Swine flu conspiracy theories

Any article entitled "On swine-flu conspiracy theories" should have an automatic warning label, but the one noted below, in the Canadian newspaper The Globe and Mail is really terrific (h/t ML). Conspiracy theories are all over the internet and they even show up here in the comments from time to time, but I'm glad to say our readership is saner than some. Like scientific theories, conspiracy theories aren't hard to formulate (humans being an inventive and imaginative species), but like good science, conspiracies aren't so easy to implement. It's not that conspiracies don't exist, the philosopher of science Karl Popper observed in The Open Society and Its Enemies:

But the striking fact which, in spite of their occurrence, disproves the conspiracy theory is that few of these conspiracies are ultimately successful. Conspirators rarely consummate their conspiracy.

Why is this so? Why do achievements differ so widely from aspirations? Because this is usually the case in social life, conspiracy or no conspiracy. Social life is not only a trial of strength between opposing groups: it is action within a more or less resilient or brittle framework of institutions and traditions, and creates--apart from any conscious counter-action--many unforeseen reactions in this framework, some of them perhaps unforeseeable. (Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies via BoingBoing)

In other words, the more intricate the conspiracy the less likely to work. Tabatha Southey's piece in The Globe and Mail isn't as fancy as Popper's, but it is every bit as cogent:

I wish I could sustain enough faith in humanity to believe in the conspiracy theories that I've heard recently regarding the H1N1 vaccine.

If government and pharmaceutical companies are capable of working together, with medical professionals, all committed to doing pure evil, this would at least demonstrate that mankind is capable of completing mammoth, future-altering projects.

We're just choosing not to. (Tabatha Southey, The Globe and Mail)

I'd love to just reprint the whole thing, but that would surely violate fair use, so instead you should go read it yourself. But the point is clear. The same people that peddle this crap are the ones who also assure us that no government program would work because it's so incompetent. Maybe they should just hire one of the many conspiracy groups who seem to be able to pull off extremely subtle and complex schemes without any trouble -- and even without any of us knowing about it (except for all the people who seem to be in on the secret and are blabbing it all over the internet). Yes, read Southey's article for yourself. But still, I can't resist teasing you with a little more of this delicious piece:

It's as if humanity had come a full 360 degrees. We've moved from the credulousness that thrives on ignorance (excusable when we were actually ignorant), to a healthy skepticism, to just skepticism, to cynicism. And this led increasing numbers of people right back to credulousness again.


“I'm boosting my immune system,” people keep saying to me, beatifically.

The phrase is like a new “Hail, Mary, mother of God” - it's said as if the mere knowledge of the words, and the things the utterance of those words suggests about the speaker, provided special protection.

I know that there are some who believe that "get vaccinated against flu" is also magical thinking. I'm not going to say that magical thinking doesn't exist in modern medicine. It does. But with vaccination we can dispel the magic with some anti-magic: evidence.

If that's not good enough for you, you are welcome to try amulets or copper bracelets. Or just boost your immune system. I'm sure you can find immune system jumper cables somewhere on the internet. Order before midnight tonight and you might get a set of steak knives as a bonus.


More like this

If you want to read someone regularly from the Globe, Tabatha's your best choice.

By ckc (not kc) (not verified) on 15 Nov 2009 #permalink

Reliance on home remedies and not trusting medicine (as well as a lack of information on what was happening) seems to be why Ukraine was hit so intensely. I can't tell you how disappointed I am in people who seem normal, but insist that if you do A B or C you will not need a flu shot. I am still waiting for my chance to receive one.


Quote: Ukrainians rely heavily on home remedies, and that is what they did for the third and fourth weeks of October, resorting to garlic and lemons and waiting so long to check into hospitals that by the time they did, many were beyond treatment.

