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The ancient Greeks were obsessed with geometry, which may have formed the basis of their philosophical cosmology.
- Every triangle inscribed inside a circle on its diameter is a right triangle.
- Upon this discovery, Thales is said to have performed a great ritual sacrifice.
- Might Thales have believed that the entire cosmos was constructed of right triangles?
Thales is credited by the late commentator Proclus, on the authority of Aristotle's student Eudemus, with "discovering" geometrical propositions, some of them more generally and others more practically. Consider some of the diagrams expressing practical examples of right-angled triangles.
From left to right, we have Thales' measurement of (i) the height of a pyramid when its shadow is equal to its height; (ii) the height of a pyramid when its shadow is unequal but proportional to its height; (iii) the distance to a ship at sea from the shoreline; and (iv) the distance to a ship at sea from a tower. Note that, when rotated, they are all the same diagram!
The more general propositions also seem to be relevant to practical geometry:
We have a report about a special accomplishment of Thales. Originating with Diogenes Laertius of the 3rd century BCE on the authority of the mathematician Pamphila, it says that Thales made a splendid ritual sacrifice upon inscribing a right triangle in a circle. Obviously, he thought this was a pretty big deal. More on that a bit later.
The first thing Thales had to know is that the angles of every triangle sum to two right angles. (The angles inside every triangle sum to 180°. Two right angles, each of which is 90°, also sum to 180°.) We have an ancient report that credits Thales' generation of geometers with having grasped this fact in all species of triangles — equilateral, isosceles, and scalene. How might Thales and his geometers have done it? Consider the following diagrams:
By dropping a perpendicular from a vertex to the opposite side in each species of triangle, and then completing the two rectangles formed, one can see immediately that each rectangle (containing four right angles) is halved by the diagonal created by each side of the triangle. Therefore, each half-triangle contains two right angles. And if the two right angles at the base are removed, leaving the three angles of one large triangle, the angles sum to two right angles.
Now, consider how Thales may have proved that every triangle inscribed inside a circle on its diameter must be a right triangle. To show this, he relied on the isosceles triangle proposition and proved that the angle at A [α + β] is right-angled.
Perhaps he did it this way: Based upon the isosceles triangle proposition, Thales knows that segments BD and AD (left diagram) are equal in length because they are both radii of the circle BAC. Thus, their opposite angles — α and α — must be equal. Since every triangle is 180° (that is, contains the equivalent of two right angles) and the angle BDA at the base is a right angle, α + α must also equal one right angle. By itself, α is half of a right angle.
Next, CD and AD are both equal in length since they, too, are both radii of the circle BAC, and so the angles opposite each must also be equal — that is, β equals β. If we acknowledge that the angle at the base ADC is a right angle, and there is the equivalent of two right angles in every triangle, then β + β must equal one right angle. By itself, β is half of a right angle.
Finally, the angle at A is divided into two equal parts, α and β. Because each is half of a right angle, together (α + β) they equal one right angle.
That explains the right angle for an isosceles triangle inscribed inside of a circle. But what about all the varieties of the scalene? More or less, it's the same argument.
Consider triangle ABC (right diagram). It is composed of two triangles ABD and ACD. In ABD, AD must be equal to BD because both are radii of the circle BAC, and so the angles opposite those sides also must be equal. The same argument applies for triangle ADC. Thus, the three angles of triangle ABC are α + β + (α + β). Since we already know that the angles of every triangle sum to 180° (that is, the equivalent of two right angles), then α + β + (α + β) equals two right angles. Thus, α + β must equal one right angle.
Perhaps these lines of proof persuaded Thales and his companions that every triangle inscribed in a circle on its diameter is right. But why the great ritual sacrifice?
The ancient traditions do not give us more insight, and we are left only to speculate. Aristotle claims that Thales posited an underlying unity, water, that alters without changing. Although things look different, water is the substrate of all appearances. Water is merely altered without changing substantially. Had Thales been looking into geometry to try to discover the underlying structure of water, perhaps he followed a similar line of thought as Plato did when he identified the four elements (fire, air, water, and earth) with geometric shapes.
Thales may have identified the right triangle as the fundamental structure of water. Moreover, he now had a way to produce an unlimited number of them for further investigation simply by making a circle, drawing its diameter, and inscribing a triangle inside it.
But there is perhaps another reason for his splendid sacrifice, seen in this metaphysical light. I can imagine one of his compatriots objecting, upon hearing Thales' idea that water was the underlying nature or unity of all things and that the right triangle was its structure. The objection may have gone like this: right triangles may form the basis of every rectilinear figure, but they certainly don't form the basis of the circle. The circle is not constructed out of right triangles, is it? Thus, the right triangle is not the fundamental figure of all appearances.
Thales' reply must have been as astonishing to his compatriots as it is to many of us today. Indeed, the circle too is built out of right triangles! If we plot on the circle's diameter all the possible triangles inscribable inside a circle — starting from one end of the diameter, touching the circle, and then finishing at the other end of the diameter — we produce what modern mathematicians call a "geometrical loci." The circle itself is constructed out of right triangles!
