To Divide and Conquer: Science, News, and Hate in the Age of Instant Media

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

It is hard to see the signal amid the noise in the best of times, but the everyday chatter is especially difficult to comprehend in times of war, disaster, and infectious outbreak. Imagine a game of broken telephone with billions of speed-of-light internet connections – chances are the message will look nothing like the original at the other end, touched up by systemic misfirings and our own bias. But can we separate truth from pixie dust, fact from fiction? Can any of us agree if the sky is or is not falling?

The first telephone message was voiced in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell after spilling acid on his leg and calling out with seemingly controlled alarm to his assistant in the next room – “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Many of us learned that quaint origin story in school. Lesser known is where the phone was invented, Brantford or Boston typically given as choices. In fact, Bell wasn’t the inventor at all, a feat accorded to Italian Antonio Meucci in New York about 20 years earlier. I wasn’t there so I can’t say for sure, but I have it on good authority (H.Res.269, 107th U.S. Congress).

As in any Hollywood biopic, the truth is lost in the style, a lifetime of iffy facts stuffed into 90 minutes of cinematic retelling. Freddie Mercury didn’t tell his band mates he had AIDS prior to going on stage at Live Aid as in the hit movie Bohemian Rhapsody. But the drama dripped for all to see. So what if Kevin Costner’s character in Field of Dreams kidnapped writer Terrence Mann as played by James Earl Jones, when in the book he rescued J. D. Salinger to “ease his pain.” If you can afford to make a $50-million film, you can tell a story the way you want, hang the truth or literary accuracy. Does it matter if George Washington did or did not cut down his father’s cherry tree and then did or did not lie about it afterwards? Does that make the flag waving any less valiant? We’re still going to take our hats off at the beginning of a ball game.

As for Meucci, Bell, and a host of other claimants, a functional phone would not have been realized without the scientists and engineers who came before them, including Italian Alessandro Volta (battery), Englishman Michael Faraday (induction), and the American Joseph Henry (electromagnetic relay) to name just three. Whatever the story behind the invention, a phone still works: spoken words make vibrations in the air, converted to mechanical crests and troughs on a metal-carbon interface (the essential “telephonic” part), transmitted as a varying electric current in a wire, and then remade as sound waves at the receiving end through an electromagnetically vibrated membrane. As Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

Harry S. Truman may or may not have said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit,” but the sentiment is still valid, though perhaps not for a few modern presidents and prime ministers who want us to believe they alone invented the wheel or were the first to win a war. We can’t all be quarterbacks in life, but we can all pretend to be important. Funnily, the S in Truman’s name (with or without the period/full stop) doesn’t stand for anything. Sometimes an S is just an S. Politics is the perception of truth.

Fast forward to today’s optical-fiber-filled world, the first internet message sent October 29, 1969, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, using a newly devised Arpanet computer-to-computer packet-switching protocol. The message wasn’t as immediate as Bell’s call for help, but the impact was just as significant as the number of internet nodes grew from the original two at UCLA and Stanford to 15 in 1971 and 37 a year later to over billions today, while the number of email messages is now on the order of trillions. I wasn’t there either, but the message sender, Charley Kline, is still alive and has told about the historic event.

We can quibble about details, but billions of us use email on a daily basis so some person or group of government-funded researchers invented it. As the story goes, Homer may not have written the Iliad or the Odyssey, but someone named Homer did. For the record, the first internet message was rather underwhelming – “LO” – the first two letters of an intended “LOGIN” but the Stanford SDS 940 computer crashed after Kline sent the third letter. Fortunately, Kline and Bill Duvall at the receiving end were simultaneously conversing by telephone to verify what was sent and received on their computers.

Adding to systemic flaws are differing perceptions of meaning, language nuances multiplying the imprecision of our messages. When Katy Perry or Justin Bieber tweet, millions learn how their latest song came from the heart. Or lament the obvious self-interest. The nature of knowledge and understanding gets muddled by the inherent subjectivity and our own bias. Is the earth flat, does the sun orbit the earth, was COVID-19 released from a virus lab as part of a Chinese government plot (no/no/no)? Alas, the ability to delegate to authority has become lost in our priest-less, anti-intellectual world. Cui bono? is always the first question to ask, Can the results be independently verified? the next.

