Danger: mind-broadening ahead
24 July 2017 18:48 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

What they don’t want you to know about what they don’t want you to know

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

It’s a time-tested way to begin a popular article: promising to reveal something that ‘they’ do not want you to know. If knowledge is empowering, how much more so for secret knowledge that undermines the establishment. But when you read that line, run a mile.

When someone writes the line “what they don’t want you to know...” you can be sure they don’t want you to know how likely it is you’re being swindled.

Sure, there are skeletons in corporate closets, government secrets in windowless buildings, and self-serving conspiracies between politicians and their business cronies. Sure, a healthy level of scepticism about their claims is entirely justified.

However, those conspiracies are rarely, if ever, exposed with the words “what they don’t want you to know”.

When Glenn Greenwald wrote the book on revelations that the US government systematically and illegally spies on both foreigners and its own citizens, he titled it ‘No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the Surveillance State’.

He did not call it, ‘What they don’t want you to know about government spying’. It’s spying. A child could figure out they probably don’t want you to know about it.

In 1982, seven people died after taking Tylenol, the most popular painkiller on the market at the time. A murderer who was never caught had laced the capsules with cyanide. Johnson & Johnson did not try to sweep the scandal under the rug. Whistleblowers did not have to tell you what ‘they’ don’t want you to know. The company immediately recalled all 31 million bottles of Tylenol on the market, and offered tablets as replacements to customers who had already bought capsules. The Tylenol recall set the bar for how companies respond to scandals and crises, and made a hero out of Johnson & Johnson.

Today, such product recalls are standard, although comparatively rare given the number of products on the market. ‘They’ don’t call them ‘painkillers’ anymore, however.

More than 20 years later, Merck didn’t want you to know that early trials had revealed evidence of cardiovascular risk in the 80 million patients that were prescribed its non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx. That case blew open in a heartbeat. Merck voluntarily pulled the drug from the market in 2004. Several published studies and a number of court cases proved Merck had known about the evidence for five years and that the drug had caused significant preventable harm. In civil damages settlements and criminal penalties, the case cost the company several times the $2.5 billion in revenue the drug had earned, plus its reputation. Nobody could hide it.

We know that President Jacob Zuma couldn’t care less, but one might surmise with some justification that several other people did not want you to know details about the now-infamous arms deal, or the R246 million that was splashed out on the president’s private estate at Nkandla. Yet the publication of incriminating details happened, and only the most muckraking rags felt they had to resort to the line ‘what they don’t want you to know’.

The Peanut Corporation of America probably didn’t want you to know that their factory was a filthy, mould-infested hellhole, reminiscent of the meatpacking plants of Upton Sinclair’s influential 1906 novel, The Jungle. However, once deadly salmonella poisonings linked to peanut butter were identified, US regulators were quick to investigate. Company officials did try to cover it up, but the factory went out of business exactly 36 days after it was identified as the source, and former company officials are now standing trial on 76 counts of federal crimes. Corporations might try to cover up their crimes, but there wasn’t a very long time during which ‘what they don’t want you to know’ was really unknown to the public.

In 1933, there was a real, acknowledged conspiracy by several US captains of industry to overthrow president Franklin D Roosevelt in a military coup and install a fascist government. Known as The Business Plot, the only people who were ever told ‘what they don’t want you to know’ were the US Congress’s Special Committee on Un-American Activities, and they were told by one of the plotters. The conspiracy never got past its planning stages, and although historians acknowledge that some scheme was being hatched, the media rightly refused to lend it much credence. Even small conspiracies are hard to keep together.

Another conspiracy that was true was the Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male. A lack of funds for treatment was the original cause of the study in 1931, but matters quickly got out of hand and it was decided to study participants for the remainder of their lives. They were deliberately left untreated even after penicillin became available, while being told they were being treated. This criminally unethical experiment went on for 40 years.

Still, nobody told anyone ‘what they don’t want you to know’. How that conspiracy came to light was simple. A whistleblower, instead of going to some dodgy tabloid with a cooky story, went first to the Centre for Disease Control, which was conducting the study, and when support for the study was continued, went straight to the New York Times. A single article in 1972 put a prompt end to the travesty. Legal and other proceedings soon followed.

Why, then, when the line ‘what they don’t want you to know’ is almost never used to uncover real conspiracies, is it so appealing? Why does it so often crop up in casual conversations, where distrust of companies, lobby groups and governments runs high?

This sentence appears to give credence to a sensational claim. It sets up a revelation as something that, with hindsight, should have been blindingly obvious. It initiates the listener into a select circle of people in the know, who are smarter than to be fooled by ‘they’, unlike the unwashed masses.

It is a seductive piece of rhetoric. In most cases, however, it is also complete nonsense. It should be a big red warning flag in any conversation.

If your inner sceptic is unconvinced that knowledge ‘they don’t want you to know’ is worthless, let’s examine some examples. To try to make the sample significant, let’s pick the top 10 results from a search engine that does not track you, looking only for the phrase ‘what they don’t want you to know’.

The first match is a YouTube video entitled exactly that, which has amassed over two million views. It alleges, “There are 82 alien races on Earth, according to Paul Hellyer, former Canadian defense minister”. (Damn, and YouTube does track me, so I’m going to have UFO junk recommended to me for weeks.)

