Conspiracy theories, Facebook and Ebola

For the last twenty years or more I have been doing work on public health. A key part of that work has been studying conspiracy theories during pandemics. I first started working on this topic when I was doing research on HIV/AIDS in Latin America. While I spent time in Brazil, Cuba and Mexico, I heard many conspiracy theories about HIV/AIDS: it was designed in a US military lab to control populations in developing countries or that pharmaceutical companies had found a cure that they kept secret to ensure their profits from HIV treatments. Upon returning home I heard a great deal of HIV denialism -the belief that AIDS was not caused by a virus- in my classes from my students. It’s hard to believe now, but twenty years ago there were many students who would argue passionately that HIV was caused by drugs or pesticides sold by Monsanto.

In the years that have followed I have written about the conspiracy theories that have surrounded everything from Zika to the 2009 influenza pandemic. What has always struck me about these conspiracy theories is how much recycling they entail. The same narratives are reused no matter the new health threat that emerges. Sometimes I think that I have worked on this topic for too long, and that I am at risk of repeating my own arguments. But these theories matter. Why would a pregnant women in a Zika affected area put on insect repellent if she doesn’t believe that the vector is a mosquito?

Ebola is a classic example of the damage these theories can cause. I have a new paper out that asks why there was such a difference in how social media companies responded to conspiracy theories about Ebola and COVID. It’s a brief essay but I hope that it will provoke some discussion.

Shawn Smallman, 2023

Smallman S. Conspiracy Theories and Ebola: Lessons Learned Important for Future Pandemics. Norton Healthcare Medical Journal. 2023; 1(1). doi:10.59541/001c.77445  


Sweeping back the ocean: the unexpected challenge of ChatGPT

I am part of a working group of political science faculty who are developing new online courses. I’m planning on teaching “Introduction to Comparative Politics” this summer. Last week we had our first meeting. One of the faculty had volunteered to lead a conversation around ChatGPT, a new artificial intelligence system that can generate text based on the web, books, and other sources. If you are in higher education, you’ve probably heard a lot about ChatGPT over the last month. The New York Times and other media outlets have covered this topic in depth, and with good reason.

In December 2022 Stephen Marche had an excellent article in the Atlantic about how ChatGPT could produce an outstanding college entrance paper. Work by ChatGPT also passed a Wharton MBA exam. Perhaps most chilling, its product has also now passed all three stages of the US medical exam system. So how do we as professors respond?

What has been most interesting to me is to see how my colleagues think about this issue. One senior colleague is literally blowing up his teaching methods. His class will now be hybrid only for the exams, in which students will have to come in and write a pen and ink “green book” exam. Students may also be asked to do oral exams. This represents an immense amount of work for this professor. It also means that this class cannot be a fully online class, because students will have to appear for the testing phase. But this faculty member is deeply committed to their teaching and doesn’t see any alternative.

During this brainstorming session other faculty and I wondered about changing our assessments. One faculty suggested creating a podcast, but then worried that ChatGPT might write the script. I thought about perhaps using other assignments, such as data visualizations. But most faculty felt that this meant entering into an arms race with the soft-ware, one which we were unlikely to win in the long term. I still wonder if my critical reading reflections might be hard for ChatGPT to replicate. Typically I ask the students to pick the three most important readings from the course during the last three weeks, to discuss their strengths and weaknesses, and to select which one was the most important, and to justify their decision. Can ChatGPT really respond to such specific question prompts? The consensus in the discussion group seemed to be that this might not be enough to overcome this new challenge. AKA, “Denial is not a strategy.” But I think many colleagues also felt uncertain about how to respond.

After the meeting, one of my colleagues decided to ask ChatGPT to write a syllabus for the political science course that he is developing. It did so relatively well. It wasn’t a brilliant syllabus, but it was as good as many such syllabi that you could find on the web. More disturbing, ChatGPT also wrote the questions for a class quiz, and an introductory lecture. The lecture was too short, and still needed some work to be used. But it wasn’t a bad first draft, which might save a faculty member some time. The quiz was pretty good.

Personally, I was shocked after receiving this email. But not all of my colleagues felt the same way. I decided to try to testing out some ChatGPT detection tools. One author online wrote that a new website was over 99% effective at detecting fakes: GPT-2 Output Detector Demo. I tested it out using the text that my colleague had generated for his syllabus and quiz. The test found that this text was “99.96%” likely to be real. Based on a single sample with just one such system, I’m not convinced that the new software will be able to work as well as older generation plagiarism software did.