Prof. Robert Hahn has broad interests in the history of ancient and modern astronomy and physics, ancient technologies, the contributions of ancient Egypt and monumental architecture to early Greek philosophy and cosmology, and ancient mathematics and geometry of Egypt and Greece. Every year, he gives "Ancient Legacies" traveling seminars to Greece, Turkey, and Egypt. His latest book is The Metaphysics of the Pythagorean Theorem.
Brain-based technologies of spiritual enhancement can induce mystical experiences in many people on demand. What does this mean for spirituality today?
- Spiritual or mystical experiences have particular "neural signatures."
- Technology like transcranial stimulation can lead people toward these experiences.
- The technology appears safe and offers "authentic" experiences, but there are clear dangers.
What do you get when you mix transcendental meditation with EEG-guided neurofeedback? What does ultrasound brain stimulation have to teach us about equanimity? Can a virtual reality technodelic hold therapeutic potential on par with psychedelic medicines?
These are the types of questions emerging within a new field of technological research that is creating brain-based technologies for spiritual enhancement. An eclectic group of innovative designers and scientists are using their education and skills to serve the good of humanity rather than the profit margin. These are the consciousness hackers, technodelic psychonauts, and enlightenment engineers who are exploring the possibility of "technoboosts" that can contribute to holistic human wellness and spiritual flourishing. They recognize that the path toward spiritual insight can be incredibly difficult, with one obstacle after another, and always uphill. Who has time for a fifty-day meditation retreat, let alone a two-year isolated meditation experience?!
Spirituality meets technology
Several commercial products already claim to help spiritual seekers achieve spiritually meaningful experiences with a lot less frustration, including the Muse brain-sensing headband, which uses neurofeedback to guide your brain into meditative states, and the Zendo e-meditation headset, which enhances meditation with electrical brain stimulation. In our new book, Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering, we cover these and many other exciting innovations.
"Fool's gold!" some say. But experiences enhanced by spirit tech appear to be every bit as authentic and transformative as spontaneously occurring intense spiritual experiences or hard-won mystical meditation states.
The key insight behind spirit tech is the way the human brain works. There isn't a single "god spot" in the brain, and there isn't even circuitry dedicated to spirituality or mysticism. No surprise there; after all, spiritual experiences, including intense mystical experiences, are incredibly diverse in the way they feel to people, and it is unlikely a single region or circuit within the brain could generate such diversity.
But there are patterns in the variation, recurring types of mystical experience. For instance, there's the "unitive" experience where you feel like your body boundaries dissolve and you merge into the surrounding environment. There's the "insight" experience where you become vividly aware of the pulsing ultimate reality just beneath the surface of everyday convention and appearance. There's the "compassion" experience where you feel bonded to every living being, especially those closest to you and partners in a ritual process. There's the "demonic" experience in which you encounter unspeakable evil and desperately call on whatever powers you can to overcome it with beauty, truth, and goodness.
Those types of mystical experience, and others, have neural signatures. Today's technology can read those signatures using brain imaging techniques. Then we can lead people toward such states, either with transcranial stimulation technologies or with neural feedback that encourages a desired mystical state without any external stimulation.
Yep. Consider neural feedback-guided meditation training. A meditation guide feeds the brain signature of your desired mystical state into a machine and uses a few EEG sensors on your scalp to feed your current brain state into the same machine. The machine compares the two states and supplies feedback to help you get from where you are to where you want to be. Maybe you stare at a screen and aim to align two circles, for instance. You are still meditating, but you're no longer lost in the forest of the mind.
Expert meditators, who have special brains with built-in auto-feedback capabilities, have an advantage over the rest of us. Spirit tech democratizes meditation. It speeds up the learning process, decreases frustration, and brings us more quickly to prized states of mind and associated behavioral changes.
Spirituality in the brain
Scientists found out about neural signatures for mystical experiences partly by imaging the brains of expert meditators in mystical states and partly by observing the effects of selective brain damage. For example, Parkinson's disease, though mostly known as a neurodegenerative process affecting motor skills, also makes connecting to spirituality more difficult, especially when the Parkinsonian shakes start on the left side of the body. That means that the damage due to the disease process — in this case, the dopamine circuitry in the right medial-frontal cortex — is implicated in producing some kinds of spiritual experiences. That's a giant hint about how to produce such experiences. Scientists have tried to affect those parts of the brain with specially aligned and pulsed magnetic fields — a weak version of the repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation used in hospitals to treat intractable depression — and seem to have produced powerful spiritual experiences in healthy people.
The Neuroscience of Enlightenment, with Dr. Andrew Newberg | Big Think www.youtube.com
Other sources of insight into brain function come from stroke or accident, both of which can selectively damage parts of the brain. Lost function tells us something about the roles brain regions play in producing thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Strokes and diseases affecting motivation often involve damage to the basal ganglia, producing a situation in which the patient has a feeling of no self, with no pleasure and no drive to do anything. Well, some meditation traditions aim for no-self equanimity that seems a bit like that, without the deadly side effects, of course. Could there be a safe way to inhibit or disrupt normal activity in the basal ganglia and see what happens? That's a deep structure, too deep for electric or magnetic fields to penetrate selectively. But ultrasound can reach deep into the brain. Anyone want to try a greatly weakened version of a technology similar to the one used to blast kidney stones?!
