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Davey Alba is a technology reporter with the New York Times and a big part of her job is covering disinformation. It is hard to believe any credible journalist would have had that as part of his or her job description even a quarter century ago. But it is a telling sign of our times that news outlets all need people now to take point on tracking disinformation on the web, in social media, on YouTube, and elsewhere. I don’t know if this is a full-time job yet but it likely is getting close to being one.
This week Alba reported that spikes in disinformation tend to track well with spikes in the COVID pandemic, and so it is no surprise that with omicron driving case counts up to stratospheric numbers, disinformation is soaring right along behind that. Some of the claims are merely outlandish and without a smidgen of evidence, like social media and website claims that the CDC itself has disavowed the accuracy of all PCR tests (these are the most sophisticated tests that involve that uncomfortable swabbing that you cannot do at home). It’s not clear how the people making such claims think anyone would believe them. Then again it’s also clear they need not fret that question: people inclined to distrust all government claims believe it anyway because it fits a larger narrative they have chosen to adopt.
Other claims, however, are a bit eye-widening in their sheer lunacy. A series of claims have gone around seeking to impugn the accuracy of all those rapid COVID tests you can do at home. Now, to be clear: there are bogus tests out there that have been flagged by watchdog groups—we should all check credible lists of approved tests before buying or using any. And there have been a few tests that had something wrong with them that have prudently been recalled by manufacturers. In the main, though, there are a lot of top-flight home tests that are proven, reliable, and so trustworthy. Nothing is perfect but most tests work as well as home pregnancy tests have worked for decades.
But many people have bought into the idea that the government or businesses are profiting by keeping the COVID case counts high and so are eager to believe all home test kits are rigged and unreliable, designed to show positive results. How is this claim substantiated? Several websites have shown people soaking the test panel in orange juice or with kiwi juice squirted on and, sure enough, the positive test line shows up.
Now, ponder that a moment.
Just a moment.
This is like trying to claim that taking Tylenol for a headache causes diarrhea and proving this by showing people taking Tylenol along with 3 Ex-Lax chewable tabs and, sure enough, soon enough these folks are lashed to the toilet.
Other websites have shown that you can get a positive test line on a COVID test by soaking it in tap water in the sink. Again, this would be like claiming a woman’s home pregnancy test was bogus and rigged because she tried peeing on it while soaking in a bubble bath.
All of this would be funny if it were not life and death in reality. But another thing that is not at all funny is the number of church-going people of faith who participate in it. Like many others, I have been surprised and deeply disquieted to see blatant misinterpretations of facts and data coming from people on Facebook. I have seen people minimizing the pandemic by quoting twisted data, claiming that what the CDC and Johns Hopkins and other reliable COVID dashboards clearly show to be daily deaths from COVID are monthly or even quarterly numbers. When this is pointed out to people, they either double down on their original false claim or they fall strangely silent and the Facebook chain abruptly ends (defriending may also follow).
Yes, we all know the old adage that in all of life there are “Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics.” There are glass-half-full and glass-half-empty ways to spin lots of statistics. But there is also such a thing as truth (as just-retired NIH Director Francis Collins has so labored to remind his fellow Christians in recent months) and there is also such a thing as flat out falsehood.
What is troubling for all of us who love the church and the community of faith is that some people seem to be losing their ability to tell the difference, even when (as noted above) the claims are laughable on the face of them. But that is also testament to an even grimmer possibility: conspiracy theories and a desire to buy into them mean that at least some people in the church have so immersed themselves in a false world and in false narratives that seeking and embracing the truth has become, at best, problematic.
“What is truth?” Pontius Pilate cynically asked even as the One who is himself the Way, the Truth, and the Life was standing right in front of him. Later in the New Testament, especially in the three short epistles of John, “truth” becomes shorthand for the whole gospel and in particular for the teaching of the incarnation.
“It gave me great joy when some believers came and testified about your faithfulness to the truth, telling how you continue to walk in it. I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 3-4).
