Nicholas Agar explains why there can be terrible consequences in not responding promptly and emphatically to dangerous belief

“PUBLIC NOTICE: COVID-19 IS A FRAUD.” So began a flyer placed in a number of letterboxes in Brooklyn, Wellington, on the morning of November 6. The flyer elaborated: “This is a planned worldwide coordinated attack to bring in the one world digital currency, forced vaccinations, identity microchips, mass surveillance, tracking your every move and removal of your basic human rights.”

This barnstorming opening was followed by references to bribed government officials and a conspiracy involving the World Health Organisation and the United Nations seeking to profit from a fake pandemic.

I’d just been watching TV as the final votes in the US presidential election were being counted, congratulating myself on the orderly nature of Aotearoa New Zealand’s election. It was uncomfortable to be confronted by something from the same headspace as the conspiracy theories that currently dominate US politics.

I showed the flyer to a neighbour, who’d also received but promptly binned it, and to the young woman who made my coffee at the Aro St Café. It elicited eye rolls and a general reluctance to engage. But it’s important we don’t limit our responses to rolled eyes.

It can be fun to believe absurd things. The 2018 Netflix documentary Behind the Curve covered a group of people who claim to sincerely believe the Earth is flat. The thing that really struck me was the simple fun of fringe belief. The Flat Earthers didn’t seem to hate partisans of a spherical Earth. But there was real pleasure in the ‘us against the (round) world’ vibe that brought them together. There’s been too much attention paid to the hateful content of Trump rally chants – “Lock her/him up!” – and insufficient to the pleasure of shared defiance of an uncaring liberal elite.

There are cases in which the practical consequences of aberrant belief are altogether more dangerous. They must be promptly nipped in the bud.

One job for philosophers is to focus on the consequences of our beliefs for how we act. We should think about strange beliefs in this way. It’s what makes Covid-19 conspiracies dangerous.

Suppose I tell you that after watching the Sir Peter Jackson film trilogies I’ve become convinced I’m actually a Hobbit. You roll your eyes and remind me that The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are works of fiction. But I remain unshaken in my belief. The consequences of this strange belief for how I act are likely to be limited to frequent pilgrimages to Hobbiton in Matamata – good for the Waikato tourist economy. Your eye rolling should be followed by shoulder shrugging.

But there are cases in which the practical consequences of aberrant belief are altogether more dangerous. They must be promptly nipped in the bud, especially in this age of social media.

One of the fears expressed in the leaflet was about forced vaccinations for Covid. We can trace this back to an earlier expression of irrational belief.

Brian Deer’s 2020 book The Doctor Who Fooled the World documents the career of disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield. In the 1990s, Wakefield resolved to explore the possibility of a link between the MMR vaccination and autism. So far so good. When Wakefield’s conjecture was initially offered, the idea of a link between a developmental disorder and a widely administered vaccine – globally 500 million doses and counting – was surely worth a look. But as Deer documents, Wakefield’s commitment to his conjecture – and a possible Nobel Prize at the end of it – led him to fabricate evidence. Today’s hyperconnected world enabled him to find supporters whose enthusiasm for their scientist hero only strengthened as he was censured by other scientists and struck off the medical register. Fear of the MMR vaccine stirred up by Wakefield led to measles outbreaks and deaths.

The lesson from Wakefield and MMR is that there can be terrible consequences in not responding promptly and emphatically to dangerous belief.

Imagine the world is as the author of the Covid fraud flyer believes. Aotearoa’s internationally celebrated response to Covid-19 is not just a minor mess akin to the disappointments of KiwiBuild. It is a major criminal conspiracy. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield don’t deserve the minor tut-tut directed at former housing minister Phil Twyford. They belong in jail.

An interesting aspect of the Covid fraud flyer is its old school nature. It was printed on pieces of paper and put into letter boxes. But it did conclude with pointers about where to find more information on the internet.

Wakefield’s fraud gained momentum on social media. And this is what distinguishes my Hobbit belief from the Covid fraud flyer. I doubt anyone on Facebook will care much about my Tolkienesque coming out. But the suggestion New Zealand’s celebrated Covid response is a fraud could gain traction in the world of the QAnon conspiracy. If it does, its predictable consequence could be an angrier and less-informed Aotearoa.

Nicholas Agar is a Distinguished Visiting Professor at Carnegie Mellon University in Australia and Adjunct Professor of philosophy at Victoria University of Wellington.

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