Coronavirus, conspiracy, challenges and compassion


Michael Marshall
Michael Marshall is the project director of the Good Thinking Society and president of the Merseyside Skeptics Society. He is the co-host of the long-running Skeptics with a K podcast, interviews proponents of pseudoscience on the Be Reasonable podcast, has given skeptical talks all around the world, and has lectured at several universities on the role of PR in the media. He has been the Editor of The Skeptic since August 2020.

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As the new editor of The Skeptic, it is my duty and my privilege to be able to steer one of the longest-standing institutions in UK skepticism into its next chapter.

The Skeptic, which started life in 1987 as a print newsletter entitled The British and Irish Skeptic, has gone through many changes during its 33-year existence. I hope that its new formation – as an online skeptical news platform publishing expert analysis and commentary on a regular basis – will be particularly suited to countering the kind of pseudoscience, conspiracy theory and superstition that surrounds us today.

I owe a great deal of thanks to outgoing editor Deborah Hyde, not only for her expert tenure at the helm of The Skeptic for the last decade, but also for her patience during this transition. I have no doubt that Deborah, along with previous editors Professor Chris French and Wendy Grossman, will continue to be invaluable sources of guidance and advice, as well as regular contributors (indeed, you can read Wendy’s thoughts on ‘the new era’ in her latest article).

Any change of leadership naturally offers the opportunity for reflection, and it’s hard to argue that the need for reason and critical thinking has ever been more urgent than it is right now. The coronavirus pandemic has inevitably been a focusing point for all manner of untrue claims, from the proliferation of false and scaremongering messages about bodies piling up at ice skating rinks and the virus shifting to killing babies; to 5G masts around the country being blamed and vandalised; to nonsensical conspiracy theories about the virus being an act of biological warfare from China – possibly (and quite bafflingly) with the aim of enriching the US Center for Disease Control.

A crisis of this scale necessarily produces an information vacuum, and there has been no shortage of groups looking to fill that hole with misinformation. We’ve seen misleading advice around how to fight off the disease with supplements (the fallacy of which is deftly explained in Pixie Turner’s first article for The Skeptic). We’ve seen countless homeopaths offering advice on which homeopathic remedies to take to combat the virus – hardly a surprise, from an industry whose own Professional Standards Director was revealed to be an anti-vaxxer. We’ve even seen under-informed contrarians seeking to undermine public health policy under the misnomer of “lockdown sceptics” (just when we’d managed to reclaim the word ’skeptic’ from climate change deniers, too).

Although COVID-19 has been a major focus of skeptical attention, it is far from the only pseudoscience game in town. Ghosts and UFOs are still being seen, and we will be here to highlight alternative explanations for them. Psychics and mediums may have had to put their tours on hold while theatres across the country have closed their doors, but plenty of their numbers claim to be busier than ever giving readings online – though, of course, they would say that, wouldn’t they?

Medical misinformation, too, remains rife, with cancer quackery in particular causing huge amounts of pain and suffering for vulnerable patients and their families. The Skeptic will be here to help unpick the misinformation, and to offer an informed perspective on the false hope sold by alternative medicine evangelists.

We will also be tackling what I believe may be the defining pseudoscience of our age: conspiracy theory. Where once the domain of fringe pockets of people doubting the official story regarding JFK’s assassination, the September 11th attacks, or the moonlanding, conspiracy theory has gone thoroughly mainstream. It has become commonplace for social media feeds to be filled with family and friends sharing allegations that Big Pharma has the cure for cancer but is keeping it from the people, that governments are controlled by a shadowy cabal of uber-elites who orchestrate major world crises, and that the world we are presented with is a deliberate attempt to keep us distracted from The Truth.

In fact, just last week, cities across the UK saw marches of ‘QAnon’ followers and ‘PizzaGate’ truthers – people who believe that a deep-state whistleblower with top-level security clearance in the US government is risking life and limb to post oblique and cryptic hints aimed at exposing a vast conspiracy of celebrity paedophiles and child traffickers, whose headquarters was in the basement of a Washington pizza restaurant that does not have a basement. How we got to a place where so ludicrous an idea is taken seriously enough by people to host marches through cities an ocean away from Washington is something I’m sure we will be exploring in the pages of The Skeptic.

QAnon conspiracy theorists marching in Liverpool, August 2020.

One man wearing a "Save our children UK" T Shirt holds up a placard reading "Research Pizzagate". 

Another man has a "Keep Calm and QAnon t shirt"

QAnon conspiracy theorists marching in Liverpool, August 2020

Identifying and debunking these pernicious pseudoscientific ideas may be one thing, but effectively challenging them is another matter entirely. It is comforting to think that simply showing that an idea is not supported by evidence is enough to take the momentum out of a pseudoscientific movement, but experience shows us that information alone is not always enough to dissuade people from their beliefs. This, I think, is the big challenge for skepticism today: how can we most effectively turn the tide and encourage people back to reason?

The answer, in part, lies in the honesty and humility of our intentions. If we as skeptics are only interested in being right in order to preserve a sense of superiority over those we disagree with, I fear we will be wholly ineffective in affecting any real change. We will also be fooling ourselves. If, instead, we recognise that we are all prone to irrationality and bias, and in having an awareness of that we can try to challenge our own beliefs and biases as much as possible, we may have a hope of reaching people.

This is why I am such a firm believer in the notion of compassionate skepticism: that our aim isn’t simply to be ‘right’, but to understand ourselves and the world around us, and to help others do the same. To do that effectively we have to understand who we are trying to reach, and how to communicate with them. “Facts don’t care about your feelings!”, people are so fond of saying, but in practice, people’s feelings often don’t care about facts – and people’s actions and beliefs (including our own) are informed first of all by their feelings. The detail you are far more likely to go out of your way to fact-check is the one that feels false, not the one that feels true.

Moreover, in a very real way, feelings ARE facts – facts about who you are speaking to, how receptive they are likely to be to information they disagree with, and therefore how best to communicate with them if you want to be effective.

With that in mind, I believe it is important to remember that facts and logic aren’t weapons to be used to ‘destroy’ people we disagree with; they’re tools to evaluate and understand. It is easy to convince ourselves that we as skeptics are hyper-rational, unbiased actors whose conclusions are exclusively based on reason and logic, but that would be a self-delusion. The most that we can do – and what we will always strive to do at The Skeptic – is to try our best to apply skepticism, to think critically, to try to minimise the impact of our own biases in doing so, and to always be aware that the people we disagree with are just as human as we are.

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