Arquivo da tag: Credibilidade da ciência

Reformation in the Church of Science (The New Atlantis)

How the truth monopoly was broken up

Andrea Saltelli and Daniel Sarewitz

Spring 2022

We are suffering through a pandemic of lies — or so we hear from leading voices in media, politics, and academia. Our culture is infected by a disease that has many names: fake news, post-truth, misinformation, disinformation, mal-information, anti-science. The affliction, we are told, is a perversion of the proper role of knowledge in a healthy information society.

What is to be done? To restore truth, we need strategies to “get the facts straight.” For example, we need better “science communication,” “independent fact-checking,” and a relentless commitment to exposing and countering falsehoods. This is why the Washington Post fastidiously counted 30,573 “false or misleading claims” by President Trump during his four years in office. Facebook, meanwhile, partners with eighty organizations worldwide to help it flag falsehoods and inform users of the facts. And some disinformation experts recently suggested in the New York Times that the Biden administration should appoint a “reality czar,” a central authority tasked with countering conspiracy theories about Covid and election fraud, who “could become the tip of the spear for the federal government’s response to the reality crisis.”

Such efforts reflect the view that untruth is a plague on our information society, one that can and must be cured. If we pay enough responsible, objective attention to distinguishing what is true from what is not, and thus excise misinformation from the body politic, people can be kept safe from falsehood. Put another way, it is an implicitly Edenic belief in the original purity of the information society, a state we have lapsed from but can yet return to, by the grace of fact-checkers.

We beg to differ. Fake news is not a perversion of the information society but a logical outgrowth of it, a symptom of the decades-long devolution of the traditional authority for governing knowledge and communicating information. That authority has long been held by a small number of institutions. When that kind of monopoly is no longer possible, truth itself must become contested.

This is treacherous terrain. The urge to insist on the integrity of the old order is widespread: Truth is truth, lies are lies, and established authorities must see to it that nobody blurs the two. But we also know from history that what seemed to be stable regimes of truth may collapse, and be replaced. If that is what is happening now, then the challenge is to manage the transition, not to cling to the old order as it dissolves around us.

Truth, New and Improved

The emergence of widespread challenges to the control of information by mainstream social institutions developed in three phases.

First, new technologies of mass communication in the twentieth century — radio, television, and significant improvements in printing, further empowered by new social science methods — enabled the rise of mass-market advertising, which quickly became an essential tool for success in the marketplace. Philosophers like Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno were bewildered by a world where, thanks to these new forms of communication, unabashed lies in the interest of selling products could become not just an art but an industry.

The rise of mass marketing created the cultural substrate for the so-called post-truth world we live in now. It normalized the application of hyperbole, superlatives, and untestable claims of superiority to the rhetoric of everyday commerce. What started out as merely a way to sell new and improved soap powder and automobiles amounts today to a rhetorical infrastructure of hype that infects every corner of culture: the way people promote their careers, universities their reputations, governments their programs, and scientists the importance of their latest findings. Whether we’re listening to a food corporation claim that its oatmeal will keep your heart healthy or a university press office herald a new study that will upend everything we know, radical skepticism would seem to be the rational stance for information consumers.

Politics, Scientized

In a second, partly overlapping phase in the twentieth century, science underwent a massive expansion of its role into the domain of public affairs, and thus into highly contestable subject matters. Spurred by a wealth of new instruments for measuring the world and techniques for analyzing the resulting data, policies on agriculture, health, education, poverty, national security, the environment and much more became subject to new types of scientific investigation. As never before, science became part of the language of policymaking, and scientists became advocates for particular policies.

The dissolving boundary between science and politics was on full display by 1958, when the chemist Linus Pauling and physicist Edward Teller debated the risks of nuclear weapons testing on a U.S. television broadcast, a spectacle that mixed scientific claims about fallout risks with theories of international affairs and assertions of personal moral conviction. The debate presaged a radical transformation of science and its social role. Where science was once a rarefied, elite practice largely isolated from society, scientific experts were now mobilized in increasing numbers to form and inform politics and policymaking. Of course, society had long been shaped, sometimes profoundly, by scientific advances. But in the second half of the twentieth century, science programs started to take on a rapidly expanding portfolio of politically divisive issues: determining the cancer-causing potential of food additives, pesticides, and tobacco; devising strategies for the U.S. government in its nuclear arms race against the Soviet Union; informing guidelines for diet, nutrition, and education; predicting future energy supplies, food supplies, and population growth; designing urban renewal programs; choosing nuclear waste disposal sites; and on and on.

