MYTH-MAKING IN THE TIME OF THE VIRUS

 

Virus ok

Alissa Eckert, MS, Dan Higgins, MAMS, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ID 23312, 2020

 

In general usage, a ‘myth’ is a statement or fact believed to be true, a falsehood. Myths are given credence and spread by rumours and, increasingly, as ‘fake news’ or ‘memes’.

They usually arise as misunderstandings of historical events, statements, and sometimes as deliberate lies invented and spread for political, commercial or religious purposes

A well-known example of a misunderstood statement is an observation once made by the eminent anthropologist, Franz Boas, about the Inuit words for snow. The myth is that the Inuit people of Southwestern Alaska have more words for snow than any other language.

What Boas actually observed, in relation to the linguistic complexities of Inuit and its dialects, was that there were four root words for snow that might be vastly expanded by their use in a variety of linguistic combinations, or lexemes, that might also include individual semantic flourishes.

This fundamental subtlety was subsequently misunderstood by many to mean that the Inuit did have one hundred distinct words for snow. In fact, they might have one hundred or more lexemes for snow but not one hundred individual words, as the myth has it.

A more significant issue than the number of Inuit words for snow is this: what was it about the Inuit people (then termed ‘Eskimo’), their language and its cultural meanings, that led to the spread of this misstatement and its perpetuation to the present day?

The answer is that it’s all about ‘us’, not ‘them’.

When Boas and others were studying the Inuit in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was a widespread fascination with these indigenous people and their inconceivably hard way of life. For a few decades, the Inuit, and other indigenous groups in polar regions, were the darlings of folklorists, anthropologists, filmmakers and journalists. In short, the Inuit were seen through western eyes as ‘exotic others’. ‘Their’ lives were so drastically different from the western norm that something that so clearly and conveniently represented that difference made sense to ‘us’. Of course, such different people somehow surviving in perpetual ice and snow would have lots of words to describe their situation. Makes sense. Mmm.

This small popular delusion is pretty harmless, unlike many other prejudiced and pernicious myths western culture has evolved about exotic others. Perceptions of black people as monkey-like have a long history and have not gone away, for the same reason the Inuit words for snow myth has not. ‘They’ are not like ‘us’ whites.

One popular perception of human evolution is that non-Europeans are further down the evolutionary scale and therefore closer to the apes. Obvious, isn’t it? That’s what Darwin said.

Of course, Darwin said no such thing, but his biological ideas were applied to culture in the perversion usually called ‘social Darwinism, and it was asserted by experts that just as the plant and animal kingdoms evolved through natural selection, popularly understood as ‘survival of the fittest’, so did people. Obviously western culture was the preeminent result of this process and any culture that didn’t have our technological, religious, organisational and (supposedly) moral attainments was obviously at a lower stage of evolution and, therefore, inferior. Closer to monkeys than clever us. Science proves it. Mmm.

Despite the overwhelming abundance of evidence to the contrary, this apparently authoritative explanation provided an expert validation of a prejudice that had existed in European society since at least the medieval era. *

As well as the story itself, mythmaking also depends on those who tell the tale. The role of the ‘expert’ in confirming and spreading myth has recently expanded. Unqualified celebrities, politicians and those with usually fringe political agendas have increasingly taken over from experts as arbiters of opinion, masquerading as ‘fact’. The reasons for this are complex and include the erosion of trust in civil institutions and traditionally prominent influencers since the 1960s. In this century, the internet has accelerated and amplified this trend to its currently dangerous levels.

Right now, we are seeing the influence of the new storytellers in the context of the Corona virus pandemic. Large numbers of people prefer to believe random commentators and opinionists in the mainstream and social media about medical and scientific matters, particularly those related to so-called ‘cures’.

Alongside this we have another example of negative perceptions of exotic others, in this case, the Chinese, who have been blamed for the outbreak due to their culinary habits, alleged poor hygiene, incompetence or, the conspiracy theory version, by deliberately manufacturing and spreading the virus.

There are many other prejudicial myths that originate, evolve, and proliferate through these complex processes of history, ignorance and delusion. They persist because they fill a cultural and psychological need to perceive otherness in usually negative terms.* The particular combination of the progressive erosion of trust, the proliferation and consequences of new communication technology, and the always existing compulsion for humans to see things in terms of ‘us and them’, has now reached a potentially disastrous moment for us all.

