put this much time and effort into evaluating all the nonsensical and conflicting COVID guidance the so-called experts have dropped on us. Surfaces can transmit COVID to surfaces extremely unlikely to transmit COVID. Both spouted by the CDC. One of them has to be wrong. Which one and why?

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Mason

Many scientists have been calling on the likes of the CDC and WHO to stop focusing on surfaces, and emphasise the airborne route as the far more likely route of transmission, for getting on for a year. Why surfaces, disinfection, and so on still figure so prominently in official advice, while ventilation is mentioned in paragraph 33 if at all, is a mystery. Bureaucratic inertia? Face saving? The felt need to appear to be giving sound advice trumping the need to give such advice?

Ernest DuBrul
Ernest DuBrul
3 years ago

“Follow the footnotes” is excellent advice. I might add, with tongue only partially in my cheek, that that advice is absolutely critical when you think you can understand the science in the article in question.
Serious Covid research and good epidemiology is reported in jargon-laden publications chuck full of specialized technical language and arcane math.
Most “readable’ articles essentially are translations that depend on the unbiased skill of the translator’s understanding of the jargon, mathematics, science techniques, etc. If you cannot read French, you had better find a very good translation in order to understand Proust.

Last edited 3 years ago by Ernest DuBrul
Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago

Well I believe the above stories, even with their crazy footnotes, because I believe all good conspiracies, good meaning ones I think warrant belief. That and those two topics you chose are ones I have been ranting on about here since I joined during the height of covid.

Reading the History of Rome, towards the end, Emperors lasted under a year till an inevitable gruesome death claimed them, and yet more were climbing the ladder behind the fallen ones, the ladder being a pile of corpses they had had to kill on the way up. Why? Because it is what humans do every time. They seek power at all costs.
The secret Banking cabal? well debt is the source of all industry, wealth growth, and National governing. The USA makes ‘Treasuries’ which are the total basis of the pyramid of our Global economy. Banks buy that USA Debt with deposit money, use them as security to make loans of money they do not have via ‘Fractional-reserve banking’, a magic way debt is multiplied, and makes a lot of money, just conjured out of air, by the Fed, and the Banks. Economics of Debt is Wealth, the giving and taking of it – debt is Power, if you are on the correct side of it, (and that means on both sides depending on the circumstance.)
And thus power accumulates in the super wealthy, and as they own the money debt, or at least get a tiny bit as it passes by then, they grow their money more, they control the debt, till they actually, basically, own the global civilization. You and I are ants in their ant farm. All the past kings borrowed vast sums, huge debt for wars and so on, well those guys loaning Henry VIII his wagon of gold are the same families behind the scenes pulling Biden’s and Xi’s strings as they pulled Henry and Phillip’s strings

Masks? The Asians wear them because they saw Western Doctors wearing them in the past centuries, and took it as a talisman for the ill which stuck, like rhino horn and Lichen tea. Chinese are basically loaded with the mysterious “Black Matter Immunity (the thing which must exist but is not yet isolated which makes them resistant), (USA 1800 deaths per million accredited to covid, China 3, yes Three deaths per million) and so our cult like medicos saw the Chinese wearing their masks (which they do if any one sneezes) and then took masks as a Talisman returning like a homing pigeon to the West. That is why we mask up.

See, most conspiracies are based on fact, at some level.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I reckon he could be Igonikon Jack, who used to post similar essays to the DT comments a few years back.

Jed Hughes
Jed Hughes
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

“Black Matter Immunity”? If Chinese people really did possess such a known ethnic advantage regarding Covid-19 susceptibility, then their government wouldn’t have had to take such drastic lockdown measures at the start of the epidemic, would they?

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago
Reply to  Jed Hughes

Ah, they had to pretend to be vulnerable in order for their fiendishly subtle plan to persuade so many Westerners not to mask up to succeed.

G Harris
G Harris
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Hey, if it’s a good read who cares and that ‘autobiographical comment’ was.

I wish I had more time to read the comments on here but I don’t sadly so if they capture my interest like that one did then more power to his elbow I say.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Didn’t Eton not teach you to be concise Sanford?
As BD may have said “you are inebriated by the exuberance of your own verbosity “.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 years ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

I guess I need to cut and paste you a set of instructions on using scroll wheels and such to pass by a comment. Save you from reading my theories. The bookshelves, all 250 ft of them, are filling fast! And with thousands of books, a sight sure to cause you to turn away from all these Words. All that stuff people said, all that waste of print.

