How "they" view "us," Ebola edition


I realize that yesterday’s post was even longer than my usual post (and, given who I am, that’s saying something), but there was a thought that popped up last night about the Ebola conspiracy theories that I discussed that I can’t resist finishing the week on with a (hopefully) much more concise post. (I know, it’s me; conciseness is not exactly what Orac is about.) I know that, after a decade at this whole skeptical blogging thing, it shouldn’t bother me, but it still does. I’m referring to what these Ebola virus disease conspiracy theories say about how “they” view “us.”

First of all, what I’m referring to when I say “they” and “them” are the various antiscience cranks, combatting whom has been one of the key raisons d’etre for this blog since the very beginning. What I’m referring to when I say “we” and “us” are skeptics, supporters of science-based health care and policy, as well as public health officials who try to implement science-based policies, be they to fight Ebola, to vaccinate children to prevent morbidity and mortality due to vaccine-preventable disease, or oncologists who practice evidence-based medicine and reject cancer quackery. Of course, my meaning of “we” and “us” is not limited to these groups, but you get the idea, I hope. Now let’s go back to that post, which was all about Ebola conspiracy theories.

To recap (details, of course, can be found here), I looked at three main Ebola conspiracy theories. Although the details differed, these conspiracy theories all shared a lot of elements. I realize how much a lot of you can’t stand Barbara Loe Fisher, but I think I’ll post her video again, just to give you an idea. The first nine minutes are a highly biased recap of news about the Ebola virus outbreak in west Africa thus far, which, for purposes of this discussion you can skip. The “meat” of the conspiracy theory comes at around the 9:00 mark:

This is the conspiracy theory again:

And why are experimental Ebola vaccines being fast tracked into human trials and promoted as the final solution rather than ramping up testing and production of the experimental ZPap drug that has already saved the lives of several Ebola-infected Americans?

A logical conclusion is that some people in industry, the government, and the World Health Organization did not want the Ebola outbreak to be confined to several nations in Africa because that would fail to create a lucrative global market for mandated use of fast tracked Ebola vaccines by every one of the seven billion human beings living on this planet. Will there be an Ebola outbreak in America? Ask the CDC, WHO, DOD, NIH, and Congress. Learn more about Ebola and Ebola vaccines at It’s your health, your family, your choice.

I can’t resist pointing out one more time that, if Fisher wants to have even a whiff of a chance of being taken seriously about Ebola, she should learn the name of the anti-Ebola drug ZMapp. In any case, note the conspiracy. It’s not incompetence that she’s charging, and, as with any emergency situation in which humans are involved, if you want to find examples of incompetence in the response to Ebola you will be able to find them. Also, no doubt, part of the problem is that the disease is “over there” involving impoverished Third World countries; the American public just didn’t care very much until the outbreak reached the size where cases have been reported in the US. In any case, note how Fisher goes beyond claiming incompetence or indifference on the part of public health officials. Instead, she claims actual malice on the part of public health officials, the government, and industry.

The same is true of the other three conspiracy theories I discussed. Although the details varied, if there was a key component of each, it was that each conspiracy theory assumed evil intent, which, of course, conspiracy theories generally do. In one case, the claim is that UN vaccination programs were in fact the cause of these Ebola outbreaks, all for the greater profit of big pharma. In another, the claim is that a new strain of Ebola virus was intentionally introduced into the population of west Africa, again for the nefarious profit of big pharma. How big pharma will profit varies in these stories. In the first, it would be through an Ebola outbreak so huge that mass vaccination programs would be instituted for every human being on earth. (Pharma obviously thinks big.) For the other, it is both vaccine manufacturers and the maker of ZMapp (whose early development was supported by the Department of Defense) who will supposedly profit.

In fact, conspiracy theories would be unlikely if “they” didn’t view “us” as inherently evil. Indeed, this “us” versus “them” viewpoint seems to be inherent in the world view of people who are prone to falling for pseudoscience in quackery. We see it all the time. Remember Bill Maher and his antivaccine stylings? Thankfully, he appears to have toned them down considerably after having been widely slapped down for his idiocy time and time again a few years ago, but, as much as I hate to admit it, I still watch Real Time with Bill Maher every now and then and every so often his demonization of big pharma as somehow being out to “poison us” still slips out. As I originally described, believers in cancer quack Stanislaw Burzynski believe we skeptics who try to counter his propaganda with science-based information are pure evil. To some extent, this is understandable, given that they have come to believe that Burzynski is the very last chance they have either to live (if they are Burzynski’s patient or potential patient) or for their loved one to live (if they have a family member with a deadly cancer seeking treatment for Burzynski).

Similarly, antivaccine parents, the ones who truly believe that vaccines made their children autistic, also really hate us. The reason is similar, but three-fold. First, they blame medicine and doctors for promoting vaccination, which, in their belief system, “stole their real child” away and left an autistic “shell.” Second, skeptics’ and physicians’ opposition to “autism biomed,” a bunch of rank quackery to which autistic children are subjected depressingly frequently, is viewed in much the same way as oncologists’ and skeptics’ opposition to Burzynski: Not only did “we” make their children autistic, but “we” are actively preventing them from “recovering” their children. Finally, an additional factor is guilt. Frequently, antivaccinationists blame themselves for their children’s autism. Why? Simple. They blame themselves for having acquiesced to the recommendations of modern medicine in the form of their pediatrician to vaccinate according to the CDC schedule. It’s a truly misguided form of guilt, given that they did nothing wrong in vaccinating their children, but I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen antivaccine parents voicing those sorts of sentiments. It’s a toxic brew of guilt, suspicion, regret, and hate that lead to the need for an enemy, a villain, someone to blame.

