Regular readers know that the last couple of weeks have lacking in the usual quantity of Insolence, both Respectful and Not-So-Respectful, on the ol’ blog. The reasons were twofold: A grant deadline on August 4, followed immediately by a vacation, during which Orac sought to recharge his much-depleted Tarial cells. When he returned, he immediately moved to update and revise a recent post from before his hiatus, but what then? Thankfully, there is never a shortage of material, to the point where I had difficult picking what
target topic to start with. When I saw a post by COVID-19 antivax quack and crank Dr. Peter McCullough, I knew that I had to start out general, rather than specific. His post? The very title alone was enough to sell me: “Conspiracy Theorist” Recoined “Rational Theorist” in Battle Against the Bio-Pharmaceutical Complex. Even more hilariously, the tagline for his Substack post was:
In fairness, it wasn’t Dr. McCullough who coined the term “rational theorist”; it was someone of whom I had never heard before named Monica Smit, Managing Director of Reignite Democracy Australia. However, Dr. McCullough surely approves most heartily of this new term, featuring this meme defining it:
McCullough starts out with the familiar lament that all conspiracy theorists eventually resort to when their conspiracy theories are called out:
Over the course of the pandemic we have heard the term “conspiracy theorist” used quickly to discredit anyone who is raising a point or challenging the biopharmaceutical complex, the powerful syndicate we define in our book Courage to Face COVID-19. Many have quipped: “its not a conspiracy theory, its a conspiracy” or “just wait 6 months and the conspiracy theory will come true.” None of these retorts have made much progress.
Monica Smit, Managing Director of Reignite Democracy Australia, helped bring this video forward as a way of messaging “conspiracy theory” into a more constructive term “rational theorist” based on the logical and debatable nature of statements made.
There’s a reason why the retorts McCullough cites don’t resonate (actually, at least two reasons): First, as much as conspiracy theorists like him deny it, there are actually major differences between between conspiracy theories and an actual conspiracy, as I will briefly discuss in a moment. Second, because ravings by people like McCullough are indeed conspiracy theories and not actual conspiracies, nothing changes in six months to validate them. They remain conspiracy theories, and all people like McCullough can do is to make them more complex in order to account how evidence doesn’t support them and try to rename themselves as “rational theorists” rather than what they really are.
Apparently, what is really annoying McCullough is that his Wikipedia page is locked, meaning that he and his allies can’t edit it to portray himself as something other than what he is: An antivax quack and conspiracy theorist. If you look at McCullough’s Wikipedia page, you will soon see that he is not described as a conspiracy theorist, but the page does appropriately describe how he has spread COVID-19 conspiracy theories, in particular about ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, on venues such as Joe Rogan’s podcast and social media, as well as how he shares many of the conspiracy theories promoted by the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS), a group that I like to refer to as a fake medical society that has long served, in essence, as a medical John Birch Society.
Basically, AAPS has never been particularly “rational.” Indeed, it has long been antivax to the core, and examples abound of its promotion of conspiracy theories. For example, AAPS has promoted medical quackery in addition to its antivaccine pseudoscience, including a view that is extreme even among antivaccine activists, namely that the “shaken baby syndrome” is a “misdiagnosis” for vaccine injury; its HIV/AIDS denialism; its blaming immigrants for crime and disease; its promotion of the pseudoscience claiming that abortion causes breast cancer using some of the most execrable “science” ever; its rejection of evidence-based guidelines as an unacceptable affront on the godlike autonomy of physicians; or the way the AAPS rejects even the concept of a scientific consensus about anything. Shortly before the pandemic, AAPS even published an article by Andrew Wakefieldabout how the MMR vaccine could lead to a mass extinction of humanity that later served as the template for Geert Vanden Bossche’s conspiracy theory that COVID-19 vaccines would lead to COVID-19 variants that could endanger humanity. Let’s just put it this way. The AAPS has featured publications by antivaccine mercury militia “scientists” Mark and David Geier. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take AAPS long to pivot to conspiracy theories involving COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines. Nor am I surprised to learn the McCullough is a member.