Philosopher-mathematicians Silvio Funtowicz and Jerome Ravetz recognized in 1993 that a new kind of science was emerging, which they termed “post-normal science.” This kind of science was inherently contestable, both because it dealt with the irreducible uncertainties of complex and messy problems at the intersection of nature and society, and because it was being used for making decisions that were themselves value-laden and contested. Questions that may sound straightforward, such as “Should women in their forties get regular mammograms?” or “Will genetically modified crops and livestock make food more affordable?” or “Do the benefits of decarbonizing our energy production outweigh the costs?” became the focus of intractable and never-ending scientific and political disputes.

This situation remained reasonably manageable through the 1990s, because science communication was still largely controlled by powerful institutions: governments, corporations, and universities. Even if these institutions were sometimes fiercely at odds, all had a shared interest in maintaining the idea of a unitary science that provided universal truths upon which rational action should be based. Debates between experts may have raged — often without end — but one could still defend the claim that the search for truth was a coherent activity carried out by special experts working in pertinent social institutions, and that the truths emerging from their work would be recognizable and agreed-upon when finally they were determined. Few questioned the fundamental notion that science was necessary and authoritative for determining good policy choices across a wide array of social concerns. The imperative remained to find facts that could inform action — a basic tenet of Enlightenment rationality.

Science, Democratized

The rise of the Internet and social media marks the third phase of the story, and it has now rendered thoroughly implausible any institutional monopoly on factual claims. As we are continuing to see with Covid, the public has instantly available to it a nearly inexhaustible supply of competing and contradictory claims, made by credentialed experts associated with august institutions, about everything from mask efficacy to appropriate social distancing and school closure policies. And many of the targeted consumers of these claims are already conditioned to be highly skeptical of the information they receive from mainstream media.

Today’s information environment certainly invites mischievous seeding of known lies into public discourse. But bad actors are not the most important part of the story. Institutions can no longer maintain their old stance of authoritative certainty about information — the stance they need to justify their actions, or to establish a convincing dividing line between true news and fake news. Claims of disinterest by experts acting on behalf of these institutions are no longer plausible. People are free to decide what information, and in which experts, they want to believe. The Covid lab-leak hypothesis was fake news until that news itself became fake. Fact-checking organizations are themselves now subject to accusations of bias: Recently, Facebook flagged as “false” a story in the esteemed British Medical Journal about a shoddy Covid vaccine trial, and the editors of the journal in turn called Facebook’s fact-checking “inaccurate, incompetent and irresponsible.”

No political system exists without its share of lies, obfuscation, and fake news, as Plato and Machiavelli taught. Yet even those thinkers would be puzzled by the immense power of modern technologies to generate stories. Ideas have become a battlefield, and we are all getting lost in the fog of the truth wars. When everything seems like it can be plausible to someone, the term “fake news” loses its meaning.


The celebrated expedient that an aristocracy has the right and the mission to offer “noble lies” to the citizens for their own good thus looks increasingly impotent. In October 2020, U.S. National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, a veritable aristocrat of the scientific establishment, sought to delegitimize the recently released Great Barrington Declaration. Crafted by a group he referred to as “fringe epidemiologists” (they were from Harvard, Stanford, and Oxford), the declaration questioned the mainstream lockdown approach to the pandemic, including school and business closures. “There needs to be a quick and devastating published take down,” Collins wrote in an email to fellow aristocrat Anthony Fauci.

But we now live in a moment where suppressing that kind of dissent has become impossible. By May 2021, that “fringe” became part of a new think tank, the Brownstone Institute, founded in reaction to what they describe as “the global crisis created by policy responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.” From this perspective, policies advanced by Collins and Fauci amounted to “a failed experiment in full social and economic control” reflecting “a willingness on the part of the public and officials to relinquish freedom and fundamental human rights in the name of managing a public health crisis.” The Brownstone Institute’s website is a veritable one-stop Internet shopping haven for anyone looking for well-credentialed expert opinions that counter more mainstream expert opinions on Covid.