To be sure, a healthy scepticism is essential and we must be ever wary of the source and motivation. But we all defer to others, our trusted proxies. Short of being there, how else does anyone know? And yet it is becoming harder to hear other than our own voices in our own echo chambers. The one-footed Dufflepuds in C. S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” were not very bright as they hopped about clamouring in unison, “True for you, Chief, true for you.” The yes-men and troll farms are everywhere amplifying the nonsense.

It is especially important in time of crisis to make sure what we know is real, critically examining the available data and analyses. Battles are won all the time by quick-thinking tacticians who correctly read the tea leaves or lost by those who mistook a wind. Would you bet your life on a galloping Paul Revere or the boy who cried wolf? Would you trust an unknown source with dubious connections?

A wise leader also rallies the troops behind a trusted banner, inspiring with a noble call to arms as in Churchill’s “We shall fight on the beaches … we shall never surrender.” Or Shakespeare’s Henry V’s St Crispin’s Day speech at Agincourt “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he to-day that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother.”

Spitballing, thinking aloud, and sarcasm don’t typically muster the same enthusiasm to a cause, although optimism is better than pessimism. Unless you are a rider in the Light Brigade as in Tennyson’s 1854 poem about the horror of the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, “Theirs not to make reply, / Theirs not to reason why, / Theirs but to do and die. / Into the valley of Death / Rode the six hundred.” Sadly, the frontlines are full of dead.

On March 11, the World Health Organization – composed of 194 member nations dedicated “to promote health, keep the world safe and serve the vulnerable” as stated in its mission – declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. Countries around the world shut up shop and instigated restrictive lockdowns, temporarily depriving citizens of basic freedoms to combat a pernicious invisible enemy. In Ireland, annual St Patrick’s Day parades were cancelled across the country and pubs closed. You know things are serious when the Irish cancel a party.

Not yet fully aware of the dangers, International Women’s Day parades were celebrated on March 8 on the streets of Madrid and cities elsewhere, while in the United States business continued as normal, one congressman stating “it’s a great time to just go out, go to a local restaurant.” In England, despite the WHO declaration, the annual Cheltenham horse races went ahead from March 10 to 13. A national emergency was declared in the US on March 13 while the UK shut down 10 days later.

True to its deadly billing, infections and deaths multiplied, exponentially at first before flattening in most countries, the recorded infections totalling 3.3 million and the deaths 230,000 by the end of April (1 million and 60,000 in the US). There was muted joy come May Day as many in Europe ventured out from their homes for the first time in more than 6 weeks.

How an epidemic became a pandemic will be forensically analysed for years to come, especially how so many people in the West became infected while so few were, relatively speaking, in China and other Asian countries. Preparedness, one-party state control, and the understanding of the basics of science and epidemiology will top the list.

The counterclaims will also continue at least until November in an anti-science disinformation campaign. No one should be surprised as the claims are repeated again and again in the coming months, a standard tactic right out of the Propaganda 101 playbook. Joseph Goebbels may not have pioneered “illusory truth” but he knew the importance of “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.”

A week after the WHO declaration, the U.S. president asserted in a White House briefing (March 19) that “No one knew there would be a pandemic or an epidemic of this proportion,” as bold-faced a lie as there is, and sowing the seeds of the coming administration hand-washing. Further inculpable planks were hastily assembled. In a Reuters interview (April 29), Trump claimed the virus was a Chinese election ploy, saying “China will do anything they can to have me lose this race.” The next day in a White House briefing (April 30), he claimed to have seen evidence that the virus was created in a lab at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. When pressed to share the evidence, he declined to elaborate, adding “I’m not allowed to tell you that.” One wonders how the origins of one of the largest health emergencies in modern history doesn’t warrant full disclosure.

