Hot Topics

Illinois Wesleyan University faculty and staff frequently provide their expertise regarding newsworthy happenings.

Members of the media are invited to pull quotes directly from this page, or contact Assistant Director of Communications John Twork to set up an interview: jtwork@iwu.edu.

Increases in bald eagle population

March 25, 2021

— George C. and Ella Beach Lewis Endowed Chair of Biology Given Harper

Q: A new report from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service shows that the number of American bald eagles has quadrupled since 2009, with more than 300,000 birds in the lower 48 states. Is this national increase consistent with what you've observed locally? What makes Bloomington-Normal and Central Illinois an appealing habitat for an increasing bald eagle population?

A: The increase in the bald eagle population in Central Illinois mirrors what has occurred throughout the lower 48 states. It is now quite common to see bald eagles year-round in Bloomington/Normal, and in other areas of Central Illinois. The banning of DDT and other organochlorine pesticides is a major factor responsible for their population increase, along with the fact that eagles are adapting to humans. The number of eagle nests in Central Illinois has increased dramatically, and there is even a nest within the city limits of Bloomington. Bald eagles are opportunistic predators in urban areas, as they catch fish in local lakes and streams, they prey upon squirrels and rabbits, and scavenge road-killed animals. This is quite a remarkable environmental success story for a species that was on the brink of extinction some 50 years ago.


How humans can help dogs adapt to new environments — such as moving to the White House

March 19, 2021

–– Associate Professor of Psychology Ellen Furlong

Q: One of President Biden's two German shepherds, Major, was apparently startled in his new home (the White House) during what the President described as a minor incident resulting in a minor injury. From a psychological perspective, what are some challenges that dogs face when acclimating to a new environment, and what can humans do to help with this transition?

A: Like humans, dogs sometimes have a difficult time acclimating to new environments. Some dogs find moving so stressful that they develop behavior problems they never exhibited before, such as separation anxiety, potty training issues, and even, as we have seen with Major, fear aggression or resource guarding. But Major didn’t just move houses like most dogs, he moved into the White House with many new unfamiliar faces in addition to unfamiliar places: this would be a very stressful transition for any dog. Dog guardians can help their pups acclimate by trying to maintain as many familiar routines as possible, providing their dogs plenty of enrichment (toys, activities, opportunities to explore), and, if necessary, securing the help of a positive reinforcement trainer or behaviorist.


Long-term impact of widespread telecommuting amid the pandemic

March 17, 2021

— Assistant Professor of Business Administration and Director of the Illinois SBDC of McLean County at Illinois Wesleyan Karen Bussone

Q: As we pass the one-year anniversary of initial pandemic state-at-home orders that forced many companies to quickly shift to remote work — what are some ways in which widespread telecommuting over the past year will shape the future of organizational management?

Working virtually the past year will reshape organizational management. 

a. The gender-wage gap will continue to increase:  According to Harvard Business Review and a recent Gartner survey, 64% of managers believe in-office subordinates are higher performers than virtual subordinates. However, data collected throughout the pandemic shows that virtual subordinates are 5% more likely to be higher performers compared to those working within an office environment. Research is also showing that men prefer to work in an office setting and women prefer to work from home. Manager biases will definitely favor men and thus the gender-wage gap will worsen for women.

b. Flexibility will shift from hours worked to productivity output:  It is expected that there will be an increase of new jobs where employees are measured by productivity output and not agreed-upon hours worked. Also, flexibility in returning to a uniquely structured workspace for innovation and problem-solving will occur perhaps 1-2 days per week.

c. Opportunities for hiring employees with unique experiences will significantly increase:  As 47% of company senior leadership intend to allow employees to work virtually all the time, this opens the recruiting door to bring many unique skill sets, experiences, and diverse candidates more easily to any given company. McKinsey and Company have indicated their research shows companies will continue striving to increase diversity, equity, and inclusion.

d. Mental health support will continue to be an important focus for companies and organizations: Companies and organizations will expand mental health benefits including company-wide days off to build awareness across the workforce.

e. High-performance workplace teams will become more empowered: Workplace project teams will be empowered to make critical decisions while the control from senior leadership will diminish. As availability and hours worked will shift to new paradigms, bureaucratic styles will exhibit lack of trust and become misfits within organizations.