Much of the video is based on the Alien Races Book, which was supposedly obtained by Russian counter-intelligence operatives in 1946. Hellyer is indeed a former politician. A nonagenarian now, he went off his rocker about 10 years ago, and claims governments are hiding secret files that prove aliens exist. He also reckons they’re sitting on alien technology that could solve the problem of climate change.

Hellyer is the only senior politician ever to make such outlandish claims, so the conspiracy of silence must be tremendously large. This is surprising, considering how those in the know are dealt with. According to the book, JFK was the last politician to whom the aliens revealed themselves, on 3 October 1963. We all know what happened six weeks later, so if the 91-year-old Hellyer dies soon, we’ll all know who’s behind it! Presumably, the people who dare question the official story about JFK’s death are just not important enough to liquidate. This conspiracy must involve millions of dutifully silent scientists, bureaucrats, politicians and military officers.

So, that’s what they don’t want you to know. Plausible? Hardly.

The second is another YouTube video, listing five things they don’t want you to know about diamonds. I haven’t got time for clickbait like that, but I’ll guess it involves the fact that De Beers’ marketing is the only reason they’re as expensive as they are, that nobody gave diamonds as engagement presents until De Beers made up the “tradition”, and that diamonds can be grown in labs. It’s all true, but it’s still clickbait.

Third time lucky? In the video Stuff they don’t want you to know, we finally get some real facts. “The digital technologies that so delight us... also have a dark side.” That dark side involves government surveillance, which by November 2014, when this video was published, the news was 18 months old. Pretty much everyone who was likely to care already did know the stuff they don’t want you to know.

YouTube is a popular vehicle for things they don’t want you to know. The next search match is another video by the lot that published the alien rubbish. It discloses the startling fact that the ancient gods of Egypt came from a planet named Niburu, which remains undiscovered in our solar system because of a comet-like elliptical orbit with a period of 3,657 years. It is also known as Planet X, Tyche, or Nemesis, and is, apparently, on a collision course with Earth or some such terrifying thing. NASA has no clue about it, but these guys do.

Next up is a Discovery Digital Network channel called Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know. Its latest revelation: 300 years of medieval history have been entirely made up. Its credibility is not enhanced by the fact that between stuff about Ouija boards and the illuminati, you’ll also learn why having a large penis can hurt your relationship, and why your baby doesn’t want you to have sex anyway. By all means, go find out for yourselves.

A discussion board on reddit.com comes in sixth. It contains what it calls Documented Truth. Among a handful of plausible items involving government spying and wars, you’ll find the “documented truth” on 9/11 (steel fuel can’t melt jet beams), spirit science, DNA test results from an alien hybrid skull, evolution the modern myth, ancient astronauts, and killer GMOs. You don’t have to be crazy to hang out there, but it will certainly help.

Finally, by item seven, we have a proper debunking of a real thing they don’t want you to know. The ‘they’ in this story refers to naturopaths and miracle diet hawkers. The ‘what’ is that detox isn’t real. Yes, it is a medical procedure conducted on patients who have dangerous levels of drugs, alcohol or other poisons in their bodies, but it is not a periodic health cure for everyone, which is as easy as quaffing a product from a natural remedy shop or limiting your diet to some random fruit or vegetable. That detox is a myth and a money making racket is all entirely true. Pity it’s on a list containing 9/11 conspiracies and aliens.

Then there is the story about the electro-convulsive treatment patient who claims that it harmed her: what they don’t want you to know about shock treatment. Mostly, what they don’t want you to know is that it causes memory loss (they know), and is administered involuntarily (we know). Also, it is an extension of Hitler’s Final Solution to experiment on, sterilise and eliminate the mentally ill and keep the rest of us from rising up in outrage. Between paranoid delusions and memory loss we probably do not have the most reliable witness, but even if she were, the plural of anecdote is not data.

Number nine on the list is a debunking of a book entitled Natural Cures “They” Don’t Want You to Know About, peddled by a quack who has repeatedly been charged and penalised for false advertising related to misleading television infomercials. It makes for an instructive look at the mind of a proven charlatan and swindler.

To wrap up the list, we have a pseudo-religious rant laboriously entitled ‘Mars: What's really going on and why won't they tell you? And why the strong connection to Egypt? And what does Mars have to do with poison, chemtrails and food contamination?’

Apparently, it has something to do with the Bible Code, the apocalypse, and the Blue Beam Project, which is a False Rapture in which UFOs will snatch up hundreds of thousands of us (please, pick me!). Also, panicked Christians.

Before you accept that ‘they don’t want you to know’ something, ask some critical questions. Who are ‘they’? Is there sound evidence of a scandal (or other knowledge)? Is there proof of a cover-up? If a cover-up is alleged, would it have to be a massive, worldwide conspiracy to maintain, or can it be done within a single organisation? If the former, how many people have actually been silenced, and how? If the latter, is there any reason why affected parties like customers, employees or investors, or independent third parties such as courts, pressure groups and the media, wouldn’t know or tell?

Critical scepticism will blow most of the claims ‘they don’t want you to know’ out of the water, and bury the rest under a mountain of junk.

Sure there’s always someone who doesn’t want you to know something, but you’re probably not privy to exclusive knowledge about a secret conspiracy. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
    Ivo Vegter

    Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He writes on this and many other matters, from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He is seldom wrong.

Get overnight news and latest Daily Maverick articles

Do Not Miss