As for Wikipedia, editors generally only lock pages to editing by anyone when there have been multiple attempts—shall we say?—to “burnish” the Wikipedia page of a prominent person who doesn’t like the negative description, even though Wikipedia goes out of its way in its rules to emphasize neutral language. (That’s very likely why the entry on McCullough only says that he repeats conspiracy theories, not that he’s a conspiracy theorist, and why, from my perspective, Wikipedia is, if anything, too kind in its description of McCullough.)
Of course, McCullough is far from the first crank to complain about his Wikipedia entry or to try to game it. Two years ago, Dr. Robert “inventor of mRNA vaccines” Malone complained that his supposed contributions to the development of mRNA vaccines were being “erased from Wikipedia,” even though his wife was busted making edits to his page and the page edits showed that editors had been trying to avoid “puffery” not just of him but of Katalin Karikó, the biochemist at BioNTech who made critical observations that led to the mRNA vaccine now being distributed by Pfizer with BioNTech and holds patents for the application of non-immunogenic, nucleoside-modified RNA. It’s not just COVID-19 cranks either. Before the pandemic, Gary Null and Deepak Chopra were furiously complaining about Chopra’s Wikipedia entry, misrepresenting it as an attempt to “censor” or “discredit” Chopra. (Chopra and Null do fine jobs discrediting themselves.) Years before that, antivaxxers complained about Andrew Wakefield’s Wikipedia entry. Congratulations, Dr. McCullough! You’re now in the company of crank giants like Wakefield and Chopra!
Wikipedia aside, let’s see what Ms. Smit has to say and why McCullough is so keen on her term.
“Rational theorist” is not so rational
Fans of the term “rational theorist” point to a video by Monica Smit. So I thought I’d look at it. It’s mercifully short (2:16), which meant that I didn’t have to deal with what I generally hate to deal with, long crank videos that firehose to their heart’s content. As regular readers know, I sometimes complain about such videos and how I rarely address them because they are such an inefficient use of my time. In this case, I figured I could spare two minutes to watch Smit’s video:
I love how the video starts with an elderly man watching a conspiracy video on his smartphone about “bankers.” (Uh-oh.) Does Smit not know that “bankers” is often synonymous with “Jews” in conspiracy circles? Personally, if I were going to make the case for “rational theorist” instead of “conspiracy theorist,” I would have chosen a less obviously antisemitic example to lead with. It amuses me how conspiracy theorists can’t help but undermine their own misdirection by reminding those in the know that what they are promoting are, in fact, conspiracy theories. The man’s wife issues an appeal to authority about the person on the video, pointing out that she’s an investment banker and asking, “What if she’s right?” Her husband dismisses this and says she’s a conspiracy theorist, which is meant to show him as close-minded.
Smit then pivots to a scene of a couple sitting next to each other watching a video of McCullough on a smartphone in which he says:
With COVID-19 vaccines, there isn’t a single paper in The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, or Lancet whose conclusion is: The risks of the vaccines outweigh the benefits.
At first, I wondered if McCullough had somehow reversed the intended order and had wanted to say that there isn’t a single paper in The New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA, or Lancet whose conclusion is that the benefits of the vaccines outweigh the risks, but I went back and listened again. The order is intentional. Now, you or I (or scientists and physicians) might suggest that the reason that there are no papers in these journals suggesting that the risks of COVID-19 vaccines outweigh the benefits is obviously because they don’t. The benefits of the vaccines far outweigh the risks, and the scientific evidence is clear about that, making the claim that there are “no papers” showing otherwise in the highest impact journals (like NEJM) seem to be a “conspiracy theory.” To counter that idea, the the video immediately shows the couple moving on from the video of McCullough that they’d just watched to look at his Wikipedia page, zeroing in on the words “conspiracy theories” in the article. Put the two together, and the implication is that “They” are hiding the evidence that the risks of vaccines outweigh the benefits. The view of “conspiracy theories” on McCullough’s Wikipedia page leads the woman to dismiss what the man is saying, prompting him to ask:
But isn’t he a pretty famous doctor? Why would he tarnish his career just to make those things up?