Stress and coping amid the COVID-19 pandemic

March 11, 2021

— Associate Professor of Psychology Mignon Montpetit

Q: Can you provide insight into the coping strategies that people likely used to deal with stress related to living through a year of the pandemic while facing isolation and loss (loss of loved ones, loss of experiences, etc.)?

A: I did not collect data during the pandemic, so I cannot speak for other people, but I can share some strategies that my family continues to rely on to get us through, all of which are grounded in the literature and/or work that I’ve done on coping with stress, ordinary and extraordinary. Important to start is that my husband and I gave our boys and ourselves the space to grieve the things that we were missing; we tried to model acceptance of everyone’s feelings while encouraging a positive outlook. We used a combination of what’s called problem- and emotion-focused coping (Lazarus & Lazarus, 1994). Problem-focused coping invokes identifying stressors and working to actively eliminate those. For instance, we repeatedly asked our children, ages four and six, what they missed most about pre-pandemic life and came up with strategies to give them as much “normal” as possible. They missed playing with other children, so we hosted play dates over Zoom; they missed visiting with extended family and friends who live far away – we hosted virtual birthday parties and attended a virtual wedding; all of these things gave our children – and us – a sense of connection during these potentially isolating times. For emotion-focused coping, we identified the stressors that we couldn’t change, and worked really hard to reframe those. Our boys were sad to miss out on in-person pre-K and kindergarten, with all the fun and excitement of learning with other children. We emphasized the beneficial aspects of our current situation – school only lasts an hour and a half on Zoom, and the boys have the rest of the day to play and explore our surroundings. We emphasized that since we were all working and learning from home, we were able to spend much more time together than if the boys were in school or daycare. Lastly, we clung tightly to the aspects of our lives that remained the same – we took the boys to familiar places, like for hikes at our local conservation area, fishing, and on the picnics that they love so much.


The proposed increase to the federal minimum wage

Feb. 28, 2021

— Robert S. Eckley Distinguished Professor of Economics Emeritus Michael Seeborg

Q: Though an increase to the federal minimum wage won't be included in the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill, Democrats have vowed to continue pursuing legislation to raise the federal minimum wage to $15. What are some of the potential economic implications of raising the federal minimum wage to this level?

A: The Democrat’s proposed gradual increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15.00 over four years would not have much effect on ongoing efforts to recover from the pandemic’s economic devastation. The phased implementation would simply be too late to help.  

However, over time, a $15 per hour minimum wage would likely produce winners and losers across states. Some states have already implemented minimum wage laws similar to the Democrat’s proposal, while 21 states comply with the current $7.25 per hour minimum wage standard. For example, the federal proposal mimics the current Illinois minimum wage law in many ways, including the scheduled increases. Both are phased in and end up at $15 per hour in about four years. While Illinois workers would not be much affected by the Democratic proposal, the state as a whole could benefit as the increase in minimum wages increase labor costs in states that now have low minimums. This change would increase labor costs in states that are currently enticing Illinois businesses to relocate to take advantage of lower labor costs.


Bitcoin surge

Feb. 26, 2021

– Assistant Professor of Accounting & Financial Services Jaime Peters

Q: Can you explain why Bitcoin's value has tripled over the past three months?