Similarly, claims that the science around climate change is “settled,” and that therefore the world must collectively work to decarbonize the global energy system by 2050, have engendered a counter-industry of dissenting experts, organizations, and websites.

At this point, one might be forgiven for speculating that the public is being fed such a heavy diet of Covid and climate change precisely because these are problems that have been framed politically as amenable to a scientific treatment. But it seems that the more the authorities insist on the factiness of facts, the more suspect these become to larger and larger portions of the populace.

A Scientific Reformation

The introduction of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century triggered a revolution in which the Church lost its monopoly on truth. Millions of books were printed in just a few decades after Gutenberg’s innovation. Some people held the printing press responsible for stoking collective economic manias and speculative bubbles. It allowed the widespread distribution of astrological almanacs in Europe, which fed popular hysteria around prophesies of impending doom. And it allowed dissemination of the Malleus Maleficarum, an influential treatise on demonology that contributed to rising persecution of witches.

Though the printing press allowed sanctioned ideas to spread like never before, it also allowed the spread of serious but hitherto suppressed ideas that threatened the legitimacy of the Church. A range of alternative philosophical, moral, and ideological perspectives on Christianity became newly accessible to ever-growing audiences. So did exposés of institutional corruption, such as the practice of indulgences — a market for buying one’s way out of purgatory that earned the Church vast amounts of money. Martin Luther, in particular, understood and exploited the power of the printing press in pursuing his attacks on the Church — one recent historical account, Andrew Pettegree’s book Brand Luther, portrays him as the first mass-market communicator.

“Beginning of the Reformation”: Martin Luther directs the posting of his Ninety-five Theses, protesting the practice of the sale of indulgences, to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517.
W. Baron von Löwenstern, 1830 / Library of Congress

To a religious observer living through the beginning of the Reformation, the proliferation of printed material must have appeared unsettling and dangerous: the end of an era, and the beginning of a threatening period of heterodoxy, heresies, and confusion. A person exposed to the rapid, unchecked dispersion of printed matter in the fifteenth century might have called many such publications fake news. Today many would say that it was the Reformation itself that did away with fake news, with the false orthodoxies of a corrupted Church, opening up a competition over ideas that became the foundation of the modern world. Whatever the case, this new world was neither neat nor peaceful, with the religious wars resulting from the Church’s loss of authority over truth continuing until the mid-seventeenth century.

Like the printing press in the fifteenth century, the Internet in the twenty-first has radically transformed and disrupted conventional modes of communication, destroyed the existing structure of authority over truth claims, and opened the door to a period of intense and tumultuous change.

Those who lament the death of truth should instead acknowledge the end of a monopoly system. Science was the pillar of modernity, the new privileged lens to interpret the real world and show a pathway to collective good. Science was not just an ideal but the basis for a regime, a monopoly system. Within this regime, truth was legitimized in particular private and public institutions, especially government agencies, universities, and corporations; it was interpreted and communicated by particular leaders of the scientific community, such as government science advisors, Nobel Prize winners, and the heads of learned societies; it was translated for and delivered to the laity in a wide variety of public and political contexts; it was presumed to point directly toward right action; and it was fetishized by a culture that saw it as single and unitary, something that was delivered by science and could be divorced from the contexts in which it emerged.

Such unitary truths included above all the insistence that the advance of science and technology would guarantee progress and prosperity for everyone — not unlike how the Church’s salvific authority could guarantee a negotiated process for reducing one’s punishment for sins. To achieve this modern paradise, certain subsidiary truths lent support. One, for example, held that economic rationality would illuminate the path to universal betterment, driven by the principle of comparative advantage and the harmony of globalized free markets. Another subsidiary truth expressed the social cost of carbon emissions with absolute precision to the dollar per ton, with the accompanying requirement that humans must control the global climate to the tenth of a degree Celsius. These ideas are self-evidently political, requiring monopolistic control of truth to implement their imputed agendas.