So how do I respond to this new challenge? I am wondering if I could put something in my syllabus to require students to also upload a draft, or to share a link to Google Docs so that I can see their writing process using the history feature? The challenge is that I don’t really want to require students to use one writing system. Pages is still popular with a lot of students who just have an Ipad, not a computer. And perhaps Chat GPT can also write a convincing draft? It’s not a perfect solution. But I wonder if both having very specific writing prompts -and asking for evidence of the writing process- might be able to address plagiarism?

I think that all educators -from middle school to grad programs- are going to face this challenge. I am curious to hear how peers are addressing this challenge at other institutions. This technology is still in its early stages, and new competitors will emerge soon. I predict that all levels of our educational system will have to make major adjustments to respond.

I come from a family of writers. My mom, Phyllis Smallman, wrote a mystery series set in a bar in West Florida, as well as a couple of books set in the Gulf Islands off the West Coast of Canada. Since her death much of her work (the electronic versions for Kindle and Kobo) are available for free online. My sister is also a writer. In ten or fifteen years will we be able to ask Kindle to write a mystery for us, one set in the Roman Republic, with a particular love interest, and a locked room puzzle?


Kung, Tiffany H., Morgan Cheatham, Arielle Medenilla, Czarina Sillos, Lorie De Leon, Camille Elepaño, Maria Madriaga, et al. “Performance of ChatGPT on USMLE: Potential for AI-Assisted Medical Education Using Large Language Models.” bioRxiv, December 20, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1101/2022.12.19.22283643.

Marche, Stephen. “The College Essay Is Dead.” The Atlantic, December 6, 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2022/12/chatgpt-ai-writing-college-student-essays/672371/.

Mollman, Steve. “ChatGPT Passed a Wharton MBA Exam and It’s Still in Its Infancy. One Professor Is Sounding the Alarm.” Fortune, January 22, 2023. https://fortune.com/2023/01/21/chatgpt-passed-wharton-mba-exam-one-professor-is-sounding-alarm-artificial-intelligence/.

The Strange in India

Human Skeletons in Roopkund Lake, 24 August 2014, Schwiki, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Human_Skeletons_in_Roopkund_Lake.jpg, Creative Commons license.

Every Halloween I do a blog post on some aspect of the supernatural, from the ghost ship Baltimore in Atlantic Canada, to the folklore of Japan. This year, I want to cover the ghosts’ of India. I’ll start with Victorian ghost stories, before moving into some more ancient mysteries of the region. On the one hand, Rudyard Kipling (the famous apologist for empire) loved ghost stories, and had a host of them set in India. So British ghost stories set in India (or shaped by memories of India) are inherently colonial. On the other hand, Indian stories had a global impact, and these tales circulated from Australia to Canada. So it’s interesting to reflect on how people across the world came to imagine India through this lens.

There are a few common themes in these British ghost stories. One of the most common is the sense of loss, as people are separated from their lovers or their families because they’ve traveled to India. This was the case, for example, in Mary Louisa Morgan’s “The Story of the Rippling Train,” in which a woman’s spirit returns to say goodbye to a man who pined for her, but never acted before her marriage.

Kipling’s stories have another approach. Many of these stories read as boy’s adventure tales, but some have a darker touch. For example, “At the End of the Passage,” describes a group of four English men who have come together to socialize at a remote stop on an Indian railway line. Each man tells his colleagues of his work, and the immense suffering that they have endured. Kipling uses their histories to undermine critiques of imperialism. The men who implement the empire pay a terrible price for their work. The piece is brilliantly written. I find myself trying to determine which -or perhaps all- of the men were suffering from culture shock. At the same time, it captures the paternalism, condescension and exoticism that shaped British views of Indians. The British are foregrounded in the story, so that the Indian characters become a backdrop. But the narrative remains disturbing. Whatever you do, don’t fall asleep. And above all, don’t dream.

It is astounding how many Victorian British ghost stories are set in India. B.M Croker’s short story “To Let,” begins with: “Some years ago, when I was a slim young spin, I came out to India to live with my brother Tom.” When the Indian heat affected this British family they decided to move to the hills, where there was only one place for rent- at a suspiciously cheap rate. One has a sense of their lifestyle by the fact that they brought a piano on the trip. And when the trouble began they were worried about losing their servants.