A: There are two main theories behind the rapid increase in Bitcoin’s value, both of which are likely at play. First, as a cryptocurrency, there is no government behind Bitcoin. With the U.S. printing trillions of dollars for COVID relief, fears of future inflation are rising (which is reflected in the increased 10-year treasury yield). Unlike the almighty dollar, there will only ever be 21 million Bitcoins mined, and even fewer will be in circulation (google some stories about lost Bitcoin keys if you wonder why). The limited supply has attracted the interest of institutional investors, who are using the currency as a hedge against dollar-denominated inflation, a role normally filled by gold. Second, retail investors are eagerly buying up Bitcoin, spurred on by comments from Tesla's Elon Musk (who was accepting the coin as payment) and PayPal accepting the currency. Overall, the value of Bitcoin is very volatile (it is down 4% today as I write this), much more so than normal currency, and that volatility is likely here to stay – the value may double from here or quickly crash; however, one thing is clear: public and market perception of Bitcoin has changed – it is now considered by many as a legitimate alternative investment.


NASA’s current Mars mission

Feb. 20, 2021
–– Professor Emerita of Physics Linda French

Q: Perseverance, NASA's latest Mars rover, landed safely and began its mission on the red planet last week. Why is it scientifically important to continue studying Mars? What is the significance of this particular mission?

A: The Perseverance rover that many of us watched descend to the surface of Mars last week is part of the Mars 2020 mission. The project’s goals are to look for signs of habitable conditions on Mars in the distant past, and to search for water, as well as biosignatures, of past microbial life. It will explore an ancient river delta; places such as this on Earth are known to preserve microbial fossils for millions of years. The rover will leave capsules of the most promising samples for a future mission to return to Earth. Mars 2020 will further our search for evidence of life in the solar system beyond Earth, and increase our understanding of our closest planetary neighbor in preparation for, ultimately, a crewed mission to Mars.

–– French recently gave a presentation about her research and what it's like to work at major observatories


Local energy prices after harsh winter weather

Feb. 19, 2021

– Assistant Professor of Accounting & Financial Services Jaime Peters

Q: How will recent severe winter weather in Texas potentially impact energy prices – such as gasoline, electricity and natural gas – locally?

It is not Texas, but the same weather system that hit Texas and covered more than 60% of the U.S. in snow that will affect our local energy prices. Texas's electricity is generated in-state. The Lone Star state has historically refused to become a part of a more national grid and is currently suffering more than it might as a result. Our local electricity prices are determined by local demand (which is up because of our cold weather) and supply generated from Clinton's power plant. Natural gas is a similar story – Texas has banned the export of natural gas from the state as a result of this storm (it is a major fuel source of their electricity generation), but our local prices are being driven up more because of general demand for heating across this cold snap. Overall, natural gas prices are still below October levels. Finally, gasoline – Texas accounts for roughly a third of domestic oil production, but Midwest refineries now receive more oil from the Rockies and Canada/North Dakota than from the Gulf states. This has blunted, but not eliminated the effect of Texas' production interruption. Oil prices have been steadily rising since many pandemic stay-at-home orders have been lifted and we may see that trend continue. 


Honoring Keats on the 200th anniversary of his death

Feb. 16, 2021

— Robert Harrington Endowed Professor of English Michael Theune

Q: What is the significance of Romantic poet John Keats (who died Feb. 23, 1821)? 

A: A thing of beauty is a joy for ever," writes British Romantic poet John Keats at the beginning of his poem Endymion. He would know. Keats was so powerfully moved by his encounters with great art and thought that they often felt excruciatingly and luxuriously intimate, and immense. Catalyzing these intense engagements with a quicksilver imagination, Keats himself made many beautiful – sensitive and sensational – things: thrilling, speculative letters and poems glistening with current. We are fortunate to have them; Keats (1795-1821) died young, of tuberculosis. Still, he left us a great gift: an enduring body of work that offers resonance, vibrancy, perhaps even a shimmer of solace: Endymion continues, "A thing of beauty is a joy for ever: / Its loveliness increases; it will never / Pass into nothingness; but still will keep / A bower quiet for us, and a sleep / Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing."


