SkepticblogSkepticblog logo banner

top navigation:

Hogging the Conspiracies

by Kirsten Sanford, May 01 2009

It is amazing. With each new media snowstorm comes a new conspiracy theory.

From the Huffington Post:

I have also read that this flu outbreak is a massive government/pharmaceutical company conspiracy to sell more Tamiflu. Quite conveniently, Tamiflu is one of two antiviral therapies to which the virus is not resistant. Hence, Roche stands to make a fair bit of money from this flu scare.

The other even more entertaining theory is that a pharma company or research lab is behind the creation of the virus. For some reason, it is more difficult for the conspiracy theorists to believe that the virus could have emerged naturally than that… “it came from the lab” (should be read aloud with a spooky edge to the voice).

Learn some basic biology people.Viruses mutate and evolve very quickly. They can recombine with material from other similar viruses. In the case of Influenza A, there is not much separating the avian and the mammalian strains genetically. They mix and match their bits and pieces all the time.

Most of the time, it is of no consequence. The virus is in the wrong environment to be transmitted to a suitable host, the mutations aren’t quite virulent enough to cause a problem in human populations, they aren’t spread easily enough… any number of things can keep the virus from spreading.

However, every once in a while, the virus gets it all right. That’s what we worry about. That’s why the world’s health organizations respond seriously to even a mild threat.

The conspiracy theorists can postulate all they want about governmental influence, secret organizations, and even space aliens. But, it all comes down to parsimony. The simplest explanation is often right.

18 Responses to “Hogging the Conspiracies”

  1. Durnett says:

    Shouldn’t that be “huffing the conspiracies?”

  2. Bill says:

    > But, it all comes down to parsimony. The simplest explanation is often right.

    Silly Kirsten…the simplest explanation doesn’t support my worldview of shadow governments, men in black and evil scientists. Therefore, it can’t POSSIBLY be right.


  3. Max says:

    Reminds me of the conspiracy theory that computer security companies develop computer viruses in order to sell their antivirus software.

    It’s a scary thought that some nerd can develop a computer virus that infects millions of PC’s, or a dozen hijackers can bring down a skyscraper, or a flu virus can spontaneously mutate on some farm and kill millions of people.

  4. Ranson says:

    I agree, Max. Whenever someone starts ranting about things like that, I try to point out the amount of havoc they themselves could wreak if they set their mind to it. Hell, I could kill/sicken/injure dozens, if not hundreds, this afternoon, starting from scratch. If I put some thought into it, it could be far worse. No grand conspiracy needed. As with diseases, sometimes stuff just happens.

    Everyone has the chance to screw up the world in one way or another, no conspiracy needed. I once worked at a bank that got robbed soon after I left. It turns out that the person in charge of check processing was embezzeling and staged the robbery to cover it up. This involved years of skimming fees and accounts, and it was one person. I think that a determined individual is ultimately much more dangerous than a conspiracy, because only the individual knows what’s going on; a conspiracy at least has the chance to be caught out.

  5. Max says:

    We still don’t have a motive for the 2001 anthrax attacks.
    LA Times reported that Bruce Ivins stood to gain from his anthrax vaccine patent.
    Others argued that Ivins couldn’t have produced the anthrax by himself.

    Now there’s a case with a lot of loose ends.

  6. xyzzy says:

    I still prefer the title H1N1, the name Mexican Influenza is misleading — viruses don’t care what ethnicity the host is. I’m not sure the current case-fatality rate and incidence rate warrant the drastic panic. However, given the haphazard way that viruses replicate it is possible that a mutation might endow a particular strain with increased pathogenicity.

    My favorite aspect of the current epidemic is when the politicians try to use analogies to support their decisions : “It would be akin to closing the barn door after the horses are out” USA President Obama — last time I checked the nation wasn’t a barn and viruses are not horses, but I understand what he is getting at.
    Whatever the case may be, the current hoopla certainly makes my profession more exciting to talk about at parties!

    While there aren’t hard and fast cut-off levels that determine
    whether or not a case-fatality rate is severe or not, the WHO has a
    scoring system that incorporates the following for case-fatality rates (“translated” to %) into an overall scoring system for prioritizing
    communicable diseases:

    or= 20 score 5 (most important)


    • Max says:

      1889 Russian Flu, 1918 Spanish Flu, 1957 Asian Flu, 1968 Hong Kong Flu, 2009 Mexican Flu

  7. Brian says:

    huff huff huff

    “Hey, man, don’t bogart all the paranoia.”

