Ignoring a scientific truth doesn’t change it, even when the consequences are deadly.
“If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it, too?” Many of us, as children, would hear this refrain whenever we made a decision that our parents knew was foolish. Every time you left the house:
- underdressed for the cold winter weather,
- with your jeans below your buttocks instead of above them,
- or with holes or rips deliberately put into your clothes,
you were likely to hear about it, and for good reasons. Your parents knew that the reason these were fashionable, compelling decisions you thought you were making was merely the product of social pressure. Everyone else — or, at least, everyone else whose opinions mattered to you — was doing it, and the concern is that you wouldn’t just cave to these benign pressures, but to ones that would arise later with far more serious consequences, potentially even dangerous or life-threatening ones.
We are now midway through 2021, about a year-and-a-half into the most deadly pandemic of our lifetimes. Record-breaking temperatures, sea level rise, glacial melts, habitat loss, and ocean acidification have become global problems worldwide, all stemming from the same root cause. And, in many places, if you speak the truth about COVID-19, vaccines, climate change, or any number of other highly politicized issues that should be clear cut based on the science alone, you’ll be ostracized from the people and groups whose opinions matter most to you. By ignoring the scientific realities of both the problems we’re facing and their solutions, millions of people, vocally and across the world, are declaring their willingness to “jump off that bridge” too, even if death is the consequence, just to fit in. Here’s why you mustn’t join them.
When it comes to a widespread infectious disease like SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 in humans, you really only have a few options on what behaviors you can engage in. You can:
- go about your life as though the disease were not present, rendering it an inevitability that you’ll someday be exposed to it naturally through another host,
- take behavioral precautions — like wearing a mask, social distancing, and avoiding indoor spaces for prolonged periods of time — to greatly reduce your risk of exposure,
- protect yourself with one of the many available vaccines that are effective against the underlying pathogen,
- or you can actively work to eradicate the disease entirely, mandating strict lockdowns until the active case rate drops to zero.
Unfortunately for all of us, if even a small but substantial percentage of people choose that first option, it can have severe, negative consequences for all of us. It’s as though the decision that others make to jump off of that bridge harms not only themselves, but everyone, including everyone who chose and advocated for any of the other options.
The scientific reason why is simple. Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 aren’t static entities that simply remain the same while our immune systems work to figure out how to fight them off. Instead, like all biological systems, there’s an arms race that goes on between predator and prey: the predator evolving to better take advantage of the prey’s resources, the prey working to fight off the predator and survive. With every new infection that occurs in every new host, that’s a brand new chance for the virus to gain a novel mutation.
While most mutations result in a virus that’s less evolutionarily well-adapted to its host, some mutations can be more transmissible, more deadly, or more successful at evading the host’s natural immune system. When those mutant strains make it out into the general population, they can create new variants of the disease. The beta variant (formerly the UK variant), the delta variant (originally arising in India), and the lambda variant (which arose in Peru, the country with the highest fatality rate from COVID-19) all showcase just how dangerous an unmitigated virus can be.
What makes this even worse is that those who’ve been infected with one variant of SARS-CoV-2 aren’t necessarily sufficiently protected against these novel strains. Whether it’s your first, second, or third round battling with COVID-19, each new strain is a new opportunity for the virus to inflict tremendous damage on your body, your vital organs, as well as your family, friends, and anyone else you come into close contact with. To date, the world has seen over 188 million COVID-19 infections in humans and more than 4 million deaths, with no end coming in the near-term future to this devastating pandemic.
Which is too bad, because based on the know-how that we have, science can fight back. A number of safe and effective vaccines have been introduced, with an extremely low incidence of side-effects, that offer far better protection to those who receive them than natural immunity can grant you. Among those who’ve been fully vaccinated:
- infection rates are lower compared to the unvaccinated,
- symptom rates and severities are lower,
- the incidence of “long covid” or other negative long-term effects are lower,
- and the fatality rate is much, much lower.
At present, in the United States, over 99% of all hospitalizations for COVID-19 are occurring among unvaccinated individuals.
And yet, vaccination rates remain too low to be effective at curbing the spread of the disease. Many continue to choose to remain unvaccinated, despite the increased risks to themselves, their families, and the economic and health damage to their communities. Others, presently unable to get the vaccine for various reasons, find themselves in unnecessarily vulnerable positions owing to the negligent behavior of those around them.
And some are simply consuming a steady stream of misinformation, convinced that counterfactual statements are true. They believe that vaccines are not only harmful, but that it’s riskier to get themselves or their children vaccinated against COVID-19. The demonization of one of the greatest achievements in public health — the ability to protect ourselves from a dangerous disease before it infects us — now threatens to trickle down to other vaccines as well. A large fraction of people are rejecting vaccines against a whole slew of preventable diseases for ideological, rather than scientific, reasons, with many politicians fanning those flames of ignorance.
