(I usually try to avoid the words must and should, but we are now close to the breaking point. Action must be taken to save the world as we know it, but it must be done with compassion)

Lead Gently

If we have been given the privilege to lead,
we must lead gently.
If we have been given the honor of speaking,
we must speak gently.
If we have been given favor to protect freedom,
we must protect it gently.
If we have been given wisdom to nurture fragile minds,
we must teach gently.
If we have been given the license to make laws,
we must make gentle laws.

But Let Leaders Lead

We must embrace this new day, no deletes,
no time to wait patiently for superhuman feats
where everyone has a voice,
where each can make a choice
whether to survive together
or perish in the unforgiving forever.
Those who lead must lead so we can confidently follow.

The clutches of fear hold tight to what we hold dear.
We must not capitulate, never give way to fear.
There is a better way,
a new hand to play,
where fathers and mothers
and those of many colors
can rest and quietly wait for fires of hate to dissipate.

Let’s let sounds of sanity replace the chaos of inhumanity
Let’s let those who can sing a soft sweet melody,
join their voices in harmony
and drown out sounds of insanity.
Let’s let this moment evolve,
let the collective wisdom solve
the forbidden mysteries, the hidden inconsistencies,
preventing you and me from being who we want to be.

This week I want to look at conspiracy theories and misinformation but without bias and preconceived ideas. A detailed study by Coninck and others (1) attempted to link feelings of depression and anxiety to sources of misinformation. They hypothesized that people being confronted by uncertainty and perceived threat may be experiencing high levels of psychological distress perhaps creating the new “COVID Stress Syndrome”. They looked into the possibility that people tend to project personal feelings of threat to an external social power in efforts to gain a sense of control. To make sense of the situation, people may obtain information from different sources to make the threat more predictable or controllable. They suggest that this may result in a higher stress level as they encounter a constant flow of new, stress-evoking information.

They conducted an online survey sample of 8,806 adult respondents during the COVID-19 pandemic in eight countries. They discovered that respondents from the Philippines, the United States, and Hong Kong reported the highest scores with regards to conspiracy beliefs. Respondents from Switzerland, Canada, and New Zealand reported the lowest. Younger (18–34) and lower educated individuals held higher conspiracy beliefs than people 55 plus and highly educated individuals. Exposure to traditional media was associated with lower conspiracy beliefs than exposure to politicians, digital media, and personal contacts. Exposure to health experts was associated with lower conspiracy beliefs. Their premise that anxiety was associated with misinformation was not supported; however, feelings of depression were more strongly associated in all countries, except Canada.

Hurrah for Canada – well, maybe not. Bruce Anderson and David Coletto (2) recently completed a nationwide survey among 1500 Canadians on the levels of trust we have in institutional sources of information. They found that 44% (almost half of us) believe wars, recessions, and elections are controlled by small groups of people operating in secret places. Specifically, 57% think it is possibly that the World Economic Forum is made up of global elites who want to create a new world order. In addition, 37% think Canadian elites are trying to replace native born Canadians with immigrants who will agree with their political views, and 13% think Microsoft founder Bill Gates is using microchips to track people and affect human behaviour. In another study, Bellemare and Nicholson (3) in a survey from the University of Sherbrooke in Quebec involving 600 people (half in Quebec and half in the rest of Canada), suggested that one in 10 Canadians believe in a conspiracy theory involving the novel coronavirus and one in seven believe the pharmaceutical industry may be involved in the actual spread of COVID-19. According to a study by David Morin, a professor from the Université de Sherbrooke, many of those who believe conspiracy theories have “a sympathy towards violence.”

So what can we conclude from all this information. First of all, we have to look at the source; they seem to be from reliable sources. Then we look at the scientific approach. These three studies are surveys that show association, not cause, but the science seems to be legitimate. Then we look at the conclusions. How we interpret this information is where the problems may lie. For example, we may say ‘hurrah for Canada’ while ignoring the fact that a significant number of people all around the world, including Canada, are having a great deal of difficulty processing information from a wide range of sources. We sometimes look at American politics and think how crazy those people are down there, but we seem to want to ignore that this is a global problem that affects Canada as well. Then we must take into consideration that their definition of misinformation may not be misinformation at all; in fact, it probably contains elements of truth. These three studies contain an inbuilt bias as they are probably looking for evidence to support their theory on what they call misinformation and conspiracy.

Some of the above so-called conspiracies I think we can dismiss or at least view as highly suspect such as Bill Gates’ interest in vaccines as a way to use nanobiology to control the minds of people. But even here, we have to look at the reason why about two million Canadians believe this theory. There appears to be an underlying fear of technology and how it can be used to support some kind or world political system controlled by a small core of powerful people. When we look at how devices can be used to monitor people’s thoughts, it is not much of a stretch to see how new technology may be used to manipulate masses of people. Once we start down this path of fear and science fiction then anything becomes possible.