Famous meditation teacher Shinzen Young volunteered. He was patient #1 for neuroscientist Jay Sanguinetti. In what was an amazingly trusting relationship, they tried transcranial focused ultrasound (tFUS), targeting the parts of the brain they thought were critical to the production of a sense of self. Shinzen reported some of the most powerful mystical states in his entire meditation career. And so did a whole bunch of veteran meditators who subsequently tried the tech.
Spiritual experiences on demand
There are lots more of these spiritually potent technologies, including high-tech ways to enhance spiritual togetherness and virtual-reality experiences that create something like a psychedelic experience without any drugs. They are arriving thick and fast, and the landscape can feel confusing. So, let's close by considering two common concerns.
Are tech-assisted spiritual experiences authentic? Judging from the reports of people who have experienced both tech-assisted and no-tech spiritual experiences, we think the answer is usually yes. They are the real deal, potentially. But they create opportunities for exploitation by unscrupulous companies who would take advantage of spiritual questers for a quick buck. Our advice: make sure you know who is making these products and why.
Are tech-assisted spiritual experiences safe? So far, the answer seems to be yes, but there are dangers. Just as intense tech-free meditation experiences can skittle the psychic stability of some people and bring on psychosis, so tech-assisted spiritual experiences might be unhealthy for some people. Similarly, any technology can be abused and used to harm people. So, if you want to go this way, be a smart consumer, just as you study the safety features of a car before committing to buy.
Mystical experiences on demand? Apparently, yes. But while you're worrying about authenticity and safety, don't forget to pause and ponder the possibilities of setting loose in the world the kinds of experience that routinely change priorities and values in the direction of the good, the true, and the beautiful.
Wesley J. Wildman is a professor in the School of Theology and the Faculty of Computing and Data Sciences at Boston University. Kate J. Stockly is a lecturer at Boston University and a researcher at the Center for Mind and Culture. They are the authors of Spirit Tech: The Brave New World of Consciousness Hacking and Enlightenment Engineering (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2021).
Our program lowers reincarceration rates by 44 percent.
- The average incarcerated person will return to prison seven times. A child with an incarcerated parent is six times likelier to become incarcerated.
- To break the recidivism cycle, our program provides resources that address mental health and addiction issues and teach life skills.
- Participants in our program have a 44 percent lower reincarceration rate.
On Father's Day, when you heard the ancient proverb, "Like father, like son," you likely assumed it was a compliment that the son has taken after his father. It's spoken to show reverence for being the same, from generation to generation.
The prison cycle
Unfortunately, in our society, experiencing incarceration is what remains the same for many fathers and sons, generation after generation. In fact, a child who has experienced parental incarceration is, on average, six times more likely to become incarcerated themselves. Approximately 10 million children in the United States already face these odds, having had one or both parents in prison at some point in childhood.
Helping parents successfully re-enter society can improve their children's outcomes in life. Research shows that the strength of the parent-child bond and quality of the family's social support system are big factors in a successful re-entry experience. Yet, when the opportunity to reunite presents itself, odds are the reunion will not last. Typically, four out of five people released from prison are rearrested within five years. Thus, a parent cycling in and out of being physically present can be a recurring experience for millions of children. In fact, the average recidivist will return to prison not once, but seven times.
Typically, four out of five people released from prison are rearrested within five years.
As America engages in tough conversations and collaborates on solutions, we want the issue of recidivism and the far-reaching consequences of the perpetual cycle of reincarceration to be addressed. Recidivism is among our most complex and urgent societal issues. In fact, we challenge anyone to find another issue that has so many ripple effects across our communities.
The ripple effects of incarceration
Economics, wellness, mental health, housing, employment — all of these are intimately interconnected. Formerly incarcerated individuals are far more likely to suffer from extreme poverty, homelessness, lower educational achievement, substance use, mental health disorders, and reincarceration.
Even during periods of economic growth, low success rates after prison are a major driver of poverty in the U.S. When fathers are incarcerated, the average family income decreases by 22 percent. Finding and keeping stable housing is also an issue. The formerly incarcerated are five times more likely than the general population to be homeless.
Health and wellness are paramount. Our research indicates that most incarcerated individuals have experienced horrific trauma at a young age, having been shot, stabbed, raped, severely beaten, or seen a loved one die in front of them. It's no surprise then to learn that upon release, the vast majority (about 80 percent) of formerly incarcerated individuals exhibit signs of behavioral health and substance use disorders. This group is also the largest segment to die from drug overdose.
These and other issues correlate with low educational achievement. On average, justice-involved individuals reach only the 9th grade. Almost two thirds (72 percent) of formerly incarcerated individuals do not obtain full-time jobs after release from prison. For those that do, their wages are as much as 40 percent lower than their never-incarcerated counterparts.
Our holistic solution breaks the cycle of recidivism
The cycle of recidivism has a holistic effect on individuals, families, children, and society. These facts and root causes led us to recognize that a holistic problem needs a holistic solution. To give formerly incarcerated individuals a chance to succeed for themselves and those who depend upon them, we realized that we needed holistic programming to support that outcome.