An easy prophesy here is that wars over scientific truth will intensify, as did wars over religious truth after the printing press. Those wars ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, followed, eventually, by the creation of a radically new system of governance, the nation-state, and the collapse of the central authority of the Catholic Church. Will the loss of science’s monopoly over truth lead to political chaos and even bloodshed? The answer largely depends upon the resilience of democratic institutions, and their ability to resist the authoritarian drift that seems to be a consequence of crises such as Covid and climate change, to which simple solutions, and simple truths, do not pertain.

Both the Church and the Protestants enthusiastically adopted the printing press. The Church tried to control it through an index of forbidden books. Protestant print shops adopted a more liberal cultural orientation, one that allowed for competition among diverse ideas about how to express and pursue faith. Today we see a similar dynamic. Mainstream, elite science institutions use the Internet to try to preserve their monopoly over which truths get followed where, but the Internet’s bottom-up, distributed architecture appears to give a decisive advantage to dissenters and their diverse ideologies and perspectives.

Holding on to the idea that science always draws clear boundaries between the true and the false will continue to appeal strongly to many sincere and concerned people. But if, as in the fifteenth century, we are now indeed experiencing a tumultuous transition to a new world of communication, what we may need is a different cultural orientation toward science and technology. The character of this new orientation is only now beginning to emerge, but it will above all have to accommodate the over-abundance of competing truths in human affairs, and create new opportunities for people to forge collective meaning as they seek to manage the complex crises of our day.

Entenda por que as teorias da conspiração sobre coronavírus se proliferam tanto (Estadão)

Max Fischer, New York Times – 8 de abril de 2020

NOVA YORK – O coronavírus deu origem a uma enxurrada de teorias da conspiração, desinformação e propaganda, minando as autoridades de saúde e corroendo a confiança do público de maneiras que podem prolongar a pandemia e até mesmo se estender para além dela.

Alegações de que o novo coronavírus seria uma arma biológica estrangeira, uma invenção partidária ou parte de um projeto de reengenharia social substituíram um vírus sem razão nem propósito por vilões mais familiares e compreensíveis. Cada alegação parece dar a essa tragédia sem sentido algum grau de significado, por mais sombrio que seja.

Rumores de curas secretas – beber alvejante diluído, desligar os aparelhos eletrônicos, comer banana – dão uma esperança de proteção contra uma ameaça da qual nem mesmo os líderes mundiais estão escapando.

A crença de que alguém teve acesso ao conhecimento proibido proporciona uma sensação de certeza e controle em meio a uma crise que virou o mundo de cabeça para baixo. E compartilhar esse “conhecimento” pode dar às pessoas algo difícil de encontrar depois de semanas de isolamento e morte: a sensação de que se está fazendo alguma coisa.

“Aí estão todos os ingredientes que empurram as pessoas para as teorias da conspiração”, disse Karen Douglas, psicóloga social que estuda a crença em conspirações na Universidade de Kent, na Grã-Bretanha.

Rumores e afirmações flagrantemente estapafúrdias são disseminados por pessoas comuns cujas faculdades críticas simplesmente se viram esmagadas sob sentimentos de confusão e desamparo, dizem os psicólogos.

Mas muitas alegações falsas também vêm sendo promovidas por governos que tentam esconder seus fracassos, líderes partidários em busca de benefícios políticos, golpistas em geral e, nos Estados Unidos, por um presidente que insiste em curas não comprovadas e dispara falsidades que procuram eximi-lo de qualquer culpa.

Todas as teorias da conspiração carregam uma mensagem em comum: o único jeito de se proteger é saber as verdades secretas que “eles” não querem que você ouça.

O sentimento de segurança e controle proporcionado por esses rumores pode ser ilusório, mas os danos à confiança do público são bem reais.

As teorias conspiratórias estão levando as pessoas a consumir remédios caseiros que se revelaram letais e a desrespeitar as orientações de distanciamento social. E estão sabotando as ações coletivas, como ficar em casa ou usar máscaras, atitudes necessárias para conter um vírus que já matou mais de 79 mil pessoas.