 

* For a useful overview of this process see https://theconversation.com/comparing-black-people-to-monkeys-has-a-long-dark-simian-history-55102

* For a more detailed look at the complex psychological and cultural processes involved in mythmaking, see David Robson’s The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes https://davidrobson.me/the-intelligence-trap/

 

THE RETURN OF TYPHOID MARY

Mary_Mallon_(Typhoid_Mary)

‘Typhoid Mary’

 

Now she is called ‘Public Harm Auntie’ – in South Korea. In the 1980s and 90s she was known in the western world as ‘AIDS Mary’, a virulent and reckless transmitter of the HIV virus. In the twentieth-century America she was known as ‘Typhoid Mary’.

These creatures of twisted history and folklore were – and are – said to be spreading deadly disease. In early 2020, Public Harm Auntie is wantonly infecting South Koreans with Corona virus, or COVID-19.

How durable are these mass delusions, the spawn of fear and misinformation? Mary Mallon, born in Ireland in 1869 migrated to the USA where she worked as a domestic and cook for wealthy households. In 1906, it was discovered that the families she worked for had developed typhoid. It turned out that Mary was a carrier of the disease, and immune to it herself. Authorities quarantined her and later let her free on condition she never worked as a cook again. Unfortunately, Mary did. When she was discovered, she was again quarantined – for twenty-three years until her death in 1938.

Over this period, a worldwide typhoid epidemic raged, killing one in ten victims. Assisted by the press, panic erupted in America centred on Mary’s grim reaper status. Hysteria, misinformation and prejudice did their usually dirty work and Mary became the cause of untold typhoid deaths across the country.

As always, the reality was much different. Mary was a carrier who never contracted the disease herself, as were about fifty others. Mary only infected 33 people, three of whom died of the disease.

AIDS Mary (sometimes ‘Harry’) was, according to popular belief, at least as lethal. But, unlike Mary Mallon, she never existed. And while Public Harm Auntie appears to be an actual person, the alleged number of her infections with COVID-19 is undoubtedly swelled through the transmission of rumour as much as the virus.

Typhoid May, AIDS Mary (Harry) and Public Harm Auntie were [products of the pre-digital era. Now we have the greatest transmitter of falsehood, ignorance and fake news ever invented. The World Wide Web will ensure that this information virus spreads much faster than the disease itself.

REFERENCE:

David Mikkelson, ‘Did Typhoid Mary Cause the Deaths of Thousands of People?’, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/typhoid-mary/. The Snopes investigative and fact checking site is highly recommended as a vaccination against bullshit.

THE BULLSHIT DETECTION BUREAU

 
 

Finding Truth in the Age of Obfuscation

 
 
 
 

The unwelcome ability of the WWW to amplify error, delusion and straight-out lying has made us all potential victims of falsehood and flimflam. This includes, but is not limited to, disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, fake news, urbanmyths, rumour, moralpanics advertorials, and more!

 

 

Thereare a fewthings you can doto protect yourself from thenonsense.

 

 

 

SOURCES

 

Wheredoes the informationcome from? Howcan you knowit is it a reliable source andnot someone or somethinghoping to hoodwink you?

 

Someproviders of information are morereliable than others, usually because they havesome form ofbuiltin checkingprocess, such as peerreview in the caseof academic research or factchecking carried out by reputablemedia sources.

 

Itfollows that the bestsources of independently researched (not unsupported and uninformedopinion or biased market surveys) and objectively evaluated information are universitiesand quality print and/or digital media. Theseare increasingly being broughttogether in quality platforms such asThe Conversation, Aeon and other operationsthat publish quality research with alevel of editorialoversight.

 

Openslather platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and thelike are finefor chatting but docarry not reliableinformation. They are easilymanipulated by governments wishing to spreadpropaganda or rig elections,by vested commercialinterests and ideological zealots, as recent events have demonstrated.

 

 

INTENT

 

Whenyou access anitem of information,try to workout the intentionof the author/s. Does thewriting try to putyou, the reader,into a particularposition or mindset? Ask yourselfwhy. Are theytrying to convince you ofa point ofview, sell youa product or anidea? Alarm youeven?

 

Aclassic giveaway in digital messages attempting to frightenyou into doingsomething, like chain letters,drug or otherscares LINK, are these– ! ! ! ! !. Themore of themthat follow a statement, themore you shouldignore it.