This realization inspired us to form Concordance, a non-profit re-entry program in 2015. We began providing re-entry services to justice-involved individuals a year later — exactly five years ago this month. Headquartered in St. Louis, our holistic, integrated, and evidence-informed program starts with helping participants heal from trauma, mental health disorders, and substance use disorders. From there, we help our participants learn the skills they need to earn a sustainable living and put strategies into daily practice that reduce their likelihood of reincarceration.
Five years later, Concordance can report having lowered reincarceration rates among our participants by 44 percent, exceeding our original goal. Concordance graduates are heads of households, leading families, and engaging in their children's lives. They have secured living-wage jobs and achieved food and housing security, as well as improved their physical and mental health. Many volunteer in their neighborhoods, becoming role models for their children and communities.
Before founding Concordance, we researched the cycle of reincarceration alongside the best minds in the country. Dr. John Roman is among them. He is a senior fellow of NORC, one of the largest independent social research organizations in the country, and based at the University of Chicago.
Our method works
A national expert on evaluating re-entry programs, Dr. Roman attests that he has never seen a comprehensive, scalable program that is as promising at reducing reincarceration and helping people re-enter into society as Concordance. Our collaborative research and analysis of the results of the Concordance program indicate that participants do substantially better than people who are returned to society without getting the intensive wraparound support that Concordance offers.
Of course, we are thrilled with the results from the past five years of helping transform lives and creating real change, but we know greater gains are possible. A growing contingent of diverse and influential change makers agree, which is helping accelerate our plans to scale the Concordance model nationally by expanding to eleven additional U.S. cities by 2025.
The expectation is that as we take a proven solution with demonstrated results in one region and expand it to other cities, we can bring about real societal change to thousands of communities across our country. We can even help some men and boys recast what it means to be the same, generation after generation. Like father, like son.
Danny Ludeman is president and CEO of Concordance. He previously served as CEO of Wells Fargo Advisors. John K. Roman, Ph.D., is a senior fellow in the Economics, Justice and Society Department at NORC at the University of Chicago.
As a form of civil disobedience, hacking can help make the world a better place.
- Hackers' motivations range from altruistic to nihilistic.
- Altruistic hackers expose injustices, while nihilistic ones make society more dangerous.
- The line between ethical and unethical hacking is not always clear.
The following is an excerpt from Coding Democracy by Maureen Webb, which is publishing in paperback on July 21. Reprinted with Permission from The MIT PRESS. Copyright 2020.
As people begin to hack more concertedly at the structures of the status quo, the reactions of those who benefit from things as they are will become more fierce and more punitive, at least until the "hackers" succeed in shifting the relevant power relationships. We know this from the history of social movements. At the dawning of the digital age, farmers who hack tractors will be ruthlessly punished.
Somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries.
Of course, it must be acknowledged that hackers are engaged in a whole range of acts, from the altruistic to the plainly nihilistic and dangerous. On the altruistic side of the continuum, they are creating free software (GNU/Linux and other software under GPL licenses), Creative Commons (Creative Commons licensing), and Open Access (designing digital interfaces to make public records and publicly funded research accessible). They are hacking surveillance and monopoly power (creating privacy tools, alternative services, cooperative platforms, and a new decentralized internet) and electoral politics and decision making (Cinque Stelle, En Comú, Ethelo, Liquid Democracy, and PartidoX). They have engaged in stunts to expose the technical flaws in voting, communications, and security systems widely used by, or imposed on, the public (by playing chess with Germany's election voting machines, hacking the German Bildschirmtext system, and stealing ministers' biometric identifiers). They have punished shady contractors like HackingTeam, HBGary, and Stratfor, spilling their corporate dealings and personal information across the internet. They have exposed the corruption of oligarchs, politicians, and hegemons (through the Panama Papers, WikiLeaks, and Xnet).
More notoriously, they have coordinated distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to retaliate against corporate and government conduct (such as the Anonymous DDoS that protested PayPal's boycott of WikiLeaks; the ingenious use of the Internet of Things to DDoS Amazon; and the shutdown of US and Canadian government IT systems). They have hacked into databases (Manning and Snowden), leaked state secrets (Manning, Snowden, and WikiLeaks), and, in doing so, betrayed their own governments (Manning betrayed US war secrets, and Snowden betrayed US security secrets). They have interfered with elections (such as the hack and leak of the Democratic National Committee in the middle of the 2016 US election) and sown disinformation (the Russian hacking of US social media). They have interfered with property rights in order to assert user ownership, self-determination, and free software's four freedoms (farmers have hacked DRM code to repair their tractors, and Geohot unlocked the iPhone and hacked the Samsung phone to allow users administrator-level access to their devices) and to assert open access to publicly funded research. They have created black markets to evade state justice systems (such as Silk Road on the dark web) and cryptocurrencies that could undermine state-regulated monetary systems. They have meddled in geopolitics as free agents (Anonymous and the Arab Spring, and Julian Assange and his conduct with the Trump campaign). They have mucked around in and could potentially impair or shut down critical infrastructure. (The notorious "WANK worm" attack on NASA is an early, notorious, example, but hackers could potentially target banking systems, stock exchanges, electrical grids, telecommunications systems, air traffic control, chemical plants, nuclear plants, and even military "doomsday machines.")