“Já enfrentamos pandemias antes desta”, disse Graham Brookie, que dirige o Laboratório de Pesquisa Forense Digital do Atlantic Council. “Mas nunca enfrentamos uma pandemia num momento em que as pessoas estivessem tão conectadas e tivessem tanto acesso a informações quanto agora.”

Esse crescente ecossistema de desinformação e desconfiança pública obrigou a Organização Mundial da Saúde (OMS) a ligar o alerta para uma “infodemia”. “Estamos assistindo a uma verdadeira inundação”, disse Brookie. “A ansiedade é viral, e todos estamos nos sentindo mais ansiosos que nunca.”

O fascínio do ‘conhecimento secreto’

“As conspirações atraem as pessoas porque prometem satisfazer certos motivos psicológicos que são importantes para elas”, disse Douglas. Os principais deles: o domínio sobre os fatos, a autonomia sobre o bem-estar e a sensação de controle.

Quando a verdade não atende a essas necessidades, nós humanos temos uma capacidade incrível de inventar histórias que atenderão, mesmo que uma parte de nós saiba que as histórias são falsas. Um estudo recente revelou que as pessoas são significativamente mais propensas a compartilhar informações falsas sobre o coronavírus do que imaginam.

“A magnitude da desinformação que se espalhou com a pandemia da covid-19 está sobrecarregando nossa equipe”, escreveu no Twitter o Snopes, um site de verificação de fatos. “Estamos vendo que milhares de pessoas, na ânsia de encontrar algum conforto, acabam piorando as coisas ao compartilhar informações falsas (e, às vezes, perigosas).”

Vastamente compartilhadas, postagens de Instagram alegaram, falsamente, que o coronavírus fora planejado por Bill Gates em benefício de empresas farmacêuticas. No Alabama, postagens de Facebook afirmaram, falsamente, que poderes obscuros haviam ordenado que doentes fossem secretamente enviados de helicóptero para o Estado. Na América Latina, proliferaram rumores igualmente infundados de que o vírus fora projetado para espalhar o HIV. No Irã, vozes pró-governo retrataram a doença como uma trama ocidental.

Se as alegações parecerem sigilosas, melhor ainda

A crença de que temos acesso a informações secretas pode nos dar a sensação de que temos uma vantagem, de que, de alguma forma, estamos mais seguros. “Quem acredita em teorias da conspiração acha que tem um poder, conferido pelo conhecimento, que as outras pessoas não têm”, disse Douglas.

A mídia italiana repercutiu um vídeo postado por um italiano que morava em Tóquio, no qual ele dizia que o coronavírus era tratável, mas que as autoridades italianas estavam “escondendo a verdade”.

Outros vídeos, muito populares no YouTube, afirmam que toda a pandemia é uma ficção encenada para controlar a população.

As teorias da conspiração também podem fazer as pessoas se sentirem menos sozinhas. Poucas coisas estreitam mais os laços entre “nós” do que combater “eles”, especialmente quando “eles” são estrangeiros e minorias, frequentes bodes expiatórios de boatos sobre o coronavírus e muitas outras coisas no passado.

Mas qualquer conforto que essas teorias proporcionem terá vida curta. Com o tempo, segundo pesquisas, o intercâmbio de conspirações não apenas fracassa em satisfazer nossas necessidades psicológicas, disse Douglas, como também tende a agravar sentimentos de medo e desamparo.

E isso pode nos levar a procurar explicações ainda mais extremas, como viciados em busca de doses cada vez mais fortes.

Governos vêm uma oportunidade na confusão  

Os conspiradores e questionadores agora têm apoio dos governos. Antecipando a repercussão política da crise, líderes governamentais agiram rapidamente para se eximirem da culpa, espalhando suas próprias mentiras.

Uma importante autoridade chinesa disse que o vírus foi introduzido na China por membros do Exército dos Estados Unidos, uma acusação que teve permissão para se disseminar nas mídias sociais rigidamente controladas da China.