Of course the richest stories of ghosts and spirits in India long preceded the British. I am fascinated by military architecture, and have long wanted to travel to see India’s forts. One of these is supposedly the most haunted site in India. Bhangarh fort (in Alwar district, Rajasthan) was built in the 16th century, but supposedly was abandoned overnight after a yogi (or in other accounts a magician) put a curse on it. I would love to see a carefully researched article on the site- but I haven’t been able to find one. The only articles that I’ve been able to come across (Shetty) talk about “dark tourism” in India.

I think that perhaps the most mysterious place in India is Skeleton Lake, which -as the name suggests- has perhaps hundreds of skeletons around and in the lake. This is no myth, even though it rather reminds me of the dead bodies found in the swamps outside Tolkien’s Mordor. In fact, it’s something of a scientific mystery. There is a wonderful podcast called Unexplainable, which covers this story in one episode. In 1942 an Indian forest ranger found this remote lake in Northern India which was surrounded by an immense number of bones. In the 1950s carbon dating found that the bodies were from perhaps the 8th to 9th centuries. Were these pilgrims caught in a hail storm -after the presence of dancers angered the gods- as described in legendary accounts in the region? Then scientists analyzed the DNA of the skeletons, and the story became even stranger. There were three different groups of people genetically represented in these bones. And for one of these groups the best genetic match was Crete in the Mediterranean. And the bones from this group dated to around 1800. No good historical explanation exists for this fact.

As one of humanity’s foundational civilizations, many of India’s mysteries are even more ancient than that of Skeleton Lake. I love Danino’s The Lost River, which tells the story of a vanished river that was mentioned in ancient texts, in particular the Rig Veda and the Mahabharata. But what happened to this river? Surely an entire river can’t disappear? So was this river a myth? Be warned that this book goes into exhaustive detail about topics such as regional geology and British scientists. If you love archaeology or history, this is a wonderful book, but it does not make a light read. But if you’re looking for a mystery that puzzles scholars, this might be the work for you.

Curious for more spooky or mysterious stories? Learn about the mysteries of North America’s Great Lakes, the strange stories of French Canada, the ghosts of the Middle East, and haunted China with these blog posts.

If you are in Canada or the United States, and you are taking young children trick or treating, please remember to give your kids glow sticks or something reflective. Happy Halloween everyone.


BBC. “The Secrets of India’s Haunted Fort.” Accessed October 12, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/reel/video/p0d3s2bf/the-secrets-of-india-s-haunted-fort.

Danino, M. (2010). The lost river : on the trail of the Sarasvatī. Penguin Books India.

Shetty, P. (2020). Dark tourism in india. https://tinyurl.com/465e5vyy

Italy, language learning and travel

One of my favorite things in life is language learning, which for me entails studying both Portuguese and Chinese. I don’t think that I am naturally good at languages; I just enjoy studying them. I have no ambitions to become a polyglot. I think that studying Chinese in particular will take me the rest of my life. I currently have five one hour language study sessions a week, which is how I distract myself from all the responsibilities and challenges of my work and daily life.

I think that we are living in the golden age of language learning. There are more tools to study a language than ever before. And with online platforms like Preply and iTalki it’s easier than it has ever been before to study a language. No longer do you have to find the one Portuguese speaker in your town. You can create an immersive experience with language tutors, YouTube or BiliBili. Of course, everyone learns differently, and for many people the structure of a regular class is both familiar and helpful. I’ve just posted an interview with Dr. Kathi Ketcheson on my podcast, Dispatch 7. We talked about how she came to fall in love with Italian, her experiences teaching Italian in community education, why language learning matters, and how her language study and her travels in Italy are connected. If you are curious to hear her interview, you can listen to it here.

Shawn Smallman 2022

What should you know about NATO?

I’ve been on sabbatical for the last year, and was fortunate enough to spend the fall in Lisbon and Coimbra, where i was studying the 1918 influenza pandemic in Macau. When I was packing to travel to Portugal the last thing to go in my suitcase was supposed to be my microphone, so that I could do my podcast. But when the time came there wasn’t room, and I decided to take a break. That time away turned into a more than six month hiatus, but I’m happy to say that I’ve returned to podcasting.

