Imagine for a moment what it would have been like in early 2020 if the same virus hit us, with the same objective threats present – but one thing had been different: Everyone’s views about what was going on, and what we should do in response, were allowed to be shared. The overriding message was: “Let’s hear all the best ideas of what steps to take – and the nature of the challenge we’re up against.”
- Rather than doctors like Scott Atlas and Anthony Fauci being ‘at war,’ they were in the same room, putting their heads together from the beginning.
- Rather than only allowing experts with some opinions to inform the public of their views – and punishing or sanctioning those in the minority, a wide variety of expert positions were heard.
- Rather than videos sharing minority positions being squelched, they were allowed to the full scrutiny of broad public consumption – with confidence in the capacity of our collective wisdom and deliberation together to ultimately sort through what was true.
- Rather than labeling anything outside the standard answers as “misinformation” and “disinformation,” we allowed competing arguments to emerge – with confidence in the best information rising to the top and being discerned in our collective wisdom.
- And rather than assuming that the right path was clear and obvious, we also practiced humility – recognizing that with such a global crisis, we needed to stay open to new ideas and recognize that none of us could see the whole picture on our own.
- In short, rather than managing an awkwardly controlled and narrow public health conversation, we embarked on a project of seeking the truth together – appreciating that everyone’s perspectives could inform a fuller picture and a wise response as a whole.
How would that one shift have changed our ensuing response to the pandemic? Where would we be now if we had pursued that kind of open conversation? Would we see the same levels of resistance, hesitance, and hostility (to each other, to public health dictates) that we do right now?
None of us know, of course, know what that imaginary scenario would have meant practically. Certainly, some would see my dreamed-up past as a recipe for disaster. The argument would go something like this: “allowing misinformation to spread is like allowing disease to spread. Had we done so, the pandemic would have been far worse even than it has been.”
That’s the prevailing wisdom. And almost exclusively, it’s shaped the policy decisions and pandemic trajectory we’ve experienced over the last year. I personally think a great deal of the hostility and suspicion could have been averted were people’s honest question and alternative views allowed place in transparent, public deliberation – a place where they could be hashed out, evaluated, and considered.
Even if they didn’t ultimately dictate policy, they at least would have been heard. Something about being heard – even if not agreed with – tends to reduce the temperature in the room. Something about being silenced – without being heard – tends to drive people nuts. It’s not hard to imagine the terms of our public conversation over the last 18 months, therefore, fueling some of the radicalization, mounting hostility and spiking paranoia.
Of course, regardless of past possibilities, this is where we are today. A difficult time, where fears mount and hopes continue to persist. Even as numbers have worsened, we have continued to believe that if only we continue the same course more even more – all this will be alleviated.
Certainly, we would all love to see that happen and we join in all those praying for the outcome.
But will it? We cannot see the future. But we can look closely at other countries who have made it farther down this path we’ve chosen. For instance, where 80 percent of the population in Israel has been vaccinated, that country recently recorded one of the highest COVID-19 case rates in the world, according to the Reuters Global COVID tracker – with new serious cases rising 10-fold since the beginning of July—from roughly five a day to about 40 over the last week. The overall number of patients has soared too—from 30 to more than 200 (with the vast majority of new patience since July being vaccinated). And the United Kingdom, which has administered enough doses to cover almost 70 percent of its population, has averaged the second most COVID-19 cases in the world over the past week. In Britain, they are averaging 140 deaths a day, roughly 10 times as many as mid-September 2020. And hospitalizations and deaths are continuing to rise.
There are debates on how to make sense of what’s happening in Israel and the UK – with some attributing the whole of what they are experiencing to the Delta variant.
Laying aside explanations for a moment, for the sake of this argument, what if that same scenario played out in the United States over the next couple of months? What would happen? Is there any uncertainty whatsoever in who would or what would be blamed? Within our national conversation allowing only one perspective on the pandemic to be shared widely, there can be no doubt on what conclusion Americans would come to, right?
The explanation is pre-ordained: the unvaccinated are to blame. They are the reason the numbers have not improved. They are the reasons the numbers have worsened. If only they had gotten with the program – and not allowed the virus to circulate, it would never have mutated. Right?
If we think the anger, vindictiveness, and tension are bad between the vaccinated and unvaccinated now, imagine what would happen then?