Na Venezuela, o presidente Nicolás Maduro sugeriu que o vírus era uma arma biológica americana cujo alvo seria a China. No Irã, as autoridades o chamaram de conspiração para acabar com o processo eleitoral no país. E agências de notícias que apoiam o governo russo, algumas com filiais na Europa ocidental, ventilaram alegações de que os Estados Unidos projetaram o vírus para minar a economia chinesa.

Nas antigas repúblicas soviéticas do Turcomenistão e Tadjiquistão, líderes recomendaram tratamentos falsos e defenderam a ideia de que os cidadãos deveriam continuar trabalhando.

Mas as autoridades tampouco deixaram de espalhar boatos em nações mais democráticas, particularmente naquelas em que a desconfiança em relação à autoridade abriu espaço para a ascensão de fortes movimentos populistas.

Matteo Salvini, líder do partido anti-imigração Liga Norte, na Itália, escreveu no Twitter que a China havia criado um “supervírus de pulmão” a partir de “morcegos e ratos”.

E o presidente do Brasil, Jair Bolsonaro, repetidas vezes propagandeou tratamentos não comprovados e insinuou que o coronavírus seria menos perigoso do que dizem os especialistas. Facebook, Twitter e YouTube tomaram a extraordinária decisão de remover suas postagens.

O presidente Donald Trump também insistiu repetidamente no uso de medicamentos não comprovados, apesar das advertências dos cientistas e de pelo menos uma overdose fatal, a qual vitimou um homem cuja esposa disse que ele havia tomado o remédio por sugestão de Trump.

Trump acusou seus supostos inimigos de tentar “inflamar” a “situação” do coronavírus para prejudicá-lo. Quando começaram a faltar equipamentos de proteção individual nos hospitais de Nova York, ele insinuou que os profissionais de saúde estavam roubando as máscaras. Seus aliados foram ainda mais longe.

O senador Tom Cotton, republicano do Arkansas, e outros sugeriram que o vírus foi produzido por um laboratório de armas chinês. Alguns aliados da mídia alegaram que os inimigos de Trump exageraram o número de mortos.

Uma crise paralela

“Essa supressão de informações é perigosa – muito, muito perigosa”, disse Brookie, referindo-se aos esforços chineses e americanos para minimizar a ameaça do surto.

A supressão de informações alimentou não apenas conspirações específicas, mas também uma sensação mais generalizada de que as fontes e dados oficiais não são confiáveis, bem como a ideia cada vez mais disseminada de que as pessoas devem buscar a verdade por conta própria.

A cacofonia dos epidemiologistas de sofá, que costumam chamar a atenção com afirmações sensacionalistas, muitas vezes encobre a fala de especialistas legítimos, cujas respostas raramente são muito sintéticas ou tranquilizadoras.

Eles prometem curas fáceis, como evitar os aparelhos eletrônicos ou até mesmo comer bananas, e dizem que o transtorno do isolamento social é desnecessário. Alguns chegam a vender tratamentos enganosos que eles próprios inventaram.

“As teorias da conspiração do campo da medicina têm o poder de aumentar a desconfiança nas autoridades médicas, o que pode afetar a disposição das pessoas a se protegerem”, escreveram Daniel Jolley e Pia Lamberty, pesquisadores de psicologia, em um artigo recente.

Demonstrou-se que tais alegações deixam as pessoas menos propensas a tomar vacinas ou antibióticos e mais propensas a procurar aconselhamento médico junto a amigos e familiares, e não profissionais de saúde.

A crença em uma conspiração também tende a aumentar a crença nas outras. As consequências, alertam os especialistas, podem não apenas piorar a pandemia, mas também se estender para além dela. / TRADUÇÃO DE RENATO PRELORENTZOU 

Why Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories Flourish. And Why It Matters (New York Times)

The Interpreter

Unseen villains. Top-secret cures. In their quest for reassurance during the pandemic, many people are worsening more than just their own anxiety.

Volunteers disinfecting a theater in Wuhan, China, last week.
Volunteers disinfecting a theater in Wuhan, China, last week.Credit…Aly Song/Reuters

By Max Fisher

April 8, 2020; Updated 8:55 a.m. ET

The coronavirus has given rise to a flood of conspiracy theories, disinformation and propaganda, eroding public trust and undermining health officials in ways that could elongate and even outlast the pandemic.