To start season two, I was fortunate enough to talk with Peter Olson, who is not only an old friend, but also the former legal advisor to the Secretary General of NATO. You can hear his thoughts on NATO here. Next I’ll have an interview with someone who teaches Italian, who will talk not only about language learning and Italian, but also Italy itself. I’m also hoping to have an interview with a particular virologist soon, who can share some interesting thoughts on the origins of COVID. Please stay tuned.

Shawn Smallman, 2022

Bananas, wine and the collapse of complex societies

Photo by Alistair Smailes on Unsplash

With the current fighting in Ukraine, and sanctions on Russia, some nations are facing the real possibility of food shortages next year. Ukraine is an agricultural powerhouse, which produces a high percentage of some global crops, in particular wheat. Of course, there have been global shortages throughout the pandemic. The rising price of gas -before the invasion of Ukraine- had already created series social and economic issues from Brazil to Europe. Still, no commodity may be as fundamental as food.

The Guardian has a wonderful article, “Our Food System isn’t ready for the climate crisis,” which looks at how global societies have become increasingly reliant on a declining number of crops. In turn, there has been a dramatic reduction in the genetic diversity of the crops that we do use. Plant varieties may be selected less for their ability to evade disease than their ability to be shipped large distance without rotting. As a result, our entire food web has become less resilient at the same time that we face the greatest challenge in modern history, the dramatic impact of climate change.

There are some scholars who suggest that one of the factors that led to the Bronze Age collapse around 1172 BC (and the end of an earlier period of globalization) was the loss of tin supply routes from Afghanistan, which made it difficult to produce bronze. As we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, if China enters lockdown, car manufacturers in Germany can’t get their chips. As the Financial Times reported in a recent podcast, the world has a critical shortage of some key metals.

One of my favorite books is Joseph Tainter’s, the Collapse of Complex Societies. The work combines both archaeology and a systems perspective to look at how civilizations collapse. Tainter’s argument is that societies tend to become increasingly complex in order to address problems, but that with time this complexity often carries increasing costs while delivering marginal returns. When the costs of complexity begin to exceed its advantages, societies can suddenly become simpler, less hierarchical, more rural and smaller. In other words, they collapse.

I think many people have been aware for a long time how vulnerable aspects of modern society are to all kinds of shocks. But the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a fascination with the supply underpinnings of our global economy. The podcast “Ship happens” has become an unexpected hit, which is unusual for a podcast that focuses on logistical issues and the global supply chain. But I think that if there was just one global area to focus on it should be food, even more than energy. You can work remotely, dress more warmly, or take a bus to reduce your energy consumption. But it’s hard for most urban dwellers to produce much of their own food.

When I moved into my new apartment in Portland this year there was a bottle of wine waiting for me on the counter. It was a 2020 pinot noir from an Oregon winery. While I appreciated the gift, it was almost undrinkable because forest fires in California and Oregon that year had given the grapes a powerfully smoky taste. Whites or a pinot blanc were unaffected, because they lose their skins during the wine making process. But red wines that year tasted like smoke. Besides the impact of fires, the climate in Oregon is changing, which will impact wineries throughout the state. Last fall I spent six weeks in Portugal, which has a long history growing wine in a warmer and dryer climate, using grape varietals that have emerged over the course of more than two millennia. Why don’t wine producers in Oregon adopt these varieties? There are a plethora of options, which would be well-suited to future climate scenarios in the state. But they take time to grow, so that if we are going to experiment with this option, these varieties need to planted now. Ten years ago would have been better, and twenty years ago even better yet.

To the best of my knowledge, only one vintner in Oregon is experimenting with Portuguese, Spanish, Italian or Greek varietals. I think that Abacela may be the leader in the industry (many thanks to Stephen Frenkel for this information). Brazil has made real advances in wine production in the last thirty years, but you would never know it outside the country itself. Wine snobs would probably not even try wine produced in the tropics. Instead, with wine, bananas, avocados and potatoes, we usually still rely on the same old options that we did a generation or two ago. But climate change is coming. If the pandemic and Ukrainian invasion rock our current supply chains, what will happen when global warming seriously impacts food production? We need to rethink which crops we rely on, which varietals we use, and how we supply food on a global level.