Alison Houston
Alison Houston
3 years ago

Hancock.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Alison Houston

Shall we call him Hanphallus instead?

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

Excellent post by Matthew. Footnotes can also be helpful in exposing crackpot theories coming from government departments, but one must be persistent in following the trail. An April 30 2018 publication of Environment and Climate Change Canada (yes, that really is the official name since Trudeau took over) says in bold face: The four provinces with carbon pricing systems in place – British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec – cover 80 percent of Canada’s population and were also the top four performers in GDP growth across the country in 2017.” It seems to be promoting the outlandish belief that a tax on GHG emissions will actually promote output growth, although of course, it doesn’t come right out and say something so preposterous. If one checks the footnote one finds that the source given is the Pembina Institute, an energy think tank, and not Statistics Canada. Going the next step and checking out the Pembina Institute’s source, it turned out to come from the December 11, 2017 publication of Provincial Outlook by RBC Economics, compiled when their most recent provincial data were for August and September. So what purported to be a statement about 2017 estimates actually only dealt with 2017 projections. This was the more remarkable as the Department of Climate Change only had to wait until May 2 for the 2017 StatCan update of GDP by industry estimates for provinces and territories. These showed Quebec and Ontario out of the running for the top four spots among provinces and territories, and Ontario, much the most important province, out of the running even if one only looked at provinces (it had the seventh highest growth rate).
I sent the current Minister of Climate Change, Jonathan Wilkinson, who accuses anyone who disagrees with Liberal policy of denialism, a copy of this data in December 2020, and asked him when he was going to correct the record. I am still waiting for him to get back to me. The idea that a tax on GHG emissions leads to higher economic growth rates, the crackpot theory that this pub appeared to encourage, can no longer be confirmed or rejected using Canadian data, since with the Liberal backup tax now every province or territory must have such a tax.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
3 years ago

Excellent advice. Now try doing it for all the other COVID research.
I’ve done this exact exercise of checking citations in a large number of COVID related papers in the past year. A staggering number of them are completely fraudulent. You think it’s only anti-mask papers that have this issue? Think again – epidemiological papers from that appear in Nature, Science, the Lancet, that are cited on BBC and Sky News, that are presented as proof of “consensus” on a huge variety of topics turn out when checked to be filled with citations of documents that:

  • Do not contain any mention of the claim.
  • Explicitly state the opposite of the claim.
  • Are long since obsolete.
  • Are hypothetical model scenarios being cited as if they were well established empirical facts.
  • Contain support for the claim but are obviously invalid for various reasons like tiny sample sizes, logic errors in study construction and so on.
  • Were retracted at the time of publication.
  • Or (more commonly) were not retracted but which had major flaws already pointed out in the literature.

Meta-scientists have studied this problem. It varies by field but astoundingly, Yang et al (PNAS May 19, 2020 117 (20) 10762-10768) have shown that scientists cite papers that have failed replication at the same rate that they cite replicating papers.
Mixing up models and reality as if they are the same thing is an especially common problem. For example, it’s common to see a citation like this: “Epidemiological models are useful for predicting disease 1 2 3 4 5”. On checking, every single cited paper will be a modelling paper making predictions but not validating the results against real-world data. The mere act of making a prediction is presented as evidence of utility, although that obviously isn’t the case. And authors will happily treat the outcome of a model as if it was the same thing as an experiment, giving no indication in the text that it’s not the case.
This problem is not confined to COVID or public health papers. There’s an interesting set of meta-science papers that tries to answer the question of why there are so many invalid citations in the literature, by tracking the propagation of misprints in author names or paper titles. They conclude that pretty staggering percentages (anywhere from 25% to 80%) of citations are by people who haven’t actually read the cited documents.
Sadly, my own experience suggests that these numbers are plausible on the low end, but the much greater problem is people who are clearly reading a paper and then citing it in misleading ways anyway. There are analyses kicking around the net on sites like lockdownskeptics where they review COVID papers and show examples of this happening.
I was hoping that this article would be about this rather severe problem but, no, it tries to give the impression that only anti-lockdown/anti-mask people play this game, and only in fringe journals. No, scientists are all at it on a massive scale and it’s quite clear that whatever editing process major journals have, it doesn’t involve the sort of checks Mr Sweet describes here.

