Will this scientist's Instragram account be censored next? Credit: Josh Edelson/AFP/ Getty

September 7, 2021   6 mins

Cassie Jaye is the director of the documentary The Red Pill about the “men’s rights activism” (MRA) movement. She gave a TEDx talk a few years ago about her plan to expose the movement as a “misogynistic hate group actively working against women’s equality”.

She noticed something. When she interviewed the men’s rights activists, she was enraged by their sexism: but when she went back and transcribed the interviews, she found that the things she had been enraged by were not as clear as she had thought. “I would often hear an innocent and valid point that a MRA would make,” she says, “and in my head I would add on a sexist or anti-woman spin, assuming that was what he wanted to say but didn’t.”

If a man said that there are 2,000 domestic violence shelters for women in the US and only one for men, for instance, she would hear “and therefore we should defund the women’s ones”, rather than “so we should fund more men’s ones”. It’s an interesting watch.

The blogger John Nerst points out that, whether or not you agree with her, there’s something interesting going on here. Her brain was doing something incredibly sophisticated. The MRAs’ comments were being filtered, or spun, or edited, before they reached her conscious mind. They were given tags: untrustworthy, sexist, anti-woman.

As far as her consciousness was concerned, she wasn’t choosing to label them like that: they came to her pre-labelled, by some hidden subroutine in the brain. It was only when she watched it back later, and her own video diaries from the time, that she was able to spot the labels. And the labelling involves quite high-level ideas, things like “misogyny”, not just lizard-brain concepts like “danger, food, potential mate”.

I thought of Jaye, and the strange filtering that our brains do, when I read about the probably nonexistent wave of ivermectin overdoses filling Midwestern US hospitals and preventing medics from treating gunshot victims.

This purported wave got a lot of coverage. Rolling Stone “Gunshot Victims Left Waiting as Horse Dewormer Overdoses Overwhelm Oklahoma Hospitals, Doctor Says.” The Guardian: “Oklahoma hospitals deluged by ivermectin overdoses, doctor says”. The Independent: “Doctor says gunshot victims forced to wait for treatment as Oklahoma hospitals overwhelmed by coronavirus patients.” It’s taken from a report from a local TV channel, which interviewed a rural Oklahoman emergency-room doctor.

As far as I can tell, it’s not true at all. Dr Jason McElyea, the doctor in question, appears to have been saying two things: 1) that he’s seen some ivermectin overdoses and 2) that emergency rooms are overwhelmed, presumably by Covid. The original news video splices these two points together, but I don’t think it’s what McElyea meant; in a follow-up interview with the BBC, he clarified that there was only a “handful” of overdoses, and that the strain on hospital staff was mainly from a surge in Covid cases. One Oklahoman hospital said it hadn’t seen any cases; others may have, but it makes it less likely that there’s a plague of the stuff. (It’s worth noting that Right-wing outlets didn’t cover themselves in glory either: they reported the hospital saying it hadn’t had any cases as disproving the whole story, even though McElyea had never mentioned that hospital and it was in a different bit of Oklahoma.)

To be clear, ivermectin almost certainly doesn’t help prevent or treat Covid and it can be bad for you. But it seems unlikely that there are so many people ingesting it that it’s affecting hospital capacity.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers has released data up to the end of August, showing a marked rise in ivermectin cases — about ten times as many this August as there were in August 2019. But while a tenfold rise sounds impressive, it’s only up from about 40 cases a month in 2019 to 450 a month now, and most of those cases had either no effect or minor effects. For context, about 1,600 people are being hospitalised with Covid every day in Oklahoma alone. It’s silly to take ivermectin, but people doing it are not putting huge strain on the US health service.

The ivermectin story is far from the only one recently. The Guardian among other places, recently reported a story of an “anti-trans Instagram post”, which made “unsubstantiated allegations” about a male-bodied person in a spa exposing themself to women and girls at an LA spa. The piece said experts called it “a case study in how viral misinformation can result in violence”, linking “anti-trans and far-right movements, including QAnon conspiracy theorists, who believe that a cabal of elite pedophiles is manipulating the American government”.

There was a kind of inevitability about the follow-up story last week which found that, in fact, a registered sex offender named Darren Merager had been charged with indecent exposure at the spa. Merager, a trans woman, denies the charges; but at the very least, it’s not a clear-cut example of “viral misinformation” or a conspiracy theory worthy of being linked to QAnon.