Good question! I ask this question time and time again about conspiracy theorists. Yet they do. Lots of doctors who were seemingly formerly respectable have devolved into conspiracy theorists and become misinformation spreaders. There were a lot of “closeted” antivax physicians who “outed” themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic and a lot of contrarian doctors who went down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and became participants in the war against the science-based regulation of medicine. Let’s just say that a physician’s former reputation is no guarantee that that doctor won’t become a conspiracy theorist. Heck, John Ioannidis is probably the most published living academic physician, and he’s gone down the rabbit hole of spreading misinformation and COVID-19 minimization, to the point of using the power his reputation had granted him to publish some risibly bad “science” striking back against critics. I can’t emphasize this enough: A physician or scientist’s reputation and performance are no magic talismans against their falling for pseudoscience and conspiracy theories.
Like McCullough, Smit is not happy about being called a “conspiracy theorist” either. About halfway through the video she shows up in the video against a black background with other people in shadows behind her and laments how “like millions of others, I recently have been called a ‘conspiracy theorist’ for the first time in my life, and it just does not sit right with me.” (Somehow, I doubt that that this was the first time she’s ever been called a “conspiracy theorist.”)
She then asks:
We’ve been forced to embrace this term, but what if it’s being intentionally used to discredit people? And then it dawned on me: We’ve never been conspiracy theorists, because our theories are logical, evidence-based, and even debatable—if people would debate us.
I laughed out loud. Conspiracy theories are often logical—or at least seemingly so—and often based on “evidence.” It’s just that conspiracy theorists often support their conspiracy theories using logic based on a cherry-picked evidence base that supports the posited conspiracy and ignores context and disconfirming evidence, while claiming that the person promoting the conspiracy theory is being “silenced,” “censored,” or “persecuted.” (Come to think of it, it’s rather like how Ms. Smit portrays the term “conspiracy theorist” as being intentionally used to “discredit” her and others like her.) That evidence base is immune to disconfirming evidence, too.
Smit then goes on to protest:
We are not conspiracy theorists at all. We are actually rational theorists. Until now, maybe you’ve been afraid to ask questions because you’ve seen people being publicly vilified and bullied for doing so. But things have changed. Now is the perfect time to ask questions because you are a rational theorist, and your theories are exactly that, rational.Fade to Smit’s website, Rational Theorist. Of course.
Not really having much knowledge of who Monica Smit is, out of curiosity, I perused her Instagram page linked on her website, and soon found:
Amused by this initial find, I then did a bit of Googling and found that Smit is the founder of an anti-lockdown group called Reignite Democracy Australia and is a believer in sovereign citizen conspiracy theories. (I hadn’t realized that sovereign citizen nonsense was a thing outside of the US. Learn something new every day.)
Let’s contrast how Smit and McCullough portray their “rational theories” to conspiracy theories.
Whenever discussing conspiracy theories, I like to refer to a very useful primer on the concept intended for lay audiences, specifically an e-book on recognizing conspiracy theories and countering conspiratorial thinking published by Stephan Lewandowsky and John Cook, The Conspiracy Theory Handbook. They identify seven characteristics of conspiratorial thinking, after first pointing out the key differences between conventional and conspiratorial thinking:
Lewandowsky and Cook point out the difference between conspiracy theories and actual conspiracies thusly:
Actual conspiracies do exist but they are rarely discovered through the methods of conspiracy theorists. Rather, real conspiracies get discovered through conventional thinking—healthy skepticism of official accounts while carefully considering available evidence and being committed to internal consistency. In contrast, conspiratorial thinking is characterized by being hyperskeptical of all information that does not fit the theory, over-interpreting evidence that supports a preferred theory, and inconsistency.