This brings to mind two points. First, a post on Spirit of 1848 today mentioned a NYT article by Gina Kolata (very recent but I've not the URL) discussing evidence that lifestyle choices (eating veggies, exercise, etc.) prevents cancer; the Spirit of 1848 post goes on to note that the article does not discuss environmental carcinogens.
Second . . .well, perhaps we'd be better off with a conspiracy, at least as far as delivery of "swine flu" vaccine is concerned. I know--one cannot grow antigens faster than they'll grow. And yes, monies for new vaccine facilities and for state/local public health should have been forthcoming/uncut over the past few years. Yes. Even so, we have a situation where--assuming some accuracy in news accounts of the past 3 or 4 days--Arizona has received 3/4 of the vaccine it has so far ordered, Oregon 1/4 or less, and if this divergence is occurring elsewhere, and if the mode of distribution was determined for efficiency *and fairness*, would it not make sense for HHS/CDC/somebody to reconsider how federal and state (and local) officialdom are interacting in this distribution? But this admin's "optimism" seems to preclude rethinking things. Another example: states switching, from their previous unsatisfactory Web listings of counties' vaccine sites and availabilities, to the feds' new Google-map "vaccine sites" thus suddenly provide even less information; now the public only finds where to go (places generally obvious to local persons) but nothing re availability--except perhaps a local p.h. phone number. In both examples, the impression given is of something less than competence. Conspiracy at most to circle the wagons, to put on a good front, to obscure failure or danger, to pretend to muddle through--but what is being seen, out here in the sticks anyhow, is, correctly or not, anything but competence.

gmm -- To be fair, from what I've read about the Ukrainian medical system, I'm not sure I'd trust in it either.

And some people who "don't trust" modern medicine (which can be incompetent, understaffed, or underequipped to the point of uselessness too) really "can't afford" modern medicine.

gmm: "Reliance on home remedies and not trusting medicine (as well as a lack of information on what was happening) seems to be why Ukraine was hit so intensely."

I'm in Ukraine right now. I'd _love_ to get a flu shot, but there's simply NO SWINE FLU VACCINE here. Not even for health care professionals (total incompetence is a SOP for the Ukrainian government).

Also, I bought some TamiFlu in August just for this case. And now it can't be bought for any price.

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 15 Nov 2009 #permalink

The online comments to her article were even more interesting. They basically proved her point, the irony apparently being lost on the posters.


seems to be why Ukraine was hit so intensely
the swine flu illnesses and deaths so far in Ukraine...were statistically no worse than those in other countries.

By Sid Offit (not verified) on 15 Nov 2009 #permalink

I love flu conspiracy theories. Fun to read--the more complicated and unlikely, the better.

I mean, we're living in a culture where NASA has to debunk the movie 2012, ya know?

By Lisa the GP (not verified) on 15 Nov 2009 #permalink

Thank you Sid- I put SEEMS in there as a qualifier. If nothing else, the reports sound like a lot of things contributed to the disorganization in Ukraine.

Alex- well, I am in CANADA and would love to do the same, but am unable to. I do not qualify for it under the government rules that were put in place after lineups hours long made it difficult for extremely vulnerable groups to receive the vaccine. (Like NHL hockey players-----serious but sarcastic). I may qualify this week, but there is no certainty.

And Caiia.....I know a bit about Ukraine, having spent a full year immersed in the language and culture. I have heard of the differences and difficulties in their medical "system" to use the term loosely, BUT...garlic and lemons? Seriously? There is something VERY different in their country if reliance on folk medicine is that entrenched still or if medical care is so unaffordable that there is no other option, and that is a whole different conversation.

And as for conspiracy theories- Bill Maher infuriated me with his article on Huff Po last night. He is asking questions (think BIG quotation marks) and sounds like Glenn Beck. Aargh.....

My daughters' primary care physician's personnel called to inform me of an H1N1 vaccine clinic to be held at his office. One of the callers said my teenage autistic daughters fall into the CDCs high risk category for swine flu. Which category is that? The younger than 21 group? Or the autistic group?
I eat raw garlic daily, several times a day, usually by itself with water. It has a tremendous effect on the upper respiratory system. If I sense a viral infection beginning only 3 or 4 cloves, one every 4 hours or so, will stop any such infection cold.

By mary podlesak (not verified) on 17 Nov 2009 #permalink

In order to make her point about alleged conspiracies, is it truly necessary for Ms. Southey to impugn belief in both the human immune system and the efficacy of intercessory prayer to Our Lady, the object of imitation and veneration among generations of Christians and Moslems worldwide? I realize she was ridiculing what she believes to be scientifically unsubstantiated doctrines. But really, how could human beings have survived - and thrived - for centuries - prior to the modern research, manufacture and distribuion of artificially compounded drugs without the aid of a natural internal healing mechanism, the foods natural to human digestion and growth and special plants that appear to give a particular boost to human healing? Pliny the elder, considered the foremost ancient Roman authority on science expressed utter confidence in the safety, efficacy and general use of garlic for all sorts of aliments. In Fides Et Ratio, Pope John Paul II condemns views like those of Ms Southey, an immanent materialist view of the world, in which she gives expression to a philosophy which no longer asks the meaning of life and as a result she is in grave danger of reducing reason to an acessory function with no real passion for a search for truth.