Jesse Porter
Jesse Porter
2 years ago

Entertaining, but, like all entertainment, so full of slights-of-hand as to be meaningless.

Dominic S
Dominic S
3 years ago

Much more profitable (though not for China, who are making billions out of all this) to discuss the evidence for wearing them, which is paper thin, tissue paper thin.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago
Reply to  Dominic S

And the reasons for not wearing them?

Jed Hughes
Jed Hughes
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Perkins

(1.) Worry that my condensed breath will become a warm syrup of microbes, right next to my nose and mouth.
(2.) Worry that, if I am infected, my ability to expel germs by expiration will be severely hampered – nice for others, but not for me.
(3.) My realization, during the period when I was allowed to enter a pub but forced to don my mask to visit the lavatory, that the place stank to high heaven while I had my mask on. I lowered my mask and the smell vanished. If the particles of urine come through in a more concentrated form, then why not the microbes?
(4.) When I started wearing a mask (because it had become compulsory on buses), I developed a slight sore throat that evening, although it had gone by the morning. My friends reported similar experiences. See items 1 and 2 for my explanation of the phenomenon.

I am not an “anti-masker”. One has only to think of how far ones visible breath spreads on a winter’s night to realize the value of anything which impedes the projection of breath, at least as something which helps others. Thinking about how far the smell extends when someone has bad breath is also instructive. And a mask must stop SOME germs from getting into the nose and mouth, which might make the difference between a person batting off the virus easily and becoming rather ill. Then again, SOME outward germs must get trapped in the syrup…

So, there are pros and cons to wearing a mask. Do they pretty much all balance each other out? Possibly. It would explain why the scientific community was not particularly devoted to them in the early stages of the crisis. However, a mask certainly makes me feel a little more protected when I am in the proximity of someone who is drunk, scruffy, dirty or just plain stupid. Are such people more likely to carry the bug? I’m not sure, but that’s how I feel. Like many others, I am confused, dispirited, depressed, very disillusioned and frustrated. On occasion during the last year I have even been scared. I just try to make it through the day. I just try to use my common sense, like remembering to breathe through my nose when I think on, although it is not easy with a mask.

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago

Chris Williamson is satirised in the person of Chris Skeletor in my novel Helix Folt the Conservative:-
That evening, Mr Roger Bvggery attended a recitation of inferior poetry in a seditious bookshop in Old Market. The occasion itself was of course a necessarily squalid farrago which we pass over in silence, but which was however followed by an after-party, every bit as squalid, over which, and it is no doubt to be deprecated upon our behalves, we do not pass in silence. This singularly joyless function was attended by the lumpen-aristocracy of the hard-left: Steptoe Cobb, who dribbled and most of whose discussions were with himself, white-haired Old MacDonald smiling indulgently as he cocked half an ear at moustachioed and safari-jacketed Morton Stanley’s interesting race theories; Chris Skeletor in his Che t-shirt, that horrifying grin glued to the front of his skull as Tad Curmudgeonly took him painstakingly through the history of the biodynamic gardens at Dachau. The boar musk was leavened as ever with the usual two or three as yet demure and well-spoken waifs over whom Mr Roger Bvggery cast a professional and very nasty eye, and Mr Rex Anusol a proprietorial eye of comparable nastiness, having to his rival’s chagrin preemptively pandared the damsels. Of course the presence upon Mr Anusol’s arm of Ms. Amelia De’Ath occasioned further contumely on the part of Mr Roger Bvggery. Also of the company was Robinson Lambert, a notorious undercover police gigolo with a disconcerting strabismus. And Sir Gerald and Lady Valerie Inhali put in an appearance, naturally, bringing with them a rebellious young twerp from the ranks of the suits who toiled in the bowels of that Death Star of provincial finance Handjob Luncheon, whose presence that evening would no doubt have been productive of stupendous quantities of vapour on the part of Sir Hearty Luncheon had that gentleman been made cognisant of the matter.