Claims that the virus is a foreign bioweapon, a partisan invention or part of a plot to re-engineer the population have replaced a mindless virus with more familiar, comprehensible villains. Each claim seems to give a senseless tragedy some degree of meaning, however dark.

Rumors of secret cures — diluted bleach, turning off your electronics, bananas — promise hope of protection from a threat that not even world leaders can escape.

The belief that one is privy to forbidden knowledge offers feelings of certainty and control amid a crisis that has turned the world upside down. And sharing that “knowledge” may give people something that is hard to come by after weeks of lockdowns and death: a sense of agency.

“It has all the ingredients for leading people to conspiracy theories,” said Karen M. Douglas, a social psychologist who studies belief in conspiracies at the University of Kent in Britain.

Rumors and patently unbelievable claims are spread by everyday people whose critical faculties have simply been overwhelmed, psychologists say, by feelings of confusion and helplessness.

But many false claims are also being promoted by governments looking to hide their failures, partisan actors seeking political benefit, run-of-the-mill scammers and, in the United States, a president who has pushed unproven cures and blame-deflecting falsehoods.

The conspiracy theories all carry a common message: The only protection comes from possessing the secret truths that “they” don’t want you to hear.

The feelings of security and control offered by such rumors may be illusory, but the damage to the public trust is all too real.

It has led people to consume fatal home remedies and flout social distancing guidance. And it is disrupting the sweeping collective actions, like staying at home or wearing masks, needed to contain a virus that has already killed more than 79,000 people.

“We’ve faced pandemics before,” said Graham Brookie, who directs the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “We haven’t faced a pandemic at a time when humans are as connected and have as much access to information as they do now.”

People gathering on a beach in Rio de Janeiro last week. Brazil’s president has implied that the virus is less dangerous than experts say.
People gathering on a beach in Rio de Janeiro last week. Brazil’s president has implied that the virus is less dangerous than experts say.Credit…Antonio Lacerda/EPA, via Shutterstock

This growing ecosystem of misinformation and public distrust has led the World Health Organization to warn of an “infodemic.”

“You see the space being flooded,” Mr. Brookie said, adding, “The anxiety is viral, and we’re all just feeling that at scale.”

“People are drawn to conspiracies because they promise to satisfy certain psychological motives that are important to people,” Dr. Douglas said. Chief among them: command of the facts, autonomy over one’s well-being and a sense of control.

If the truth does not fill those needs, we humans have an incredible capacity to invent stories that will, even when some part of us knows they are false. A recent study found that people are significantly likelier to share false coronavirus information than they are to believe it.

[Analysis: Peaks, testing and lockdowns: How coronavirus vocabulary causes confusion.]

“The magnitude of misinformation spreading in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic is overwhelming our small team,” Snopes, a fact-checking site, said on Twitter. “We’re seeing scores of people, in a rush to find any comfort, make things worse as they share (sometimes dangerous) misinformation.”

Widely shared, Instagram posts falsely suggested that the coronavirus was planned by Bill Gates on behalf of pharmaceutical companies. In Alabama, Facebook posts falsely claimed that shadowy powers had ordered sick patients to be secretly helicoptered into the state. In Latin America, equally baseless rumors have proliferated that the virus was engineered to spread H.I.V. In Iran, pro-government voices portray the disease as a Western plot.

If the claims are seen as taboo, all the better.

The belief that we have access to secret information may help us feel that we have an advantage, that we are somehow safer. “If you believe in conspiracy theories, then you have power through knowledge that other people don’t have,” Dr. Douglas said.

Amid a swirl of rumors about the cause of Covid-19, some have attacked cellphone towers, like this one in Birmingham, England.
Amid a swirl of rumors about the cause of Covid-19, some have attacked cellphone towers, like this one in Birmingham, England.Credit…Carl Recine/Reuters

Italian media buzzed over a video posted by an Italian man from Tokyo in which he claimed that the coronavirus was treatable but that Italian officials were “hiding the truth.”

Other videos, popular on YouTube, claim that the entire pandemic is a fiction staged to control the population.

