Ad doxa per aspera

One way of thinking about the Covid-19 pandemic is to consider it as revealing how our society functions. Indeed, by applying pressure, it amplifies the dynamics of our social organizations. As a result, certain aspects emerge from the background noise, where they usually remain little perceptible, or even indistinguishable. These include the means (such as communication) used to impose excessive and often arbitrary measures.

Since the Spanish flu (and AIDS), the worry of a pandemic in our globalized world has remained in the mores. A glimpse of this fear has been seen several times in the past with aborted epidemics. Models devised by epidemiologists at Imperial College in England, such as Neil Ferguson, predicted, for example, (1):

  • in 2002, that by 2080, up to 150,000 people could die from mad cow disease — in the UK, there have been only 177 deaths
  • in 2005, that up to 150 million people would die from bird flu — only 282 people died from the disease between 2003 and 2009
  • in 2009, in a reasonable worst-case scenario , that swine flu would kill 65,000 British people — yet only 457 died in the UK

More recently in 2019, a famous Belgian virologist explained at a conference at the Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs in London how to sell a pandemic by instrumentalizing fear and influencing public opinion via the media(2). H1N1 vaccines were manufactured in haste, later proving to have serious side effects, such as narcolepsy(3).

Following the coronavirus epidemics (SARS-CoV‑1 in 2002–2004 and MERS in 2012), one of the most plausible hypotheses was a pandemic specifically caused by a coronavirus, a subject studied in particular by laboratories in Wuhan. It is therefore not surprising that the announcement of an outbreak of a new coronavirus in China caused a panic. Forced to act, governments have turned to the same apocalyptic riders mentioned above who advised them during the management of H1N1! Not surprisingly, they again predicted millions of deaths if so-called non-pharmaceutical (NPI for Non-Pharmaceutical Intervention), such as strict containment or social distancing, were not implemented… while simultaneously admitting that their models did not take into account the ethical and socio-economic implications that such measures would have(4) ! With the rigorous containment in China and the alarming models from Imperial College, European countries have thus decided to impose these draconian NPIs.

Professor Ari Joffe of the University of Alberta in Canada describes in his study COVID-19: Rethinking the Lockdown — Groupthink(5), about the disastrous effects of lockdowns, several cognitive biases including:

  • Anchoring bias, which consists of preferring the initial hypothesis and ignoring evidence that refutes it;
  • Escalation of commitment in which investments in a defined course of action are maintained, even in the face of evidence of better options, thus respecting previous decisions;
  • Superstition bias, which postulates that action is better than non-action (even in the absence of evidence), because it reduces anxiety;
  • The present bias that favors immediate benefits over even greater benefits in the future (with measures that would prevent more deaths in the long run seeming less attractive);
  • And the bias identifiable lives that includes the effect of identifiable victims (negligence of statistics of invisible deaths , such as collateral victims of measures, reported at the population level) and the identifiable cause and effect (prioritization of efforts to save lives from a cause known, even if more lives were saved by alternative responses).

These different biases, among many others, seem to me to explain in part not only the steps taken by different governments, but also the establishment and maintenance of a certain narrative, one that has come to captivate an overwhelming majority of the population, without sparing even those with a scientific background.

Such prohibitive measures could never have been imposed without the construction of this narrative, which finds its foundation in a serious threat, relayed and amplified by the mainstream media. The latter maintained it by morbidly disseminating daily figures of COVID-19 deaths, and subsequently the figures of contaminations. The narrative has thus progressively been installed by means of several methods, including the diffusion of a single message through all the communication channels, propagating itself in the society in the form of doxa (or the whole of the opinions received without discussion, as obvious, in a given civilization(6)).

It is striking that the notion of war is evoked in the context of the pandemic… Because propaganda has always been a fundamental tool in wars, and one of its practices is censorship. In our digital age, it takes the form of fact checking . On November 25, 2020, I posted an article on Facebook entitled. Are Face Masks Effective? The Evidence published on Swiss Policy Research (SPR) (an independent, non-partisan and non-profit association whose objective is to investigate geopolitical propaganda)(7). The article cited ten studies that concluded that the mask is not effective against the spread of SARS-CoV‑2, along with ten other aspects to consider when evaluating the effectiveness of masks. In order to complete this information, the article even included and analyzed seven studies presenting the proven effects of masks on the spread of the virus. This article was not just an unsubstantiated opinion, but defended a position based on references and yet Facebook labeled it as false information. The link proposed by this fact-checking led to the site of Lead News, which stated that Several sources confirm that the masks work against the spread of SARS-CoV‑2, while citing onlya single source, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (8) ! Upon further investigation, it turned out that Facebook was fighting misinformation by performing fact-checks with the help of source checkers called independent. But the famous Lead News (which is funded solely by Facebook) is a branch of another group, the Credibility Coalition, itself funded by Facebook, Google and Twitter, among others(9).

