Sceptical Credulity

Understanding the new Copernicans.

They looked at me with a benevolent smile, almost pitying my credulity, my capacity to be fooled. This person, whom I met by chance, was in their sixties, had taught at the Sorbonne and published several books. They immediately told me they would never get the Covid vaccine. They smiled when I objected that over the course of their life they had unthinkingly accepted over a dozen vaccines, from smallpox to polio, and that to enter a whole host of countries every one of us has been inoculated – against tetanus, yellow fever and so on – with relative serenity. ‘But this vaccine isn’t like the others,’ they replied, as if privy to information from which I had been shielded. At this point I understood that there was nothing I could say to shake their granitic certainty.  

What struck me most, however, was their scepticism. I knew that if I entered into the conversation, at best we would have come to the issue of government deception and Big Pharma, at worst conspiracy theories about the microchips Bill Gates is supposedly implanting in the global population. Here we’re faced with a paradox: people believe in extraordinary tales precisely because of their sceptical disposition. Ancient credulity worked in a completely different manner to its contemporary equivalent. It was shared by the highest state authorities – who typically employed court astrologists – and the most downtrodden plebeians. Inquisitors believed in the reality of witchcraft, as did commoners, as did some of the accused witches themselves. In one sense the occult still functions this way in certain parts of postcolonial Africa, where the political class relies on the same rites as ordinary citizens, using witchcraft to perform some of the operations that are the purview of public relations departments in the so-called developed West. (Peter Geschiere’s 1997 text on this topic remains instructive: The Modernity of Witchcraft: Politics and the Occult in Postcolonial Africa.) But, by and large, the modern world has given rise to a form of superstition that is accepted in the name of distrust towards the state and managerial classes.

Naturally, we have ample reason not to trust the authorities, even when it comes to vaccines. The journal Scientific American once lamented the impact of the fake Hepatitis-B vaccination campaign organised by the CIA in Pakistan with the aim of discovering Bin Laden’s whereabouts, which ultimately resulted in locals boycotting initiatives to vaccinate children against polio. We know of efforts to purposefully garble reports on the carcinogenic effects of glyphosate – the world’s most common herbicide – to tame the ire of its manufacturer Monsanto. And let’s not forget the decades in which the dangers of Teflon were hushed, whilst we cooked (and continue to cook) with coated pans. Nor can we ignore the authorities’ cynicism: between 1949 and 1969 the American armed forces conducted 239 experiments which introduced pathogenic germs amongst unknowing populations. In 1966 for instance, bacilli were released into the New York subway to study their effect.

Scepticism towards authority is the basis of modern enlightenment rationalism. The anti-vaxxers, one must concede, are enacting the very process which permitted science to develop: refusing the principle of authority, rejecting the ipse dixit (ipse here no longer referring to Aristotle, but to the titled and legitimated scientist), upholding the principle that a theory is not in itself true just because it is espoused by an expert at Harvard or Oxford.

But here we’ve already begun to slide into the unintended consequences of sceptical thinking. We cannot disavow the liberatory force of the suspicion that religion was invented as a disciplinary tool, as insinuated by Machiavelli in the 16th century. It was this distrust that came to animate the tradition of libertinism (Hobbes and Spinoza were both suspected of inspiring libertines, perhaps because they were considered crypto-atheists), as well as the theory of The Three Imposters, which held that Moses, Jesus and Muhammad were tricksters who had feigned their divine knowledge to keep the masses in check:

Neither God, nor the devil, the soul, the skies nor hell resemble how they are depicted, and all theologians – those that disseminate fables as divinely revealed truths – with the exception of a few fools, act in bad faith and abuse of the credulity of the people to inculcate in them what they please.