Lakhani, Nina, Alvin Chang, Rita Liu, and Andrew Witherspoon. “Our Food System Isn’t Ready for the Climate Crisis.” The Guardian. April 14, 2022. https://www.theguardian.com/food/ng-interactive/2022/apr/14/climate-crisis-food-systems-not-ready-biodiversity.

Tainter. (1988). The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge University Press.

Phyllis Smallman

My mother passed away last week, and even though it was not a surprise, it was a shock. My sister, Elle Wild, wrote a wonderful tribute, which I wanted to share:


Phyllis Smallman

The family of author Phyllis Smallman wishes to announce the passing of their family matriarch, storyteller, beloved wife, and mother.

Phyllis grew up in the countryside of southern Ontario, where she spent her childhood accepting ill-considered dares from her four siblings, such as pig riding in a white frock. She met her life’s partner, Lee Smallman, during high school and quickly recognized a fellow adventurer and dreamer. At the tender ages of 17 and 21, Phyllis and Lee were married, and spent the next 56 years laughing, creating, building, sometimes bickering, but always loving. Phyllis was occasionally overheard saying to Lee, “When I want your opinion, I’ll jerk your chain.”

At an age where others retire, Phyllis and Lee moved across the country to Salt Spring Island, where they joined a lively community of artists and innovators. Phyllis went on to write the award-winning Sherri Travis mystery series, and more recently the Singer Brown series, Long Gone Man and Beach Kill. Those who spent time with Phyllis knew her as a caring person who loved fiercely, laughed loudly, and was always a friend to anyone in need. In keeping with her dark sense of humour, her last book was ironically titled Last Call, the final Sherri Travis mystery. The night Phyllis died, Last Call won a “Reader’s Favourite” Book Award. Our Phyllis knew how to make a grand exit.

At her request, there will be no final service. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests a donation to the Canadian Cancer Society.

Brazil’s National Museum

Every Brazilian and Brazilianist that I know is lamenting the loss of Brazil’s National Museum in a terrible fire. The loss is incalculable -fossils of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, the records of extinct languages, a skull from perhaps the oldest person found in the Americas, a library of a half million books, and hundreds of thousands of specimens of every form of animal life from insect to birds. Henry Grabar has a thoughtful article in Slate, which describes the scale of the loss, and how it was almost inevitable: the Brazilian state had so starved the museum of funding that it had to launch a GoFundMe account after termites damaged a room containing an exceptional dinosaur skeleton. Academics mourn for all the lost information. Graduate students must replan their theses after they lost access to the specimens. But most of all, ordinary Brazilians lost a pearl of a museum in Rio de Janeiro, which was housed in the former Presidential palace. Rio de Janeiro has already lost vast amounts of colonial architecture, but none had as much historical significance as this. So many people I know are genuinely distraught, and can’t stop thinking about what this means. Within Brazil, it has come be seen as emblematic of the failures of the nation’s political leadership. …

Global Warning: a CNN documentary

CNN’s documentary “Global Warning: Arctic Melt” examines the issue of climate change by focusing on the Greenland ice sheet. Reporter Clarissa Ward first visits Greenland, where she interviews climate scientists against stunning backgrounds of fjords, glaciers and ice sheets. She then travels to south Florida, where she interviews Miami’s former mayor about the impact that sea level rise is already having upon his community. The video is brief at 26 minutes. Nonetheless, it is both visually engaging and thoughtfully written. It would be a good documentary for an “Introduction to International and Global Studies” class. Recommended.

Shawn Smallman, 2018

Transnational Social Movements

My colleague Dr. Christine Boyle is teaching a fantastic new online class on “Transnational Social Movements.” Dr. Boyle has extensive experience teaching in an online environment, and is a popular instructor. The class will look at a wide array of social movements and protests from the student movements to the Arab Spring. Given recent events in Iran, this is a timely class. If you are interested, you can see how to register for the class as a non-degree student here. There are no prerequisites for the course. Questions? You can contact Dr. Boyle at her email on the flyer below. The class will start on January 8, 2018.

Shawn Smallman, January 2018

Course flyer for winter 2018 online class

Privacy & Cookies: This site uses cookies. See our Privacy Policy for details. By continuing to use this website, you agree to their use. If you do not consent, click here to opt out of Google Analytics.