The Coronapocalypse Part 17: Dropping the c-word (conspiracy)

This week a fun piece of news came to light that links the last post of my propaganda school series, which was about statistics, with my coronavirus series. For those who have read some or all of my coronavirus series, you’ll know that the core of my analysis is that the corona narrative is an example of what I call the plague story and that this is how the public discourse around the corona event has been framed. According to that analysis, the vaccine was the thing that would end the story because that is how the plague story gets told in the modern world. When I wrote that analysis, it still wasn’t clear that a vaccine was even possible and therefore it was unclear how the story would end. It has subsequently transpired that several vaccines were given emergency approval and the rollout had already begun.

Nevertheless, the story still seemed politically dangerous to me for the reason that the PCR test, which has driven the whole shebang, would almost certainly continue to return positives. This is because the virus is now endemic and also because nobody knows whether the vaccine would stop transmission. It’s also the case, as has been pointed out by critics from the start, that many of the PCR tests are very likely to be false positives (we still don’t know the exact false positive rate as there is still no gold standard test for corona and, unless I missed the news, the virus has still not been isolated). In short, if governments kept testing, they would keep getting positives and this would lead the public to believe that the vaccines had not ‘worked’. That would be a violation of the plague story. Politicians know they need to deliver the correct ending to the story and Big Pharma would also have to know they will have a public relations crisis on their hands if the vaccine is seen to be a failure. So, all parties have a vested interest in the seeing the plague story ended properly.

How would the powers-that-be solve this problem? I had assumed they would simply stop testing. The vaccine gives them the perfect excuse for that. But the article I linked to above reveals another way to achieve the same result. The WHO just issued new advice part of which involves dropping the number of cycles that the PCR test runs for. This news had a special resonance for me because my whole pathway into being a ‘covid denier’ started with the PCR test. Way back in February last year I started reading about it and instantly realised that there were 99 problems with it and one of the big ones was the cycle times. This was also a fact pointed out in some detail by the late David Crowe in his infectious myth website and subsequently by a number of dissenting experts among them Professor Bhakdi, Wolfgang Wodarg, Denis Rancourt and Dr Yeardon. Yet apparently the WHO has only just realised these problems almost exactly a year after they gave the green light to Christian Drosten’s PCR test and, more importantly, right after the vaccine roll out has begun and Biden has been inaugurated. An extraordinary coincidence isn’t it that they should change the guidelines in just the way that will cause the ‘case’ numbers to drop right when they need to. This will solve the problem of not having test numbers remain high after the vaccine is administered. It is a way to properly end the corona story and ensure that the vaccines appear to have ‘worked’.

This move is a paradigm example of something I covered in part 10 of my propaganda school series: the use and misuse of statistics. Governments do this kind of thing all the time. You make a subtle and seemingly innocuous change to the definition of a statistic and – voila – the numbers go the way you want them to go. But it also raises the concept of a phrase that’s been so overused in the last year in particular that I hesitate to even mention it – the conspiracy theory. Isn’t it just a little too convenient that the WHO should make a change that will drop the numbers just at this time? Isn’t it also convenient that Democrat governors in the US have suddenly realised their economies matter right after Trump has left office (for those who didn’t see the news, New York’s Cuomo is now telling the public they need to open up for the good of the economy). It’s all a little bit convenient isn’t it? Very tempting to think these people are in league. And, in a way, they are. But are they in a conspiracy? The answer is: sort of.

To eludicate the distinction, let’s first look at an example of an overt conspiracy. This is a funny story from the world of corporate IT where I make my living.

My job is to find bugs in software. It’s in the interests of most companies to have as few bugs in their software as possible and that’s why they hire people like me. I once read the story of an enterprising CEO who came up with an innovative new idea: he would offer a reward for each bug found by his software testing team. I think it was about $1 per bug. At first glance, this sounds like a good idea. You incentivise people to find more bugs and in that way you remove them from your software. What happened at this particular company, however, was that one of the testers came up with his own innovative new idea. He hooked up with a few of his programmer friends and they conspired to create and then to find bugs. The system was ingenious. The programmers would build the bugs into the software then tell the tester where to look. He would ‘find’ them and report them to collect the bug bounty which they would then split 50/50.

The CEO looked at the skyrocketing number of bugs being found in his company’s software and thought that his bug bounty program was a raging success. However, one of his subordinates smelled a rat and interrogated the numbers a little closer. They realised only one tester seemed to be finding all the bugs. Still further investigation revealed that the bugs were almost all coming from only three programmers. A review of the work email accounts for parties involved revealed extensive communication from programmers to tester about where to find the bugs this week. The racket was busted and the enterprising individuals were shown the door.