(Traité sur les trois imposteurs ou la vie et l’esprit de monsieur Benoit de Spinoza [1719])

The radical potential of this statement is clear, but it must be noted that this is also the first known espousal of a systemic conspiracy theory. Its scepticism has a fideistic quality. The ambiguity it illustrates can be traced back to the Renaissance, which laid the foundations of modern rationalism and simultaneously found a faith-based solution to Catholic fallacies: the Protestant Reformation. Renaissance doubt goes hand-in-hand with mystic fervour; Erasmus of Rotterdam, Pietro Pomponazzi and Machiavelli are coeval with Thomas Müntzer, Calvin and Michael Servetus. Hence, incredulity had already become a politico-religious problem in the 16th century, as the title of a seminal study by the Annales historian Lucien Febvre suggests: The Problem of Unbelief in the Sixteenth Century: The Religion of Rabelais (1968). We can therefore understand how beneath vaccine scepticism lies an oftentimes ferocious intolerance, for this group of unbelievers structures itself like a sect. (Tara Haelle has reconstructed, rather interestingly, the way in which the anti-vax movement fashioned itself as a healthcare Tea Party in a recent article for The New York Times.)

But there’s more: the ruling class that squawks in horror at the superstition of its subjects is far from innocent itself. For the majority of people, science and technology have a magical quality, in that there is an obvious imbalance between the effort one puts into an action and its result. Uttering a spell, ‘open sesame’, for instance, needs little exertion, yet this is sufficient to move a large boulder blocking the entrance to Ali Baba’s cave. There is no cost input in reciting incantations that allow you to extract gold from stone. In the world of magic, the limits imposed by nature are no longer valid; you can fly on a broom or see what goes on in distant places. And what exactly do aeroplanes, cars, radars do? The Ring of Gyges and Aladdin’s lamp have become patented products, churned out by assembly lines and sold in supermarkets. If magic is a shortcut which covers great distances by way of an easy path (press a button and darkness disappears, press another one and you speak with people far away, yet another and you see what’s happening on the other side of the world), then the entirety of scientific and technological civilisation amounts to sorcery, even more so given that the vast majority of humans are unaware of the mechanisms by which this magic operates. Like the wizard of old, the modern scientist is a keeper of arcane knowledge. Few among us have even a vague idea of how a phone works, not to mention a computer. Naturally, there’s also the division between white (benevolent) magic and black magic, the latter causing ecological catastrophes and wars.

This enchanted dimension of modern life does not just derive from the fact that the bulk of humanity is kept in the dark about the functioning of the world of objects that surrounds it. The truth is that since the 1930s (and all the more so with the advent of the Second World War) the search for natural truth has changed gears. If research once possessed an artisanal quality (Enrico Fermi researched quantum physics in a Roman basement), now it has transformed into a veritable industry (almost 2,000 researchers work at CERN), and a costly one at that. The natural-truths industry is financed by people, from politicians to CEOs, who know little about the projects they fund. An inverted relationship between researchers and donors has evolved in which the former, much like marketers or advertisers, must make constant promises that they will struggle to keep.

After the atomic bomb physicists had an easy ride; they could dangle extravagant weapons – whose unachievable prototypes remain firmly in the realm of Star Wars – before state officials, who would readily cut their own citizens’ pensions to finance the field. With the end of the Cold War, the rivers of military funding began to dry up, and the marketing of research needed rethinking. For decades, NASA has tried to ‘sell the cosmos’, instigating the belief that a colony on Mars was possible (an absurdity given the current state of technology).  It has also promised that with fresh funds it would be able to shield the earth from an inbound asteroid.

No longer able to promise the moon, the only miracle that remains for science to unlock is immortality: who would say no to this? Mark O’Connell’s extraordinary To Be A Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death (2017) contains plenty of promethean, multi-billionaire entrepreneurs pursuing infantile dreams of cryogenic freezing pending resurrection. In 1992, the great physicist Leo Kadanoff wrote in Physics Today: ‘We are fast approaching a situation in which nobody will believe anything we [physicists] say in any matter that touches upon our self-interest. Nothing we do is likely to arrest our decline in numbers, support or social value.’

