Those who have been following the public statements made by best-selling author and journalist Dr Naomi Wolf may not be surprised by the news this week that Twitter has suspended her account for spreading vaccine misinformation.
Dr Wolf, whose PhD is in English literature, had been very active in spreading medical misinformation on social media during the last year or so of the pandemic, joining the ranks of lockdown skeptics who see conspiracy and totalitarianism behind government and NGO attempts to control the pandemic and save lives.
She recently claimed, for example, that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is “a terrorist organization that has kidnapped the world and held it hostage.” She also believes – and on May 4th 2021 told her (at the time) 100,000+ followers – that in most places [in the USA], COVID-19 is “no longer a pandemic”, which must be a surprise to the 50,000 Americans who tested positive for COVID-19 on May 3rd, and the families of the 750 people in the USA reported dead from COVID-19 that day.
Dr Wolf’s creative use of data did not spring up alongside the coronavirus, but rather stretches back almost as far as her publishing career. She first rose to public prominence with her bestselling book 1990 The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, which multiplied by nearly 300 the actual US deaths caused by anorexia.
This is not the sole example of an egregious error in her work; for example, her misunderstanding of historical records of prosecutions and sentences for homosexuality in 19th Century Britain led to her US publisher cancelling her book Outrages: Sex, Censorship and the Criminalization of Love – an error she awkwardly discovered during a live interview on-air on BBC Radio 4.
Both seem to be well-intentioned mistakes; the criminalisation and punishment of same-sex relationships is of course abhorrent, and unrealistic ideals of beauty are undoubtedly a serious problem and have a potential impact on mental and physical health. However, such an error is extremely problematic when found in a hugely popular book that was a foundational introduction to feminism for many people, including New Republic journalist Maris Kreizman:
For many women of a certain generation—including but not limited to those who came of age around the turn of the millennium perhaps—discovering Wolf’s earlier books was part of a hodgepodge, self-assembled feminist education.
People who have primarily encountered Dr Wolf through The Beauty Myth, and perhaps through her work as a Democratic consultant for Bill Clinton and Al Gore, may infer from this that Dr Wolf is a respectable figure, whose words carry weight:
I was carrying the assumption that Wolf is a respected and authoritative figure to be taken seriously. I can only assume that I was not alone in this.
Such a notable figure will inevitably attract a large public following, and it is through this following – on social media – she shares nastier and wilder conspiracy theories. In 2014 she cast doubt on ISIS beheading videos, apparently suggesting that the “victims and their parents were actors,” before falling back on the claim that she was just asking questions and being a “journalist and verifying skeptically”:
I don’t KNOW if they are authentic or not – no one can – because no one that I am aware of has found a second source for them. I am not making ANY assertions or drawing ANY conclusions.
In the same year she also shared some ideas around the response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa, which will seem familiar to anyone glancing at her Twitter feed in more recent times:
…Department of Defense is sending three thousand troops to Liberia..troops with no medical expertise..to construct and run field hospitals for Ebola… why send soldiers with no medical background? A. Militarized Africa has long been on the agenda but B. Three thousand Ebola-exposed American troops creates a direct vector into the US and whatever happens a narrative can exist to justify military condoning of US populations…quarantining Americans…emergency measures to limit travel…
But between that 2014 health-crisis-as-a-sinister-takeover-plot and this current health-crisis-as-a-sinister-takeover-plot, something else occupied Dr Wolf. It’s something that you won’t have seen very often in recent months, due to near-collapse in air travel due to the pandemic: aircraft vapour trails. These are called contrails (a contraction of “condensation trails” – as all that is required for their formation is water vapour), by those who know the science, or perhaps chemtrails, for some conspiratorially-minded people.
Look to the skies
The chemtrail conspiracy theory refers to the notion that contrails contain a mixture of chemicals that are being intentionally spread across the globe to further some nefarious plot, from climate engineering to bombarding those beneath with drugs or pollutants:
Various different motivations for this alleged spraying are speculated, including sterilization, reduction of life expectancy, mind control or weather control.
The theory first arose in the 1990s, and believers will tell you that the trails linger longer than they should, and certainly longer than they used to in their childhood, and that they have seen scientific and government papers that back-up their claims.
No amount of explanations of the actual cause of contrails seems sufficient to convince believers, and even photographs demonstrating that there were a lot of contrails as far back as the Second World War dissuade them from their conviction.
It is worth noting that more recent research suggests that build-up of aviation contrails even from 1940s bombing raids could affect the local weather and maybe the climate. However, this research is not clear-cut; it took 60 years for the science to catch up, which is not how a conspiracy would work; and in any case inadvertent local temperature changes caused by regular water-vapour contrails are not the primary concern of chemtrails theorists.
