A disheartening conversation
Let me walk you through a disheartening conversation I recently had on Twitter. My interlocutor was a writer with a large social media following and a fan of Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, an anti-vaccine doctor who did not treat COVID patients, but nevertheless felt that frontline doctors like myself were unethical for not encouraging its spread at the start of the pandemic. Our conversation began when this person said the following:
I have no idea why anyone would say this. Dr. Bhattacharya and I agree on a few points. We agree that COVID is dangerous for “vulnerable” people and that drastic measures to contain the virus harmed many people in important ways. However, beyond these utterly uncontroversial points, I’d be hard pressed to name one thing Dr. Bhattacharya has been “right about”. Though it would take an entire book to spell out just some of his errors, the two images below reveal both his poor pandemic prognostications and the tragic, real-world influence he had.
I’ve always wondered how anyone could claim that Dr. Bhattacharya was “pretty much right” about anything after this incident and dozens more like it. So I shared this image to Dr. Bhattacharya’s Twitter admirer. How would they resolve the cognitive dissonance these images might create? I soon had my answer.
The article I posted, was by Dr. Jennifer Caputo-Seidler a hospitalist on the COVID unit at Tampa General Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at the University of South Florida. Less than a month after Dr. Bhattacharya falsely claimed Florida had “protected the vulnerable”, she said:
As I write this, 13 of the hospital’s wards are now dedicated to caring for people with Covid-19.
It’s not just the number of patients that’s worse this time around. They are also sicker. I’ve gotten used to seeing a patient during morning rounds on minimal supplemental oxygen who ends up in the ICU before the day is over. I cared for one patient who, in 24 hours, went from being on a small amount of supplemental oxygen — 4 liters — to being on a ventilator. When even maximal ventilator support couldn’t provide him with the oxygen he needed, I called his wife and told her I didn’t think he would make it. She broke down on the phone and asked if we could arrange a call for their 9-year-old son to say goodbye to his dad.
I made eight similar phone calls that day.
However, according to my conversation partner, Dr. Caputo-Seidler also could not to be believed. Dr. Caputo-Seidler’s firsthand account was dismissed a mere “media-circulated anecdote”. My Twitter interlocutor said:
I was further told that death certificates couldn’t be trusted because doctors had “financial incentives” to put down COVID. (I’ve discussed the origin of this myth before.) They said:
In fact, I was informed we’ve been living in a Zero COVID world for nearly 3 years, one enforced by governments and media across the globe. My Twitter interlocutor wanted everyone to know they saw through the lies spread by doctors who worked in hospitals throughout the pandemic. They said:
There are no shortages of first hand accounts and videos of death and suffering throughout the pandemic from all over the world. All this happened not long ago. Yet, none of this moved my Twitter conversation partner. In fact, they were literally unpersuadable. What piece of information could I have possibly provided to change their mind? The official statistics couldn’t be believed. Governments and mass media couldn’t be believed. Doctors’ firsthand accounts couldn’t be believed. The only person who could be believed was someone who told her what she wanted to hear, namely Dr. Bhattacharya, a laptop class doctor who falsely pacified Floridians right before the Delta variant ripped through the state.
And we have to be clear about the problem here. The problem isn’t one of information. The problem is an issue of trust. What happened to make this person, and millions like them, so distrustful and impervious to evidence? How can we converse with people who summarily dismiss all unwanted information as lies and anecdotes, all the while absurdly insisting that we lived through 3 years of Zero COVID, a policy pushed by governments and “mass media” around the world? Why did people who ate organic food and did yoga in 2019, deny the pandemic and embrace QAnon a few years later?
I don’t have much to offer here, but I know who does – Derek Beres, Matthew Remski, and Julian Walker, the hosts of the podcast Conspirituality (I was a recent guest) and authors of the new book Conspirituality: How New Age Conspiracy Theories Became a Health Threat. Conspirituality discusses many of the same topics and disinformation agents as us here at SBM, however, they arrive from a completely different starting point. Beres, Remski, and Walker are not doctors, but instead were themselves immersed in wellness, yoga, and even cults for years. During the pandemic, they saw these spaces devolve into a cesspool of misinformation and right-wing oppression fantasies. Their reporting comes from the inside, and they describe their project thusly:
And that’s exactly what they do.
Incredibly, their book manages to thread a very narrow needle. First of all, it names familiar names – Dr. Kelly Brogan, Sayer Ji, Dr. Christiane Northrup, and RFK Jr for example – and pulls no punches. It is unambiguously clear that lying grifters spread deadly disinformation to boost their egos and bank accounts. Conspirituality doesn’t just correct these gurus’ disinformation, but it also exposes the language, tone, and carefully cultivated images charismatic influencers use to seduce their audience into believing absurdities. Once you’ve heard the term “resting guru face”, you’ll see it everywhere.
However, Conspirituality also explores misinformation in wellness spaces not just to condemn it, but also to genuinely understand what drives otherwise reasonable people to embrace medical myths, even at the cost of their lives. It explores the historical roots of misinformation and describes how people like Helena Blavatsky, Rudolph Steiner, and fraudulent yoga gurus from long ago haunt us today (not literally). They are consciously careful never to punch down and blame or mock those fooled by misinformation. Instead, they share their stories compassionately, and explain why my Twitter conversation partner was primed to disbelieve any piece of information that disconfirmed their pandemic narrative. The authors of Conspirituality understand that doctors in sterile white coats in cold exam rooms with florescent lights are often no match for “holistic healers” in robes who claim to treat the “root cause” of disease with “natural” products, not drugs and surgeries.
Of course, mainstream medicine is not entirely blameless. In a typical passage, they write:
Conspirituality doctors do have a plausible critique to make of modern biomedicine. They are correct to note that its science and mechanisms are inaccessible to the understanding of laypeople. Research on COVID and vaccines is published in a language that requires expertise to decode. For that decoded knowledge to enter the public sphere, cultural trust in the expertise is required. In the medical sphere, this trust can easily be lost to highly visible abuses, such as when Merck concealed the cardiac risk of Vioxx. But it can also be lost through run‑of‑the-mill mistakes and neglect. The lab loses a test. The family doctor misses a key diagnostic moment. It is into these cracks that the conspiritualist answer leaps, offering a false sense of empowerment by pointing to spiritual solutions that, in fact, no one can understand in a scientific and replicable—this is also to say, democratic way. These are solutions that no one has full access to, that cannot be tested or falsified.
This is exactly right.
It’s clear that we all have a lot of work to do in regaining trust, and disinformation superspreaders have both an easier job and a huge head start. They also have more motivation. Skeptics debunk misinformation in our free time because we feel it’s important, not because our livelihoods depend on it. In contrast, conspirituality doctors need to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt to keep a roof, often a very nice roof, over their head. As they say in Conspirituality, “watch what they say and watch what they sell.”
Conspirituality is a must-read for anyone who seeks to understand the daunting task we face in repairing the damage they’ve done.