There were certain time-honored expressions that don’t seem to hold up to the demands of the modern world. “A broken clock is right twice a day” was true before the age of digital timing. Now a powerless clock or watch stares blankly back at its owner 24 hours a day, not even having the ability to be right even once a day. Senator Patrick Moynihan’s famous admonition, “You are entitled to your own opinion but you are not entitled to your own facts” apparently has also gone by the wayside. Today, we can choose facts to suit our worldview rather than fashion the latter from the information gleaned from the former.
Since Donald Trump first announced his run for office, the subject of “fake news” has become larger and more pronounced. Fake news rarely involves out-and-out lying—Donald Trump has horns underneath that MAGA hat, for example. Such lies are often debunked by the vast amount of information available on the Internet. How many times have old tweets or emails, security camera footage or bystanders with smartphones shown some outlandish claim to be completely false? “Real” fake news is generally presented as a true news story in which certain facts are either left out and/or the weight of various components of the story are changed for a desired effect. I have been living in Israel since I received a very generous Fulbright post-doctoral fellowship from the United States government in 1992. If there is an exchange of fire between Israel and say Hamas in Gaza, there are many ways to report such an event. “Israel attacks Gaza” leaves out the casus belli, namely the rockets fired from Gaza at Israeli population centers. “Hamas fires dozens of rockets at Israel” might skip over a targeted assassination of a senior Hamas official a day prior to the conflagration. And so on. The choosing of what to include, what to exclude, how far to go back, and what weight to put on various aspects of a given story directly affects how we perceive the news we receive. Prior to the most recent election, certain outlets tried to make a big deal out of a Trump bank account in China—proof of the president hiding something in his dealings with that country—until others pointed out that the account was set up by Trump’s company in anticipation of business activities that never materialized.
Think for a moment about the claim this past September that President Trump disparaged deceased soldiers in deciding not to visit an American cemetery in France in 2018. Four unnamed sources in the Atlantic claimed that the president branded the war dead as “losers” and decided not to go. Shortly thereafter, fourteen people went on record, not all Trump fans, and stated that President Trump had never said such things and that the trip was canceled due to the weather. These are not opinions but rather opposing sets of facts. The article describes the claims of four individuals as to what they claim to have heard and seen; the other fourteen people were present with the president and heard and saw differently. No one has suggested that there were different time frames where one group heard one thing and another group heard something else. So, whose facts are right? What factually transpired in France? Do we go by numbers—14 versus 4? Do we go by outlet, who published which version? Your answer to these questions probably reflects more on what you thought of President Trump prior to the publishing of this story than any objective evaluation of whom to believe in this case.
The subject of whose facts to believe has never been so strongly illuminated as with covid-19. Over a million people worldwide have died, tens of millions have gotten sick, millions have lost jobs, businesses closed and, in many cases, will never open again. What does “science” say about Covid? Well, like the news, it really depends on whose research you wish to believe. Those who institute lockdowns depriving people of their income, interactions with others, schooling, medical appointments, and other facets of normal life, claim that the virus is such a threat to humanity that only draconian actions can stop its spread to save lives. According to the American CDC as of this date, the death rate of covid-19 infected people is a little over 2%. There is no doubt that this number is probably on the high side. Why? It has been reported by Oxford that in some official covid-19 deaths, presence of the virus was incidental and not causative of death. Additionally, research suggests that 25% or more of those with the virus are completely unaware and may well go untested. So, let’s say that the virus has a 1% death rate of those infected (and it is highly infectious by its rate of spread), skewed heavily but not exclusively towards older people, especially those with preexisting conditions. If one’s only facts are the raw numbers for covid-19 infections and death, then lockdowns and closures make perfect sense. 11 million Americans infected! 250,000 dead! If, on the other hand, one goes by percentages and additionally weighs the risk of infection and death versus by age, the enormous losses from lack of school or income for working-age people, as well as irreversible business closures, then the policy conclusions may be less clear-cut. What we have today is people having predetermined outlooks and then shopping for the science and “facts” to support their views. This is not a new phenomenon in the least. Numerous reports of cherry-picked data in the climate change field have been reported. Those who believe in more government tend to accept such research as it justifies greater control over energy production and resource allocation both locally and globally. The actual science is far more complicated, and those who wish to point out the weakness in the pessimistic climate models are often silenced by their professional peers who often control publishing and funding in the field. Science has become a contact sport, where the conclusions often precede the research ostensibly needed to reach them.
Covid-19 has clearly been a serious worldwide health crisis. But so have been increased suicides, overdoses, family violence, depression, lost schooling in critical developmental years, business closures, and lack of family and personal interactions that have been the outcome of lockdowns and other covid-19 related decrees. When one hears the calls to “cancel” Thanksgiving and no doubt they’ll say the same about Christmas, it seems that those making such calls were only looking for a pretext to further control their subjects who previously had been their fellow citizens. Does the science justify keeping loved ones away from each other? Do masks really keep out very small virus particles? In one study, 70% of those who were positive for the virus said that they wore masks all of the time. Does closing down society in the name of health safety justify destroying the fabric of families and communities? The vast majority of people who get covid-19 either don’t feel a thing, have mild symptoms or recover quickly. We cannot ignore those who were or are very ill and the many who have died, but in order to come to a proper conclusion as to policy for a functioning society, all of the facts and scientific conclusions—and not just the ones you like—must be put on the table. No doubt many people die in car accidents due to increased travel before and after holidays like Thanksgiving but no one ever gave a thought to cancelling the holiday for such a consideration. Instead of cancelling and locking down with the destructive social side-effects, policy makers might be wise to work with their fellow citizens by recognizing their needs to live, make a living, go to school and interact with others. And leaders must lead. Seeing elected leaders without masks, jetting off for vacations, partying, or participating in large, crowded demonstrations only undermines the trust of those governed that their elected officials are acting in the best interest of the governed.
Science is not a monolithic entity. Different researchers may reach different conclusions via good-faith experimentation and data collection/analysis. One can find papers giving quite different “safe” distances required to prevent person-to-person virus spread. But policy makers often do not look at the nuances of research of why different groups came to different conclusions; rather, they want something to justify a policy and any old science will do.
Because people rely on different sets of facts and scientific studies to support and/or justify their positions, discussion and compromise become nearly impossible. If one person holds that a fetus is a living human being while another says that it is part of a woman’s body and is not really a human being prior to birth and thus may be terminated during pregnancy, where will they find a point of agreement regarding abortion? And the same is true for almost every political subject today. If Trump is Hitler because several professors have shown that their behaviors are similar, can we compliment him on successful vaccines coming out of Operation Warp Speed or the deft movement of ventilators throughout the country so that there was not once a shortage anywhere? Our political discourse is becoming more polarized as each faction grabs its facts—not opinions—and says that the other side must be wrong. What is the solution that puts us all on the same factual framework? That’s a very good question and I don’t know if anyone has a clear answer. Lots are screaming for unity including Joe Biden and other Democrats who until recently held half the country in contempt, while Ben Shapiro has stated that America can only continue if we can find a common language and culture that bind us all together. When many cherish America and its founding while others accuse it of being racist and founded in an amoral fashion, where will we find the point of agreement needed to keep moving the country forward together?
The next time a policeman asks a witness to give over “just the facts”, she might ask whose facts he wants to hear.