The Inoculation against Misinformation requires Self-Examination
The Other Pandemic
In my youth, I entertained the postmodern idea that reality is subjective and open to interpretation. I am much less inclined that way now. There is an objective reality out there that is open to discovery through critical thinking, examining facts from credible sources, and using the scientific method. We often hear that everyone is entitled to their own opinion. But the spread of misinformation has become the other pandemic, a disease that threatens democracy and even the survival of civilization.
There is a vast difference between an evidence-based opinion and an unsupported belief. For example, a mountain of evidence backs the opinion that vaccinations have contributed significantly to doubling the human lifespan in the last 100 years. The hillbilly belief that “My God-given immune system will protect me from Covid better than any vaccine,” or the notion among some New Agers that supplements or crystals or whatever will do the same, are beliefs that are unsupported by any evidence.
The success of democracy requires an informed populace. A responsible citizen should be able to defend one’s opinions with facts and logic, and opinions that cannot be supported in this way should be re-examined.
Although I find it somewhat disconcerting, the gaining popularity in the belief that the earth is flat is still fringe and probably mostly harmless. Anti-vaccination beliefs and denial of human-caused climate change are not.
We used to go to Libraries
Only a few decades ago, we had to go to libraries for fact-checking. This could be a time-consuming and tedious process. Now information on the internet is at our fingertips — if we know where and how to look. Libraries were never the vast reservoirs of misinformation that the internet has become. Although there was plenty of fiction on the shelves, and there might be some bizarre pseudo-science books, people were probably less likely to walk into a library and trip down some rabbit hole they could mistake for the real world.
How can we determine what is true and real? Science, through observation and measurement, has brought us much closer in the last few hundred years to understanding the true nature of the universe. In the late 16th century, Giordano Bruno proposed that the earth revolved around the sun and that the stars were suns with planets like the earth in orbit around them. For this and other heresies, he was condemned by the Catholic Church and burned at the stake. Although the observations and measurements of scientists have been more widely accepted since then, there is still a lot of misunderstanding concerning what science is about. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been a medical advisor to every president since Ronald Regan, receives regular death threats.
We can measure some aspects of reality with more accuracy and certainty than others. For instance, there can be great certainty in mathematics and physics. 2 plus 2 will always equal exactly 4. The speed of light was first roughly calculated in 1676. Now it can be measured much more precisely at 299,792,458 meters per second.
The age of the earth (and the solar system) at 4.543 billion years, give or take about 50 million years, can be calculated by measuring the decay of Uranium 235 and 238 in ancient rock, or more precisely, meteorites that have landed on the earth. This is an example of how science can make inferences through measurements.
The proofs for some conjectures rely on a preponderance of evidence, as in the case of human-caused global warming. Conversely, some claims can be dismissed through the lack of supporting evidence, for instance, the widely held belief among Republicans in the US that the 2020 election was fraudulently stolen. At least 86 judges, some Trump appointees, have ruled that there is no evidence for this claim, yet the majority of Republican voters still stick to this belief.
Surveys over the years have consistently shown that about 40% of the US population believes that the universe is less than 10,000 years old. That is factually crazy. Belief in a young universe is as contrary to observable fact as belief in a flat earth. When a population embraces one kind of unreality, they are more prone to accept others, for instance, that the 2020 election was stolen or that human-caused climate change doesn’t exist. These people dismiss the science that says that the universe is much older than 10,000 years, and yet trust the same science when they are using their GPS or other technology that is all around them. This is a kind of cognitive dissonance. It’s the process of holding two opposing ideas or performing actions inconsistent with the ideas held in the mind without reconciling them. Psychologists consider this state to be stressful and mentally unhealthy. It may help explain why so many Americans feel angry and alienated.
Religious fundamentalists often hold beliefs that are at odds with science and reason. This has not been the case with all religious people. The first human to extrapolate the theory now called the Big Bang from equations was a Catholic priest, Georges Lemaitre. Gregor Mendel, a catholic monk, was the father of modern genetics. Isaac Newton was also a religious man. Spirituality does not require one to relinquish the gift of reason.
