Sunday, December 2, 2018

When Fake News Kill: The 6 Most Stubborn (and Dangerous) Legends in History

Gary Larson's interpretation highlights the absurdity of a legend which is, nevertheless, still widely believed today. It is the basic feature of a series of legends which are wrong, stubborn, and often kill people. 

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with the local people of a small Tuscan town in the countryside, when it came out that I am a member of the Club of Rome. At that point, one of them asked me, "Can you tell me how much the Club had to backtrack from their wrong predictions?" I was taken aback for a moment, but then I realized that even in a small town in Tuscany people are not immune from global propaganda. That I was asked that question is simply proof of the incredible resilience of some legends, that we may also call "fake news" or "memes".

It is an incredibly fascinating subject: why are people so easily fooled by legends which not only have no basis in facts but are also plainly absurd? Yet, it is commonplace, one of the features of our world. So, let me try to put down a list of memes -- fake news -- which turned out to be extremely resilient, with a lifetime of decades or even centuries, also dangerous legends which often kill people. The list below is not complete, but I chose examples that seemed to me especially fascinating and instructive.

1. Jews Eat Christian Children. This is one of the oldest and most stubborn legends in human history. Its origins go back to the Middle Ages when untold numbers of Jews were accused and often murdered in Europe on the basis of this accusation which, it should go without saying, had no factual basis. From what we can read, it seems that when a child was found dead, maybe drowned, the people of the local village could find no better explanation than imagine that the Jews had killed him or her in a ritual sacrifice. It may well be that the remote origins of the legend go back to when the Romans accused their Carthaginian enemies to sacrifice children to their Gods. That was probably mostly propaganda, but it may have had some elements of truth: most ancient (and even modern) societies occasionally had to recur to infanticide in difficult times and it may be that the Carthaginians had ritualized it. But, here, the legend has expanded to tell of people kidnapping children from other national/ethnic/religious groups in order to kill and eat them -- a much stronger and nastier accusation. The legend is still alive with the Jews as culprits and has been applied to other groups, it was an element of the persecution against witches in Europe and, in recent times, it has been applied to Communists, North Koreans, and more.

2. "Let Them Eat Cake." A sentence said to have been pronounced by Queen Marie Antoinette  (1755-1793) of France when they told her that the people of Paris had no bread to eat. There is no record of the Queen ever having said that and the story seems to go back to a novel by Russeau which appeared in 1765 when Marie Antoinette was 9 years old. It was attributed to her only in 1843 by Alphonse Karr in Les Gu√™pes. So, not only the Queen never said anything like that, but she never knew -- or even imagined, that such a sentence would be attributed to her. And not even the people who sentenced her to death had heard of that story, either! Today, the story is well entrenched in the popular imagination. Searching for "Let Them Eat Cake" on Google produces more than 6 million results, even though a good fraction of them seem to be doubtful about the truthfulness of the report. Still, this old legend is remarkable for its persistence.

3. Thomas Malthus' prophecies of doom. It is commonly heard that Thomas Malthus (1766-1843) predicted a catastrophic collapse of the human population for some specific date, variously reported. In some cases, it is said that Malthus also argued for depopulation in terms of exterminating or starving entire ethnical groups. In reality, nowhere in his writings Malthus proposed specific dates for a future collapse and not only that: he never predicted a collapse! All he said was that the human population couldn't expand over a certain limit and that it would stay there, kept in check by famines, wars, and epidemics. Besides, Malthus was a man of moral principles and he never ever dreamed of recommending the extermination of anyone. The origins of the legends about Malthus are difficult to pinpoint but may go back to the 1972 book by John Maddox "The Doomsday Syndrome."  If so, it is a remarkably resilient legend that persists after almost half a century. As for the legend that Malthus recommended the extermination of the poor, it may go back to a 1983 book by Joel Mokyr, "Why Ireland Starved," where the author reported a truncated a statement from a letter by Malthus to make it appear that he recommended the extermination of the Irish. Today, many people still believe in Malthus' "wrong predictions" and may get angry if you try to explain to them how things stand.

