The Babylon Bee published one of its satirical stories “Fauci Spins His Handy ‘Wheel of Science’ To See What He Should Recommend Today” on January 30th. The absurdist story had the doctor spin a wheel with each option more outlandish than the next before finally settling on the octopus mask recommendation. While no doubt denounced as more “anti-science” propaganda from the usual quarters, it really hit the spot for people who have been paying attention since this whole thing got started in early 2020.
The advice from the good doctor has been all over the place. From there’s nothing to worry about, and no, you don’t need a mask, to stay home to stop the spread of the plague, to sure, have sex with strangers you met on Tinder, to I’ve found that wearing more than one mask protects me even more than a single mask. Accident injury lawyers and chiropractors could have a field day treating the whiplash this conflicting “advice” has given the American people.
But how has he been able to get away with it? How have these exemplars of “science” been able to get away with a performance that would make, by comparison, a patent-medicine salesman seem like a pillar of integrity?
Two factors have allowed them to get away with this. A general illiteracy in the sciences among the public and the existence of much of that same public in a state of perpetual present.
It was big news in 2014 when the results from a survey conducted by the National Science Foundation revealed that 1 in 4 Americans did not know that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Other surveys have shown that some don’t know that a year is the time it takes the Earth to complete a revolution around the Sun.
Over the decades, many concerned members of the public have attempted to protect their communities from the dangers of di-hydrogen monoxide (DHMO). In some cases trying to get their municipality to ban it.
Of course these poor souls nearly banned water because the molecule is more popularly known as H2O. No doubt the icky-sounding monoxide ending sealed the deal for many. If carbon-monoxide is bad then that other monoxide must be bad too.
Ignorance of Galileo’s heliocentric model by a quarter of the population and concern about the scourge of DHMO by others are but two examples of the state of public knowledge. Another, Ivanovsky’s 19th century experiments which discovered organisms too small to be bacteria –viruses– is likely still taught as part of high school biology, but likely unknown to much of the public.
The fruits of high technology, engineering, and science make our lives easier, more productive, and longer, but too few people have even a superficial understanding of how any of it works. To many, it’s closer to magic than science and they are content to leave all the thinking to the experts.
Now it’s true that individuals and organizations with advanced and deep knowledge of a topic should be heard when something happens in their field of expertise. But there is a difference between consulting the experts and simply ceding to them all decision making power.
At the start of February we are nearly ten months into the “two weeks to slow the spread” campaign that started in March. Remember that? At the time, virtually no one argued against that or brought up the fact that if everyone rushed out all at once to buy provisions to get them through a two week shutdown, that they would get exposed to the very public from which they were supposed to hide. The “science” told the “scientists” that this was the right tactic against this disease. It would also give the health care sector time to prepare for the expected influx. Miraculously, people complied and the aptly named lock-down began. What many also didn’t realize is that they had just stepped into a cage, which was locked from the outside.
Two weeks dragged by and people eagerly awaited the end of their sentence, except the goal posts suddenly shifted. We hadn’t shut down to slow the spread and give healthcare providers a chance to prepare, we needed to stay shut-in to keep anyone from getting infected! Testing centers were setup in most cities and the news media got a lot of mileage out of “another grim milestone has been reached today” as news of positive tests was reported by health officials. But were things really so bad? Did the media provide any context to help people understand? No on both counts.
In page 50 of his book “Corona False Alarm? Facts and Figures”Dr. Sucharit Bhakdi explains the numbers game:
“If we look at the numbers of reported infections in the first four weeks of March we can see that this actually looks like exponential growth, exactly as the RKI proclaimed. And that is how it was presented everywhere.
However, what the RKI did not point out was that in calendar week 12 the number of tests had approximately tripled and increased again the following week. The RKI apparently did not feel duty-bound to truth and clarification towards the population. So therefore, are these figures really distorted? Why didn’t they correct the numbers? That could have been achieved by stating the number of infections per 100,000 tests as shown in the second diagram.”
By not providing context, health authorities made it seem like there was a spiraling disaster when there was slow growth in infections. The media, likely as ignorant about concepts of statistics as the public they claim to serve, ran with the raw numbers and then terrified their audience.
Statistics can get complex, but few people even had the minimal understanding of statistical concepts to ask that reports of positive tests be put in the context of changes in the number of tests performed. The people saw unrealistic numbers and panicked rather than ask questions. The media enjoyed the attention, the ratings and the online engagement too much to provide context or contrasting views. The authorities, either in public health or in government generally, realized that they had carte blanche to do whatever they wanted and so the game began.
But surely people would notice the shifting targets and conflicting statements. Wouldn’t they keep track of announcements who’s content changed week to week? Or maybe that their rulers weren’t following the edicts they used law enforcement to apply to the little people?
At least not enough that it made any difference. Too many people had entered Dory mode.
The arrival of smart phones in most pockets and instantly searchable websites and databases and even social media made it seem like our civilization had reached a golden age of information access. The flip-side of this information revolution is that people are less likely to subscribe to newspapers or have reference books –or books of any kind– in their homes. Everything is searchable online, often for free, so most people don’t bother with the expense. This leaves them vulnerable to whoever controls those sources of information.
Sites with articles critical of the effectiveness of masks suddenly had notices stating that the advice did not apply to COVID or redirecting to propaganda to ensure mask compliance. The initial surge of deaths was widely reported but as those leveled off the focus shifted to infection rates. As those too became less urgent the focus shifted again to “positive cases” which were positive test results that didn’t track whether individuals were tested more than once. Whatever would scare the public into compliance is what ran that week.
This kind of shell game might have been harder to pull on people who still had newspapers or magazines from even the recent past in their homes. They might notice that the criteria kept changing depending on the needs of the moment. Households that get their news electronically from social media and mainstream media had no such fallback. Constantly updated news feeds with the most recent reason to panic meant that there was no time for contemplation. Readers could barely tread water in the here and now. They were stuck in a perpetual present.
Orwell’s 1984 envisioned something similar where the only source of news was whatever came over the tele-screen. In one scene in the novel we learn of a change in the chocolate ration and how the residents of Oceania processed the news.
“It appeared that there had even been demonstrations to thank Big Brother for raising the chocolate ration to twenty grams a week. And only yesterday […] it had been announced that the ration was to be reduced to twenty grams a week. Was it possible that they could swallow that, after only twenty-four hours? Yes, they swallowed it. […] The eyeless creature at the other table swallowed it fanatically. passionately, with a furious desire to track down, denounce, and vaporize anyone who should suggest that last week the ration had been thirty grams. Syme, too-in some more double complex way, involving double-think-Syme, swallow it. Was he, then, alone in the possession of a memory?”
In a perpetual present, and with no records of the recent past, the people of Oceania were easily controlled and lied to by their government. In real life, journalists and social media, which march in lockstep to silence dissenting views, are achieving the same thing.
A society filled with people without basic knowledge of science and math, and ignorant of much else because they rely on online information that can be changed in an instant is going to be easily controlled. Ours also suffers from tech induced memory loss.
We walked right into this. Our rulers had our number.