Smallpox and Polio
The world got together and wholly conquered the scourge of smallpox, a disease that used to kill millions a year and blind or disfigure more. By1980, we were able to throw away the vaccine. And we almost got there with polio. We could have thrown away that one also if it were not for a group of anti-vaccine religious fanatics in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the disease is still active. And now, there are parents in Europe and North America who do not want to have polio, or any, vaccinations for their kids. I’m not talking here about the very small group of children who have genuine medical conditions that prevent them from being vaccinated.
Polio crippled and killed people of my generation. We could start that all over again. We are about to take in many refugees from the disaster in Afghanistan, as we should. But recall where polio is still active.
So much of what people hold to be true is not fact-based opinion, but simply belief that they have acquired. Most often, these beliefs are related to cultural, religious, or political loyalties. People don’t want to break with their tribes. There are reports of folks putting on disguises to get their Covid shot.
Well over a thousand people a day are presently dying of Covid 19 in the US — almost all of them unvaccinated. One in every 500 Americans has now died of Covid. Patients have died of non-Covid illnesses because unvaccinated Covid patients took up all the ICU hospital beds. Some people are (apparently seriously) worried that the Covid vaccines contain microchips that will track their movements. That’s science fiction. We simply don’t have the technology to manufacture a self-powered transmitter that will fit through a 25-gauge needle. Columbia University did develop an injectable chip. Powered by a nearby ultrasound device, it could transmit body temperature information. That’s all. Just body temperature. The folks that are worried about microchip tracking are almost certainly carrying around smartphones that really do track everywhere they go — and a whole lot more.
5.8 billion Covid 19 vaccinations have now been administered since the first trials in March 2020. There have been very few severe side effects. The official world-wide death toll from covid is now 4.7 million. But when statistical analysis is done comparing the normal number of deaths world-wide during the same period as the time of Covid, the result points to a figure at least twice as high.
My hope is that folks would learn to gather credibly substantiated facts and then make informed decisions. But, unfortunately, a lot of what I hear is the regurgitation of unsupported beliefs.
If the present anti-vaccine sentiment was as common 50 or 60 years ago, as it is today, would smallpox still be with us? Almost certainly.
Human-Caused Global Warming
One of the significant divisions in the US has been over the reality of human-caused global warming. The split has been mainly along political lines. But according to surveys, people on both sides are mostly poorly informed concerning the science on this subject. Every citizen should understand the evidence for human-induced global warming.
GMOs and Golden Rice
I will risk mentioning another subject that will raise some hackles since many of my friends are probably unconditionally anti-GMO. Genetic modification is, after all, unnatural, right? We’ve only been doing it for about ten thousand years. You think your corn on the cob is natural? That plant can’t even reproduce without human cultivation. Do you think your dog is natural? He should have been a wolf except for our interference. But manipulating genes is different, one might say. Really? Viruses have been carrying genetic material between species for hundreds of millions of years. This exchange is now believed to have contributed significantly to evolution. All life is interconnected. We all came from a common ancestor — some mysterious genesis of life that only happened once. A tomato has more than 50% of its DNA in common with humans.
A lot of the world suffers from hunger. And it isn’t just about calories. It’s about nutrition. Much of the world subsists on mostly white rice, which is not very nutritious and causes hundreds of thousands of people to die or go blind every year because of vitamin A deficiency. In 2012 the World Health Organization reported that about 250 million preschool children are affected by Vitamin A deficiency. The report further states that providing those children with vitamin A could prevent up to 2.7 million under-five childhood deaths — a year! So-called Golden Rice is a crop that has been genetically engineered to contain beta carotene, an efficient precursor for vitamin A. It could potentially save hundreds of thousands of children’s lives a year if it was widely distributed.
Are there risks with GMOs? Of course, there are. That’s why experimental crops are so extensively tested. Activists have destroyed many of these test crops. Yes, corporate interests, gene patenting, and monoculture are issues with GMOs. In the case of Golden Rice, though, corporations have waved all related royalties for small farms. After some 40 years of research and testing, the Philippines and Bangladesh will be the first to grow Golden Rice as a production crop this year.
If you are reading this, you are likely someone who has access to all kinds of nutritious food, organic or whatever, from your local grocery stores. Now let me ask you something if you are unconditionally anti-GMO — are you willing to allow hundreds of thousands of children a year to die or go blind to support the purity of your anti-GMO beliefs? Have you thoroughly examined these beliefs and weighed them against objective facts?
In 2016, 107 Nobel laureates signed a letter pleading with Greenpeace to halt their unconditional opposition to GMOs, particularly Golden Rice.