The same idea had been mooted by various right-wing pundits. How those pundits knew better than the agency designed to oversee world health work or the United States own secret services, which announced that the virus was “not manmade or genetically modified,” was not revealed. The Dufflepuds are having a field day.

Countering claims that the Chinese government was to blame and that the US was thus not responsible for its ravaged economy, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Geng Shuang, stated, “Certain U.S. politicians have disregarded facts and vilified China in an attempt to shirk their responsibility and incompetence in fighting the pandemic” (April 30). The punches are starting to land as the action heats up. Beware the flying blood, spit, and sweat.

Some have even suggested COVID-19 was a bioweapon, a charge right out of a Hollywood movie. Alas, Bruce Willis can’t go backwards in time to save the day. Of course, Trump and Co (Trumpco) have no real interest in digging deeper in a systematic way to establish the facts, preferring to sow division with lies, innuendo, and half-baked magic. It’s Maxwell Smart against the old world order, fighting an evil Chinese network, the tentacles of Chaos stretching everywhere to oppose him. The sensationalist tweets and tabloid soundbites are meant to stir up a hornets’ nest of disinformation, ensuring frenzied rhetoric and anti-intellectual rants in the Disunited States, putting government on trial in a permanent state of rebellion. That one is straight from the Reagan script.

It is hard to keep up with any news story as information breaks, but even harder during a pandemic or amid so much sleight-of-hand. On April 30, Trump announced “Operation Warp Speed” to deliver 100 million coronavirus vaccines by November. Alas “warp speed” doesn’t match reality either, despite the catchy sci-fi PR. No matter how many Star TrekStar Wars, or star-fi movies Hollywood makes, nothing can travel at the speed of light other than “light” a.k.a. EM radiation (at 1 foot per nanosecond, sunlight takes about 8 minutes to reach earth).

The Dufflepundits forgot to inform the president that warp speed is a fiction for anything but light, which has zero rest mass. Nothing can exceed the speed of light either, other than on a quantum level and then only for a miniscule period of time by borrowing energy via the uncertainty principle. Sorry star-fi fans, a spaceship and any human beings would be ripped to shreds. Add in hunches about malaria drugs, injecting bleach, and swallowing UV light and one sees how deadly bad science and fake news is. It isn’t state-of-the-art, best-practice solutions Trumpco is selling, but Wild West potions, pixie dust, and dubious dreams.

We are all happy to follow directions, indeed often compelled to in times of uncertainty. We all hope the bosses know what they are doing. In Peter Weir’s anti-war film Gallipoli, we wanted Archie to win against all odds as he rose from the trenches and ran toward the onslaught of Ottoman machine-gun fire like a leopard with “springs for legs.” Instead, against all hopes, the young Australian runner was cut to shreds, the obvious outcome to anyone other than the sheltered generals, calling the shots away from the trenches. Movies have a way of showing real isn’t real and that the promised land is just beyond the next hill. Reality TV has a way of making us think style makes sense or that a salesman is on our side. Remember, soap operas began as a way to sell soap. The story is secondary.

To be sure, truth is often immaterial to a cause. The Turks hold a different view of Gallipoli than the Allies, what they call the Battle of Çanakkale, where almost twice as many Ottoman troops died than Anzac and Allied soldiers. There were many more Turkish than Australian Archies, who gave up their lives for their homeland. When both teams pray before a football game, was one God not listening? Not only beauty but truth is in the eye of the beholder.

Did man walk on the moon? My mother let me stay up late that warm July night in 1969 to watch on TV as the Apollo 11 astronauts took their first tepid steps. That doesn’t make it true, but Occam’s razor is a smart bet that simple explanations are better than elaborate conspiracies. I have read many accounts – Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff about the precursor Mercury program is a great start – and if you have the means you can even bounce a laser off the moon to measure the earth-moon distance in a high-tech demo, using one of the mirrors left behind by the astronauts. The goofy scientists in The Big Bang Theory showed how lunar laser ranging is done (season 3, episode 23). I’m also pretty sure the earth is not supported by a ring of elephants standing on a large tortoise. No one need waste time debating.