It is impossible to calculate where these acts nudge us as a species. Some uses of hacking — such as the malicious, nihilistic hacking that harms critical infrastructure and threatens lives, and the hacking in cyberwarfare that injures the critical interests of other countries and undermines their democratic processes — are abhorrent and cannot be defended. The unfolding digital era looks very grim when one considers the threat this kind of hacking poses to peace and democracy combined with the dystopian direction states and corporations are going with digital tech.
But somewhere on the continuum of altruism and transgression is the kind of hacking that might lead the world toward more accountable government and informed citizenries, less corrupt and unfair economic systems, wiser public uses of digital tech, more self-determination for the ordinary user, fairer commercial contracts, better conditions for innovation and creativity, more decentralized and robust infrastructure systems, and an abolition of doomsday machines. In short, some hacking might move us toward a digital world in which there are more rather than fewer democratic, humanist outcomes.
It is not clear where the line between "good" and "bad" hacking should be drawn or how to regulate it wisely in every instance. Citizens should inform themselves and begin to consider this line-drawing seriously, however, since we will be grappling intensely with it for the next century or more. My personal view is that digital tech should not be used for everything. I think we should go back to simpler ways of running electrical grids and elections, for example. Systems are more resilient when they are not wholly digital and when they are smaller, more local, and modular. Consumers should have analogue options for things like fridges and cars, and design priorities for household goods should be durability and clean energy use, not interconnectedness.
In setting legal standards, prohibiting something and enforcing the prohibition are two different things. Sometimes a desired social norm can be struck by prohibiting a thing and not enforcing it strenuously. And the law can also recognize the constructive role that civil disobedience plays in the evolution of social norms, through prosecutorial discretion and judicial discretion in sentencing.
Wau Holland told the young hackers at the Paradiso that the Chaos Computer Club was "not just a bunch of techno freaks: we've been thinking about the social consequences of technology from the very beginning." Societies themselves, however, are generally just beginning to grapple with the social consequences of digital technology and with how to characterize the various acts performed by hackers, morally and legally. Each act raises a set of complex questions. Societies' responses will be part of the dialectic that determines where we end up. Should these various hacker acts be treated as incidents of public service, free speech, free association, legitimate protest, civil disobedience, and harmless pranksterism? Or should they be treated as trespass, tortious interference, intellectual property infringement, theft, fraud, conspiracy, extortion, espionage, terrorism, and treason? I invite you to think about this as you consider how hacking has been treated by societies to date.
In each of our minds, we draw a demarcation line between beliefs that are reasonable and those that are nonsense. Where do you draw your line?
- Conspiracy theories exist on a spectrum, from plausible and mainstream to fringe and unpopular.
- It's very rare to find someone who only believes in one conspiracy theory. They generally believe in every conspiracy theory that's less extreme than their favorite one.
- To some extent, we are all conspiracy theorists.
The following is an excerpt from the book Escaping the Rabbit Hole by Mick West. It is reprinted with permission from the author.
If you want to understand how people fall for conspiracy theories, and if you want to help them, then you have to understand the conspiracy universe. More specifically, you need to know where their favorite theories are on the broader spectrum of conspiracies.
What type of person falls for conspiracy theories? What type of person would think that the World Trade Center was a controlled demolition, or that planes are secretly spraying chemicals to modify the climate, or that nobody died at Sandy Hook, or that the Earth is flat? Are these people crazy? Are they just incredibly gullible? Are they young and impressionable? No, in fact the range of people who believe in conspiracy theories is simply a random slice of the general population.
There's a conspiracy theory for everyone, and hence very few people are immune.
Many dismiss conspiracy theorists as a bunch of crazy people, or a bunch of stupid people, or a bunch of crazy stupid people. Yet in many ways the belief in a conspiracy theory is as American as apple pie, and like apple pie it comes in all kinds of varieties, and all kinds of normal people like to consume it.
My neighbor down the road is a conspiracy theorist. Yet he's also an engineer, retired after a successful career. I've had dinner at his house, and yet he's a believer in chemtrails, and I'm a chemtrail debunker. It's odd; he even told me after a few glasses of wine that he thinks I'm being paid to debunk chemtrails. He thought this because he googled my name and found some pages that said I was a paid shill. Since he's a conspiracy theorist he tends to trust conspiracy sources more than mainstream sources, so he went with that.
Why do people believe in conspiracy theories? | Michio Kaku, Bill Nye & more | Big Think www.youtube.com
I've met all kinds of conspiracy theorists. At a chemtrails convention I attended there was pretty much the full spectrum. There were sensible and intelligent older people who had discovered their conspiracy anything from a few months ago to several decades ago. There were highly eccentric people of all ages, including one old gentleman with a pyramid attached to his bike. There were people who channeled aliens, and there were people who were angry that the alien-channeling people were allowed in. There were young people itching for a revolution. There were well-read intellectuals who thought there was a subtle system of persuasion going on in the evening news, and there were people who genuinely thought they were living in a computer simulation.
There's such a wide spectrum of people who believe in conspiracy theories because the spectrum of conspiracy theories itself is very wide. There's a conspiracy theory for everyone, and hence very few people are immune.