  8. Sonya says:

    Wow, not having t.v. means I’m totally behind the times. It’s politically incorrect to call it the “swine flu” now? Huh.

  9. Atomsk says:

    it’s a Pandemic, you would have to close all travel to stop it not just from Mexico

  10. Alejandro says:

    Down here in Mexico there are also some ludicrous conspiracy “theories” There has been an email circulating which states that drug lords menaced with bombing public places, thus the Mexican government “created” the swine flu so everyone would stay at home and avoid public places. How can you get more ridiculous?

  11. LovleAnjel says:

    Is this virus more nasty because it’s not kosher? For some reason that’s where my brain went when the name-change came up in the media.

  12. Drew says:

    I’ve been waiting to hear a skeptical viewpoint on this. I’ve been hearing conspiracy theories left and right. If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the video of all the plastic coffins:

  13. clockworkjim says:

    First thing I thought of when I heard about the outbreak:
    “How long before someone claims this as a conspiracy to deport mexicans and seal the border?”

  14. catgirl says:

    If someone released or created H1N1 as a terrorist attack, I’d have to say that they failed at their goal, as it’s not a very deadly disease. It would have been easier to just let the more typical flu strains do what they always do.

  15. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    The H1N1 is a strain of good ol’ Influenza A. It is a new strain, meaning that we don’t have herd immunity to it, yet. This strain will be incorporated into this years flu vaccine.

    Yes, people get sick from Influenza A. Every year, Inf.A. contributes to tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. alone. Somehow, people don’t seem to care too much about this fact unless it is linked with some wacky conspiracy theory.

    Get the flu shot this year!

  16. William Mook says:

    In the 1950s the CIA through the Office of Scientific Intelligence began a program of mind-control and chemical interrogation techniques that used US citizens as test subjects and derived from an earlier program Operation Paperclip. Operation Paperclip retrieved the best and brightest NAZI scientists, the most famous of these being the rocket scientists who developed the V1 and V2 rockets. More secret were NAZI scientists that studied torture and other medical techniques called brainwashing that involved combinations of hypnotherapy, poisons and psychoactive substances including LSD.

    Why did the CIA do this?

    he Agency poured millions of dollars into studies probing dozens of methods of influencing and controlling the mind. One 1955 MK-ULTRA document released by the CHurch Commission in 1975 gives an indication of the size and range of the effort; this document refers to the study of an assortment of mind-altering substances described as follows:

    1. Substances which will promote illogical thinking and impulsiveness to the point where the recipient would be discredited in public.

    2. Substances which increase the efficiency of mentation and perception.

    3. Materials which will prevent or counteract the intoxicating effect of alcohol.

    4. Materials which will promote the intoxicating effect of alcohol.

    5. Materials which will produce the signs and symptoms of recognized diseases in a reversible way so that they may be used for malingering, etc.

    6. Materials which will render the induction of hypnosis easier or otherwise enhance its usefulness.

    7. Substances which will enhance the ability of individuals to withstand privation, torture and coercion during interrogation and so-called “brain-washing”.

    8. Materials and physical methods which will produce amnesia for events preceding and during their use.

    9. Physical methods of producing shock and confusion over extended periods of time and capable of surreptitious use.

    10. Substances which produce physical disablement such as paralysis of the legs, acute anemia, etc.

    11. Substances which will produce “pure” euphoria with no subsequent let-down.

    12. Substances which alter personality structure in such a way that the tendency of the recipient to become dependent upon another person is enhanced.

    13. A material which will cause mental confusion of such a type that the individual under its influence will find it difficult to maintain a fabrication under questioning.

    14. Substances which will lower the ambition and general working efficiency of men when administered in undetectable amounts.

    15. Substances which promote weakness or distortion of the eyesight or hearing faculties, preferably without permanent effects.

    16. A knockout pill which can surreptitiously be administered in drinks, food, cigarettes, as an aerosol, etc., which will be safe to use, provide a maximum of amnesia, and be suitable for use by agent types on an ad hoc basis.

    17. A material which can be surreptitiously administered by the above routes and which in very small amounts will make it impossible for a man to perform any physical activity whatsoever.

    Historians have asserted that creating a “Manchurian Candidate” subject through “mind control” techniques was a goal of MK-ULTRA and related CIA projects.

    The possible control or discrediting of serious contenders for candidacy are also obvious.