You may not have heard of chemtrails, but many local councillors, people working in parliament, and of course climate scientists will have had angry emails from concerned residents about the preponderance of these white streaks across the sky, and their supposed impact on the yield of their allotment – or their part in the global depopulation agenda, or one of several other highly speculative theories as to their purpose.
This is one of those conspiracy theories that requires a truly implausible number of participants, with airlines lacing their jet exhausts with a chemical hotch-potch on a global scale, without any of thousands of pilots, paper pushers and engineering crew spilling the truth. Like a sky filled with aircraft trails, the means by which a conspiracy theory on this scale remains a secret is pretty hazy. Whether chemtrails believers think that the chemicals are secretly added by the UN to further Agenda 21, or by Big Carrot out to ruin your vegetable patch is also unclear.
Dr Wolf is clear, however, that she does not consider herself a believer in chemtrails:
I don’t report on “chemtrails” wh are not a thing.Been reporting from peer-reviewed journals on confirmed in-use geoengineering tech: SRM, biofuels, cloudseeding, stratospheric aerosol injection. We don’t know what these are; many people do feel unwell. Why not investigate?
There’s a lot to unpack in that one tweet alone, but it is superficially reassuring that Wolf rejects the notion of chemtrails. However, her twitter timeline is full of concern about “sticky” clouds and – as in this tweet – geoengineering, “the deliberate and large-scale intervention in the Earth’s climate system.”
One quite reasonable concern about climate engineering is that it could reduce the incentive for humanity to cut our emissions, and of course we must continue to press our politicians and industry to take drastic steps to reduce emissions, and take what actions we can on a personal level.
There are also concerns about geoengineering methods that are intended to mitigate or reduce the effects of climate change, as they inevitably involve activity that could have far-reaching consequences that are hard to reverse – just as pumping CO2 into our atmosphere for centuries has led to the current crisis. To date, however, proactive research in this area has been conducted in computer simulations and laboratories, and certainly not via commercial aviation.
One method of climate engineering is SRM (Solar Radiation Management), as referenced in Dr Wolf’s tweet. Certain materials that would be effective for SRM could have side-effects as severe as the depletion of the ozone layer, so scientists have sought to find safe – or safer – ways to do this. Even taking this into account, the Harvard website page about the Keutsch team’s SCoPEx geoengineering experiment has an explanatory video that is titled: “Why the World’s First Solar Geoengineering Test Is So Controversial”.
There are two things to note here, beyond the word “controversial”. Firstly, even accounting for communications department hyperbole, such geoengineering tests in the real world must be very limited in number for them to go with “World’s First” in the video title. Secondly, the test itself is scheduled – but not yet confirmed – for June 2021.
So it is not clear why back in 2018 Dr Wolf suggested that such technology is “confirmed” as being “in-use”, presumably in the current generation of commercial aircraft, when one of the world’s first such experiments to test such technology is yet to take place.
Wolf also seems very sympathetic to people who sound a lot like chemtrails believers, for example someone who talks about jets “spraying the hell out of us” with “huge trails” so that the sky is “white with poison.”
More problematically, Dr Wolf at one point says that the problem is one of language:
Try not to use term ‘chemtrails’ as it is marginalizing. Try to say ‘aerial spraying’ or ‘emissions that don’t disperse’ …or geoengineering.
This tweet may suggest that she sees the term “chemtrails” as problematic – just as conspiracy theorists dislike the term “conspiracy theory”, and just as climate change deniers prefer to be called “climate change skeptics” – but perhaps not the concept itself. After all, she’s quite happy with “aerial spraying” and is sympathetic to someone who thinks that contrails are “white with poison.”
It perhaps isn’t becoming of a skeptic to make predictions, but I would not be at all surprised if once the skies open up again, conspiracy-minded people will suddenly be talking a whole lot about chemtrails, certain that the military industrial complex (or sinister cabal of choice) is out to get us with the mass-spraying, whether you call them chemtrails or not.
Of course governments – or at least some elements within governments – are extremely problematic, but not in the ways that Dr Wolf insists. The environment is at severe risk due to governments lobbied by industry to do less, or to do nothing at all. LGBTQ people are at risk of persecution from states around the world: last year a proposal for a bill was sent to a parliamentary committee in Poland, in which homosexuality was equated with paedophilia.
Which perhaps brings us neatly back around to Dr Naomi Wolf’s book Outrages. As historian Dr Fern Riddell noted at the time, Wolf’s errors presented “child rapists and those taking part in acts of bestiality as being gay men in consensual relationships.”
Across a surprising range of subjects, Dr Wolf’s claims are at best an inaccurate distraction, and at worst play into the hands of the people that I believe she intends to oppose.