Applying for financial aid during the pandemic

Feb. 12, 2021

–– Director of Financial Aid Scott Seibring '85

Q: What are some important things for families to know as they apply for financial aid amid economic uncertainty caused by the ongoing pandemic?

  1. FAFSA will require you to use 2019 income figures and you should not correct your FAFSA if 2020 income figures are different.
  2.  If your 2019 income figures do not reflect your current situation, contact each of your schools to learn about their appeal process.
  3.  Please provide any unique expense for possible consideration in addition to income changes.

Explanation: In 2017-18, FAFSA moved to "prior prior year income." So, 2019 income is the income that needs to be reported on the 2021-22 FAFSA. If 2019 income is not indicative of their current situation, a student can contact each of the schools individually about their appeal process.  Schools will have a document for them to complete in regards to their most current situation. For us, our 2021-22 Appeal Questionnaire will have a 2020 income column and a 2021 estimated income column. In the scenario when a school will use professional judgement to alter a student’s FAFSA, the school will need plenty of documentation that usually requires W-2s, tax returns, most current pay stubs, and most current unemployment benefit documents. If a school uses professional judgement because of change in circumstances and makes changes to the FAFSA, only the school who makes those changes will see the new results.


Impeachment

Feb. 12, 2021

— Professor of Political Science Greg Shaw

Q: What does former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial suggest about representative politics in the U.S.?

A: As I watch Republican senators squirm in their chairs but remain either in silence or tepid defense of Trump, I am struck by how powerfully electoral representation can work. I'll give these sophisticated members of Congress credit for being able to see an impeachable series of behaviors when they see one and that they are not simply in denial about the clear chain of influence from Trump's messaging to violent mob action explicitly intended to keep the Senate from one of its key duties on January 6th. With few exceptions, these senators are not the ones who have lost touch with reality, rather their GOP constituents back home are. The hold these voters have on their senators, at least on this issue in this moment, is nothing short of amazing. Just at a time when a little bit of leadership from the top of the party could do the country a lot of good in the way of defining the GOP's principles and priorities, their senators are captivated by fear of the crowd. If you believe in representation in the mold of voters who keep their representatives on a short leash, this is your moment to celebrate. If, on the other hand, you believe in healthy representation as a back and forth between voters setting the general direction and leaders simultaneously injecting some judgement into governance, this is a dismal season for the GOP and for the country.


The science behind car trouble in the cold

Feb. 7, 2021

Associate Professor and Interim Chair of Chemistry and Biochemistry Manori Perera

Q: With temperatures forecast to remain bitterly cold this week in Central Illinois, what are some temperature-related issues that impact vehicles, and what is the chemistry behind those issues? Are there steps that motorists can take to avoid such issues?

A: As weather turns very cold, our cars feel it as much as we do and batteries take the brunt of it. Typical car batteries generate charge through an electro-chemical reaction that happens inside the batteries where lead plates and sulfuric acid are located. This reaction slows down at a colder temperature, resulting in reduced ability to provide enough power to start and run the vehicle. Newer batteries can withstand colder temperatures a bit better, but a battery three years old –– or older –– needs a bit more attention. You can get older batteries checked for liquid levels, as they are critical in generating the current. Lower levels of water in the battery will freeze and expand to cause irreparable damage. Colder weather also makes metal contract, so making sure that terminals are clean and tight helps to ensure better connections. Other minor things that might help your car run better include cleaning snow out so the ventilation is not blocked resulting in overheating under the hood, and making sure antifreeze fluids are topped. If you have electric car batteries, their charge temporarily will reduce significantly under cold weather conditions while operating interior heaters. Make sure the battery is fully charged to withstand the cold weather, so you are not stranded by the road.


