News National Garry Linnell: Modern-day snake oil fools presidents, MPs and the would-be believers
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Garry Linnell: Modern-day snake oil fools presidents, MPs and the would-be believers

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In a small sheet metal factory in Germany, a young man with a drooping moustache tinkers with a two-stroke engine that will soon lead to the world’s first motor car.

In a converted horse stable in Canada he calls his “dreaming place”, a young Scotsman dabbles with ways of electrically transmitting sound waves that will soon lead to the telephone.

In a laboratory in New Jersey, a deaf inventor fresh from creating the phonograph fiddles with lemon peel and a long whisker from a friend’s beard before using treated cotton thread as a filament to make the world’s first lasting light bulb.

It’s the 1870s and Karl Benz, Alexander Bell and Thomas Edison are ushering in The Second Industrial Revolution, an era of rapid change that will make the planet glow and transform a hushed world into a raucous babble of amplified voices and pounding machinery.

It’s a time similar to our own where complex algorithms and artificial intelligence – and the sudden arrival of a pandemic – have upended lives and changed the way we think, act and feel.

And just as it did in the second half of the 19th century, this disruption to the natural order has triggered a crisis for a growing number of people.

Desperate for answers and a quick-fix solution, they have turned their backs on science and rationality and are clinging to an unproven drug – hydroxychloroquine – as the comfort blanket for our times.

We’ll get to that shortly.

Donald Trump has admitted using hydroxychloroquine to ward off the coronavirus.

But first, let’s go back to that age of Benz, Bell and Edison when dizzying new technologies were being unveiled and Charles Darwin’s once-ridiculed theories of evolution were becoming accepted.

Confused by modern life, many people sought reassurance by speaking to the dead.

Spiritualism began in the 1840s in upstate New York when two sisters claimed rapping noises in their home belonged to the spirit of a murdered man.

Within decades it became a global phenomenon as those baffled by change found comfort in the supernatural.

Families gathered nightly to communicate with the spirits of loved ones they had lost.

The ghosts replied by knocking and tapping and tilting tables.

Often these spirits chose a medium – a human antenna sensitive enough to receive their transmissions – to reveal that an afterlife existed where ethereal beings flourished.

Spiritualism, bereft of the strict rules and beliefs of traditional churches, drew supporters from all social classes. From Abraham Lincoln, Arthur Conan Doyle and many prominent scientists to the downtrodden and uneducated, everyone wanted a seat at a séance.

The movement was particularly popular in Sydney and Melbourne and among its devout believers was at least one future Australian prime minister Alfred Deakin, then a tall, young man with magnetic brown eyes.

Not only was young Deakin a fervent believer in the afterlife, but he would often record out-of-body experiences and “auditory hallucinations”.

At 16, he was convinced he had hypnotic powers and could summon a man from another room using mental commands. He could then “imprison him” by waving his hands around the subject’s body.

Deakin, who would become a key author of our constitution and a powerful public speaker, was well educated and respectful of science.

But for at least the first half of his life, the lure of spiritualism’s simple solutions to life’s complex riddles was just too powerful to resist.

Which brings us to the present.

A portrait of Alfred Deakin as featured in Vanity Fair. Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library/AAP

If the arrival of COVID-19 felt like a giant wave that suddenly emerged from nowhere, you don’t have to look far to find those who have been left out of their depth, thrashing about like shipwreck survivors, desperately clinging to any passing theory that might keep their sense of natural order afloat.

Offering them hope is US President Donald Trump, Brazil’s unhinged leader Jair Bolsonaro and a string of Trumpian acolytes that includes our own federal politician Craig Kelly, career buffoon Clive Palmer and the usual gaggle of media sycophants.

It’s all so simple, they say with the same conviction once used by spiritualists.

Don’t feel lost. Don’t feel overwhelmed. The answer is right in front of us.

In this case, it is the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine – a substance about which few have little understanding, let alone know how to pronounce.

Despite emphatic warnings from scientists who have spent years researching its benefits and side effects – it is also used as a lupus and arthritis treatment – hydroxychloroquine remains, at best, an unproven coronavirus antidote.

At worst, as Australia’s drug regulator the Therapeutic Goods Administration has warned, it can cause cardiac toxicity, irreversible eye damage and coma-inducing depletions of blood sugar.

We know why many people cling to hydroxychloroquine.

It offers hope and a quick fix and the possibility of returning the world to its natural order.

Not coincidentally, it has also become a conservative political symbol because, as science has found in many studies, conservatives are those who feel most threatened and challenged in times of change.

But Mr Trump’s a little different. He’s not really conservative.

He continues to promote flimsy studies suggesting hydroxychloroquine might have some benefit – even after an overwhelming majority of experts have pointed out major flaws like the absence of control groups – because it’s in his nature.

By his own admission, he’ll lie, distort facts and say anything to “play it down” and “show calm” if it suits his re-election prospects and reinforces his contempt for science and the establishment.

Hydroxychloroquine has become our new spiritualism.

And Mr Trump and his anti-science gang spruiking this unproven drug are nothing more than those 19th-century charlatans who staged seances using hidden tubes to create ghostly noises and moved tables with their knees and feet.

Garry Linnell was director of News and Current Affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine

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