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Conspiracy theories have spread like a virus for centuries – and here’s why

From the Black Death to ebola, history shows we shouldn’t be surprised that the latest pandemic prompted waves of misconceptions. But Covid was different — and we need to be better prepared next time

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A protester during a World Wide Rally For Freedom protest in London last year. The group has links to the QAnon conspiracy-theory movement. Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images

A protester during a World Wide Rally For Freedom protest in London last year. The group has links to the QAnon conspiracy-theory movement. Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images

Science vs distrust: Taoiseach Michéal Martin getting his vaccine. Photo by Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Science vs distrust: Taoiseach Michéal Martin getting his vaccine. Photo by Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

Reverend Cotton Mather, whose house was bombed after he proposed a vaccine plan

Reverend Cotton Mather, whose house was bombed after he proposed a vaccine plan

Conspiracy: A History of Boll*cks Theories, and How Not to Fall for Them

Conspiracy: A History of Boll*cks Theories, and How Not to Fall for Them

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A protester during a World Wide Rally For Freedom protest in London last year. The group has links to the QAnon conspiracy-theory movement. Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images

At about 3am on November 14, 1721, someone threw a bomb through the window of the Reverend Cotton Mather’s Boston home.

A smallpox epidemic had been tearing through the colonial town, and Mather — a prominent Puritan minister — wasn’t content with simply attending to the spiritual needs of the dying. Instead, he advocated an experimental medical procedure that he believed might help fight the disease. His efforts attracted a fierce backlash: attached to the bomb was a note that read “Cotton Mather, you dog… I’ll inoculate you with this.”


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