 

Why college shouldn’t be seen as a consumer good, but a transformative process

Feb. 6, 2021

President S. Georgia Nugent explains in Business Insider

 


The pandemic’s effect on romantic relationships

Feb. 5, 2021

Chair and Associate Professor of Psychology Amanda Vicary

Q: As we approach Valentine's Day, can you apply your expertise regarding attachment theory and romantic relationships to evaluate some of the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic may be impacting romantic relationships?

A: For people with an anxious attachment orientation to their partners, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely leading to increased problems in their relationships. People who are highly anxious in this way tend to want to be with their partner frequently, need constant assurance, etc. If, due to social distancing, they can't see their partner as much as they're used to, this could create problems. For individuals who are more avoidantly attached, the pandemic could be a benefit, as highly avoidant individuals tend to be fine having their own space and don't need the constant physical or emotional connectedness with their partners.


GameStop stock surge evokes Panic of 1907

– Assistant Professor of Accounting & Financial Services Jaime Peters

Jan. 29, 2021

Q: As lawmakers announce hearings on short selling and online trading platforms following the GameStop trading freeze, what are some potential implications for Wall Street? Have we ever seen anything like this before?

A: The short answer is yes — we have seen this before. It was called the Panic of 1907, and instead of video games/Tootsie Rolls/department stores/movie theaters it was copper. The government stepped in then, and in an attempt to avoid more regulation the brokers are stepping in now. Short-selling is not evil, but has limited upside and unlimited downside — we are seeing the worst of what can happen now. It won't be just the hedge funds that this short squeeze will hurt. Unsophisticated or naive investors are buying right now, and in the end the air will be let out and we will see these companies trade for more rational values — causing people to lose a lot of money.

 


Pets in the White House can bring less stress, better decision-making

Jan. 26, 2021

Associate Professor of Psychology Ellen Furlong explains in The Conversation why newly minted first dogs Champ and Major are poised to offer special benefits to workers in the White House:

Having Champ and Major in the White House may help President Biden and his staff navigate the stresses and tensions of the current political landscape. Beyond “indogurations,” tweets and cute photo ops, Champ and Major will offer physical, psychological and social benefits in the Oval Office. Read the complete story (published under Creative Commons, enabling media to republish based on simple guidelines). 

— Illinois Wesleyan University Associate Professor of Psychology Ellen Furlong


 

Why Biden calls climate change a 'national security' and 'foreign policy' priority

— Professor of Environmental and International Studies Abigail Jahiel

Jan. 31, 2021

Q: As President Biden signed a series of executive orders designed to address climate change this week, officials said climate change under President Biden's plan will become both a "national security" and "foreign policy" priority. Why is aligning national climate policy with matters of “national security” and “foreign policy” significant?

A: The national security of the United States has traditionally been viewed as dependent upon a strong military, and more recently, as necessitating superior intelligence and cybersecurity capabilities to protect the country from conflict. Yet attacks, whether physical or in the cybersphere, are not the only factors that threaten the security of a nation nor, one might argue, the most significant threat today. The security and prosperity of a nation and its citizens rests upon the global ecosystem and its ability to support the Earth’s inhabitants. 

Climate change poses an existential threat to this stability. Increasing temperatures, extreme weather events, droughts, fires, floods, melting glaciers, acidifying oceans and rising sea level destabilize societies both physically and financially. Homes and infrastructure are demolished; croplands are destroyed; fish stocks are reduced; coastal zones are lost to the sea; and people are uprooted and forced to migrate. As climate change advances, conditions for the development of new pathogens and new pandemics rise, too. Amidst this all, the toll to the economy grows greater and greater. What sounds like science fiction is the reality we already face to differing degrees in various parts of the planet today. Last year in the United States alone, weather-related disasters and record-breaking fires cost the U.S. economy an unprecedented $95 billion. Here in the Midwest, the exceedingly unusual derecho that touched down hit the corn and soybean economy especially hard.

Superior U.S. military, intelligence and cybersecurity capabilities cannot protect against climate change; but climate change can exacerbate and increase conflicts and further destabilize societies.