During an interval between bouts of utter swinishness, Old MacDonald found himself seized with the urge to insinuate.
“I am given to understand,” said he to a group of his fellow guests, “that the Tory Jew enjoys exceedingly generous allowances courtesy of that Poncemaking sinecure of his.”
“Farkin minted,” sneered Robinson Lambert.
“It must drive Fart bonkers,” chuckled Old MacDonald, “being under the W@nkstain jackboot. Poor sad Gary. Poor dumb bruit,” and laughed again.
“Chill,” said Mr Roger Bvggery nastily, “Like I like don’t like see what’s like so like fvckin’ like funny about a Tory Jew getting his greasy Jewboy paws on a municipal budget,” to which he added, very nastily, “peace.”
“H1tler actually had quite a sound diagnosis of the problem when you think about it,” said Morton Stanley in his nasal North London whine from underneath his whiskers, “it was just that his solutions went a bit off the rails.”
“Fair enough,” said Chris Skeletor, “what about the countless millions murdered by capitalism?”
“W@nkstain’s not a bloody Jew you ghastly little peasant,” said Tad Curmudgeonly.
“He might as well be,” said Old MacDonald thoughtfully, “after all, he’s standing for the Disraelites. I know where he lives, actually. Frightful nouveau riche chalet in Mangotsfield. Of a disconcertingly Hebrew appearance in yours truly’s humble. Dreadful shame if some students went round and lobbed a few Molotov cackies through his windows.”
“You’re no better than H1tler,” said Morton Stanley, adding very cheerfully, “not that that’s any criticism per se of course.”
“Fair enough,” said Chris Skeletor, “you can’t intelligibly denounce H1tler until you have first denounced the milk snatcher for eating all those babies.”
Old MacDonald showed a tenacity which in other circumstances might have been admirable.
“W@nkstain’s old lady,” said he, “Minnie Ledwitch I mean. Ever have your filthy way with her, Robinson old feller?”
“Not in her case,” said Robinson Lambert, “never got beyond the creepy massage stage,” adding “for which I was duly thankful. Exuberant foliage is all very well, but one draws a line at outright sundarban.”
“My sister you’re talking about,” said Tad Curmudgeonly huffily, “steady on, whatwhat.”
“Oh yes,” said Old MacDonald, “so she is, clean forgot your connection, how unspeakably boorish of me. So this Quicksotte, your bro in law then.”
Tad Curmudgeonly relaxed.
“Oh don’t mind me, call the fellow a sopping wet eunuch. I won’t object.”
Robinson Lambert snorted.
“Would’ve been actually quite demeaning to cuck such an innate mangina.”
“A propos I’ll just take this opportunity,” droned Morton Stanley very briskly, “to scotch one notorious and persistent canard. H1tler was not monorchid, let alone an eunuch. It is high-time that the specious emanations of vaudeville were laid to rest without fanfare or eulogy in an unmarked grave.”
“Fair enough,” said Chris Skeletor with his death’s head leer, “Comrade Morton will not take it amiss if I augment his excellent point, by adding that members of the single testicle community are likely to be triggered by the crude jibes of the music hall. Supposing, per absurdum no doubt Comrade Morton, however supposing that H1tler had suffered from this condition, the regrettable excesses of his regime would subsequently stand as testament to the folly of insufficient safe space provision for those of the configuration in question.”
“I say,” interjected the twerp brought by the Inhalis, “isn’t he some sort of relly of old Handjob?”
“H1tler?” snorted Morton Stanley, “never heard that one. Not that that would redound do his discredit.”
“Fair enough,” said Chris Skeletor, “H1tler is regularly subjected to all sorts of frankly absurd allegations, but what about the countless thousands of Sudanese personally disembowelled by the Jew of Beaconsfield?”
“I was actually talking about that Quicksotte chap,” said the twerp brought by the Inhalis, “not H1tler.”
“I heard there was some kind of legal proceeding,” said Old MacDonald, “involving a dodgy wife. Handjob I mean.”
Tad Curmudgeonly crowed bitterly above the sudden pertussis afflicting Mr Roger Bvggery.
“Handjob? Man’s an incorrigible debauchee. Luncheon put him out to pasture somewhere in America.”
“Palm Springs,” said very helpfully the twerp brought by the Inhalis.
“Quite so,” said Tad Curmudgeonly eyeing malevolently the twerp brought by the Inhalis, “ended up getting himself spliced with some kind of demimondaine was what I heard.”
“Slavic lady,” said very helpfully the twerp brought by the Inhalis, “Handjob picked her up in one of those Native American casinos; the Agua Caliente, I believe.”
Morton Stanley droningly but diplomatically steered the conversation onto more comfortable ground.
“On a related note,” quoth he, “perhaps the time has come for a reassessment of H1tler’s admittedly rather pungent attitude towards miscegenation.”
“Fair enough,” said Chris Skeletor, “everyone always goes on and on about the Wannsee Conference, but nobody ever does anything to stop the Disraelites having their so-called conferences in Blackpool and Brighton.”
“Some kind of whisky priest Handjob got to do the honours,” said Tad Curmudgeonly, eyeing with open loathing the twerp brought by the Inhalis, “family trustees had power of attorney I gather, would’ve helped with the annulment.”
“Could some kind person please take me to the toilet,” mumbled Steptoe Cobb into his beard, “only I do so need a poo.”
“You take him,” said Old MacDonald very brusquely to the twerp brought by the Inhalis, “and don’t let him wipe1 the shit off with his tie this time. Do go on,” he added, turning to Tad Curmudgeonly as the twerp brought by the Inhalis bustled Steptoe Cobb out of that den of vipers, “do go on,” said Old MacDonald, “I’m all ears.”
“Chill,” murmured Mr Roger Bvggery nastily to himself, and “peace.”