Again, this is a very specific “truth” about which John writes but there can be no doubting the importance that Scripture puts on truth, truthfulness, and honesty. Even the word “Amen” stems from the Hebrew word emet that means “truth.” None of us is immune to falling for lies. None of us immune from repeating false information now and then or making a claim that turns out to be mistaken or based on something we are mis-remembering.
But when people on a largescale, including in the church, willingly enter an entire realm of falsehood because it fits some larger socio-political narrative someone has foisted on them, that is a cause for concern and prayer. My first prayer is that I be as truthful and as discerning as I can be. But I pray the same for my brothers and sisters too. It is a prayer we can all join.
Thanks for this, Scott. I have seen so much damage from this problem among some dear church people. It would almost seem that the worst effect of Covid has not been the physical sickness but the spiritual and cultural damage.
I’m with you on this, Daniel. And it makes me sad. And concerned.
I think there are many of us in deep dismay and grief about this effect. Maybe we should organize therapy/support groups.
Thank you Scott. Well said and so important.
Excellent words. Thank you Scott. These are such troubling times.
For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths.
2 Timothy 4:3-4
That time is here.
I grew up in a fundamentalist Baptist church. As I matured (and went to a Christian college) I came to realize that my church encouraged suspicion of outsiders no matter how reasonable they seemed and credulity toward the pastor or any other male leader, no matter how inaccurate or unsubstantiated their views. I’m afraid the gullibility we are seeing has been a part of the evangelical tradition for many years.
I appreciate you tackling this issue in our country and our churches (really individual people of faith, as not all people of faith have fallen prey to silos of falsehood). The end of your blog with notions of concern and prayer, while helpful, isn’t enough. We need to ask why. I begin with the belief that our siblings in Christ who have fallen prey to a realm of falsehood are true believers practicing authentic faith (though I admit this is not always the case, especially for pastors who lead flocks into falsehood). But why do people embrace these falsehoods and swallow them even in the face of clear data and obvious facts?
The government has failed us all, usually to the benefit of a few, almost always wealthy along with businesses. It is not an accident that many if not most of these ridiculous falsehoods combine government and business, because these two entities are usually seen as one and the same.
People know the system is corrupt. When thinking about many of these issues, I turn to Jesus in Matthew 6:21, “Where your treasure is there will your heart be also.” This wise teaching is found to be true for politicians (as it is for all of us) and the treasuer for so many politicians is found in their donors, the rich and powerful and businesses. People know these things to be true, so they believe any wacky theory that claims this foundation for the obvious ridiculous theory. In many ways this was the foundational attraction of our former President. He came in as a rich, powerful outsider, who would clear up the swamp (i.e. the comfortable bedfellows of businesses, wealthy and politicians referenced above). Frankly, it’s the same foundational attraction of Senator Bernie Sanders, who is not rich and powerful (at the same level of our former President) but in many ways the same outsider. I will leave it to others to decide whether Senator Sanders or our former President lived up to their promises to clear up the swamp and end the comfortable and quite profitable relationship between politicians, the wealthy, and businesses. It may help to look closely at our former President’s signature legislative act (large Tax cut) to see where the treasure is and therefore his heart. You could also look at his donors and frankly the donors of all politicians, and according to Jesus, you’ll see where their hearts is at.
Until we address this dynamic and follow Jesus to point out where the treasurer is, we’ll never understand the heart of our current system and never understand why people fall victim to the webs of falsehoods, because there is always a foundation of some kernel of truth that entices the ear of obvious falsehood.