On Monday, July 12, 2021, Dr. Michelle Fiscus — the top vaccine official in the State of Tennessee — was fired from her position for purely political reasons. As she worked to immunize the people living in her state, including the youngest people for whom the vaccine has been approved, a number of vocal political opponents joined together to remove her. This makes her, of the 64 state and territorial immunization program directors across the United States, the 25th to resign, retire, or be removed since the pandemic began.
That’s 25 out of 64, or 39% of the most knowledgeable and experienced professionals in preventing and responding to pandemics and other public health crises. As she departs, the Tennessee Department of Health has been instructed to stop promoting all vaccines to children and adolescents. That includes the HPV vaccine, vital in cancer prevention, the flu vaccine, which prevents tens of thousands of deaths annually across the country, and all other vaccines which are routinely administered to public schoolchildren.
Meanwhile, Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida is now selling anti-vaccine merchandise with the slogan “Don’t Fauci My Florida” despite over 2.4 million cases and 38,000 deaths in his state alone.
Many scientists are baffled at this behavior, but it’s merely the latest iteration of the anti-science fear-mongering that populist politicians often use to mobilize an easily outraged but underinformed constituency. The misinformation campaign that is now going on against COVID-19 is following the same playbook as most misinformation campaigns, including climate change denialism, hiding the link between tobacco use and lung cancer, car manufacturers not wanting to install safety belts in their vehicles, or even previous anti-vaccine, anti-mask, or even the antiquated anti-electricity campaigns. The playbook is as follows:
- present the status quo — the current ways of doing things — as “traditional” and proper,
- paint the new information as unimportant, irrelevant, and negligible,
- downplay its severity,
- sow doubt that it even exists,
- sow fear about the recommended changes to our society,
- claim that the recommended changes are anti-freedom,
- and then persecute and harass, including with violence, anyone who dares to tell the actual truth.
This isn’t merely a problem of people following one another’s lead to “jump off of the bridge” like everyone else is doing; people are being led there by a dedicated campaign to bring them there.
Why would someone bring you to this point?
Why would someone endanger your life and the lives of others just so you’ll behave like a deadly, life-threatening affliction to our society doesn’t exist?
For the same reasons as always: money, power, and control. If you can make people afraid, you can profit off of them, gain power over them, and even exercise some level of control over what they do.
We’ve seen this play out in a variety of horrific ways. When masks were recognized as an effective intervention to slow the transmission of COVID-19 in humans, there were waves of anti-mask protests and even sales of “sham masks” which were designed to look like masks, but which were completely ineffective. If you believe someone is trying to control you, rather than help you, there’s an excellent chance that your response will be a petulant one. It’s why people roll coal as a form of anti-environmental protest; it’s why people have anti-lockdown rallies and gatherings; it’s why people widely consume products from the unregulated supplement industry despite rampant unsubstantiated health and nutrition claims.
If you can convince someone to oppose or support a cause on ideological grounds — if you can make them a single-issue ideologue — there is no limit to what you can get them to do. You can get them to harass and attack the public health professionals working to save their lives, while simultaneously denying the existence of the very disease that’s actively killing them. You can get them to infect their friends and family, bringing devastation to their communities and the wider world. You can even get them to participate in a violent insurrection against their own government, as we saw on January 6th of this year in the Capitol of the United States.
There are a series of concerted, well-funded misinformation campaigns going on right now with the express purpose of undermining the known facts about reality. Whenever the facts will hurt someone’s bottom line, there will always be a misinformation campaign explicitly designed to protect that bottom line. It’s why we so thoroughly need science — and not fear or conspiracies — to be our guide. The truth about reality, whatever it may be, is the real bottom line, far more important than any numerical value on a balance sheet.
The good news is this: despite whatever information you’re fed, despite your ideology, and despite what you believed all the days of your life until today, you can always learn something new. You can always choose to listen to the best bona-fide experts out there on any topic, and learn whatever it is you need to learn to discover the truth behind an issue for yourself. It isn’t easy to do, as it often requires overcoming a large number of misconceptions before you have the critical epiphany, but it’s something we’re all capable of.
All you have to do is make a commitment to yourself: that whatever science reveals reality to be, you’ll accept it. It’s much easier to get someone to jump off a bridge if you can convince them they’re jumping from danger to safety, rather than into an even greater danger. But science — if you’re willing to actually learn it and listen to its recommendations — can inoculate you against all of the misinformation that’s out there. If we all join together to follow its lead, we can overcome all of these divisive issues: ending the pandemic, adequately combating global climate change, and even eradicating a substantial number of preventable diseases.
We no longer have to die for a bankrupt ideology. Instead, we can all join together under the banner of scientific truth. When we do, a better, safer, healthier society — for us as individuals as well as a collective — will be a benefit that every one of us can reap.
Starts With A Bang is written by Ethan Siegel, Ph.D., author of Beyond The Galaxy, and Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive.