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 célèbre.
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.