Conspiracies, swine flu and the demise of conventional wisdom

An acquaintance, by way of a gentle chiding, sent the other day a website link that took issue with the way the global swine flu pandemic was being managed and indeed promoted through various world health agencies and a sensation-hungry - and thus pliable - media.

He, and the website, had a point. It was saturation coverage there for a while. And rather than simply reporting - all those spurious shots of pouting television reporters backed up against a Rangitoto College sign as if their presence in front of it somehow lent the coverage greater credibility - there needed to be a sense of proportion and a more concerted interrogation of all the known facts.

But for me the prompt led to musing on a somewhat larger point: the as yet unrealised and in many respects uncontrollable power of the internet.

It amounts to the deregulation of information - and, if knowledge is power, the eventual emasculation of authority; be that of city, state, national, international, intergovernmental - you name it.

For we are fast arriving at an era in which so-called objective reality is contestable and open-ended. The World Wide Web is testament to that. Punch "conspiracy" paired with just about any subject or event you care to imagine into Google and you will find at your fingertips an entire parallel universe in which the accepted order of things, histories, facts, etc, are upended and reinvented.

For example, try "swine flu and conspiracy" as a pairing and you will soon find yourself at a website which floats the idea that this "man-made" virus could be the result of an evil conspiracy to reduce the population of a dangerously overcrowded world.

Mad? Well just you prove it ain't so. As much as the internet is a welcome boon to democrats and truth-seekers and those who would want to shine a light in the dark recesses of authority's basement bunker, it is also a powerful elixir for every scheming conspirator and hoax artist whose fingers ever clattered over a computer keyboard.

If this is not scaring the complacency out of scientists and public health officials the world over, then it darned-well should be. As alternative couplings with conspiracy, try for instance, HIV, or bird flu, or fluoridation, or vaccination, or pharmaceuticals, and see the sort of noise that might be clouding the conventional wisdom of those same scientists and officials.

In fact it might be said that the internet is fast rendering obsolete the very notion of "conventional" wisdom. "Reality" today is increasingly filtered through Reality TV and Hollywood and an internet within which urban myths have the capacity to go viral at the push of a button. More than ever, science educators and communicators have their work cut out.

I'd rather be safe than sorry. So I'm with the doctors and the scientists who maintain there is every possibility that a deadly flu variant will emerge - not from the laboratory of a mad scientist or military regime bent on world domination, but through the well-recognised, documented processes of genetic and trans-species mutation. And we'd better be prepared.

When it happens, it will be pretty scary. This I know, if not from first-hand experience, then from a very close second. In the mid-'70s my parents lived and worked in a small hamlet deep in the interior of Southern Sudan. While there, a deadly virus erupted in a neighbouring town.

It turned out to be one of those haemorrhagic fevers that dissolves your organs from the inside. A quarantine was rapidly imposed. For some months, the folks did not venture beyond their small compound.

They held their collective breaths and waited for what became known as "green monkey" disease - also known as the Marburg virus - to pass. There was and is no known cure.

There are scientists and research centres whose life's work is the study of such diseases and the strategies for control and prevention.

They may not always have all the answers, they may not always get it right, but when the real thing does break, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters? Your internet service provider? Or a doctor?

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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