Aristotle believed that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects (Physics Book IV). What a dunce. But then Aristotle had many good and bad ideas. Thanks to Galileo and Newton, we understand now how gravity doesn’t play favourites, although many thought as Aristotle did until Newton’s 1687 Principia (I’ve held the original from the British Library in my hands). Some still think as Aristotle did that moving objects fall backwards when dropped from the hand, unbothered by a simple demonstration to the contrary.

Thanks in part to Marie Curie, we know that high-energy radiation is harmful (gamma rays, x-rays, UV). She and her daughter Irène, both Nobel Prize winners, died of leukaemia, having laboriously separated radioactive material from their ores. Madame Curie, who pioneered the use of radiation as a frontline imaging diagnostic, would not want anyone to swallow UV light. Short of reproducing every experiment ever done in the history of science (and assuming no deceiving demons), we have to farm out our brains to those who know.

It took until 1971 for Apollo 15 Commander David Scott to drop a 30-gram falcon feather and a 1.3-kilogram aluminum hammer on the moon to verify Galileo and Newton. University of Manchester particle physicist and science educator Brian Cox later reproduced the same experiment on earth in a fantastically elegant demonstration, evacuating a silo-sized NASA spacecraft test chamber to verify the same result (Cox used a feather and a bowling ball). Without wind resistance, a feather and hammer fall together and hit the ground at the same time. Nothing magical about the science. (We can use Einstein’s explanation of gravity as curved space rather than a force but the result is the same in this case.)

How do I know COVID-19 started in a wet market in Wuhan. I happily defer to qualified experts based on their experience and trusted affiliations. That is the working explanation based on the best evidence today. I would never believe a vague claim that “Some people probably think it was in a lab” no matter how often repeated. Nor does “doing the rounds on social media” equal truth. Same goes for 5G causing coronavirus (seriously Woody?) or bone-headed ideas about injecting bleach and UV light. Even the lightweight press in today’s Trump-a-thon shouldn’t stop scrutinizing that boatload of Bleachgate nonsense. Alas, the ongoing game of presidential whack-a-mole keeps popping out more lies to distract attention.

Nor do I think Bill Gates created COVID-19 so he could vaccinate us all to make an even larger fortune or introduce population control and world government because he is an atheist in league with the globalist kingpin George Soros. I have problems with how much money Gates has hoarded and how little taxes he and other billionaires pay, but he did not create a virus to make even more billions selling microchip vaccines. Of course, anyone can read about Gates’s nefarious plan on their favourite medieval online platform. Some of the comments are even grammatically correct. Any mention of wearing tin foil hats will be shouted down in an endless ad hominem tirade.

Today’s politics of misdirection is never about truth. It’s about Obama, the government taking away my guns, my right to do as I want how I want hang the consequences, tied up in a never-ending game of us-versus-them. Soviets/Russians versus the West, Islam versus the West, and presumably now China versus the West. Will we waste yet another generation on hating the other? The left and right refuse to see each other in their own reflection.

Why so much banter about what is obvious to all? To sow doubt and seed division. To avoid asking the harder questions, such as why universal health care is not a basic human right, why work is not available to all (a 4-day work week an obvious solution to unemployment), or why the supposed richest nation on earth was unprepared for a pandemic. The Play-Doh president will say that coronavirus or climate change is a hoax to incite confusion because he can’t acknowledge an authority besides himself or praise the cooperative efforts of others. America is always beautiful, exceptional, and right. But when one’s speech is peppered with “some people,” “many think,” and “they say,” doubt is the only truth on offer.

I’d rather learn whether hydroxychloroquine, remdesivir, and plasma injections from recovered patients can help treat coronavirus – no (causes arrhythmia among other problems), yes (in a controlled program for some severe cases), and possibly (more research needed on antibodies), according to the latest medical reports. Even seemingly crazier ideas can be helpful, such as a peanut-butter sniff test as a Canadian doctor suggested or that nicotine may reduce infections as in a French study. Absent a working vaccine, we’ll see going forward what works and how practical the ad-hoc measures are as the virus becomes better understood. Not everyone can wait for consensus explanations, but we can still use best science and common sense as guides.