The mainstream and the fringe
One unfortunate problem with the term "conspiracy theory" is that it paints with a broad brush. It's tempting to simply divide people up into "conspiracy theorists" and "regular people" — to have tinfoil-hat-wearing paranoids on one side and sensible folk on the other. But the reality is that we are all conspiracy theorists, one way or another. We all know that conspiracies exist; we all suspect people in power of being involved in many kinds of conspiracies, even if it's only something as banal as accepting campaign contributions to vote a certain way on certain types of legislation.
It's also tempting to simply label conspiracy theories as either "mainstream" or "fringe." Journalist Paul Musgrave referenced this dichotomy when he wrote in the Washington Post:
Less than two months into the administration, the danger is no longer that Trump will make conspiracy thinking mainstream. That has already come to pass.
Musgrave obviously does not mean that shape-shifting lizard overlords have become mainstream. Nor does he mean that flat Earth, chemtrails, or even 9/11 truth are mainstream. What he's really talking about is a fairly small shift in a dividing line on the conspiracy spectrum. Most fringe conspiracy theories remain fringe, most mainstream theories remain mainstream. But, Musgrave argues, there's been a shift that's allowed the bottom part of the fringe to enter into the mainstream. Obama being a Kenyan was thought by many to be a silly conspiracy theory, something on the fringe. But if the president of the United States (Trump) keeps bringing it up, then it moves more towards the mainstream.
Both conspiracy theories and conspiracy theorists exist on a spectrum. If we are to communicate effectively with a conspiracy-minded friend we need to get some perspective on the full range of that spectrum, and where our friend's personal blend of theories fit into it.
It's very rare to find someone who only believes in one conspiracy theory. They generally believe in every conspiracy theory that's less extreme than their favorite one.
There are several ways we can classify a conspiracy theory: how scientific is it? How many people believe in it? How plausible is? But one I'm going use is a somewhat subjective measure of how extreme the theory is. I'm going to rank them from 1 to 10, with 1 being entirely mainstream to 10 being the most obscure extreme fringe theory you can fathom.
This extremeness spectrum is not simply a spectrum of reasonableness or scientific plausibility. Being extreme is being on the fringe, and fringe simply denotes the fact that it's an unusual interpretation and is restricted to a small number of people. A belief in religious supernatural occurrences (like miracles) is a scientifically implausible belief, and yet it is not considered particularly fringe.
Let's start with a simple list of actual conspiracy theories. These are ranked by extremeness in their most typical manifestation, but in reality, the following represent topics that can span several points on the scale, or even the entire scale.
- Big Pharma: The theory that pharmaceutical companies conspire to maximize profit by selling drugs that people do not actually need
- Global Warming Hoax: The theory that climate change is not caused by man-made carbon emissions, and that there's some other motive for claiming this
- JFK: The theory that people in addition to Lee Harvey Oswald were involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy
- 9/11 Inside Job: The theory that the events of 9/11 were arranged by elements within the US government
- Chemtrails: The theory that the trails left behind aircraft are part of a secret spraying program
- False Flag Shootings: The theory that shootings like Sandy Hook and Las Vegas either never happened or were arranged by people in power
- Moon Landing Hoax: The theory that the Moon landings were faked in a movie studio
- UFO Cover-Up: The theory that the US government has contact with aliens or crashed alien crafts and is keeping it secret
- Flat Earth: The theory that the Earth is flat, but governments, business, and scientists all pretend it is a globe
- Reptile Overlords: The theory that the ruling classes are a race of shape-shifting trans-dimensional reptiles
If your friend subscribes to one of these theories you should not assume they believe in the most extreme version. They could be anywhere within a range. The categories are both rough and complex, and while some are quite narrow and specific, others encapsulate a wide range of variants of the theory that might go nearly all the way from a 1 to a 10. The position on the fringe conspiracy spectrum instead gives us a rough reference point for the center of the extent of the conspiracy belief.
Credit: "Escaping the Rabbit Hole" by Mick West
Figure 3 is an illustration (again, somewhat subjective) of the extents of extremeness of the conspiracy theories listed. For some of them the ranges are quite small. Flat Earth and Reptile Overlords are examples of theories that exist only at the far end of the spectrum. It's simply impossible to have a sensible version of the Flat Earth theory due to the fact that the Earth is actually round.
Similarly, there exist theories at the lower end of the spectrum that are fairly narrow in scope. A plot by pharmaceutical companies to maximize profits is hard (but not impossible) to make into a more extreme version.
Other theories are broader in scope. The 9/11 Inside Job theory is the classic example where the various theories go all the way from "they lowered their guard to allow some attack to happen," to "the planes were holograms; the towers were demolished with nuclear bombs." The chemtrail theory also has a wide range, from "additives to the fuel are making contrails last longer" to "nano-machines are being sprayed to decimate the population."
There's also overlapping relationships between the theories. chemtrails might be spraying poison to help big pharma sell more drugs. JFK might have been killed because he was going to reveal that UFOs were real. Fake shootings might have been arranged to distract people from any of the other theories. The conspiracy theory spectrum is continuous and multi-dimensional.