By mary podlesak (not verified) on 17 Nov 2009 #permalink

mary: I guess every superstition is crap except one's own superstitions. Personally, I thought the reference to Hail Mary was quite apposite. But I assume you are an atheist in that you don't believe in most gods and goddesses except the ones you were taught to believe in. Good for you you weren't born in Israel or Iran or India. Just think what you would believe if you had been.

Au contraire, I have had in the past, although I cannot admit so at the present, many friends, confidantes of many religions or none at all. I respect sincerely held convictions. I also try to make my personal faith in Jesus based on revelation, Tradition and reason.

By mary podlesak (not verified) on 17 Nov 2009 #permalink

mary: You don't understand my point. You don't believe in their gods, so you are an atheist from their point of view. It's not a matter of respect, like: "you're a Yankees fan and I'm a Redsox fan, but we can still be friends and I can see how someone in NY could be a Yankees fan." You are exhibiting tolerance, perhaps, but not respect and you think they are wrong. is that respectful? And again, from their point of view, you are an atheist because for them, too, there is only One True God.

How do you explain this? I know 8 people who have gotten the swine flu shot. All 8 people got the swine flu within a week of getting the shot, one bad enough to be hospitalized. This is reality. The people I know who DID NOT get the shot, have not gotten the swine flu. I connect the dots to the vaccine being the culprit in GETTING the flu. Facts don't lie

Jen: There is no swine flu virus in the swine flu shot so it's impossible to get it from the vaccine. I'll just accept your claim they all got a respiratory illness within a week of the vaccine, but you don't know it was flu and anyway, it takes 10 - 14 for your adaptive immune system to make antibodies. Sounds like you've made up your mind. "Facts" sometimes aren't really facts.

"How do you explain this? I know 8 people who have gotten the swine flu shot. All 8 people got the swine flu within a week of getting the shot, one bad enough to be hospitalized."

1. Swine flu has an incubation period of 2- 5 days.
2. Vaccines take several weeks to yield an antibody titer sufficient enough to produce immunity.
3. Swine flu (pandemic H1N1) is common in the most areas of the US now.
4. The H1N1 injected vaccine has no live virus.
5. The H1N1 nasal vaccine has live virus, but that virus is a cold-adapted 6/2 hybrid of an old flu, and does not contain the swine flu virus circulating right now, only two small antigenic pieces from it.

Your friends' illness, if they indeed had pandemic H1N1/swine flu, could not have been caused by either the injected vaccine or the nasal vaccine, which would have given them a different flu strain.

Given the prevalence of swine flu in the community, the fact that your friends would not yet have had protective immunity to pH1N1 from their vaccinations, and the known incubation period of swine flu, your friends' cases were most probably due to community-acquired pandemic H1N1 that they were exposed to anywhere from 5 days prior to their vaccinations to a day or two after them.

Conspiracies exist. Julius Caesar was done in by a conspiracy including friend Brutus. There were a number of conspiracies to do in Hitler, unfortunately none worked, and we tend to not think of plans to do in a hated person as a conspiracy (conspiracies are something BAD people do). So I believe that conspiracies happen all the time (like conspiring to hide the fact that you are working to make your cigarettes more addictive and to hide the fact that you are trying to get kids hooked). That said anything to do with the flu would be a pretty stupid conspiracy because you couldn't control the thing once it left your lab. Now something stable like small pox would be ideal if you were conspiring to wipe out lots of humans. You could reliably protect your own, while unleashing it on a public with little resistance. But flu, that would just be plain stupid.

Taking advantage of an event to make more money is something I would expect any self respecting capitalist company to do so one might think there is a conspiracy to hype the danger. But frankly the danger of some pandemic of major proportions hitting us becomes more likely as the human population on planet earth expands, and therefore is worth some false alarms.