Last edited 3 years ago by Drahcir Nevarc
Jed Hughes
Jed Hughes
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Is this “comment” your novel? It is certainly long enough!

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Jed Hughes

The Bell End had in those days but recently appropriated from the Old Disgrace the venerable institution of the Charismatic Eccentric with a Big Personality, whereby aspirants to the title in question would vie to hold court before a small audience of credulous civilians, by outdoing one another with the loudness, prolixity, and speciousness of their rants. As Mr Vercingetorix Bvmhole sat himself down in the midst of the rotting fruit, Mr Morton Stanley, resplendent as ever in his beige safari jacket and flared brown corduroys, was reaching the climax of one such peroration; regarding which it must be conceded that what he lacked in physical stature he more than made up for with the aural penetration he achieved with his nasal whine.
“H1tler,” droned that gentleman, “is routinely castigated for certain excesses which are well known to all of us and do not bear repetition; whereas my contention is that posterity will reframe the National Socialist narrative, remembering its foremost proponent as an honest if at times, it will be acknowledged, very slightly misguided visionary, who got a tiny bit carried away in his enthusiasm to undertake the necessary reforms of the international banking industry.”
“Fair enough,” said Chris Skeletor bestowing upon the congregation his trademark horrifying leer, “fair enough, it’s not as if the Israelite fraternity does not itself face the tribunal of history over the pernicious role it played on behalf of the international crypto-capitalist fraternity in initiating and subsequently exacerbating the East Bengal famine.”
“I place on the record my gratitude to Comrade Skeletor for augmenting my point,” said Mr Morton Stanley rather peevishly, scowling at the gentleman just mentioned. “To my mind,” he continued, “the tragic events of the National Socialist era neither invalidate the classical Marxist analysis of the Jewish Question nor call for its revision. Quite otherwise is the case: the Jew ought to work for the political emancipation of the proletariat, and as a human being, for the emancipation of mankind, and should feel the particular kind of the oppression of his (or her) race and the shame of his (or her) race not as an exception to the rule, but on the contrary as a confirmation of the rule. But the Jew can behave towards the state only in a Jewish way – that is, by treating it as something alien to him (or her), by counterposing his (or her) exceptionalist rationality to the non-Jew’s nationality, by counterposing his (or her) illusory law to the real law, by deeming him (or her) self justified in separating him (or her) self from mankind, by abstaining on principle from taking part in the historical movement, by putting his (or her) trust in a future which has nothing in common with the future of mankind in general, and by seeing him (or her) self as a member of the Jewish people, and the Jewish people as the chosen people. H1tler understood this all too well, which is why he did his level best to help the Jew on his (or her) way to his (or her) own homeland. Posterity will undoubtedly uncover the truth about the so-called cattle-trucks. As I’m sure all present are fully aware, they were second class compartments block-booked by Judenreiseburo, with H1tler’s benevolent assistance, to carry the Jew to his (or her) Promised Land.”
“Fair enough,” said Chris Skeletor, “it’s not as though the rootless cosmopolitan hasn’t always served as the vanguard and the apologist for the ruthless top-hatted capitalist landlord who likes nothing better than to roast a defenceless Irish baby on a spit.”
“Speaking of culinary matters,” drawled Old MacDonald brushing some of the dandruff off his suit, “I have it on excellent authority that the so-called ovens never existed, or if they did were only used for the baking of Passover pizzas.”
Meanwhile Steptoe Cobb, seated next to the latter-named gentleman, had been looking increasingly uncomfortable.
“I need to do number two,” he mumbled into his beard, and then very promptly, “oh dear me, too late, oh dear me.”
“Oh for fvck’s sake,” snarled Old MacDonald, “somebody change the old codger’s nappy before he stinks the place out.”
“I rather think that it is your turn,” murmured Mr Milton Djugashvili the rather dirty Wykehamist, crossing one white skinny jeaned leg over another, “besides, I cannot be expected to undertake the office in these trysers. You may think me fastidious, but I have a bit of a thing about going around visibly covered in other people’s s**t stains. It is not a good look, I think.”
“You needn’t look at me,” said Coaley Sleaze the pervert, “my confessedly baroque paraphilia does not by any means extend to brown sauce. Nor does any part of my appanage contractually oblige me in the matter of the provision of adult baby services.”
“Fair enough,” sighed Chris Skeletor, “I suppose I’ll have to do it. It’s not as if, as the only genuine proletarian in here, I’m not entirely used to it. Use up my finite store of brawn struggling against the machinations of the Jew bankers, and for what? To end up skivvying for Mensheviks, and wiping the ourses of the clapped out pseudo-left bourgeoisie.”
“Oh give it a rest why don’t you,” snarled Old MacDonald, “fvcking martyr.”
As Chris Skeletor bundled Steptoe Cobb down the steps and through the backdoor of the Bell End, Mr Morton Stanley resumed his address.