More recently, on YouTube this time, the video of the Great Debate(10) organized by Kairos did not even last 24 hours before being removed on the grounds of medical misinformation. As a reminder, a series of scientific experts and representatives of the Belgian government had been invited to debate with six other speakers (including myself) from different scientific and medical backgrounds, but none accepted the invitation. The debate therefore took place more in the form of an exchange of views. Looking for the reason for the banning of the video, YouTube informed that it does not allow content that spreads incorrect medical information contradicting that of local health authorities or the World Health Organization (WHO) regarding COVID-19. Examples of prohibited content include who claim that a specific treatment or medication guarantees a cure for COVID-19 and those who that contradict the consensus of experts from local health authorities or the WHO regarding the COVID-19 vaccine (I invite readers to read the list of unauthorized content under this reference(11)).

This phenomenon of fact-checking is not limited to social networks, the traditional media also practice it. La Libre Belgique has created a section called La Source dedicated to the verification of sources. In an article entitled Do PCR tests overestimate Covid-19 cases? published on April 4, 2021(12), La Libre Belgique analyzed the LinkedIn publications of Prof. Martin Zizi regarding two claims:

  • PCR positive ≠ infection
  • PCR positive ≠ contagiousness

Rather than presenting any references that would contradict these statements, The Source was satisfied with comments from the expert Dr. G. B. B. B., who was the author of the report. L. Cornelissen. Prof Zizi, for his part, has verified the sources of the article of La Libre Belgique by maintaining his position and thus fact-checking the facts of La Libre (giving rise to the article PCR useless if one is asymptomatic(13)). It is regrettable that La Libre did not read the article COVID-19: effect of vaccination on the risk of transmission published on the Chirec Pro website(14), in which the supposedly beneficial effects of vaccination on the transmission of SARS-CoV‑2 are highlighted. In this article, we can read:

The presence of virus detected by PCR is not synonymous with a risk of transmission since PCR is likely to identify low viral loads and therefore not necessarily sufficient to be responsible for a possible transmission, this being confirmed by the overall reduction of the viral load in vaccinated subjects.

The reference cited for this statement is of poor (or even weak) quality to support the hypothesis that vaccination would decrease spread. Note the three major problems with this source:

  1. The referenced scientific article — explicitly mentions that This preprint reports new research that has not been certified by peer review and should not be used to guide clinical practice have not been peer-reviewed and do not cannot be used to guide clinical practice),
  2. the study does not directly compare vaccinated people with a control group, but simply evaluates the effectiveness of a vaccine on hypothetically vaccinated people…
  3. The researchers compare PCR-positive data (with the methodological biases cited above) from one age group with another age group, thus establishing an additional methodological problem.

Thus, Chirec similarly asserts to Prof. Zizi that a positive PCR is not synonymous with contagiousness… but cites much less reliable references. What would The Source say?

While fact-checking has been around since before the current health crisis (becoming more of a topic of discussion during President Trump’s tenure, who is known for his controversial statements), it has become a real go-to tool for removing anything that is deemed questionable. But this raises several questions, such as:

  • what content can be verified and identified as establishedfact ? Is it legitimate, for example, to censor arguments on evolving scientific subjects under the pretext of a challenge from local authorities and the WHO (who have already proven their ignorance and error about the nature of SARS-CoV‑2 on several occasions)?
  • Is fact-checking objective when verification on social networks is done partly by software (given the large amount of information put online every day)(15) and by verifiers, themselves paid by the social networks(16)?
  • And these questions raise an even more crucial question (and one that seems to be frequently postponed): what function do social networks have in the public square? Facebook CEO Marc Zuckerberg kept saying that Facebook is not a form of media(17). Is censorship of content then justified under the pretext that Facebook calls itself a technology company and that it collaborates with governments to reduce the spread of misinformation(18) while sharing allegedly anonymous data of their users with the authorities to combat the spread of the coronavirus(19)? And what about journalism, which was once considered the fourth power who is supposed to watch over the excesses of the other three embodying the state (executive, legislative and judicial), and who has never stopped from the beginning of the crisis to give a voice to the state experts acting as authority figures during this health crisis and to defend them at all costs?