Still others say that the disease is real, but its cause isn’t a virus — it’s 5G cellular networks.

One YouTube video pushing this falsehood, and implying that social distancing measures could be ignored, has received 1.9 million views. In Britain, there has been a rash of attacks on cellular towers.

Conspiracy theories may also make people feel less alone. Few things tighten the bonds of “us” like rallying against “them,” especially foreigners and minorities, both frequent scapegoats of coronavirus rumors and much else before now.

But whatever comfort that affords is short-lived.

Over time, research finds, trading in conspiracies not only fails to satisfy our psychological needs, Dr. Douglas said, but also tends to worsen feelings of fear or helplessness.

And that can lead us to seek out still more extreme explanations, like addicts looking for bigger and bigger hits.

The homegrown conspiracists and doubters are finding themselves joined by governments. Anticipating political backlash from the crisis, government leaders have moved quickly to shunt the blame by trafficking in false claims of their own.

A senior Chinese official pushed claims that the virus was introduced to China by members of the United States Army, an accusation that was allowed to flourish on China’s tightly controlled social media.

In Venezuela, President Nicolás Maduro suggested that the virus was an American bioweapon aimed at China. In Iran, officials called it a plot to suppress the vote there. And outlets that back the Russian government, including branches in Western Europe, have promoted claims that the United States engineered the virus to undermine China’s economy.

In the former Soviet republics of Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, leaders praised bogus treatments and argued that citizens should continue working.

But officials have hardly refrained from the rumor mongering in more democratic nations, particularly those where distrust of authority has given rise to strong populist movements.

Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy’s anti-migrant League Party, wrote on Twitter that China had devised a “lung supervirus” from “bats and rats.”

And President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has repeatedly promoted unproven coronavirus treatments, and implied that the virus is less dangerous than experts say. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all took the extraordinary step of removing the posts.

President Trump has pushed unproven drugs, despite warnings from scientists.
President Trump has pushed unproven drugs, despite warnings from scientists.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Trump, too, has repeatedly pushed unproven drugs, despite warnings from scientists and despite at least one fatal overdose of a man whose wife said he had taken a drug at Mr. Trump’s suggestion.

Mr. Trump has accused perceived enemies of seeking to “inflame” the coronavirus “situation” to hurt him. When supplies of personal protective equipment fell short at New York hospitals, he implied that health workers might be stealing masks.

His allies have gone further.

Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, and others have suggested that the virus was produced by a Chinese weapons lab. Some media allies have claimed that the death toll has been inflated by Mr. Trump’s enemies.

“This kind of information suppression is dangerous — really, really dangerous,” Mr. Brookie said, referring to Chinese and American efforts to play down the threat of the outbreak.

It has nourished not just individual conspiracies but a wider sense that official sources and data cannot be trusted, and a growing belief that people must find the truth on their own.

A cacophony arising from armchair epidemiologists who often win attention through sensational claims is at times crowding out legitimate experts whose answers are rarely as tidy or emotionally reassuring.

They promise easy cures, like avoiding telecommunications or even eating bananas. They wave off the burdens of social isolation as unnecessary. Some sell sham treatments of their own.

“Medical conspiracy theories have the power to increase distrust in medical authorities, which can impact people’s willingness to protect themselves,” Daniel Jolley and Pia Lamberty, scholars of psychology, wrote in a recent article.

Such claims have been shown to make people less likely to take vaccines or antibiotics, and more likely to seek medical advice from friends and family instead of from doctors.

Supposed coronavirus remedies at a market in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
Supposed coronavirus remedies at a market in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.Credit…Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times

Belief in one conspiracy also tends to increase belief in others. The consequences, experts warn, could not only worsen the pandemic, but outlive it.

Medical conspiracies have been a growing problem for years. So has distrust of authority, a major driver of the world’s slide into fringe populism. Now, as the world enters an economic crisis with little modern precedent, that may deepen.

The wave of coronavirus conspiracies, Dr. Jolley and Dr. Lamberty wrote, “has the potential to be just as dangerous for societies as the outbreak itself.”

Emma Bubola contributed reporting from Rome.