    In this connection the timing of Chappiquidick and the subsequent confusion of Teddy Kennedy about the affairs of that evening are interesting. Especially when one looks at the dates;

    July 16, 1969 – launch of Apollo 11

    July 18, 1969 – Teddy Kennedy meets with Mary Jo Kopeckne – California Campaign manager for Bobby Kennedy who was killed June 6, 1968 – to prepare a statement following the expected moon landing. The events of that evening resulted in the death of Ms. Kopeckne, and confused testimony indicted Senator Kennedy in the public mind.

    July 20, 1969 – Man landed on the moon

    Now, here’s a conspiracy theory – that has some meat to its bones. JFK was killed. Popular imagination is constrained by mad theories and crazy proponents which marginalize any reasonable criticism. This too is a technique of political control. Why don’t people look at the pattern? JFK is killed in 1963, LBJ became president and ran for election in 1964 and won. He did not seek another term as our president in 1968. RFK, who was attorney general under JFK would certainly have gotten to the bottom of any conspiracy if he were elected. RFK would likely have been elected too, looking at the polling data during the California primaries. The MOMENT RFK won California, and on to Ohio – he was killed. 13 months later, while Apollo astronauts were on their way to the moon, Teddy Kennedy is discredited after meeting with RFKs campaign manager, and that campaign manager is dead.

    I find it interesting that we focus on clearly mad conspiracy theories and ignore more reasonable patterns over time that suggest wrong-doing.

    The ‘truthers’ are mentioned in connection with this article. Truthers make it very difficult to discuss the role of the CIA and the Reagan Doctrine in the creation, funding, and training of an international fundamentalists radical muslim movement dedicated to the violent overthrow of non-muslim states. Its hard to say this and not sound like a truther – in this way truthers actually help cover the CIA’s culpability in this matter, and help hide the truth.

    At the end of the Civil War people who worried about the Republic sought to institute controls of public discourse so radical differences would not lead to another Civil War. Henry Ford rose to popularity and promoted the Ford way where industrialists took a measure of social responsibility. He also opposed World War I and World War II – saying we would do far better focusing on production instad of destruction. Switzerland avoided both wars, and emerged as one of the most stable nations on Earth. We shared with the rest of the world in the great depression. Ford was marginalized in what appeared to be a pogrom against him. He was useful, and avoided the fate of Huey Long, and his every man a king campaign – which echoed Ford in many respects.

    At the end of world war two there was the development of nuclear weapons. We could not suffer a nuclear Pearl Harbor. So, we organized our affairs accordingly, and arranged things so that in the interests of national security, the range of public discourse would be constrained yet again. The nature of science changed, and the nature of society changed – and the range of discourse narrowed with the rise of mass media. Meanwhile soaring arrest rates, spreading illicit drug use, eliminated the voting rights of millions of poor and economically enslaved tens of millions more at a time when the poorest of us should have enjoyed unprecedented freedom following LBJs civil rights successes.

    There is no question that the CIA created the heroin epidemic during the Vietnam war

    and that this was expanded into cocaine during the Reagan Administration

    A pattern of abuse is clear. The reason is clear also. The US could not afford its war machine needed to survive in the nuclear age, AND pay for an agressive space program or even to BE the Great Society envisioned by LBJ. So, something had to be done. The CIA did it.

    Crazy conspiracies promoted by the media – why does everyone know of the magic bullet theory but no one sees the connection between Chappaquidick and Apollo 11, Mary jo Kopeckne and RFKs California campaign? – this suggests but certainly does not prove – that the CRAZY conspiracy theories are a cover for a more mundane operation that hides safely beyond what is routinely shown the public.

    None of this proves the conspiracies suggested here. But, since the end of the Civil War we have no longer relied on democratic processes to create a great nation – we have sought to manage the excesses of liberty – and the mechanisms by which these operate are largely unknown, or when known, their capacities marginalized in the public mind by whacko theories. As our capacities improve, with computer based control of the global information environment, with the ability to model the personality of the top 50,000 journalists, with the ability to monitor everyone’s e-mail traffick and so forth – we will see a demise in whacko theories, as those who manage discourse to keep us serenely in control of a world facing serious challenges – since our epistemology will be easily managed without them.

  17. The Speaker says:

    Its amazing how much power an individual or a group of individuals have these days. Its simply amazing.

    Someone can cause a entire system to shutdown, bring a company like Microsoft to its knees and cause them millions in revenues but somewhere I like that an individual has now go more power with the advent of the Internet.