Don't immediately pigeonhole your friend if they express some skepticism about some aspect of the broader theories. For example, having some doubts about a few pieces from a Moon-landing video does not necessarily mean that they think we never went to the Moon, it could just mean that they think a few bits of the footage were mocked up for propaganda purposes. Likewise, if they say we should question the events of 9/11, it does not necessarily mean that they think the Twin Towers were destroyed with explosives, it could just mean they think elements within the CIA helped the hijackers somehow.
Understanding where your friend is on the conspiracy spectrum is not about which topics he is interested in, it's about where he draws the line.
The demarcation line
While conspiracy theorists might individually focus on one particular theory, like 9/11 or chemtrails, it's very rare to find someone who only believes in one conspiracy theory. They generally believe in every conspiracy theory that's less extreme than their favorite one.
In practical terms this means that if someone believes in the chemtrail theory they will also believe that 9/11 was an inside job involving controlled demolition, that Lee Harvey Oswald was just one of several gunmen, and that global warming is a big scam.
The general conspiracy spectrum is complex, with individual theory categories spread out in multiple ways. But for your friend, an individual, they have an internal version of this scale, one that is much less complex. For the individual the conspiracy spectrum breaks down into two sets of beliefs — the reasonable and the ridiculous. Conspiracists, especially those who have been doing it for a while, make increasingly precise distinctions about where they draw the line.
The drawing of such dividing lines is called "demarcation." In philosophy there's a classical problem called the "demarcation problem," which is basically where you draw the line between science and non-science. Conspiracists have a demarcation line on their own personal version of the conspiracy spectrum. On one side of the line there's science and reasonable theories they feel are probably correct. On the other side of the line there's non-science, gibberish, propaganda, lies, and disinformation.
Credit: "Escaping the Rabbit Hole" by Mick West
I have a line of demarcation (probably around 1.5), you have one, your friend has a line. We all draw the line in different places.
Vaccines can be grown in and extracted from the leaves of plants.
- Vaccines are absolutely crucial to keeping the entire planet healthy. None of us is safe until all of us are safe.
- But low- and middle-income countries have a difficult time acquiring and distributing them.
- Plant-derived vaccines can be stored by harvesting and freeze-drying the leaves. They may help solve the problem of global vaccine distribution.
Vaccines are the mainstay of the efforts to quell the COVID-19 pandemic. The pace of their development and refinement has been astonishing, but the characteristics of many of the available vaccines will make getting them to poor countries challenging. We will need more heat-stable vaccines that can be easily transported and stored. One ongoing, promising approach to this is to produce them in plants.
Populations in many richer countries could return to a reasonable approximation of normal by the fourth quarter of this year if — a big if — they can vaccinate 80 percent or more of their populations against SARS-CoV-2. They will also need to perform constant surveillance for "variants of concern" that are more transmissible, cause more severe disease, or, especially, are better able to escape the immunity conferred by COVID-19 vaccines. An example is the coronavirus variant called "delta," first detected in India, which has become the dominant strain in the United Kingdom, despite that country's highly successful vaccination campaign. That variant now accounts for about 6 percent of infections in the United States, double its penetrance a month ago.
Vaccinating poorer countries is an enormous challenge
Prospects for poorer countries are very different, however, for every aspect of the pandemic — cases, hospitalization, deaths, and ability to suppress the pandemic with vaccines — which are, for many reasons, more elusive than for wealthier countries.
Some middle-income nations such as India and Brazil recently have experienced a devastating surge in cases after premature loosening of restrictions in their countries. Africa's toll of cases and deaths is surprisingly low, although the paucity of data makes the government-reported numbers suspect.
The task of rapidly manufacturing vast quantities of COVID-19 vaccines that are safe, efficacious, inexpensive, and transportable without stringent cold chain requirements is daunting.
Especially in lower- and middle-income countries, vaccines will be a lifeline, but providing sufficient COVID-19 vaccines for their populations will take years at current trajectories. At India's current vaccination rate of 1.8 million doses a day, for example, it would take more than three years to vaccinate 80 percent of its 1.4 billion people. Likewise, over 24 million people — less than two percent of the population — have been fully vaccinated in Africa (according to the Africa C.D.C.). Currently, a meager 0.3 percent of the vaccine doses that have been administered around the world have been provided to the 29 poorest countries. By contrast, in the United States, over 60 percent of adults have by now received at least one shot of vaccine.
Although the U.S. has purchased more than enough vaccines for its entire population, it may choose to hold onto some of its excess in case booster shots of existing vaccines are required this fall or early next year. It is also possible that the U.S. will be poised to divert domestic production to making new vaccines that will overcome "immune evasiveness" in subjects vaccinated with current vaccines.
This development could compromise the capacity to scale up manufacturing to provide global access to vaccines, further widening the gap between vaccine haves and have-nots, particularly in low resource settings where scaling access, distribution, refrigeration, and affordability are problematic. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines, for example, which have cold chain limitations (an uninterrupted series of refrigerated production, storage, and distribution requirements), would be difficult to distribute in resource-poor settings such as rural India or Africa.
Advances have been made in the formulations of some vaccines so that the need for refrigeration can be avoided. Past successes include a freeze-dried version of the smallpox vaccine, which was critical for eradication of that deadly disease. Making a freeze-dried version of mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna may be feasible but could be cost-prohibitive for a global market. The estimated costs of the global vaccination effort could reach $74 billion, according to a study published in The Lancet.
