Conspiracy thinkers are often heretical and then ignored. Sociologist Jaron Harambam obtained his PhD in conspiracy theories in 2017. He argues for more dialogue with conspiracy thinkers and other people with an opinion that differs from what is considered truth by the masses. That also helps science forward. "If you put them away as idiots, they will radicalise and become what you accuse them of."
In mid-April, something special happens on the solid NPO2: in the Danny op street program , journalist Danny Ghosen visits people who believe in the connection between the corona virus and the rollout of the 5G network in the Netherlands. As always, Ghosen does not interview his guests uncritically - he slams them with the facts from the RIVM reports - but let them tell their story.
After the program, we immediately switch to Nieuwsuur presenter Jeroen Wollaars, who announces his program with a wink by saying: "Are we going back to the facts ..."
Don't we dismiss people who have an alternative view of the truth as 'crazy' too easily? Jaron Harambam (1983) thinks so. "It is important that you understand their ideas," says the sociologist who works at the Institute for Media Studies of the Catholic University of Leuven.
"If you say: there is no connection between 5G and corona, it immediately relieves you of the responsibility to investigate where that fear comes from. Moreover, you no longer ask the question: has that 5G technique been well researched? Which industries have an interest in this? In my view, it is far better to investigate that doubt rather than cut off the discussion. "
A man walks away after setting fire to a radio tower in Groningen. According to conspiracy theorists, the 5G network that broadcasts the masts is harmful to health. (Photo: image from video NU.nl)
Conspiracy thinkers are not all the same
Harambam spoke to many people from the conspiracy world for his dissertation, with which he obtained his PhD cum laude. The differences are huge. "There are people who no longer believe the 'mainstream sound', but there are also some who just have doubts or questions about this and are open to different sounds. In my opinion, the latter group is made invisible by excessive attention, also in the media , for dogmatic fanatics. Only by confronting ideas do you grow as a person and society, and you learn more. "
Does he think that during this time of crisis we bend too much with the 'Rutte line' in which one law is central (the scientists at RIVM are always right)? "There is always a picture of a unified science that holds the truth. That idea denies that there are different ideas about this within science, precisely because there are so many questions about corona. These questions are now being answered by a limited group scientists and that the lack of opening up to other visions and methods is disastrous, also for confidence in science. "
"You have to facilitate contradiction, make different voices heard, and now it is only the truth of the OMT that is relied on. There are so many different people and institutes in the Netherlands who can do research and experiments to find out more about this."
“People like Jort Kelder and Kluun just drop a balloon. Plot thinkers often do the same. ” Jaron Harambam, sociologist who graduated from conspiracy theories
But isn't life clearer if we stick to the facts? Can't we run behind everywhere? The sociologist quotes a current question: how contagious is the virus outside? "I can imagine that you as a festival boss want to do research on this. Suppose you organize something with a thousand people in Groningen where it is relatively safe and then watch how the virus develops."
How does he explain that alternative insights such as that of Jort Kelder (summarized: let's limit the recession by not locking the economy too much) and writer Kluun (perhaps young people can go to festivals) get so many fierce reactions? "Those people just drop a balloon and conspiracy thinkers often do that too. You don't have to assume everything, but you can say: let's investigate. There are conspiracy thinkers who are completely wrong, but some also have a point. But nowadays only scientific experts are allowed to release balloons. "
'The best explanations will eventually surface to the surface'
Harambam believes that the past has sufficiently demonstrated the importance of continuing to explore general truths. "Just look at the revelation of secret services espionage by Edward Snowden, at dieselgate or the secret price agreements between banks in the Libor scandal. The point is that you should have a discussion about the truth and not censor some sounds, drive the best statements eventually upstairs anyway. "
But is there really no such thing as the truth? Harambam is a supporter of the sociologist Bruno Latour who argued that 'the truth' is not only the sum of facts, but also of politics. Something is rather seen as truth if the right people and institutions support your reality.
"Latour says that the success of scientific facts is determined primarily in the world outside the laboratories. This does not mean that the truth is only a story or political, but that it is based on more than just the facts. It is about the network of scientists, measurement methods and institutes that perpetuates the fact. "
Sociologist Harambam in his hometown of Brussels: "With conspiracy thinkers, you shouldn't just want to get right with facts." (Photo: ProShots)
Can fear be a reason why people rely more on the science of facts? "Half a year ago, we still had the farmers who questioned the RIVM figures on nitrogen and in March we suddenly all listened to the same RIVM experts. Uncertainty and fear certainly have to do with that: science still provides guidance. "
As an example, he mentions the video of pulmonologist David Prins, who doubts the dominant story that vaccines are the only solution to the corona crisis. "That man asks good questions about staring at vaccines and argues for alternative solutions and experiments. He is completely destroyed because he does not have everything completely correct, while he does have a good story. It may indeed be very difficult to find a good working vaccine - like with AIDS - and then it is stupid to put everything on that? There are several possibilities, let's investigate it. "
A call for more transparency and doubt in the official story
Somewhat reassuring in that context, he found the performance of RIVM boss Hans Brug in Buitenhof . "He stated that scientists still learn every week. I think that's a good line: we don't know everything, which is why let's hear different voices and do different kinds of research. Surely we can allow more doubt and transparency in the official story?"
Harambam not only finds it undesirable, but even calls it dangerous to exclude different views. "If you don't take people seriously but put them away as dogmatic idiots, they become radical and become what you accuse them of. In many cases they are people who just have questions, but they are put away as conspiracy thinkers, making them increasingly convincing of their equal."
"I would talk much more with these people, not attack hard and not just want to equalize you with facts. That does not lead to understanding and then you only create greater social contradictions."