Sometimes this blame reaches the realm of truly ridiculously hyperbole, too, such as comparing the vaccination program to the Holocaust (a favorite and not infrequent analogy) and those of us who accept current scienc,e which shows the vaccines do not cause autism to “Holocaust deniers.” Yes, they seriously compare “us” to neo-Nazis and anti-Semites who deny the intentional mass murder of millions. Alternatively (or sometimes at the same time), “we” are the Nazis or Nazi collaborators in mass murder, as Mike Adams tried to label GMO scientists three months ago. The most common villain, not surprisingly, is the CDC, which oversees the vaccination program and, with the collaboration of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), publishes a recommended vaccine schedule that is followed by pretty much every pediatrician (other than those friendly to the antivaccine movement, like “Dr. Bob” Sears and “Dr. Jay” Gordon) follows. It is thus not surprising that the central conspiracy theory of the antivaccine movement (as I like to put it) is that the CDC “knew all along” that vaccines cause autism but has actively worked to bury any science that shows otherwise even to the point of “fraud.”

But what about Ebola? There have only been a tiny number of cases actually in the US thus far. The odds that any of the cranks promulgating Ebola conspiracy theories knows anyone who has had Ebola virus disease or even knows anyone who knows anyone who has had Ebola are slim to nonexistent. True, there’s the common denominator of the CDC, whose response has been questioned, which even led antivaccinationists to try to claim that the whole Ebola crisis is in reality a convenient distraction from what they believe to be the most important, their “CDC conspiracy theory,” which they believe to be the “smoking gun” evidence supporting their central conspiracy theory that the CDC has covered up the “true” cause of autism. It’s not. Then there’s the current President, about whom conspiracy theories about his true origin (i.e., the crazy “birther” conspiracy theories) that have led to a ridiculous obsession with President Obama’s birth certificate. Indeed, one of the Ebola conspiracy theorists I discussed, Jason Kissner, appears to be a died-in-the-wool birther. Meanwhile, idiots like Larry Klayman claim that President Obama actually wants Ebola to become established in the US because he wants to infect white people and make the US more like his “home” in Africa.

But why Ebola? After all, as has been pointed out, diseases like malaria and measles kill far orders of magnitude more people in the Third World every year and have been killing for as long as can be remembered. True, Ebola is new (relatively speaking, given that it’s only been known a few decades), but what makes it scary to Americans is that it’s an “outsider.” To birther conspiracy theorists, Obama is an “outsider”; so in their warped world it only makes sense to them that he would want to bring this exotic disease. More importantly, Ebola feeds into a narrative that both produces an enemy (the CDC, government, and pharmaceutical companies), who, supposedly, are actively promoting disease; heros and “truth tellers,” who oppose the “official” narrative; and a more general “outside” enemy, “dirty” people carrying disease against whom we must protect ourselves. As Stassa Edwards writes about a horrible image of a child Ebola victim lying in filth with a dead victim nearby and compares it to what we see regarding white Ebola victims:

Aranda’s photograph is in stark contrast to the images of white Ebola patients that have emerged from the United States and Spain. In these images the patient, and their doctors, are almost completely hidden; wrapped in hazmat suits and shrouded from public view, their identities are protected. The suffering is invisible, as is the sense of stench produced by bodily fluids: these photographs are meant to reassure Westerners that sanitation will protect us, that contagion is contained.

Pernicious undertones lurk in these parallel representations of Ebola, metaphors that encode histories of nationalism and narratives of disease. African illness is represented as a suffering child, debased in its own disease-ridden waste; like the continent, it is infantile, dirty and primitive. Yet when the same disease is graphed onto the bodies of Americans and Europeans, it morphs into a heroic narrative: one of bold doctors and priests struck down, of experimental serums, of hazmat suits and the mastery of modern technology over contaminating, foreign disease. These parallel representations work on a series of simple, historic dualisms: black and white, good and evil, clean and unclean.

Tweak this narrative just a bit, changing the good and evil a bit by adding the government and pharmaceutical companies to the “evil” column and the brave maverick doctors and believers in quackery to the “good column,” and it’s not too much of a stretch to see the same sort of thinking in play with respect to Ebola conspiracy theories. The CDC and pharma companies side with the “unclean” horde from Africa, believing that drugs and vaccines will halt the outbreak (and they will, given enough time and resources), while the “natural medicine” believers labor under the delusion that that such measures destroy the immune system and are the “real” cause of Ebola virus disease. In other words, to them the CDC and authorities trying to use science-based medicine, epidemiology (i.e., “we”), and public health measures are in actuality contributing to the “degeneration” and “filth,” while “they” are standing up for hygiene and “natural” solutions. Of course, you and I know how well those “natural” measures work, and, in fact, in their heart of hearts I bet “they” know too. Otherwise, they would have no fear of the disease because, presumably, like Bill Maher’s comments about healthy living and diet warding off the flu they would have faith that their immune systems are up to the challenge of handling Ebola. Clearly, they don’t have that much faith.

They do, however, find in “us” a convenient “other” or “enemy” to demonize as they promote quackery and conspiracy theories for Ebola.