President Biden’s announcement that climate change policy will be addressed as a national security and foreign policy priority is thus significant for two key reasons: (1) It elevates the importance of climate change policy, signaling to the American public that action on climate change is essential for our national security; and (2) it sends a clear message to the rest of the world that the United States is rejoining the global community of nations in its commitment to the Paris Agreement, reversing the go-it-alone foreign policy that characterized the previous administration. 

Climate change is a global issue whose worst impacts can only be avoided if all nations work together to make significant changes. As one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world and the second largest contributor to climate change pollution, what the U.S. does makes a difference. By strategically integrating its climate change policy with its national security and foreign policies, the United States will be in a stronger position to demonstrate leadership in the global community as we work to tackle our common problems.

 


Political polarization and divided government

— Professor of Political Science Greg Shaw

Jan. 22, 2021

Q: We often hear about polarization in general and divided government in particular interfering with the business of getting legislation passed through Congress. Has polarized rhetoric and divided government actually resulted in reduced legislative productivity? Will productivity increase with unified control of the White House and Congress?

A: It's a reasonable question, as, based on the amount of partisan drama ordinary citizens and journalists see, casual observers might think that all members of Congress do is fight each other and obstruct the process. However, on closer inspection the evidence shows something different, that Congress produces nearly the same number of significant pieces of legislation during divided as during unified government.

While we're going into a period of unified government, the razor-thin majorities that the Democrats control might display some of the qualities of divided government, even though, strictly speaking, it's not.

So, one might fruitfully ask what the prospects are both for the ordinary flow of executive nominations, routine legislation, and big projects, such as immigration and climate change. (Whether these things occur during the first 100 days is not so important, as the effects of policy changes play out over years, not months.) The routine stuff will, in all likelihood, proceed more or less like normal. Several of the big projects will also likely advance, even if not according to Biden's playbook.

Strategic obstructionism will occur on some level, but it doesn't usually bring the workings of the federal government to a grinding halt.


Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb” and the power of poetry to help us heal

— Professor and Chair of English Joanne Diaz

Jan. 22, 2021

Q: During the inauguration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, poet Amanda Gorman recited “The Hill We Climb,” becoming the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history. From your perspective, how did Gorman successfully blend the art of poetry with social engagement — and hope — during a challenging and divisive time in our nation’s history?

A: You mention social engagement, and that is something that caught my attention right away with this poem. I love how Amanda Gorman speaks with a collective voice—a we. From the very first line, I feel welcomed and included right away, and I suspect that millions of others did, too, based on the wildly enthusiastic responses that I’m seeing on social media and in the news.

But right away, the poem also presents problems, too—Gorman alludes to catastrophe, to grief, to exhaustion. It seems like our nation has so many insurmountable problems that we might never find light in our “never-ending shade.” That’s terrifying.

And yet, she manages to find the answer. In her wisdom, Gorman suggests that we’re looking for the wrong thing. Instead of trying to a “polished, pristine” nation, we should try to “forge a union with purpose.” That forging requires hard labor, and it’s unrelenting. But that’s what is required of us as Americans. The poem calls for bridges instead of blades, for reconciliation and recovery, for a bravery that allows us to create the changes our nation needs so desperately. 

Notice how, towards the end of the poem, Gorman uses the future tense multiple times. We will…we will…we will. That is the language of prophecy; it’s also the language of promise. And that’s what the poetics of engagement is.

The word “engage” comes from the French engager—to make a pledge. A poetics of engagement, then, is a kind of promise—to the reader and to the writer. It’s a binding, a relationship, an agreement to undertake something, a moral obligation. That’s why I love Amanda Gorman’s poem so much—the stakes are high, and she knows it.

Q: How can poetry continue to help us heal as a nation?

A: This is a very exciting moment in contemporary American poetry. Poetry is everywhere—on Instagram, on YouTube, on subway cars in New York City, and in podcasts like Tracy Smith’s The Slowdown and the Poetry Foundation’s Vs. with Danez Smith and Franny Choi.

