(Drawing by Minty Sainsbury)

We make all the viruses.

All viruses are made by us for us.

(By us, I mean all of life.)

Our living cells are perfectly designed to both replicate and originate viruses.

Viruses are an intrinsic part of life on Earth. Trillions of them float above us in the sky, and trillions fall to Earth, causing infections (mostly in bacteria) every day, leading to further replication and more viruses.

Just in the same way as virus particles are intrinsic to the world, so too are ideas in our society.

Our minds are perfect for the replication of information, both true and otherwise.

What matters most for replication and spread to take place isn’t the truth, but the following factors:

  • Compelling-ness (C)
  • Ease of retransmission (E)
  • Available depth (A)

We think most conspiracy theories are bizarre but they’re not: they’re an easily predictable consequence of increasingly interconnected minds. Our ability to believe in fictions is multiplied by our numeracy and ability to communicate.

If A, C and E are high, then a story or idea will spread rapidly, regardless of its veracity.

The available depth (A) is important not only because it’s a factor in how long a fiction might be believed for, but also because it has an impact on the further development of the fiction.

Confirmation bias leads to us humans instinctively gathering and developing “evidence” that seems to confirm that which we already believe. People who believe that the world is flat will not only work to sustain the fiction, but to strengthen it too.

The result is that, in a relatively short period of time, a large body of very compelling work can be produced that creates an even more compelling trap for future victims of the misinformation.

What makes matters worse is that two of the most important factors for human happiness are a sense of a purpose and a community that respects us. Both purpose and community can be found within spheres of misinformation. Flat Earthers really enjoy getting together and developing what they believe.

Our reality is often what we choose to make it, and this “we” is becoming increasingly governed by the vote of the masses, as our media is filtered by social media algorithms taking inputs of view-time and “likes”.

In the words of Isaac Asimov “The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

This notion is rendered true by social media companies optimised only for retaining the attention of their “users”.

We have created the perfect misinformation machine, where truth is dictated not by research and dissemination through trusted institutions, but by unfiltered democratic vote, and where censorship is achieved not by removing information, but by floods of disinformation. Democracy doesn’t work if the majority don’t believe the truth.

These problems will remain until the big tech. companies are globally regulated, and trustworthy institutions are able to better guide the flow of information once again. The question is which kind of information regulation will prevail: the egalitarian European style, or the surveillance-focussed Chinese style. Either way, it can’t be the American style of none at all.

I’m in education now, and I became a science communicator, because I believe that it’s the most important thing in the world to spread empowering information and knowledge. However, the insane perpetuation of untruth in this primitive time often has me waking up feeling that I’d like to live in a world where I don’t have to concern myself with this mad, incidental battle of our particular point in history, and where I can focus on creating work that will have a lasting positive impact, without having to fight to prove that the truth should be important.

I try to choose work that isn’t just for me; that is valuable for the future of life on this little planet, and that’s the main reason I’ve spent so much time on climate communication… but I’ve started talking more to my friend Paul Steinhardt at Princeton, and maybe I’ll start moving in the direction of maths and theoretical physics before I hit 40!

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