A friend received a warning in the mail the other day that the Corona Virus is a scam.
The letter was packed full of tidbits like “Grain is high octane fuel designed for birds,” “an electron microscope wouldn’t be able to find a ‘virus,’ if in fact; they did exist,” and the helpful reminder that “you can’t photograph what you can’t see.”
A lot of very smart people are rightly concerned about the rise in conspiratorial thinking, which has spread all the way to the Presidency of the United States. Conspiracies have been part of human life since we came down from the trees, but their persistence into the educated, technological, heart of modernity would shock and disappointment many early Enlightenment thinkers.
All is not lost though. Apart from its comedic value the letter is an unintentional demonstration of the enduring strength of scientific revolution.
This appears strange coming from such a clear example of anti-intellectual or anti-empirical thinking. It happily waves aside scientific consensus and proposes its own competing grand theory of everything in a little over 200 words. Even the Gettysburg Address stretched to 275.
Yet, in the letter, our concerned citizen feels the need to appropriate and reference scientific language and symbols – “recent technology and understanding of vitamins has further confirmed this information.” He defends his theory with an empirical claim – “I have worked in an electron microscope unit where I learnt to use all the equipment.” It is not a very good one.
Compare this to the variety of non-scientific appeals possible. He could have appealed to tradition, “the non-existence of viruses has been part of our culture for centuries,” revelation, “I had a dream where God told me viruses are fake,” or authority, “Donald Trump told me.”
One way to think about the scientific revolution is that it is slowly replacing these alternative appeals when it came to questions which are empirically verifiable. It is a testament to the power of the scientific revolution that even its critics cannot think outside it.
Take for example the following post-script at the end of a long Facebook post on the “CoronaVirus Coup d’Etat”
Would that we all be a little more like Descartes:
“for I found myself embarrassed with so many doubts and errors that it seemed to me that the effort to instruct myself had no effect other than the increasing discovery of my own ignorance”Descartes