That’s an example of an overt conspiracy. The story is funny because the CEO accidentally created the shared interest that led to his employees conspiring against him. It’s also an example of a very common naivete that can be seen by corporate managers (and politicians and public bureaucrats) who try and govern their organisations by metrics alone. Metrics are easily manipulated to give whatever result management demands and lower level managers will find a way to tweak the numbers; little tricks like changing the number of cycle times on a PCR test.

Which brings us to the decision by the WHO. Now, there is almost certainly no explicit agreement between the WHO and the Biden administration or any of the Big Pharma companies or any of the public health bureaucracies in western nations. There is no explicit deal to make the ‘case’ numbers go down but there is a strong shared interest in that outcome. So, it is technically not a conspiracy when the WHO decides to fiddle with the test parameters to make them go down. Rather, it’s the kind you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours event that happens very often in the world of politics. Don’t ask, don’t tell. In this case, the media is also in on the action. Is there a single journalist in the world looking into the PCR settings used in different countries and how the authorities change them to achieve an outcome? Certainly not in the mainstream media, there isn’t. The media is also in the business of telling stories and knows how this story is supposed to end.

What all this amounts to is: the narrative. Most of modern politics runs on such narratives and it’s notable that the phrase ‘conspiracy theorist’ is now applied to anybody who questions the narrative. Once upon a time, to be a conspiracy theorist meant you had to have a story about how the government was covering up the fact that aliens had landed in a certain spot and the CIA and the FBI were in league with the army to keep the whole thing a secret. Now, you just have to ask basic questions about the narrative. It’s almost as if the powers-that-be are admitting that they are, in fact, in league and that narratives really are a kind of conspiracy.

Here in Victoria, we had a great example of the use of narratives in politics during the corona event. The State government had botched the hotel quarantine program which led to an outbreak that ended up locking the citizens of the state in their homes for four months. The narrative from the government was the nobody made the decision which led to the outbreak. All parties were sticking to that narrative and it wasn’t until the former adviser to a former Prime Minister (Peta Credlin) started asking hard questions that the narrative started to fall apart. Several people ended up resigning including a minister and a couple of senior bureaucrats. The fact that in this case it took somebody who is not a ‘real’ journalist but a party insider to do a proper questioning of the narrative is also quite instructive. It takes somebody who has an interest in the narrative breaking down to ask the hard questions that lead to that outcome. That’s the way journalism used to work. What it meant to be a ‘hard nosed’ journalist was that you were trying to break down the narratives that were a kind of conspiracy against the public interest.

So, narratives are in a grey area. They are not really conspiracies and they are not really not conspiracies. They hold together people and organisations who have common interests and give everybody plausible deniability if things go belly up.

The corona event is one such narrative. Not really a conspiracy but certainly a lot of shared interests. When politicians in western nations opted to lockdown their countries it became in their interests to uphold the narrative at all costs and that is what has been done. What the news from the WHO portends is that the powers-that-be do actually want the corona event to come to an end (for a while there it wasn’t clear that they did). I’d say we are now into the endgame for corona. The narrative has been guided to its proper conclusion and the ‘case’ numbers will be managed away by fiddling with the test definition and/or process. Once all the vaccines have been sold, of course.

All posts in this series:-

The Coronapocalypse Part 0: Why you shouldn’t listen to a word I say (maybe)

The Coronapocalypse Part 1: The Madness of Crowds in the Age of the Internet

The Coronapocalypse Part 2: An Epidemic of Testing

The Coronapocalypse Part 3: The Panic Principle

The Coronapocalypse Part 4: The Denial of Death

The Coronapocalypse Part 5: Cargo Cult Science

The Coronapocalypse Part 6: The Economics of Pandemic

The Coronapocalypse Part 7: There’s Nothing Novel under the Sun

The Coronapocalypse Part 8: Germ Theory and Its Discontents

The Coronapocalypse Part 9: Heroism in the Time of Corona

The Coronapocalypse Part 10: The Story of Pandemic

The Coronapocalypse Part 11: Beyond Heroic Materialism

The Coronapocalypse Part 12: The End of the Story (or is it?)

The Coronapocalypse Part 13: The Book

The Coronapocalypse Part 14: Automation Ideology

The Coronapocalypse Part 15: The True Believers

The Coronapocalypse Part 16: Dude, where’s my economy?