Now one might say that there are other solutions to hunger and malnutrition. In truth, they are limited. The so-called green revolution of the 50s and 60s saved the world from mass starvation, but there was a price — runoffs from fertilizers and pesticides that continue to harm the environment. No, organic farming won’t feed the world. There is a reason that organic produce costs twice as much as non-organic at my local supermarket. Distribution of nutritious but perishable food is a problem in much of the world, hence the reliance on crops such as wheat and rice.
The Population Problem
You know what’s truly unnatural? 7.8 billion people on this planet. Humans and their domestic animals, mostly cattle and pigs, make up 96% of the mammalian biomass on the earth. That is an enormous burden for the planet to carry, and if anything can be called unnatural, I think that should be it. But we must live with this situation now and deal with it the best we can. Quitting or reducing the consumption of meat would help. It would save resources and cut down greenhouse gas emissions, in addition to mitigating the monstrous cruelty that factory farming inflicts on animals. But I’ll write in detail about that somewhere else. Crops like Golden Rice could help too. We need to deal with the disaster we have created as best we can.
People are reluctant to examine their beliefs. Yes, the process can be dangerous to personal identity, the psyche, and self-image, in addition to the feeling of betraying tribal loyalties. It takes courage. It demands real critical thinking and an examination of information and sources. Examining belief requires rising above confirmation bias, which internet algorithms have exploited on an enormous scale to enrich corporations and their shareholders. Luring folks down rabbit holes makes money. Brushing by those ads down there drops a few more pennies into the coffers, which add up to billions. Don’t be a sucker. Distinguish between what feels good and what is true. Understand that anecdote, even if true, is not necessarily evidence of causation. Read real sources. News sites that you don’t pay for should be somewhat suspect. If you can’t afford subscriptions, read outlets like the Guardian, which has no paywall for those who can’t afford the voluntary donation, and it is hardly establishment orientated. CNN is free, and although opinionated, doesn’t lie.
After a lifetime of reading, I lean toward trusting news sources that admit to getting stuff wrong over those that never make such an admission. All news sources make mistakes. The honest ones, like the Washington Post, New York Times, the Economist, or for that matter, Scientific American, apologize when they get something wrong. Other sources, like the opinion side of Fox News or Info Wars, only retract under threat of lawsuits. Truth matters.
Just after the 2016 US election, I was disconcerted to hear young Americans echoing the meme (likely abetted by Russian misinformation) that there was no real difference between the two major parties. So, there was no point in voting, they said. These were young people who were ostensibly progressives. The damage these folks did to their country by allowing Trump to assume the presidency is immeasurable. Because Trump got to appoint 3 Supreme Court justices during his time in office, the fallout continues. Women’s reproductive rights alone are on course to be set back generations. Thanks, kids. Smarten up.
What are we willing to give up?
Many folks have now embraced — at least rhetorically — the concept of “sustainable growth” and braking the march toward environmental disasters by cutting back on consumption. There is also a lot of talk about the redistribution of wealth. But what do these things mean? Whose consumption are we talking about? Even with their obscene wealth, Billionaires can only use so many yachts, mansions, and spaceships. It’s the middle class, especially in North America, that are the real gluttons of consumption. Even with increased online shopping, the US still has ten times the square footage of floor space devoted to retail compared to Europe. Is shopping an opiate that masks some deep dissatisfaction in America? I won’t go deeper into that question here, but I will ask the reader, if they are among those who believe in reducing consumption, to think about what they might be willing to give up.
I live in a sports-orientated town in Canada, where there are numerous technical mountain bike trails in the surrounding environs. The kind of bicycle (non-motorized) I regularly see on those trails retails for more than the average Nepali would make in wages in their entire lifetime. Think about that. And lots of people around here have a stable full of those kinds of toys. Since I am not a hard rider, I have a more modest bike that would only take the average Nepali 10 years to pay for — if they didn’t spend money on anything else.
So, what are we willing to give away or give up to mitigate environmental impact and redistribute wealth? What could I give up? Meat? Did that a long time ago. Keep my outdoor adventure toys in repair and keep them going for as long as I can? Yeah. Ditto for clothes. Air travel? Ouch! Why did I have to ask myself that?
See, it’s not easy. But we need to question ourselves. The world depends on us.