But what about the other information? When we look at Coninck and others, the correlation that younger people tend to believe more in conspiracy theories doesn’t seem to jive with my personal observations as a teacher of brilliant young adults. When we look deeper, we realize that this group is much more into social media and are more likely to experience a wide variety of information. We tend to ignore the fact that they are earnestly looking for truth whereas we, the 55+ers, seem to be stuck in our ways relying on old sources of information and may be even more susceptible to misinformation that supports ‘our’ bias.

When we look at the data supporting the theory that people with less education are more susceptible to conspiracy theories, the information begins to smell like prejudice. There is a wide range of possible variables at play. For example, we educated people tend to be more arrogant and ridicule people who hold beliefs that are contrary to our ‘intelligent’ conclusions. We can also look at the correlation between conspiracies and exposure to health experts, but is it possible that the health experts themselves may have professionally arrogance to the point of ignoring information that does not coincide with their professional information?

When we can look at the works by Anderson and Coletto, again another survey, the idea that there is a cabal of powerful people who are trying to engineer a new society cannot be just dismissed without further examination. We know that so-called thinktanks such as the World Economic Forum are obviously guided by a set of specific biases and motives. On the opposite side the Christian Right – the Moral Majority – are looking at society from a fundamental biblical view (a definite bias); however, that does that mean that we should dismiss their concerns. We can learn to listen to all information, scientific and existential, as guides to progress while being diligent to make sure neither one gains absolute power to enact their biases and foist them onto the rest of us.

When we look at fear of immigrants displacing white power, again, are we being manipulated by white bias or by an extreme reaction to white bias? Is there a source out there that is using this fear for the accumulation of power or is there a legitimate underlying universal fear here about how we share scarce resources during times of crisis? Should we not be setting our primordial fear aside and seeking a more equitable way of distributing resources? To call each other conspirators or bigots is not going to help address the situation rationally and fairly.

In the data by Bellemare and Nicholson, their survey indicated that one in seven people believe that the pharmaceuticals had something to do with the creation and actual spread of the coronavirus itself. One of the underlying causes of these suspicions is the concerns about the nature of capitalism and corporate greed. For these companies the underlying principle is profit, padding the bottom line. This is definitely a bias. Can they be trusted? Of course not. This leads back to the role of government. Can they be trusted to deal with the corporate world? Let’s look more closely at the coronavirus issue. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) is made up of professionals who have been assigned the task of looking at the science and conducting their own studies to be sure what the pharmaceutical information is scientifically valid. Considering that they have to operate under the influence of their political bosses, and have been drastically underfunded, can they be trusted? Maybe not. This is where we hope that there are professionals we can trust, the professors in the departments of biology and medicine in Canadian Universities. We hope they are, in fact, monitoring the science that leads to the decisions of the CFIA and doing so scientifically without bias.

Overall, I think we have to place our trust in our government agencies and do whatever we can to protect them from political influence and provide the resources they need to do their job. Then we have to seek reliable information from scientific dialogue that is watchdogging the agencies. Individually we need to keep open minds. We have to realize our own biases and engage in dialogue with friends and acquaintances who may come from a different viewpoint to share and evaluate information. We then need to elect and support individuals who are seeking the truth and making decisions based on this truth or at least the best information available at any given time. No more popularity contests. No more rigid party lines. The search for truth is a responsibility we must all share or we will all suffer the consequences.

(1) De Coninck, David; Frissen, Thomas , Koen ; d’Haenens, Leen; Lits, Grégoire ; Champagne-Poirier, Olivier ; Carignan, Marie-Eve ; David, Marc D Pignard-Cheynel, Nathalie ; Salerno Sébastien ; and Généreux Melissa. Beliefs in Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation About COVID-19: Comparative Perspectives on the Role of Anxiety, Depression and Exposure to and Trust in Information Sources. Front. Psychol., 16 April 2021 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.646394

(2) Anderson, Bruce and Coletto, David. https://abacusdata.ca/conspiracy-theories-canada/

(3) Bellemare, Andrea and Nicholson, Katie. 1 in 10 Canadians believes a coronavirus conspiracy theory, survey suggests. CBC News · Posted: Apr 24, 2020 4:00 AM ET | Last Updated: April 24, 2020.

Thompson, Elizabeth. One quarter of Canadians believe online conspiracy theories, expert tells MPs. CBC News · Posted: Apr 28, 2022 7:04 PM ET | Last Updated: April 29. https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/online-conspiracy-violent-extremism-1.6434854