The Coronapocalypse Part 17: Dropping the c-word (conspiracy)

The Coronapocalypse Part 18: Effects and Side Effects

The Coronapocalypse Part 19: Government and Mass Hysteria

The Coronapocalypse Part 20: The Neverending Story

The Coronapocalypse Part 21: Kafkaesque Much?

The Coronapocalypse Part 22: The Trauma of Bullshit Jobs

The Coronapocalypse Part 23: Acts of Nature

The Coronapocalypse Part 24: The Dangers of Prediction

The Coronapocalypse Part 25: It’s just semantics, mate

The Coronapocalypse Part 26: The Devouring Mother

The Coronapocalypse Part 27: Munchausen by Proxy

The Coronapocalypse Part 28: The Archetypal Mask

The Coronapocalypse Part 29: A Philosophical Interlude

The Coronapocalypse Part 30: The Rebellious Children

The Coronapocalypse Part 31: How Dare You!

The Coronapocalypse Part 32: Book Announcement

The Coronapocalypse Part 33: Everything free except freedom

The Coronapocalypse Part 34: Into the Twilight Zone

The Coronapocalypse Part 35: The Land of the Unfree and the Home of the Safe

The Coronapocalypse Part 36: The Devouring Mother Book Now Available

The Coronapocalypse Part 37: Finale

A change of technology

Goodbye to a digital bird
Hello to a real bird

This week I deleted my Twitter account and introduced my new chickens to their just-finished chicken coop. These two events are seemingly unrelated. I didn’t intend for them to happen at the same time. In fact, before last week I didn’t even know I was going to delete my Twitter account. Nevertheless, they did happen almost simultaneously and I’ve had this idea in my mind the last few days that there’s something to this coincidence that might be relevant for the future. Twitter is a technology and so is a chicken coop. Could this change of technology be symbolic of the kind of future that is headed our way? Let’s speculate.

I’ll start with the technology I stopped using: Twitter. This year was the ten-year anniversary of my joining Twitter. I was prompted to sign up by colleagues at the job I was working in at the time. Twitter had been around for several years by that point. I had heard good things about it but hadn’t felt the need to join. But I was glad I did. I instantly came to like the platform. The challenge of trying to say something worthwhile in 140 characters appealed to me. But the main cool thing about Twitter was that it introduced you to random things you otherwise would never have been exposed to. It was possible to listen in on interesting conversations between experts in some field. It was quite common to get a hearty laugh out of Twitter and also to be exposed to something interesting or profound. Tweets featuring links to full length blog posts or new products were common. Famous people would drop interesting bits of information, often quite personal. In fact, most people seemed to treat Twitter with a disarming honesty that belied the completely public nature of the platform. You really got a sense of what people were thinking that seemed to be uncensored and unfiltered.

All came to an end spectacularly in the last few weeks with a mass censorship drive that included the President of the USA but the writing had been on the wall for some time. Trump had already broken Twitter. Around the time when he announced his run for the Presidency I had to unfollow a large of number of people whose tweets I had previously enjoyed because their entire Twitter feed had become an anti-Trump rant-fest. This only got worse when he became President. Of course, it was all part of the Trump show that he barged his way onto Twitter or the evening news or whatever and forced the people who despised him to bend to his will. As somebody with no real stake in US politics, I have to admit I found the Trump-on-Twitter show very entertaining. Watching the President of the US sack somebody, or threaten some other country with military action or trade tariffs or whatever live on social media was fun to watch. But it pretty much destroyed the platform. Trump did what he did best and sucked all the energy around himself. But that just meant all the energy came to be about politics and therefore became toxic energy.

Twitter was doing its best to destroy the platform too. The introduction of its new feed was just one example. Didn’t they know that the whole point of Twitter was to get news directly from individuals rather than through officially sanctioned channels? The cool thing about Twitter was to get unfiltered, non-propaganda type news. In fact, the real-time nature of Twitter meant that the news broke there well before those official channels. Often on Twitter you could get video or information directly from some dramatic event happening on the other side of the world at the time it was happening. An hour or two later, the official news channels would confirm what you had already seen with your own eyes. Twitter’s great power was to harness a global network of individuals and let them provide the content. But Twitter couldn’t help itself. It had to provide the ‘news’ and eventually it started shadow banning, censoring and then de-platforming the very people who provided the content. It’s not possible to govern a global social media network adequately via manual labor. I assume Twitter is doing a lot of the work with algorithms and machine learning. The result is opaque, subjective and unaccountable censorship. It’s a rather Kafkaesque way to run things. One day you wake up and your Twitter account is gone and nobody will tell you why or what you did wrong.

