History has, from time immemorial, been witness to a profound struggle within the human psyche between irrationality and rationality. Our history books are rife with examples of scientific or even basic rational inquiry being vigorously suppressed by the powers that be. Their reasons have varied but have generally centered on the suppressor’s perceived self-interest in maintaining the status quo.
Over several centuries, there have been many forces that have sought to install roadblocks to science or any form of rational inquiry. Who they are may have changed but their methods have not. Fueled by fear, hatred, prejudice, bias or just plain ignorance, organized religions, tyrants, governments, politicians, organizations of all shapes and sizes, and even some groups in the scientific community, have from time to time sought to destroy and discredit by any means necessary those who would dare challenge their belief system.
Even though we are inquisitive creatures by nature, there are countless examples of strenuous opposition to our search for the truth. Let me cite just a few: in early times, Greek philosopher Socrates was tried, convicted and executed for asking basic questions about the foundations of Athenian morality; in 1616 Galileo was accused of heresy by asserting that the earth revolved around the sun. Threatened with death, he recanted. In the 17th century, the religious belief that sickness was a god-given malady in response to a flaw of character was challenged by Antoni van Leeuwenhoek who blamed microorganisms for the propagation of many diseases not the patient’s wrongful acts. His remarkable and lifesaving discovery of bacteria didn’t face the same threats as Galileo, but his findings were hotly disputed.
One would hope that in modern times we would be able to readily distinguish between reality and fantasy, truth and lies. Unfortunately, in the age of the internet and social media, that is not the case. The problem for us today is that when we read a statement, fact or fiction, printed on our computer, tablet, or phone, it looks exactly the same. The statement, “the earth is flat,” can be typed with as much passion and conviction as what we know to be the truth. Hence the flat earth people have gained millions of followers. The situation has gotten so bad that in 2016 Oxford Dictionary awarded “post truth” as the word of the year. They defined that term as “denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
This is not an ivory tower debate. In our daily lives we confront the challenge of discerning the truth from falsehood every time we turn on our computers or phones. The problem is so alarming that the Pew Research Center decided to take a poll among technologists, scholars, strategic thinkers and others asking about their opinion on whether our information environment will improve in the next 10 years.
When I first approached the question myself, I was inclined to take an optimistic view that in the next 10 years our information environment will be improved by changes that will reduce the spread of lies and other misinformation. My sunny outlook changed when one of my best friends from college sent me a video with a dire warning attached to it. The video that you may have also witnessed was of a young woman who swore that she had information from a doctor that evil Bill Gates was planning to use vaccines to implant microchips in people. This was part of his attempt at world domination no less with 700,000 poor souls being sacrificed callously in the process.
Often, there is some thread of distorted truth that forms the genesis of conspiracy theories, and this one is no exception. Gates made a video in which he talks about the efficacy of vaccines in older people and cautions about the risks of side-effects. He guesstimates that one in 10,000 of vaccinated people would experience discomfort as a side-effect. On a massive scale of vaccinated individuals that would translate into 700,000 people. This is gold for conspiracy theorists and soon that statement morphed into Gates “admitting” that his vaccine would kill 700,000 hapless humans.
The affliction of internet-aided conspiracy theories knows no geographic or national boundaries. It is a worldwide problem. Consequently, it was not surprising to see the head of the Russian Communist party, joyously observing yet another opportunity to sew chaos in the United States, join the fray. He used social media to confirm my college buddy’s paranoid video by propagating the uncorroborated charge that Gates and other “globalists” supported a covert mass chip implantation with subsequent DNA altering results, under the pretext of a mandatory vaccination against coronavirus. This ridiculous accusation has no basis in fact but is welcomed in many quarters that are more than happy to embrace any theory that comports with their worldview. These declarations are what in football terminology would be called “piling on,” since millions of Americans from different political stripes and for a variety of reasons are already leery of getting any COVID vaccine when and if it is offered. Ironically, our president’s hawking of anti-government and anti-science propaganda is coming home to roost in ways he never imagined.
In Italy, the home of a strong anti-vaccination movement, this bizarre and unsupported microchip theory has been embraced with open arms. One popular Italian video, which has been trending on Facebook, claims that the pandemic has been “invented.” Stefano Montanari, an Italian researcher with a degree in pharmacology, challenges American Alex Jones of Infowars for the title of “Promoter of the Darkest and Most Divisive Theories Imaginable.” His leading entry into the world of misinformation is that the globally made up epidemic is actually a conspiracy to get the entire world fitted with micro-bots under the guise of vaccinations. The end result, according to Montanari, is an unfathomable amount of money and corruption benefitting the pockets of a select few.
So, as it stands today, my sentiment to the question posed by the Pew Research Poll is that I am in agreement with the verdict of the majority (51 percent) of the experts polled who believe that things will not improve over the coming decade. Unless something is put in place to filter the hate, prejudice, and outright lies now floating freely about, we remain far too vulnerable to fake news that preys upon our most basic instincts. We crave answers that reinforce our previously embraced beliefs and manipulative actors are more than happy to feed us with a steady diet of bogus news, without the smallest shred of corroborative evidence.
Perhaps we will adapt and find ways to astutely sift through the “information” we receive and recognize the lies from the truth. How important is this? The recent pandemic presents a life or death test of our ability to see through falsehoods and, despite what opportunistic politicians may tell us, apprehend what could be a lifesaving reality. It took quite a while for humankind to embrace the innovative techniques of Socrates, Galileo’s view of the universe, or the findings of Leeuwenhoek, but eventually it did. Unfortunately, given the shape we’re in now and the possibility of a lifesaving vaccine in the near future, we don’t have a moment to waste. Keep that mask on, my good friends.