 

Andnever pass themon, as theyalways insist you should. Theirintent is to spreadfear, uncertainty and panic. Why certain individals have aneed for thissort of behavioris a mysterybest left topsychologists. They have alwaysbeen with usbut, again, theWeb has greatlyincreased their ability to spreadthe nonsense they getoff on.

 

 

TONE

 

Thelanguage and style ofthe message are relatedto its intent. If the languageis overheated, intemperate or otherwiseover the topyou can besure the individualwho composed and distributedit is likewise. These messages are designedto play uponour perfectly reasonable fears andare presented as actualexperiences, as in thisemail example from Australiain 2007 (Slightly edited for coherence on thepage):

 

I was approached yesterday afternoon around 3.30 PM in the Coles parking lot at Noranda by two males, asking what kind of perfume I was wearing. Then they asked if Id like to sample some fabulous Scent they were willing to Sell me at a very reasonable rate. I probably would have agreed had I not received an email some weeks ago, warning of this scam.
 The men continued to stand between parked cars, I guess to wait for someone else to hit on. I stopped a lady going towards them, I pointed at them and told her about how I was sent an email at Work about someone walking up to you at the malls, in parking lots, and Asking you to sniff perfume that they are selling at a cheap price.
 THIS IS NOT PERFUMEIT IS ETHER! When you sniff it, youll pass out and theyll take Your wallet, your valuables, and heaven knows what else. If it were not for this email, I probably would have sniffed the perfume, but thanks to The generosity of an emailing friend, I was spared whatever might Have happened to me, and wanted to do the same for you. These guys hit Sydney and Melbourne 2 weeks ago and now they are doing it in Perth and Queensland.
 IF YOU ARE A MAN AND RECEIVE THIS PASS IT ON TO ALL THE WOMEN YOU KNOW!!!
 I called the police when I got back to my desk. Like the email says, LET EVERYONE KNOW ABOUT THIS, YOUR FRIENDS, FAMILY, COWORKERS,whoever!!!!!
 Have the best day of your life!!!!!

 

Notice how this one begins calmly and with a matter-of-fact, reporting tone. This draws the reader in. But the gradually increasing tone of exclamation mark-assisted hysteria in this message is a reliable indicator of bullshit.

 

 

‘FACTS’AND STATS

 

Accuratenames, numbers, dates and other‘factual’ data have alwaysbeen hard tocome by, whichis why theencyclopedia was invented. Tomes likeEncyclopedia Brittanica and the likehave largely done theway of thedinosaurs. Despite its virtues and crowdediting model, Wikipediais no substitutefor ancient but usuallyaccurate authorities and is susceptibleto special interests, ideologies and goodoldfashioned errors offact.

 

Infact, Wikipedia represents the best andthe worst ofthe Web. Itsstrengths are also itsweaknesses. Use it withdiscretion. Always check at leasttwo other sourcesof information before committingto information on Wikipedia, especially anything faintly statistical. Preferably find anoldstyle printsource, useful for facts upto around 2000. Thesewere written by expertsand exhaustively factcheckedbefore the internet made allinformation slippery.

 

 

AUTHORITY

 

Acommon way of validatinginformation is to haveheard it froma ‘friend’, a friendof a friend’or other apparentlytrustworthy source. We invest highcredibility in those weknow, often unwisely,as they areas susceptible to receivingand transmitting bullshit as anyoneelse.

 

Urbanmyths (or contemporarylegends) are spread byword of mouth,through the media (printand digital) and throughemail and socialmedia in general. Their validation is oftenthat the storyis true becauseI heard itfrom a friendof a friend’, or something similar. There are innumerableyarns of thistype in circulationand many havebeen for avery long time,providing them with theveneer of authenticity and ‘truth’. How often haveyou heard that antiVietnam War protesters spat onreturning veterans? Not only isthere no evidence of this ‘fact’,what information does existsuggests that nothing of thesort ever happenedor, even ifit did, wason a minisculescale.

 

Legendsof this typeoften provide apparent validation of theirclaims by referring to ahospital, police department, local government authority, etc. (Seethe kidney legendabove, which mentions the police). If you takethe trouble to check and youshould if you are concerned you’ll discoverthat these authoritieswill have no record of the allegedevent.

 

 

TRUSTNOTHING

 

Noteven this article. The best defenceagainst obfuscation is a criticalview of everything. Don’t take anyone’s word for anythingwithout validating it for yourself. Even experts make mistakesand suffer fromunconscious biases. Always look for a range of sources and views.

 

In the end, we are all our own best bullshit detectors.