I’ll be surprised if Twitter still exists in ten years’ time. But, in any case, my Twitter journey has come to an end. What started as a technology that opened a lot of doors to new perspectives ended as a technology that explicitly closed down those perspectives.

So, it was goodbye to a global communication tool and hello to a backyard egg production tool. The chicken coop is the latest development in another journey I have been on that is now almost as long as my Twitter journey. I have documented it partly on this blog in the garden update sections and my posts on Living Design Process. I suppose you could call it my Green Wizard journey after the name of the book that inspired me to start it– John Michael Greer’s “The Green Wizard”. The Green Wizard ethic is about appropriate tech at the human scale so it’s appropriate that the chicken coop was a retrofit of the small shed on my property.

A blue Australorp about to step into the coop

From the photos above and below you can see some of the elements that went into the construction of the coop. The bench of the shed has become the upper story of the coop and that is where the chickens roost of a night time. The long plank of wood that forms that walkway to the upper story was repurposed from the shed itself. The step that leads to the outside run was also made from wood that was in the shed. The large plastic pots which are now hopefully going to become nesting boxes when the chickens get around to laying were things I had picked up at a junk store once upon a time. The gate at the entrance to the outdoor run was part of the birdcages that were on the property when I bought it. The chicken wire that can’t be seen in the photo but which is doing time as a fox deterrent on the back fence was also left from the previous owner. So, almost the entire chicken coop is re-purposed from stuff lying around. All that stuff is now part of a piece of technology that will provide me with eggs for the kitchen, chicken manure for the garden and the quirky company of some new feathered friends.

I remember reading once that in terms of energy to transport/energy in the food, eggs were one of the least efficient things you can buy at the supermarket. That is, the amount of energy to transport eggs was very high relative to the energy in the eggs themselves. So, having backyard chickens is a good thing in terms of saving resources. The eggs produced by happy chickens in the backyard are of superior quality to what you can buy at the supermarket and, let’s be honest, the lives of the chickens are just better. Even the free range chooks in the commercial facilities are not exactly living well. So, there’s everything to like about having chickens in the backyard.

A chicken coop is a localised, decentralised and low energy technology. The inputs are the chicken feed and the straw bedding. These require a drive to the pet shop about once every few months. There’s nothing particularly glamorous about maintaining a chicken coop. Pretty sure nobody’s putting photos on Instagram showing them cleaning chicken poop off the roosting bars. But I have a feeling chicken coops are going to be round long after the Instagrams and Twitters of the world have gone the way of the dodo.

If I was a betting man, I would bet that my chicken coop will still be there in ten years and Twitter won’t. If this blog is still going at the time, I’ll be sure to make a post and check my prediction.

Propaganda School Part 10: Lies, damned lies and statistics

I can’t not include statistics in this series and yet the subject is so large that I also don’t feel that I can do it justice within the space of a single post. Nevertheless, we have to talk about it because I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that in the last year we have seen the greatest explosion of statistical propaganda in history courtesy of the corona event. People’s lives in most western countries have been governed by those statistics to an incredible fashion as the increase or decrease in case numbers determined your likelihood of having a job next week or your ability to go out after a certain time of night or see a member of your family or visit a friend or any number of other things you would once have taken for granted but that could now only be granted to you if a particular number moved in the right direction.

One of the strangest things with the corona event was that everybody, including some notable public intellectuals who should have known better, simply took the statistics at face value. But the use of statistics as a propaganda tool has been in play for decades, perhaps centuries. How many people actually know, for example, how GDP or inflation or unemployment are calculated? These numbers are talked about all the time but I doubt more than 5% of society could give an adequate account of how they are measured. This is important because these measurements all have technical definitions and governments often change those technical definitions in order to make the numbers look better. For example, the number of hours needing to be worked in a week for somebody to be considered ‘employed’ has fallen over time. This change has the effect of reducing the unemployment rate, which is something that governments have a strong interest in. But this change in definition is not reflected in the number itself which just shows a simple percentage figure. If you compare the unemployment rate from now to the one from thirty years ago, it’s not really the same but we talk about it as if it is. Also hidden from the unemployment figure are the people who aren’t even looking for work. They are ‘unemployed’ in the everyday sense of the word but they are not included in the technical definition. Then there are the people who ‘underemployed’. They would like to work more but they can’t find that work. They are not happy with their employment status but the government considers them employed and therefore satisfied. It’s in all these hidden nuances where the propaganda value of statistics lies.