Joy Harjo, a brilliant poet of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, is our U.S. Poet Laureate, and she just edited a magnificent collection of native nations poetry called When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through. Kevin Young, a magnificent poet in his own right, is also the poetry editor of the New Yorker magazine and has just published an anthology titled African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song.

So many organizations and publishers, including the Academy of American Poets, have email subscriptions services where you can sign up, free of charge, to receive a poem in your email inbox every day, and the poems are always so inspiring to me.

Centuries ago, Pliny the Elder wrote “Nulla dies sine linea”—never a day without lines. What if every American resolved to start each day with just a few lines of poetry? With these and many other resources at our disposal, I suspect that we could, and should.

 


The politicization of conspiracy theories

— R. Forrest Colwell Endowed Chair and Professor of English James Plath

Jan. 22, 2021

Q: What conditions have allowed conspiracy theories to evolve into politicized weapons?

A: There have always been conspiracy theories, but I think the politicization really began in the 1960s. During the 10 months it took the Warren Commission to conclude that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone in assassinating President Kennedy, a still stunned and grieving public became convinced that something so heinous had to be the work of more than a single actor. This was still near the height of the Cold War, and so suspicions of Russian involvement were understandable.

Since then, I think conspiracy theories have proliferated and flourished precisely because the Cold War ended and suddenly American fears and paranoia had no focal point. The Soviet Union was dissolved and was no longer the Great Satan. Anticipating that, novelist Ian Fleming introduced a fictional sinister evil international organization called SPECTRE that, while not a nation, was just as secretive and conspiratorial as Russia. SPECTRE, I would argue, could well be the inspiration for the idea of there being a "Deep State" that’s equally dark, secretive, sinister and vast.

Before President Trump, conspiracy theories were fringe thought, but Trump gave them legitimacy. According to numerous media fact-checkers, he retweeted/promoted at least 20 such theories—all of them debunked. In addition, by branding Democrats the “enemy of the people” he shifted the Cold War paranoia from an external enemy to an internal one, further exacerbating the political divide in the U.S. and creating an atmosphere conducive to the radicalization of conspiracy thinking.

Conspiracy thinking flourishes in an atmosphere where two differing sides see themselves as right vs. wrong, as good vs. evil, and that’s where we’re at now. No amount of facts can persuade someone who has already embraced conspiratorial thinking.

Q: With a new presidential administration in place, how do you expect politicized conspiracy theories to evolve in the coming year(s)?

 A: Hatred, fear, and paranoia fuel conspiracy theories, and those feelings aren’t disappearing any time soon just because a new administration is in power. Though they’ve called themselves “entertainers” rather than journalists, commentators who make millions every year by feeding exaggerations and outright untruths to their audiences are not going to suddenly stop doing so. America is still as deeply polarized as ever.

All the conditions for conspiracy theories to thrive still exist, and what’s more, they’ve been proven to be effective political weapons.

Conspiracy theories are like rumors: usually they begin with one person or one source and they snowball from there. According to a 2013 poll, 12 million Americans believe that lizard aliens are secretly controlling top politicians and running the country, and that belief can be traced to a 1984-85 fictional TV series, V.

Likewise, the whole Clinton Body Count theory can be traced back to a quasi-documentary film made by right-wing commentator Larry Nichols that was as fictional as V. But those theories contributed to the demonization of Hillary Clinton and helped to bring about her defeat in 2016, just as accounts published in book form to counteract John Kerry’s war heroism helped to sink his presidential hopes and brought a new word into our lexicon: “swiftboating.”

Now you have Donald Trump Jr.’s conspiracy-minded book Triggered that was bought and distributed with Republican funds, so conspiracy theories have become not only institutionalized but effective weapons in an ever-expanding propaganda war between Democrats and Republicans.