We can certainly discuss if 1.5 metres (the Netherlands) or 2 m/6 feet (most everywhere else) is a sufficient social distance, how staggered running and cycling can limit lingering breath and spit (as in a Belgian-Dutch study), or how much viral load infects. But even to suggest that bleach is a possible solution rightly calls into question the validity of the source. We could have a very good discussion about the disinfecting efficacy of UV light, not that it should be shined in the body, but that it can kill germs, viruses, and other contagions on surfaces. Far-UVC light may also kill virus-laden airborne droplets in public places. We are learning the science as we go.

Measuring “excess deaths” may also better calibrate the extent of the virus rather than relying on infection fatality rates (essentially unknown without universal testing) or case fatality rates (IFR and CFR). But stating that a country is prepared to end its economically onerous lockdown because it has tested more than other much less-populous countries is as crazy as saying my fembots can beat your bionics.

It is sad when the obvious nonsense goes unchecked, such as hospitals are empty because parking lots are empty, 5G networks weaken immunity, or an El País reporter sent to Wuhan at the start of the outbreak is Sacha Baron Cohen pretending to be a crisis actor. Alex Jones had to pay court costs in a defamation case for such nonsense about Sandy Hook. Crisis actors? Seriously? You can’t press the undo button on that kind of psychosis.

Truth is not a flavour of ice cream, but it’s hard for a Rum Raisin lover to try Rocky Road. Calling a chair a chair would be a start. Hospitals have been overwhelmed in parts of Europe and in New York City where life-and-death choices were made on the fly as in a warzone triage. In the Netherlands, an attack on two 5G towers could have brought down the emergency network in an act of weaponized stupidity. The El País reporter is not an actor. I know, I have met him. I went to his first book launch. For those who don’t want to believe him or me, he is 20 years younger than Cohen.

The press do have a problem with accuracy. Everyone has an agenda, altruistic or not. Chalk it up to limited resources or deadlines, but the truth does win out. That’s one of the reasons we have peer-reviewed academic literature. That doesn’t mean Nature or Applied Physics Letters is entirely correct, but the chances of intended bias creeping in are minimized. Of course, we can all be wrong as was the idea of a flat earth, an orbiting sun, or Aristotle’s flawed gravity, the validity of which went unchallenged for almost 2 millennia, but not on purpose and not for want of trying. Science builds and destroys. Science is not to be trifled with. That’s why we have references. No bluffing allowed.

When almost all peer-reviewed scientific literature says the earth is warming, we should take serious note. Even a previously avowed climate-change sceptic, Berkeley physics professor Richard A. Muller, knows anthropomorphic global warming is for real. He did his own analysis, extending the temperature record back to 1753, using station data and proxies such as tree rings and coral growth, corroborating the IPCC data that tied the increase in average global temperature to an unmistakable increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. As Muller stated, “The exquisite agreement between the warming and CO2 suggests that most – maybe all – of the warming of the past 250 years was caused by humans.”

Interestingly, Muller noted that temperatures had only increased at two-thirds of the 36,866 recording stations in the study of data collected from around the world, but had actually decreased at the other third, underlining how local temperatures cannot be used to extrapolate to an average global temperature. Climate should not be confused with weather as many unscrupulous presidents and unwilling Dufflepuds are apt to do. Do you want to bet your life Muller works for George Soros (he doesn’t)? Or that climate change is not real (it is)?

In Too True to be Good, George Bernard Shaw noted that “Newspapers are unable seemingly to discriminate between a bicycle accident and the collapse of civilization.” The bottom line and ratings are what matters to the accountants. All those online clicks eventually add up to a pretty penny. Presidents can’t know everything, but they should at least know enough not to spout nonsense. Believe the less bad at your peril. A leopard can’t change its spots – the science is out on that.

