Why the “smartest people” in the world “failed so miserably” during the pandemic

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Published: July 2023

What people were able to resist pandemic propaganda?

In April 2023, an Australian researcher focusing on corruption in the pharmaceutical industry reviewed pandemic propaganda and posed the following intriguing question:

“How did the world’s smartest people fail so miserably? () Suddenly, in 2020, some of the smartest people in the world — such as (…) and so many more that you can name — stopped being smart. This happened all across the ideological spectrum. () They all failed completely and catastrophically. It’s even worse than that actually — not only did they fail to use any of the skills that they developed over a lifetime, but they collapsed into fascism.”

The Australian academic didn’t answer his question – perhaps because parts of the answer might in fact question some of his assumptions. But his question is an important one and very much deserves an answer: why did so many of “the world’s smartest people” succumb to pandemic propaganda, and what people were able to resist this propaganda?

A few factors come to mind.

First, fear – both rational and irrational fear. It is one thing to calmly discuss a war that happened 50 years ago and 5,000 miles away, but another thing to discuss a virus that might infect and kill your own parents or even yourself. Noam Chomsky for instance (“starve the unvaccinated”) was already 91 years old at the time of the coronavirus outbreak.

Second, many of the “world’s smartest people” mentioned by the Australian academic appear to be progressives or even socialists. Many progressives and socialists are very good at questioning and countering “imperialist” war propaganda (or at least they were in the past), but they had a much harder time resisting pandemic propaganda. This is likely because pandemic propaganda leveraged notions such as solidarity, “protecting the weak and old”, collective action and state intervention, and even anti-racism (concerning the Chinese).

A major exception to this rule was the left-wing Sandinista government of Nicaragua, which early on realized the true impact of lockdowns on developing countries and the poor.

Third, pandemic propaganda heavily relied on science and technology, and most of the “world’s smartest people” absolutely love science and technology. This also explains why many (but not all) “tech bros” succumbed to pandemic propaganda and advocated all kinds of restrictions and interventions. The problem here was twofold: much of the supposed “science” was politicized, and much of the technology was nowhere near being able to suppress a flu-like pandemic. Combined, this led to a widespread and devastating illusion of control.

Fourth, pandemic propaganda was more intense, more comprehensive, and more urgent than typical war propaganda and, thus, could overwhelm even some seasoned skeptics.

Fifth, some of the “world’s smartest people” simply weren’t in a good position to dissect and reject pandemic propaganda, or they may just not be as smart as the Australian academic assumed. Nassim Taleb for instance has always had a strong focus on doomsday scenarios, panicked already during the mysterious 2014 West African Ebola outbreak, and teamed up with a leading US zero-covid activist. Chomsky’s famous propaganda model relies on passive “filters” and largely disregards the very active role played by intelligence services and PR experts.

Taken together, these factors may help explain why many of the world’s supposedly smartest people “failed completely and catastrophically” during the covid pandemic.

What people were able to resist and reject pandemic propaganda, though? Several groups of people have excelled in this regard.

First, some old-school public health experts were able to resist pandemic propaganda. The best-known example no doubt was Swedish state epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell. However, most old-school public health experts and medical professionals, even if skeptical, were overwhelmed by pandemic propaganda, chose to remain silent, or were in fact silenced.

Second, people who were already skeptical of Big Pharma or even of modern medicine as a whole largely rejected pandemic propaganda. This group encompassed both scientific people – such as authors questioning the long-standing but dubious cholesterol hypothesis of heart disease – and some non-scientific or even irrational people.

Third, many free speech activists and civil liberties advocates rejected and fought pandemic propaganda, mass censorship, and irrational coercive measures. In contrast to previous decades, this group today encompasses many conservatives and libertarians, who overall were in a better position to reject pandemic propaganda than many progressives and socialists.

Fourth, seasoned propaganda investigators, often with years or even decades of experience in dissecting war propaganda and psychological operations, mostly recognized and rejected pandemic propaganda. In fact, some background knowledge of war propaganda was probably required to fully grasp what was really going on during the covid pandemic.

Fifth, many independent media outlets and people skeptical of establishment media questioned and rejected pandemic propaganda. But there was a twist: governments initially downplayed the virus outbreak, which led some independent journalists, conversely, to sound the alarm (“Chinese bioweapon”). Similarly, governments initially favored a natural origin, which led some independent journalists to prematurely accuse Chinese virologists.

Indeed, simply rejecting pandemic propaganda did not yet ensure understanding what was actually going on or necessarily drawing the right conclusions, as was previously discussed by SPR. Some of the obstacles faced by skeptical enquirers included:

  • Lack of expertise: a viral pandemic is an abstract and complex issue; a lack of scientific expertise can lead to incorrect or even irrational assumptions and conclusions.
  • Activism and counter-activism: while crucial to effect political and social change, activism may come at the expense of understanding, accuracy, or even truthfulness.
  • Financial incentives: while important to sustain operations and independence, financial incentives may lead to one-sided, exaggerated, or even untruthful reporting.
  • “Conspiracism”: while a central concept in propaganda analysis, both “conspiracy denial” (out of naïveté or fear) and irrational “conspiracism” can distort analysis.
  • “Gatekeeping”: some seemingly independent authors and outlets may in fact not be so independent and may follow an agenda by injecting misleading information.

Despite these obstacles and pitfalls, numerous independent and courageous authors and investigators all over the world have greatly contributed to a rational analysis of the pandemic and the pandemic response – much more so, in fact, than many of “the world’s smartest people”.

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Why the “smartest people” in the world “failed so miserably” during the pandemic
An analysis by Swiss Policy Research.
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