These challenges together could stymie our efforts to control the pandemic for years to come, bringing to mind the often-heard mantra: "None of us is safe until all of us are safe." Our inability to manufacture large quantities of vaccines rapidly would extend the pandemic, resulting in stress on healthcare and national economies, and increased mortality, all the while enabling more SARS-CoV-2 variants to emerge and gain a foothold.
The task of rapidly manufacturing vast quantities of COVID-19 vaccines that are safe, efficacious, inexpensive, and transportable without stringent cold chain requirements is daunting. These challenges may be insuperable unless we try to replicate with plant-based COVID-19 vaccines the recent clinical successes with mRNA vaccines.
Plant-based vaccines are a potential solution
Plant-based vaccines are likely the promise of the future for mass vaccination in lower- and middle-income countries. For millennia, plants have not only been sources of food, fiber, and fuel, but also, more recently, an important component of our medicine cabinet as well. The identification and application of bioactive molecules from medicinal plants is nothing new; examples include the active ingredient of aspirin, salicylic acid, derived from willow and used as a painkiller; taxol from yew trees to treat cancer; digitalis from the foxglove plant; and the malaria drug artemisinin from sweet wormwood; among others.
But those examples are yesterday's successes. Our newly-acquired ability to genetically engineer plants that express novel biologics, such as vaccines to combat pandemic flu or antibodies to block Ebola virus infection, shows how far we have come. These new pharmaceuticals are easily scalable, inexpensive to produce, and have no cold chain requirements. Plant-based vaccines to prevent COVID-19 are certainly within our grasp.
While much of the initial research concerning plant made vaccines has been conducted by stably expressing the protein of interest in genetically engineered plant tissue, plant viruses can also be harnessed to generate biopharmaceutical proteins rapidly (within a matter of days) and at low cost. Plant viruses can also act as scaffolds, displaying vaccine epitopes on the surface of self-assembled virus-like particles (VLPs). These VLPs lack nucleic acid and are, therefore, non-infectious and harmless to animals or plants.
Plant-derived vaccines can be stored by harvesting and freeze-drying the leaves, or merely by isolating the plant virus, if one was used as the antigen carrier. Moreover, a number of plant viruses have been shown to behave as adjuvants and help to stimulate a stronger immune response overall. This technology is currently being employed by several plant "molecular pharming" companies to produce vaccines for COVID-19 that would be suitable for India, Africa, and other places in need.
Plant-based COVID vaccines
Quebec plant molecular pharming company Medicago announced in a press release last month the successful completion of a phase 2 clinical trial of their plant-derived COVID-19 vaccine candidate, which contains an adjuvant obtained from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). The titer of neutralizing antibody and the degree of cell mediated immunity the vaccine elicited were robust, and no severe adverse effects were reported.
The vaccine is based on the virus-like particle technology mentioned above. These VLPs assemble in plants with the spike protein displayed on their surface, so that the end product looks just like the real thing but is non-infectious. Medicago is currently moving their vaccine through a stage 3 clinical trial and has "fast track" designation from the FDA. The company estimates that they will be able to produce up to 80 million annual doses beginning this year, and by 2023, over a billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine doses per year. That could be just what low- and middle-income countries will need to suppress the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other plant molecular pharming companies are not far behind. Kentucky BioProcessing (KBP), a member of British American Tobacco group, uses a technology similar to Medicago's to produce COVID-19 vaccines in plants. KBP's previous claim to fame was producing antibodies in plants to block Ebola infection, and KBP's plant-based COVID-19 vaccine has successfully elicited an immune response to the virus in animals and is currently moving into clinical trials. The company also uses a virus-based technology. Attaching the vaccine antigen to the plant virus provides the vaccine with greater stability at room temperature. This plant virus is also non-infectious to humans but can be taken up by immune cells to elicit a strong response.
A third company that is making headway is Texas-based iBio, which is working on several vaccine candidates. These include a virus-like particle, a subunit vaccine, and a second-generation vaccine that targets the SARS-CoV-2 virus's N protein, which is more conserved than the spike protein. The N protein is, therefore, less likely to mutate, even when virus variants emerge and circulate, thus making the vaccine more likely to be successful against variants. These vaccines have performed well in pre-clinical and toxicology studies.
As microbes mutate, we must innovate
The current pandemic is far from over, and scaled up vaccination programs are needed immediately to reduce the spread of COVID and decrease the emergence of new variants of concern. While vaccine distribution certainly remains a significant obstacle for many countries, simply ramping up vaccine manufacturing is currently our greatest challenge. At least some of this burden could be alleviated by adding plant-made vaccines to our global arsenal. They are safe, inexpensive, efficacious, easy to produce in large amounts, and are less susceptible to cold chain requirements for distribution and administration. The rapid scale-up of COVID-19 plant-made vaccines could be a significant step toward suppressing or even ending the pandemic, as well as offering an important new technology for the future.
Kathleen Hefferon, Ph.D., teaches microbiology at Cornell University. Find Kathleen on Twitter @KHefferon. Henry Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was a Research Associate at the NIH and the founding director of the U.S. FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Find Henry on Twitter @henryimiller.