As a bit of an aside, this isn’t supposed to happen. The Left views itself as the defender of truth and accuracy, not a purveyor of mistruth. Recently, I reviewed a book, How to Talk to a Science Denier. It was not, I felt, particularly useful. But one thing that I found revealing was the author’s long discussion of whether “left-wing science denial” existed. He chose one example — Left-wing opposition to genetically modified organisms, specifically on safety grounds — and concluded that it sort of did but not really. He based a lot of his thinking on the research of Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol. There is, I think, a fairly well-established idea that the Left is the “side” of science and evidence, and the Right is the “side” of science “denial”.

I find that strange, because I can think of quite a few areas in which elite Left-wing or liberal opinion doesn’t sit well with mainstream scientific findings.

For instance: the UK Green Party wants to “phase out” nuclear power. Is that “science denial”? I don’t know, but I think the consensus scientific position is that nuclear power is extremely safe and carbon-efficient.

And the idea that human behaviour and society are in some important way the product of evolution has been so profoundly uncomfortable to people on the Left that as far back as 1978 people broke into a lecture the biologist Edward Wilson, shouting “Racist Wilson, you can’t hide, we charge you with genocide” and throwing water over him, after he had written a book, Sociobiology, which was mainly about the behaviour of insects but which speculated that future science could shed some light on human behaviour. Is that “science denial”? Well, again, that’s a question of definitions, but blank slatism is certainly not directly in line with modern scientific findings.

Or take IQ. Your score on an IQ test predicts your success in life pretty well; your career outcomes and earnings, your school results, even your lifespan. It’s also highly heritable. You can find people denying those facts on the Left much more easily than you can find them on the Right, just as you can find people claiming that biological sex isn’t real.

My point isn’t that Left-wing people do this more than Right-wing people, or even that they’re equivalent: I suspect that if you could find some reasonable way of defining terms like “science denial” or “misinformation” (and “Right-wing” and “Left-wing”), you’d probably end up finding that it’s more prevalent on the Right. But, at least in the largely Left-wing or centrist circles I inhabit, it’s almost axiomatic that misinformation is what the Right do. There’s a serious strain of thought that thinks we are the correct ones, and they are the wrong ones.

But the desire to show your political opponents in the worst possible light, or to believe things that are politically convenient rather than things that aren’t, is entirely bipartisan. It’s just easier to spot when the enemy is doing it.

But what interests me is the question of whether people (on the Left or Right) do this on purpose: are they consciously misrepresenting their opponents and ignoring inconvenient truths, or is it a subconscious, automatic thing?

I wrote some months ago about people switching between different definitions of words in highly charged culture-war debates, allowing them to make claims like “cancel culture is/isn’t real”. I’d assumed it was mainly unconscious, but something that people said to me was: this is entirely deliberate. They define words in ways that gain them cultural power: so a Left-winger might very deliberately define “racism” to include “anything that leads to negative outcomes for non-white people”, and a Right-winger might define it as “only explicit acts of intentional racism by an individual”, so as to make the problem as big or as small as you can. Certainly it seems to happen too often for it to be accidental.

Under that model, people share the ivermectin story or the trans-woman-in-the-spa story to damage their political opponents, knowing or not caring that it’s not true. Ivermectin is a Right-coded thing, so showing that Trump-voting rural Oklahomans are taking it in their thousands and gumming up emergency wards shows just how stupid they are.

But the Cassie Jaye MRA thing, I think, reveals another angle. As Nerst describes it, Jaye’s conscious brain wasn’t choosing the most uncharitable interpretations of what the MRAs were saying: her subconscious brain only presented her with uncharitable options. Her conscious, reasoning mind, the bit of us that we consider ourselves, thought it was simply reporting reality, but in fact the version of reality that arrived in front of it had already been screened, and only the politically convenient bits were available to her. Nerst calls this process of only choosing from pre-screened options “semitentionality”: it’s neither an honest mistake nor a cynical misrepresentation, but some weird different third option.

I think that’s what’s going on when people read stories about ivermectin or trans women in spas. It’s not that they deliberately choose the interpretation most convenient to their pre-existing beliefs, or that they’re accidentally choosing the most convenient interpretation time and time again. It’s that the world our brains present to us is brilliantly constructed so that our friends are right and good and the enemy is bad and wrong. It’s not clear how we can improve the situation — but being wary of sharing any politically convenient stories on social media might be a good start.

Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.