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Essay: Conspiracy Theories

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Political Paranoia Is Everywhere, but Even False Notions Tell Us About the Anxieties of People Who Believe

By JESSE WALKER via The Wall Street Journal – WSJ.com

This November will mark the 50th anniversary of two events that are of special interest to conspiracy buffs. One is the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a killing that has spawned dozens of theories about the hidden forces that allegedly carried out the crime. The other is a lecture the historian Richard Hofstadter delivered at Oxford, which Harper’s later published under the title “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Half a century of scholarship has either built on or pushed back against Hofstadter’s conclusions, some of which don’t hold up very well. But it remains the most widely cited essay on American political paranoia.

Some conspiracies are real, of course, but even a conspiracy theory that is entirely false has truths to tell us about the anxieties and experiences of the people who believe it. More, it tells us something about the ways people perceive the world.

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Some people saw the face of satan in the World Trade Center smoke.

On 9/11, a Brooklyn, N.Y., photographer named Mark Phillips climbed to his roof and snapped photos of the burning World Trade Center, which were then distributed by the Associated Press. Later he learned that people were seeing an unexpected image in one of the photographs. When he examined the picture he saw it, too. “The image I saw was distinct,” he later wrote. “Eyes, nose, mouth, horns.” There, in the contours of the smoke, he found the face of Satan.

Search online and you’ll see still more 9/11 pictures in which people have perceived the shapes of demons. There is no shortage of theories about what the faces mean, from the Christian conspiracist who said they were a glimpse of the devil boasting to the Muslim writer who declared they were a warning from God “that the use of terrorism is never permitted in Islam.”

Then there is the explanation I prefer. The faces are the result of apophenia, the process of projecting patterns onto data. More specifically, they are pareidolia, in which those patterns are perceived as meaningful shapes or sounds. It is pareidolia that allows us to . . .

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The Price Of The Autism-Measles Panic, 15 Years Later

By Emily Willingham via Forbes

Guess which child was vaccinated.

Guess which child was vaccinated.

Several news outlets today are reviewing the measles outbreak in Wales, citing public health experts who lay the blame for the burst in cases squarely at the feet of Andrew Wakefield’s bogus MMR vaccine scare in 1998 and the subsequent media coverage. The Wall Street Journal has a particularly in-depth story [hits paywall if you click the link here, but clicking from Google News seems to give full access], “Fifteen Years After Autism Panic, a Plague of Measles Erupts,” that digs into the roles of both in the Wales outbreak, that left 1219 people infected with measles and one in ten hospitalized. Most were hospitalized with pneumonia or dehydration, and most fell into the age range of children who should have been vaccinated around the time of the Wakefield scare.

One of the most common refrains people repeat in arguing against vaccinating their children is that diseases like measles simply aren’t their problem. That virus, they say, is a “third world” or “developing world” problem, something to worry about in places where water isn’t clean and nutrition is poor. Of course, that kind of insouciance about being a fortunate first-worlder is in itself misplaced; children in developed nations have died from measles. But the Wall Street Journal story makes an important point–one that yes, has been made ad nauseam but bears repeating: In this global society, there are no “first” and “third” worlds. A well-fed child with measles can take that infection anywhere, including to more resource-poor parts of the world where children live unprotected by vaccines. As Jeanne Whalen and Betsy McKay write in their WSJ piece:

The outbreak matters to the rest of the world because measles can quickly cross oceans, setting back progress elsewhere in stopping it. By 2000, the U.S. had effectively eliminated new home-grown cases of measles, though small outbreaks persist as travelers bring the virus into the country. New York City health officials this spring traced a Brooklyn outbreak to someone they believe was infected in London.

Life before vaccination

Life before vaccination

From London to Brooklyn or Wales to … anywhere. Terrible that unwarranted anxiety–flogged into a froth of vaccine resistance by the news media and opportunists looking for a buck–leads some parents to leave their children unvaccinated. Even worse if the result is an outbreak in places where children might not be lucky enough to access hospitals to treat their measles-related pneumonia or where they join the 1 in 1000 who die from measles infection.

As the WSJ article points out and many others have frequently noted, measles is an extremely contagious respiratory illness spread by coughing and sneezing. Most people do recover from it, but it can cause deafness and pneumonia, and it can be fatal.

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