This is the key difference, and these are the characteristics of conspiratorial thinking, under the mnemonic CONSPIR. See how many of these characteristics you can find in just Smit’s video.:
- Contradictory: Conspiracy theorists can simultaneously believe in ideas that are mutually contradictory. For example, believing the theory that Princess Diana was murdered but also believing that she faked her own death. This is because the theorists’ commitment to disbelieving the “official” account is so absolute, it doesn’t matter if their belief system is incoherent.
- Overriding suspicion: Conspiratorial thinking involves a nihilistic degree of skepticism towards the official account. This extreme degree of suspicion prevents belief in anything that doesn’t fit into the conspiracy theory.
- Nefarious intent: The motivations behind any presumed conspiracy are invariably assumed to be nefarious. Conspiracy theories never propose that the presumed conspirators have benign motivations.
- Something must be wrong: Although conspiracy theorists may occasionally abandon specific ideas when they become untenable, those revisions don’t change their overall conclusion that “something must be wrong” and the official account is based on deception.
- Persecuted victim: Conspiracy theorists perceive and present themselves as the victim of organized persecution. At the same time, they see themselves as brave antagonists taking on the villainous conspirators. Conspiratorial thinking involves a self-perception of simultaneously being a victim and a hero.
- Immune to evidence: Conspiracy theories are inherently self-sealing—evidence that counters a theory is re-interpreted as originating from the conspiracy. This reflects the belief that the stronger the evidence against a conspiracy (e.g., the FBI exonerating a politician from allegations of misusing a personal email server), the more the conspirators must want people to believe their version of events (e.g., the FBI was part of the conspiracy to protect that politician).
- Re-interpreting randomness: The overriding suspicion found in conspiratorial thinking frequently results in the belief that nothing occurs by accident. Small random events, such as intact windows in the Pentagon after the 9/11 attacks, are re-interpreted as being caused by the conspiracy (because if an airliner had hit the Pentagon, then all windows would have shattered) and are woven into a broader, interconnected pattern.
There’s even a quick summary that I like to point to and use in PowerPoints:
Let’s just say that Smit’s video has at least O, N, P, and I in just her narrative alone, all with the lead being using an antisemitic conspiracy theory about “bankers” as something that she doesn’t view as a conspiracy theory to start the video out. That’s quite a self-own.
I also note that conspiracy theorists always view themselves as “critical thinkers,” people more rational than everyone else who as a result of their critical thinking and rationality possess knowledge and insight hiddent from the rest of us. Remember, for instance, the group of antivax conspiracy theorist moms who branded themselves The Thinking Moms’ Revolution, whose members adopted ‘nyms like “The Professor” and go out of their way to portray themselves as “critical thinkers.” That’s one of the reasons why conspiracy theories are so attractive, even to intelligent people. (Maybe especially to intelligent people.) Like Smit, they also view criticism not as criticism of their conspiracy mongering but rather as “persecution,” evidence for the conspiracy in which “They” don’t want anyone else to know about it and therefore seek to “discredit” those promoting the conspiracy theory. One way that “They” supposedly seek to discredit people like Smit and McCullough this is by labeling them “conspiracy theorists,” hence Smit’s hilarious attempt to reframe herself as a “rational theorist,” which reminds me of The Professor proclaiming what a “critical thinker” she is.
Will Smit’s attempt to rebrand conspiracy theorists as “rational theorists” work? I doubt it. Why? First, the term “rational theorist” is clunky and unlikely to catch on, no matter how much cranks try to use it or make social media hashtags out of it. Second, conspiracy theorists have long been trying to rebrand themselves as rationalists, in particular as “critical thinkers.” It hasn’t worked before, and there’s no reason to think that changing the preferred term to “rational theorist” will work now.
It will, however, amuse me to watch people like Smit and McCullough—and now Paul Alexander—try to get the term to catch on.