ian k
ian k
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Have you taken leave of your senses? Comments should have at least some relevance to the discussion and article.

Ian Perkins
Ian Perkins
3 years ago
Reply to  ian k

It’d be even worse if Drahcir Nevarc had included footnotes!

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Perkins

While Mr Morton Stanley was delivering himself of his unimpeachably original and unplagiarised oration, the back door of the Bell End opened again, this time disclosing a familiar beanie hat and directly, as its owner mounted the steps, the round head and red lumberjacket of Mr Gary Fart. The Fart head, swivelling, punctiliously apprised itself of the identities of all in the company, remarking in particular the presence of Mr Vercingetorix Bvmhole, promptly assuming in response to the intelligence thus gleaned a mask of indifference. 
“Well if it isn’t the trougher-in-chief,” drawled Mr Milton Djugashvili as that gentleman seated himself beside him, “wearing two hats these days. How delightful. What tidings from Tammany Hall? What news from the Jews?”
“Fvckin’ like fvckin’,” growled Mr Gary Fart, “like I like mean like it’s like fvckin’ like fvckin’.”
Mr Milton Djugashvili chuckled at this, and leant back and draped his arms along the seat rest, and recrossed his legs.
“Again in English? Anyone?”
“He was speculating,” said Chris Skeletor returning with his charge, “as to your reasons for eschewing the toffee-nosed poshboy Vert Rouge clique in Queen Square, seeing as you might be expected to find the company of your own kind more congenial.”
Mr Milton Djugashvili fluttered limply a wrist.
“Poor plebeian brute,” he drawled, “wallowing in his hidebound primitivity. We must make allowances, and so I do.”
Mr Gary Fart returned no answer to this raillery, being quite tongue-tied, and it was left to Old MacDonald to redirect the flow of the discourse into another channel.
“All ticketyboo, I trust?” said he, jerking his head at the Steptoe Cobb nethers, “loins agleam and all that j1zz?”
“Had to chuck his kecks,” said Chris Skeletor, “he’s gone commando.”
“I’ve gone commando,” announced Steptoe Cobb with a sudden access of brightness, “I’m not wearing pants anymore.”
“There wasn’t any bogroll of course,” said Chris Skeletor bitterly, “I had to use the old bvgger’s tie again. Waste of perfectly decent acrylic, in my humble.”
“The expense,” drawled Mr Milton Djugashvili a propos of very little, “of spirit in a waste of shame.”
“No soap in the dispenser either,” said Chris Skeletor with very little diminution of contumely, “if I should prove to be Typhoid Mary I will not be to blame. In case anybody was wondering.”

Drahcir Nevarc
Drahcir Nevarc
3 years ago
Reply to  ian k

The discussion and article relate to leftwing antisemitism, of which Helix Folt is a satire.

EJ Winston
EJ Winston
3 years ago
Reply to  Drahcir Nevarc

Can you imagine a whole novel of this drivel? Wow.