We should debate whether expanded 5G data networks that will control more of our data are an intrusion into privacy, but not that 5G masts weaken the immune system to facilitate viral infection. Same for contact-tracing apps restricting basic rights and liberties. I can delete the Facebook posts I receive that try to sell me organic food to combat coronavirus, but should such nonsense spread unchecked on social media? If yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre for malicious purposes is illegal, should we ensure that one can’t sell nonsense on instant media? How best to contain an epidemic is essential in a global village, not turning another civilization into an enemy to misdirect. Did anyone call for reparations in the midst of the 1918 Kansas influenza outbreak?

It is far more important to discuss the effects of asymptomatic infection, indoor HVAC, and the use of masks to limit community transmission. Public-space temperature checks may be of questionable value, but there are still conflicting guidelines on whether or not to wear a mask. Should we reuse and clean our own homemade creations in the event of price gouging from the economic new normal? We should be working together to limit transmission to poorer countries, preparing a better response to a possible second wave and future pandemics instead of fighting over whether masks are a common good.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the United States chose not to participate in an EU-led May 4th international fundraiser that raised $8 billion for coronavirus vaccine research, treatments, and diagnostics, a bridge too far for the architects of the America First doctrine. America Alone is the new normal as citizens assert their individual rights and ignore the temporary measures of a coordinated phased de-escalation. Heaven forbid anyone is told what to do by a government smile. Sadly, no one gets overly worked up when Jeff Bezos makes enough in a month to cover the costs. Or that U.S. billionaire wealth jumped almost $400 billion in April at the same time that more than 30 million Americans lost their jobs. Beware the new narrative, same as the old. We’re fighting a fire with a peashooter.

Maybe we need a culture correction with the coming market correction, realigning sustainable practices with resources. In the past 2 months, the luckiest of us have seen how to live without and conserve essentials. “What less do I need?” is a mantra of praise.

Does venting so much anger make one feel less inadequate in the onslaught of 24-7 media, some of which is clearly false and backed by motivated sellers? Am I not good enough in comparison to the obviously overhyped luvvies of the world? Compelled to rank myself forever against others, seeing life only as a ladder? We are keen to knock down and to insult, when to build up and compliment is a sign of strength. Seeing the best in another, even a political adversary, is noble.

The real story is disinformation. They don’t want to value science; they want to debate nonsense to sow doubt about authenticity and obvious facts. Who are they? The Illuminati? The Gnomes of Zurich? The Lizard People? The Evil Globalists who want to take away your guns and stamp 666 on your forehead? More like the me-first libertarian overloads who want to keep their billions in their offshore accounts so you can’t get it. Simple is always best. Global cooperation is not the start of world government.

The earth is not flat. The sun does not orbit the earth. Neil and Buzz did walk on the moon as did 10 others. COVID-19 is not a Chinese government plot. Repeating obvious falsehoods doesn’t make you a rebel; it means you’re someone whose authority is meaningless. When evidence is tainted, other statements become inadmissible, fruit of a poisonous tree. Facts don’t need to pass a smell test. Modern discourse is not duelling gods. As Marie Curie aptly noted, “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.” We need more scientific rigour and less drivel.

We must prepare for the possibility of more waves, the effect of mutated strains, and other pandemics, possibly more contagious and more lethal than COVID-19. Our defences must be underpinned by reputable science and a collimated plan to make clear decisions. In some cases, the path forward will be based on incomplete knowledge, but never on nonsense. Charlatans do not deserve to be the protagonists of our future. Nor do conmen selling faded dreams.

The truth is out there. We don’t have to look hard, but we do have to look. Follow the science, beware the lies, and don’t fall for the hate.


John K. White, a former lecturer in physics and education at University College Dublin and the University of Oviedo. He is the editor of the energy news service E21NS and author of The Truth About Energy: Our Fossil-Fuel Addiction and the Transition to Renewables (Cambridge University Press, 2024) and Do The Math!: On Growth, Greed, and Strategic Thinking (Sage, 2013). He can be reached at: