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Russell Wangersky: An epidemic of dubious information

A monarch caterpillar spotted munching on milkweed
A monarch caterpillar spotted munching on milkweed

OK — this is going to be pessimistic. And dark. Right now, scientists are watching the rise of a particular baculovirus in caterpillar populations.

Russell Wangersky

The virus interrupts the caterpillar’s internal clock, so that instead of moulting, the caterpillar eats, grows freakishly in size, then climbs to the highest point possible on its bush or tree. At that point, a virus-made enzyme liquefies the zombie caterpillar’s entire insides, and then, what’s essentially become a virus sack, bursts.

How does it work? Scientists who have been studying the infection suggest the virus rewires caterpillars to seek light, and jumpstarts their metabolism to allow them to climb hyperactively before their insides fully liquefy.

Researchers suggest the evolutionary benefit of gaining that height is twofold. First, if the caterpillar explodes high enough in the tree or bush, the viral load it’s carrying splatters over the maximum amount of area, enabling the infection of more caterpillars. If a bird happens to carry the infection-satchel away, that’s fine, too: there’s the opportunity to spread the infection to whole new populations.

It makes me think of a recent article in The Atlantic, one that should be required reading for anyone wondering “how did we get to this point?”

The article’s called “How America Lost its Mind,” written by Kurt Anderson.

I won’t write a précis of the article, but I will point out its main thrust — that the strangely fact-averse world of the United States is the product of years of its own belief in its exceptionalism.

Anderson writes, “The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies — every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, all of us free to reinvent ourselves by imagination and will.”

That reinvention now disparages facts and accuracy and creates its own reality, one that needs nothing more than to be repeated often and forcefully enough to be accepted.

And the infection is spreading well beyond U.S. borders.

All from something that you think would be a good thing: a belief in our own value.

“You can be anything you want,” we tell our children.

Except, they can’t. Not everyone is smart enough or dedicated enough to be a neurosurgeon. We have opportunities, to be sure, and many more opportunities than other people — but it’s not limitless. We’re not able to reach all our dreams — often, we’re capped by the harsh reality of our personal limitations.

Coupled with the “you-can-be-anything” mantra is the idea that all opinions are somehow equal, regardless of the fact some might be based on completely demonstrable falsehoods.

Everyone’s ideas have value, we’re told. The construct is that whatever you believe is every bit as valuable as anyone else’s ideas. And, as such, everyone’s opinions are worth the same consideration, discussion and wide-ranging dissemination on the wonderful world wide web.

Even when those ideas that burst like death caterpillars and rain down contagion on the unwitting, the credulous and the non-discerning, in the process poisoning us all.

We’re building a hellish mess.

“We need to adopt new protocols for information-media hygiene,” Anderson says. “Would you feed your kids a half-eaten casserole a stranger handed you on the bus, or give them medicine you got from some lady at the gym?”


But you’d feed them half-baked theories on vaccines or deep state conspiracies or climate change denial.

Look up.

The contagion sack has burst. Then we climb, infected and mindless.

Thinking in the process we’re exceptional, on a trek as our own private Edmund Hillarys.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 35 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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