Rumor, Justice and Culture Wars

Last month the Union of Concerned Scientists reported that the new administration in the White House ordered a freeze on research grants and contracts, and imposed restrictions on scientific reports and papers.[1]  This seemed just the latest, if most extreme, example of the growing distrust of science.  Anti-vaccine fervor has a new life, climate change rejection is rising, and science is accused of having a liberal bias.[2]

In more extreme examples of suspending rational judgment, in December a gunman attacked a pizza parlor in DC that had been reported in social media as the location of a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton.  When people challenge these rumors a common rebut is that the mainstream media is suppressing the truth because it supports the liberal agenda.

I like to think that even the most unusual behavior has a purpose.  While my friends shake their heads that people can believe rumor and reject science, I had a sense that I had seen this before in a different setting.  For several years I had the privilege of working with refugees in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya.  Rumors are a real problem in a place like Kakuma.  People are quick to see conspiracy and corruption.  The rumors spread quickly, and sometimes trigger violence.  In 2008 a sociologist named Jansen studied what was happening in the camp, and published some interesting observations.  First, he described the camp as a large population (currently over 180,000) of people who feel very vulnerable and frightened about the future.  They are displaced from the life they knew for no fault of their own, leading to a profound sense of injustice, and now find themselves in a strange and confusing place.  Fear and injustice are compounded by the complexity of camp life.  The rules are hard to understand, things change very slowly, and it is easy to think that corruption is the only rule.  All of this sets the stage for refugees to resort to theories of corruption and conspiracy to explain events in the camp.  The rumors not only make sense in that setting, they also cast the problem in language that makes the complex seem more manageable, even controllable.  It restores a sense of control and power in an otherwise overwhelming situation.  Further, the more a person has experienced injustice, the greater the potential for the rumors to lead to violence.  The rumor taps into an underlying sense that I am the victim of an injustice, and the perpetrator deserves to be punished.  Per Jansen, rumor and conspiracy theory may be adaptive in that they make camp life more understandable to the refugees.[3]  You can see where I am going with this …

The culture war in the US has a basis in the rapid economic and cultural changes of the past 20 years that have disrupted and hurt one segment of our population far more than others.  There is an underlying sense of injustice among many people in the US that both Trump and Sanders tapped in to.  If business goes badly and I lose my job, that’s just business.  But if the business closes and moves to Mexico so wealthy people can make even more money, and that means I cannot care for my family, that is felt as a great injustice. Punishing businesses for leaving and forcing them to come back seems right.  Those in control of the economy and government are to blame and deserve whatever disruption can be sent their way.

What does that have to do with distrust of science?  Complex explanations don’t help when you feel vulnerable and victimized by an unjust government.  Climate change can just feel like another excuse for the government to run my life.  Immigration reform may be necessary, and recognizing that the millions of people already here illegally are probably here to stay, are probably logical.  But if I cannot find work, and I think people here illegally are competing with me for a job, then reform looks like it will just make my problem worse.  More injustice.

Vulnerability, complexity and injustice are a powerfully disturbing combination, and it does not have a lock on any one political party or community.  They are the reality of those who have born the brunt of cultural and economic change.

So, we have a lot in common with refugees.  The group in the camp that I worked with found a solution.  It took years, and in their case, the refugee churches were at the heart of the solution.  They did not argue over what was true or debate the facts.  They reached out to people to help them solve real problems, and over years built trust and respect that defeated fear, anger and rumor.  The church association created a network of community contacts who were close to the community.  These contacts were able to see who was in need and could hear when rumor and conspiracy was starting.  They built a communication network and used it to get ahead of the rumors when something happened and provide a reliable and trusted story (a kind of independent media).  Overtime the conflicts have come down.

It is interesting to ask if we can learn a lesson from these refugees.



[3] Jansen, B. “Between vulnerability and Assertiveness: Negotiating resettlement in Kakuma Refugee Camp, Kenya”. African Affairs 107 (2008) : 569–587.


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