That’s my nightmare scenario: Worsening pandemic. Worsening blame. Worsening conflict.
Let’s keep praying.
Jacob, such an important perspective. Remember when Youtube silenced the Stanford doctors at the very beginning of the outbreak for having an opinion about how the cases were being counted? That was the beginning of the kind of censorship that has bred such distrust. Truth can survive other opinions but propaganda cannot.
I love your statement:
“Even if they didn’t ultimately dictate policy, they at least would have been heard. Something about being heard – even if not agreed with – tends to reduce the temperature in the room. Something about being silenced – without being heard – tends to drive people nuts. It’s not hard to imagine the terms of our public conversation over the last 18 months, therefore, fueling some of the radicalization, mounting hostility and spiking paranoia.“
Even Satan was allowed to present his view in the great council in heaven. Talk about misinformation!
Great post, Jacob.
The challenge is, in times of uncertainty, people yearn for certainty. Vaccines have given back that sense of control to many people (with the side effect of demonizing those who don’t comply with that ‘solution’).
Your approach of open communication without dealing with absolutes would be ideal. But people will probably prefer to be right over finding a collective solution.
Maybe living in harmony with people we disagree with, learning to listen to conflicting ideas, and finding a path that works for everybody could be a great lesson for us to learn from the pandemic …
I’ve often wondered if the main lesson we are all being tested on is Charity.. Love over fear.
I disagree. I see so many responses from people which are effectively “I don’t know what to believe.” The reason being that people whose goal is to sow misinformation were able to sow misinformation. Arm chair quarterbacks tried to claim just as much authority as experts.
It would be nice if more adults could see through the grifters grifting, but they can’t. If they didn’t hear/read “counter narratives” at least they wouldn’t have the excuse of being confused.
It makes me sad that I must make this point, but nevertheless I must make this point: the reason we have free speech is to protect unpopular speech.
We don’t have a First Amendment to protect people talking about the weather or cute cat videos. We have a First Amendment to protect people being able to say things that might be offensive to other people. And the reason is that sometimes offensive things are nevertheless true. A lot of people don’t like it when religious people say that certain sexual acts are sins, but nevertheless many religious people believe this, and most readers of this blog agree that religious people should be allowed to say this, even if they don’t agree that certain sexual acts are sins.
Here is the problem with saying that people should not spread “misinformation:” who gets to decide what is misinformation? In Germany in the 1930s, it was considered misinformation to say that Jews were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps. But of course we know the truth now: this was not misinformation. Just a year ago it was considered misinformation to say that the COVID-19 virus may have created in a laboratory in Wuhan, but now most people who have actually studied the issue say that indeed it probably DID come from a laboratory in Wuhan. And because the truth was suppressed for so long, we lost a lot of time that could have been spent looking into the origin of the virus. The news networks are telling us that ivermectin is harmful, so promoting ivermectin to fight the virus is harmful, but the truth is that literally billions of doses of ivermectin have been administered safely over the decades, and the drug won the Nobel Prize in 2015.
So, I would really encourage people of good will to oppose the suppression of “misinformation.” This is a dangerous tactic not worthy of a free people. Let people try different treatments, and let the results of those treatments be reported fully. Over time, the truth will come out, just as it did regarding the Holocaust and just as it did regarding the labs in Wuhan.
Well said, Geoff. And we must also remember that the Nazi propaganda started out with fear about one’s health.
C.S. Lewis wisely said that the worst tyrannies are those justified to be for our own good.
The vaxed blame the unvaxed for the continuation of the virus. The unvaxed blame those pushing to mandate the vax for a continuation of the tyranny.
Control of public opinion has been an explicit goal of the US government since WWI. Manipulation of public opinion was also one of the causes of the Civil War. So much of what people think they know is merely repeating propaganda.
It is much easier to know the lies. We can discern that lies are spread, especially with the suppression of information. Science isn’t about the closing off of inquiry but openness.
Only God knows the complete truth about the pandemic. It appears that combinations of greedy and power hungry people, in government and business and at NGOs, are engaging in deception and power games and control measures.
Since this appears to be the case, we don’t know their ultimate goals and intents, but we know they are not honest or honorable. They appear to be neither wise nor trustworthy.