The result is that it’s more and more difficult for non-specialists to distinguish between science and pseudoscience – or between scientists and salesmen. This is because the latter very often mimic the former, but also because of the proliferation of ‘heterodox’ scientists – figures who possess all the trappings of scientific legitimacy (a PhD, publications in authoritative journals, membership of illustrious faculties) but who end up on the community’s margins, or even excommunicated. Andrew Wakefield’s Vaxed (2016) claims that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has covered up the link between the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) and the development of autism. The thesis was originally presented by Wakefield, a respected liver surgeon, alongside others in the eminent medical journal The Lancet. But the article was subsequently disproved, and the surgeon shunned from the profession (though it seems a co-author of his was absolved of the accusation of scientific fraud). From then on, Wakefield has been an anti-vax activist. Another disgraced scientist, Judy Mikovits – PhD in biochemistry, author of articles in Science, also accused of fraudulent practices – is the protagonist of two conspiracist documentaries from 2020: Plandemic: The Hidden Agenda Behind Covid-19 and Plandemic: Indoctornation.

These pariahs of the scientific community present themselves as new Copernicans facing an old Ptolemaic orthodoxy. They’re masters of all the formalisms of scientific research: bibliographies, diagrams, tables, footnotes. It’s understandable how they might sound convincing to those observing the commercialisation of the scientific-media complex from the outside.

I can confirm this disorientation with an anecdote. Shortly before he died, I went to interview René Thom (1923-2002), the founder of catastrophe theory, at a conference of physicists in Perugia. When I arrived, I discovered a meeting of physicists opposed to Einstein’s theory of relativity (nearly a century after it had been formulated in 1905), replete with papers presenting the flaws in the Michelson-Morley experiment (a key test for the theory), or in any case maintaining that its results could be explained by a host of other theories. I felt like I was participating in a clandestine meeting of some sect. I met European physicists who had been highly regarded in their field before they fell for a discovery which was proven to be false, and whose falsity they now struggled to acknowledge.

The close resemblance between science and pseudoscience – particularly in their relationship to funding, and therefore marketing – clarifies our recent difficulties in reasoning with anti-vaxxers, and why it seems almost impossible to break down the communication barrier without profound reforms to public education. For the latter, in its current form, is responsible for our present state of scientific, technological and mathematical illiteracy in an increasingly scientific, technological and digital world. Recently, in a large Roman market I saw an elderly man and woman converse across their respective vegetable stands. The man was an anti-vaxxer, and offered the argument that Covid-19 vaccines are dangerous and experimental. ‘Look who’s talking’, the lady replied, ‘all of you readily took Viagra without having the faintest idea of what it contained’.

A peculiar but highly significant case is that of Russia. Though it was the first country to patent a vaccine (Sputnik), by 2 September 2021 only 25.7 per cent of the population had been vaccinated, and only 30.3 per cent had received at least one dose (compared to a respective 58.4 per cent and 64.7 per cent in the EU). As a result, daily deaths in Russia have continued to reach 800 (out of a population of 146 million). To be sure, Russians’ wariness of the government has played a role (from the Tsars to Yeltsin, Stalin to Putin, there has never been much to trust). Even in Moscow we see versions of the fantasies about Covid and the vaccine we’ve discussed, including the online theory (signalled to me by friends who read Russian) that that ‘the virus was brought to earth by reptilian aliens who gained control of the earth in Sumerian times, and are responsible for creating the “Torahic religion”, and have now decided to curb the world’s population’, controlling humanity ‘via chips contained in the vaccine, in order to establish a new world order’. Amongst the reptilian humans are Obama, Putin and Biden (but not Trump).

But perhaps there is a more prosaic reason for Russian reticence towards the vaccine: Sputnik has not been recognized by Western (American and European) health organizations, invalidating it as a means to travel abroad. Many Russians maintain that if Sputnik permitted them to travel, there would be long queues to get vaccinated. Therein lies the power of bureaucracy, and of pharmaceutical companies’ commercial wars.

Read on: Marco D’Eramo, The Philosopher’s Epidemic, NLR 122.