The establishment of a narrative through all of these communication channels became perhaps most visible during the COVID-19 vaccination campaign. In addition to the increased censorship on social networks of any argumentation that goes against these vaccines (whose real effectiveness and risks of side effects are still debatable(20)), the medical profession also participates in the influence of public opinion without any visible debate on the traditional media. Even mental health professionals are working on ways to build public acceptance of measures, including vaccines, and recommend techniques such as nudging (= (e.g.,persuade someone to do something, gradually or by flattery; gently encourage someone to do something)(21) or outright use of fear as leverage(22). And it is undoubtedly in the case of vaccines, where the economic interests of this health crisis are the most identifiable.

In a debate with French essayist Idriss Aberkane, public health physician Martin Blachier asserted the absence of pharmaceutical industry (specifically Pfizer) interests in this crisis(23). But some quick research shows that revenues for the first three months of 2021 from Pfizer are $3.5 billion and revenue estimates for the year 2021 for the vaccine alone would be $26 billion (or two-thirds of their annual revenue)(24). Recall that their annual revenue in 2019 was $41.17 billion. In 2020, it was 41.9 billion (a 1.79%increase over 2019, rather than a loss of revenue)(25)… And it is likely that there will be a seasonal demand for its COVID-19 vaccines in the coming years (like the seasonal flu vaccine)(26).

The government, as well as other states, the pharmaceutical industry, the media and social networks, together maintain the established narrative (which benefits each of them differently) by all possible means and which has become the doxa. Ad astra per aspera (Latin locution meaning to the stars through difficulties) has become Ad doxa per aspera. But if this influence is identified and visualized as the narrative that it is, a form of struggle remains possible: that of a narrative parallel (the term counter-narrative seems to me less interesting because it suggests more the opposition than the proposal). In this parallel construction, it would be possible to accept what is correct in the official narrative while arguing against erroneous or even misleading information. For the price of the narrative of this health crisis will be paid in at least three stages: 1) during the implementation of the measures, 2) in the long-term impact of these measures and 3) when the States will come to the population to ask for their help to pay back the debts (including those of the supposedly free vaccines). Not to mention the imposition of other drifts (than communication) that it will be possible to impose thanks to the official narrative, such as a health passport, unfounded mandatory vaccinations, etc. If opposing the doxa is essential, it can only serve as a first chapter in the construction of a more desirable society. Let us now clearly propose the desirable alternatives.

Notes et références
  1. Ferguson
  2. Conférence d’un virologue belge au Royal Institute of Foreign Affairs à Londres en 2019 En français:
  3. Sarkanen T, Alakuijala A, Julkunen I, Partinen M. Narcolepsy Associated with Pandemrix Vaccine. Curr Neurol Neurosci Rep. 2018 Jun 1;18(7):43. doi: 10.1007/s11910-018‑0851‑5. PMID: 29855798
  4. Walker PGT, Whittaker C, Watson O, Baguelin M, Ainslie KEC, Bhatia S, et al. Report 12: The Global Impact of COVID-19 and Strategies for Mitigation and Suppression. (2020) Ferguson NM, Laydon D, Nedjati-Gilani G, Imai N, Ainslie K, Baguelin M, et al. Report 9: Impact of Non-pharmaceutical Interventions (NPIs) to Reduce COVID-19 Mortality and Healthcare Demand. (2020)
  5. Joffe AR (2021) COVID-19: Rethinking the Lockdown Groupthink. Frontiers in Public Health 9:625778. doi: 10.3389/fpubh.2021.625778
  6. Définition de la doxa selon le dictionnaire Robert:
  7. Swiss Policy Research:
  8. Le fact-checking de Facebook envoyant sur le site de Lead News:
  9. Site internet du Credibility Coalition, auquel appartient le Lead News:
  11. Liste des contenus interdits sur YouTube:
  12. Rubrique La Source de la Libre Belgique dédiée à la vérification de sources:–6066ecff7b50a6051776bce0
  15. Hard Questions: How Is Facebook’s Fact-Checking Program Working?
  16. Site internet du Credibility Coalition, op. cit.
  18. Je vous conseille de lire également l’article Facebook ou le retour de l’Inquisition ? de Corine Dehaes
  21. Nudging et consentement éclair: un duo qui ne fait pas bon ménage, Ludwig Hemeleers, Kairos
  23. Youtube — LES DÉBATS — Martin Blachier vs Idriss Aberkane à 29min:
  25. Youtube — LES DÉBATS — op. cit.

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