Thanks, Rodney. I think your analysis is overall accurate. Too many swaths of this country have long been dismissed with terms like “flyover country.” Too many people feel their voices don’t count, that the “elites” rule all. I get it. But as you pointed out in your opening sentence, many “individuals” in the church believe conspiracy theories (and the wacky claims that spin out of those larger narratives) but not all do and one cannot characterize the whole church or even one whole congregation that way (in most cases). The same goes for government, however: there are many individuals who are corrupt or who are tone deaf to the voices of some but not all. There are plenty of highly dedicated public servants–many of them are Christians themselves–who dedicate their lives to honesty and the public good (Francis Collins is one and there are legions of others). So the antidote to seeing corruption in some parts of the governing class ought not be to discredit all parts of government or those who serve or those who–in the case of my blog today–really are trying to get the truth out there to counteract schemers and con artists and just plain dishonest people who are pumping out disinformation. “The government” is not a monolith either and so dismissing out of hand anything and everything that comes from that orbit is also a failure to discern. But again, thanks for your insightful comments. We need to pray but also work. Ora et labora and all that.
I always wonder why we do not call out the number one source of dishonesty and dissension, Fox entertainers who pretend to bring news. Number one most trusted source for information for many sitting in our pews.
It takes humility to admit “I might be wrong” and apparently humility is lacking in most people on both sides of the truth debate.
Ok, so you are not wrong for the most part, and it is disturbing how difficult it is to discern ‘the truth’ these days (actually, probably ever). But, since you mention Francis Collins as an example of truth seeking, I’d encourage reading the story at this link that it’s not just whacked out right-wingers, evangelicals, and Fox News that make it difficult to trust what you read.
This story specifically relates to efforts to discredit the suggestions, made by serious, respected scientists early on in the COVID crisis, about the source of the COVID virus. Those suggestions did not fit the story that the government was determined to tell, prompting Dr Collins to email Dr. Fauci “wondering what NIH can do to help put down this conspiracy”. By the way, those early suggestions are now considered highly plausible.
He had a similar reaction to The Great Barrington Declaration which, whether or not you agree with it, suggested that locking down the country was perhaps not the right approach to dealing with the crisis. You don’t need to agree with the Declaration, but it’s clear that it’s authors are genuine scientists and medical professionals whose opinions were worth considering, but instead Dr Collins and many others launched a campaign to discredit them and their proposal. Meanwhile, going on two years later, there’s a fair amount to suggest that they were largely right.
So, not really disagreeing with the point of the essay, just noting that when people find they can’t trust those that should be trustworthy, it’s maybe not such a surprise when they go off following the crackpots.
Perhaps. But one thing is that the fast moving COVID crisis gave the public a rare chance to watch science in action. In science, which we mostly don’t see in real time, there are theories and postulates that routinely prove wrong. Indeed, empirical science is in the business of proving itself wrong. When it cannot, a theory holds. When it can, it adjusts accordingly. I am reading a book right now that is highly critical of Trump but even so it notes that Fauci was initially wrong about the effectiveness of masks. There were no studies to say they made a difference. Soon enough though studies did show and so as a fact-based scientist, Fauci pivoted. Anyway, the public regards such things as willful mistakes or signs of incompetence. Science and medicine regard that as routine. The public just doesn’t usually see how medical and scientific sausage gets made. That is not to say your points are covered by this but changes in position need not be chalked up to willful deception much less incompetence.
Plus, Sweden tried the non-lockdown approach with grim results.
Re Sweden – – “middling success in battling COVID 19”, so thier results were not “grim” but pretty much in line with comparable countries, but without some of the economic downsides of the more locked-down approaches.
Again, I don’t really disagree with you Scott, but I get sick of hearing about “science”. I get the ‘scientific sausage’ and all that, but it seems clear to me that we were (are) not watching “science in action”, we’re watching politics disguised as science in action; or maybe science co-opted by politics, I don’t know. So, just be honest and call it ‘politics’.
In the story I linked to above re: Dr. Collins, Dr. Fauci, and the origins of the virus, the ‘scientific sausage’ would mean looking honestly at the differing theories and opinions and hashing it out rather than discrediting those who disagree with the preferred storyline and labelling them conspiracy theorists.