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Zika and conspiracy theories

February 19th, 2016

The Zika virus has generated  media publicity, and tragic stories about brain damaged babies but ALSO  a nasty little batch of conspiracy theories. These theories are zooming around the world on social media at a rate that any pandemic virus would be proud of, and causing problems of their own. ( Nice summary here from the New York Times )

Example 1:

Genetically modified mosquitoes are causing damaged babies in Brazil

Actually male mosquitoes were released that are genetically modified (read male mosquitoes that are damaged)  so when they mate with the wild females, all the nasty little mozzie babies die early so they don’t grow to spread dengue ( or Zika) . This “releasing damaged male mosquitoes” strategy has been shown to work fabulously well. The only thing harmed by the damaged male mosquitoes are the wild female mosquitoes who don’t get to successfully procreate. I have NO sympathy for these insects – they are the most dangerous animal on the planet. Female mosquitoes harm millions of people! and deserve all the karma they get in my book.  Oh and just a tiny point… male mosquitoes do not feed on blood so they can’t spread anything.

Example 2:

Pesticides used to control mosquitoes are causing the problems, so lets stop using pesticides (RESULT  the mosquitoes can spread more!)

This pesticide in question is not like agent orange – it is a chemical mimic of an insect hormone that signals insect larvae to stop growing.   Its probably all over your pet dog. Furthermore, in Brazil,  brain damage has occurred to infants in many communities where the larvicide is not used….but why let a few facts spoil a good story.

For those interested, here is a nice rundown of other rumours and facts about Zika.

The maths of conspiracy theories

A mathematician calculated the average amount of time it would take for a conspiracy theory to be leaked, based on other conspiracies which did get leaked. Its an interesting read. Basically the bigger the conspiracy, the more people involved, the more time passes, the greater likelihood someone will spill the beans.

Seriously… how much money would someone make giving concrete evidence to the media proving the moon landing was faked, or that thousand of doctors and scientists all over the world are conspiring to hide cures for cancer…

Why are these theories  spreading so wildly on social media ?

Scientists have looked at why we  love to believe conspiracy theories . In essence, we all yearn for the simple life:

Kids are so lucky – for them life seems so  simple. Good guys that wear white hats, and bad guys wear black hats. Its all easy to understand. Sadly as adults we have to face the fact that life is just unavoidably complicated, and messy, and not always as we would wish for (but we do get to do some very cool things like jump on planes and travel around the world; get offered more than  sausages & chips at restaurants; and drink wine – in moderation of course.)

As one of my heroes, Carl Sagan said

“The truth may be puzzling. It may take some work to grapple with. It may be counterintuitive. It may contradict deeply held prejudices. It may not be consonant with what we desperately want to be true. But our preferences do not determine what’s true.”


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