There’s a whole book to be written on the misuse of statistics in relation to the corona event but let’s just look at one issue: the definition of a case. In my book on the corona event, I noted the change in the definition of a case from the first SARS event to the corona event which is a move from a case being about symptoms that are diagnosed by a doctor to being about test results that are generated by a lab technician.

The word case has a general meaning that a layperson would understand. If I say “there were ten thousands cases of heart attack last year” that means ten thousand people had a heart attack. If I say “there were ten thousand cases of malaria” that means ten thousand people were sick with malaria. But, with the corona event, if I say “there were ten thousand cases of covid” that does not mean that ten thousand people were sick. It means ten thousand people returned a positive result to a PCR test. In this way, the case number is misleading. The public understanding of it does not reflect the way in which the number is generated. Given that the asymptomatic rate for tests is apparently around 50%, it’s misleading by a lot.

Consider also the change in the process required for somebody to become a case. With SARS, you became a case by going to hospital with what was presumably an acute illness. A doctor would then diagnose your symptoms and a public health bureaucrat would contact trace your movements to find a link with a prior case. With corona, you can have any severity of symptoms or even no symptoms. You can attend one of your friendly local testing centres where a person will put a stick up your nose and send it to a laboratory where a technician will run it through the process to determine a positive or negative result. That’s how you become a case. The procedure is completely different as is the definition. But we talk about cases of SARS, cases of influenza and cases of covid as if they were the comparable. That’s the danger of statistics.

As with all propaganda, the antidote is to know how things work in the real world. When it comes to statistics, that means you need to know the technical definition of the statistic (not the assumed folk meaning), the person or organisation who defines that meaning, the person or organisation who is responsible for collecting the data, the method of data collection and any mathematical transformations that are applied. That’s before you even get into the methods of data presentation (eg. graphs) or any actual methods of statistical analysis. Of course, that’s a lot of work and most people are never going to spend the time to do that work. Hence, the power of statistics as a propaganda tool.

Here is a paradigm example of statistical propaganda that came to my attention just yesterday.

Note the wording of the headline “The US economy lost 140,000 jobs in December. All of them were held by women.” This is an astonishing claim. Its meaning is clear: every single job that was lost in December was a job held by a woman. That would be an extraordinary fact and, if the tweets that were flying around about the article were any indication, that is how most of the people who read the article understood it.

Of course, it’s simply untrue.  As the article slyly mentions about halfway down “These are net numbers, which can mask some of the underlying churn in the labor market.” The 140,000 figure is an aggregate. What happened in reality was some jobs were lost and some more were added. Individual men and women lost jobs and individual men and women gained jobs but, when you take the aggregate, there were 140,000 fewer jobs overall and 156,000 fewer women were employed. The propaganda effect of the headline is to pretend that the 140,000 figure represents individual jobs losses and not aggregate ones. This is a small but very important difference between an aggregate figure and the individual cases that make it up. The aggregate figure is still notable and the article goes on to explain the quite logical reasons for it which is that the pandemic lockdowns have disproportionately hit industries dominated by women. (In relation to school closures, it’s also notable that some of the school closures were driven by education unions which refused to re-open the schools so presumably these job losses were mostly supported by the employees themselves).

It’s always wise to try and imagine what aggregate numbers mean at the level of the individual as that is the everyday effect of whatever is being measured and that is what most of us really care about. To return to the corona cases, if you have 10,000 cases, that sounds bad. But if 50% of those cases never had any symptoms then it’s less bad. If only 5% of the cases developed into serious illness and only 2% ended up in hospital that means 500 people were really sick and 200 of those had to go to hospital. Suddenly the whole thing takes on a very different perspective. You can then factor in the age and medical status of the people to get a more fine grained understanding of what is going on at the ground level.

The use of statistics ties in very closely with the use of expertise and science in propaganda. Statistics are almost always compiled by experts but one of the main things you are taught in science is to be incredibly precise in your language. This is why maths is the language of science because it allows for precision. An ‘error’ such as the one made by CNN in its headline would earn you a failing grade on a year 8 maths exam, but in propaganda it’s all par for the course. Just a way to nudge you in the direction of the preferred interpretation. In this way, most reporting on science in the media is biased from the outset and actually serves to tarnish the reputation of science and the experts. Rather than deal with that problem at its source, the media has simply decided to label anybody who questions the statistics or expert testimony as a conspiracy theorist.

As educated consumers of propaganda, we should always take every statistic, graph and chart shown in the media with the highest scepticism. If you haven’t got the time to find out exactly what the numbers mean, it’s best to assume they are simply being used to push a particular angle on the story.

All posts in this series: