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Conspiracy theory or reasonable doubt?

Until recently, fighting whatever attacked us was straightforward. When London, Coventry or anywhere else was being bombed, we could see what was happening, and we could take action. People banded together, hugged each other, commiserated and cared for their neighbours. Back when the Vikings raped and pillaged, we could see the threat. Even the plague was easy to see. More recently the results of violence have been visible, if not at first hand, on television or online. Before that it was clear in the bodies of the injured, or their failure to return.

Now we have something attacking us that we cannot see. We are specifically forbidden to band together and hug each other, and we are prevented from doing what seems instinctive. Even worse, we are about to be faced with a remedy that we cannot see either. Most of us have only the most superficial knowledge about vaccines.

Today a leaflet came through my door alleging that Covid-19 vaccines are not licensed, and so manufacturers have no liability if something should go wrong. The UK Medicines and Healthcare regulator apparently said as recently as October that a high volume of adverse reactions was expected, and Robert F Kennedy, who admittedly is an American, has said that the type of vaccine being used “represents a crime against humanity”.

None of these things is necessarily true. They may be true but with a wrong emphasis, or they may not tell the whole story. The problem is that the figures the Government and its scientists give us is misleading at best – ever since they decided that having a positive Covid test and then dying meant that you died of Covid – even if you had no symptoms and were knocked down by a car a month later.

There are influential people, well qualified and with no apparent axe to grind, who are extremely concerned about the way Covid-19 is being tackled. They are easy to find on the internet; so I see no reason to go into what they say here. Most of us will dismiss what they say as “conspiracy theories”, which is fine and sensible – unless of course there is a conspiracy.

When I worked at a journalism training school, we used to advise our recruits that they should “never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity”. This is a good test to apply to conspiracy theories – or to the way that a government or scientists behave when faced with something that could be described as a pandemic – but again, what if there really is a conspiracy?

When some people said the Nazis were systematically killing Jews, was this regarded as a conspiracy theory and dismissed by all right-thinking Germans? A large number of fashionably left-leaning liberal Englishmen and women thought the idea that Stalin could be killing people in labour camps was absurd. A lot of us were suspicious when we were told that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

So when does a conspiracy theory become a reasonable doubt?

Being reasonable people, we like to think that that politicians and scientists are reasonable too. We like to think they are making the best possible decisions for the best possible motives. But what if they aren’t?

If people in some kind of authority insist on something for long enough, they find it hard to admit they might be wrong. This is what is known as a universal truth. Tolstoy said: “Most men (and women), including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”

Academics and experts know this very well. Fred Heffer wrote this week: “The easiest and least stressful path to success is to adopt the status quo viewpoint without question.” If there is a consensus on something, it is much easier to attack people who query it than let people think there might be something to talk about. But of course all science makes progress by challenging consensus.

It’s not easy, is it? We want to act in a way that helps others and helps ourselves. Getting vaccinated is clearly the “right thing to do” because it could save people’s lives. But people say that it’s not that serious: Covid-19 has a 99% recovery rate. This may not be true. It may be 97%. Or if you personally die from it, 0%. In your case.

After that, things become very clear.