Back in 1962, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke created a “law” that has since become well known, saying “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” But it wasn’t until 1999 that comic artist Florence Ambrose produced an obvious corollary: “Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don’t understand it.”
Both aspects of this law have political consequences, some of which were definitely on Clarke’s mind when he penned the original. However, it’s unlikely that he was envisioning a future in which a medical doctor would be called into court to testify on how an undefined something in a COVID-19 vaccine communicates with another undefined something in cellphone towers to do some third undefined something to people. Also, freedom. Which justifies letting people die unnecessarily.
Videos of sweaty nurse Joanna Overholt at a Ohio hearing went wide on social media over the surreal hilarity of watching a woman trying to stick a key to her neck as proof that simply associating with someone who had taken a vaccine was enough to make a person “magnetic.” But Overholt was actually there as a backup to another medical professional, Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, who was the original source of this claim. Silly as it was, the vaccines make you magnetic claim was just one of a very, very long line of claims from Dr. Tenpenny that included arguments that masks make people sicker, social distancing causes illness, vaccines cause autoimmune disease, vaccines cause men to become sterile, vaccines could cause women to have mutant babies, and vaccines create an “interface” to talk to 5G cell towers.
Dr. Tenpenny and Overholt didn’t burst into that Ohio hearing on their own. They were invited there by Republican state representative Jennifer Gross. Not only is Gross a member of the House Health Committee, she’s also the author of legislation that would stop any government agency, school, hospital, or business of any kind from requiring vaccination. Not just COVID-19 vaccine. Any vaccine.
In 2021, we are in a world where deaths from a global pandemic are being actively exacerbated by purposeful anti-science action in one of the world’s best educated nations. Because one party has waged a deliberate campaign against science. Because they know that when people don’t understand the basics of how the world around them operates, they can get them to believe absolutely anything. Because ignorance is their cause.
The Ohio Capital Journal reported on Dr. Tenpenny’s testimony before the health committee. That testimony included showing pictures of people with spoons hanging from their nose, or keys pressed to their forehead, as “proof” of her magnetic vaccine claims. It also included her testimony in which she tied this baseless conspiracy theory to another baseless conspiracy theory. “There have been people who have long suspected there was some sort of an interface,” said Tenpenny, “yet to be defined, an interface between what’s being injected in these shots, and all of the 5G towers.”
In May, the Center for Countering Digital Hate ran through the statistics and determined that just 12 people were responsible for most of the disinformation about COVID-19 and COVID-19 vaccines. Number two on that list is Nazi-organized convention attendee Robert Kennedy Jr. Number four is Dr. Susan Tenpenny. Among her claims at the time was that “the longer you wear a mask, the unhealthier you get” and “stop getting tested; if you get tested you are part of the problem.” She also joined up with disgraced former doctor Andrew Wakefield for a video chat in which Wakefield claimed that vaccines had killed more children than they saved.
For all this, Dr. Tenpenny was banned from Facebook … but invited to speak as an “expert witness” to the Ohio House by anti-vaxx representative Gross. Gross had absolutely no compunction against going on the record to claim that she was acting “to allow people to choose to do what they feel is best for their own body and protect individuals from any consequences or hardships for choosing one way or the other.”
If that was generating any doubt about Gross’ positions, she supports banning Planned Parenthood, and believes that medically mandated abortions are “never” acceptable because “No person has the moral right to choose who lives and who dies.”
And all of this seems an excellent demonstration of Ambrose’s corollary to Clarke’s law. When someone doesn’t understand vaccines, or microchips, or cellphone technology, it’s possible to get them to believe anything about any combination of those technologies. It’s possible to hold hearings in Ohio in which a woman repeatedly tries to stick a key to her neck, and then demands to know why a vaccine she proudly did not take made her magnetic, even after the key won’t stick. It’s possible to bludgeon the Tennessee department of health into backing away from supporting any vaccine.
There is a New Testament passage in First Thessalonians (that would be “One Thessalonians” for Trump followers), which begins “I would not have you ignorant, brothers.” But that’s exactly how Republicans would have their supporters. Ignorant. There’s a reason Trump loves the poorly educated. Oh brother, they would have you ignorant. Because what’s needed to sustain a nation where income equality matches that of medieval serfs, is a information inequality that feeds those serfs on ignorance and superstition.
For what it’s worth, even some other Ohio Republicans managed to be embarrassed about Gross, Tenpenny, Overholt, and the snake oil being peddled in their halls of their state capitol. Or at least, they did. House Health Committee Chairman Scott Lipps at first complained about Gross bringing in Tenpenny. After Gross claimed that Lipps had praised testimony from Tenpenny—as well as testimony from Tom Renz that included a harangue on the “tyranny” of vaccinations—Gross at first responded with a text saying, “I would expect nothing different from Rep. Gross. I have quickly learned she [accepts] no responsibility for her actions or decisions and is quick to blame anyone and everyone. Also, the first agenda we [put] out for proponent testimony had NO Renz and NO Tenpenny. Rep. Gross vehemently objected.”
But then, after a week of phone calls to his office, Lipps flipped and defended Tenpenny’s testimony, saying, “Please step outside your own little world and understand that people are not all the same, and they don’t all believe the same.”
The “little world” Lipps would have people abandon is the one where logic, reason, and information are key to determining the truth of an argument. And yes, that world is seeming smaller all the time.
Unsurprisingly, Carl Sagan said it better twenty-five years ago.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.