4. Mata Hari: The Spy. In 1917, Margaretha Gertruida Zelle (1876-1917), renowned dancer known with her stage name of "Mata Hari," was arrested with the accusation of having passed secret information to the Germans and of having caused the death of tens of thousands of French soldiers. She was declared guilty and shot by a firing squad on Oct 15th, 1917. Today, more than a century later, it seems clear that there was no proof whatsoever against her. She was, simply, framed and killed in a classic propaganda operation, what we call today a "psyop." Nevertheless, the stories told about started to be diffused immediately after her execution and they stuck in the popular imagination. The name of Mata Hari soon became synonymous for the concept of "female spy," and "femme fatale," an evil woman who uses her charm in order to betray her country in order to make money or simply for pure evil. A remarkably stubborn legend that starts being debunked only in recent times. 

5. The Wrong Predictions of the Club of Rome. In 1972, a group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology published a report commissioned by the Club of Rome titled "The Limits to Growth." The report examined several possible scenarios for the world's economic systems, concluding that if nothing was done to reduce the consumption rate of non-renewable or slowly renewable resources, the world's economy would have collapsed at some moment during the first half of the 21st century. The report was often criticized but what caused its downfall was an article published in 1986 by Ronald Bailey where the author re-proposed a criticism picked up in an older article: picking some dates from a single column of one of the many tables in the book, Bailey claimed the Club expected some important mineral resources to run out on those specific dates. Since, at Bailey's time, several of these dates were already in the past, he claimed that the Club of Rome had made "wrong predictions." But the dates that Bailey had considered had nothing to do with the scenarios of the study, which never predicted that humankind would run out of anything before the late 21st century. The story is told in detail in a post of mine on "Cassandra's Legacy: it was a classic case of propaganda, but the legend of the "wrong predictions of the Club of Rome" went viral and it is still alive and well today. It is remarkable how the origin of such a diffuse legend can be pinpointed exactly to a single article written by a single person: Mr. Bailey deserves some fame for what he could accomplish, too bad it was a lie. 

6. The Climate Change Hoax. This legend says that there is no such thing as "Anthropogenic Global Warming" (AGW). Rather, the whole story is a giant conspiracy created by scientists in order to gain money, power, and prestige, or perhaps to impose a global communist dictatorship. It goes without saying that there is zero evidence of this theory and that the motivations attributes to scientists are iffy, to say the least. The so-called "Climategate scandal," a corpus of publicly diffused private messages among climate scientists, revealed occasional cases that could be seen (maybe) as poor scientific practice, but never of collusion to sway the public. But this meme was hugely successful. It is relatively recent and its origin can be pinpointed with a certain accuracy: it was with the popular movie "The Global Warming Swindle," released in 2007. Google "ngrams" (covering up to 2008) shows that there was no mention of climate science as a scam or a hoax up to 2007. Google Trends shows how the idea that climate science is a scam or a swindle becomes a search term only after 2007. It picks up interest in the news with the "Climategate" story of 2009 and, today, the legend remains alive and well, we can see it as the thread linking the various forms of criticism against climate science (not based on data, the models overestimate warming, water vapor not considered, islands not sinking, etc.). The interesting element of this story is that it was not the work of a single person, as in the case of Ronald Bailey's memetic attack against the Club of Rome. Making a movie requires financial support and breaking into the server that kept the private messages of climatologists must have taken professional hacking work. Then, at least two movies designed to disparage climate activists were released in this period: "No Pressure" (2010) and "Combustible" (2011). Note also that the most popular anti-science climate site, "Watts Up with That" (WUWT) appeared on the Web in 2006, but it became popular only a few years later. All that suggest a concerted and financed effort to undermine climate science and science in general. Of course, this is an interpretation that cannot be proved, but it is clear that immense damage was done against climate science and science in general. The effects of this damage are still to be seen and scientists don't seem to realize that they find themselves in the same position as the French Nobles at the time of the French revolution. Heads may well start rolling in the near future, and not just in a metaphoric sense. Undermining science, one of the bases of our civilization, is destined to have profound consequences on everything.

This is an incomplete list: there is much more that could be said: Gipsies stealing children, chemtrails, abiotic oil, Russian hackers stealing the US elections, and the 9/11 attacks, a true legend factory. Not all these legends killed people, but several did, and some may kill huge numbers of people in the future -- such as the Climate Hoax one. In any case, the common element is always the search for a scapegoat, a culprit to blame for some problem that doesn't have easy solutions. It seems to be a well-ingrained mechanism working in human minds: once it kicks in, paranoia reigns and anyone, individuals, groups, entire societies, can become the target of a violent social revenge mechanism. The future will see plenty of problems, much bigger than those we are facing nowadays. How they will be interpreted and who will be taken as the target for revenge is all to be seen.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)