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A 25-year-old warning from Carl Sagan: How ignorance complicates the fight against COVID-19


The woman looked at me, aquamarine eyes wide and innocent, and said in a serious voice, “Well, you know the COVID 19 vaccines are just a tool to manipulate us.”


I sighed. I’d heard ridiculous things like this repeatedly during the pandemic despite the preponderance of scientific data showing the safety and efficacy of the vaccines.


There’s a reason 98% of all U.S. physicians are vaccinated.


“Why do you think that?” I asked.


“It’s all mind control. They’ll activate some microchip in there and it will be like flipping a switch, like the mark of the beast, and then they will own us. The vaccines cause infertility, too.”

I shook my head.


“That’s impossible. There’s no way to put a microchip in a multi-dose vial of vaccines which can pass through a tuberculin syringe (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/facts.html ). And there is also zero data that COVID vaccines can cause infertility (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/planning-for-pregnancy.html). Now, COVID infection can cause infertility—and COVID infection in unvaccinated pregnant women has a very high mortality. But everything you just said was incorrect.”


Her lower lip poked out, like a petulant child’s.


“I saw it on Facebook,” she said. “And there was a video about it on Rumble.”


“The scientific literature doesn’t back you up,” I said.


“Well, maybe the scientists are wrong,” she replied.


And that, in a nutshell, is what America has become.


America once believed in the virtues of scientific rigor. We trusted our technological prowess. During the 20thCentury, as the richest nation in the world, we invested in public education and built great universities which became the envy of the world. Since 1940, for example, over half of all the Nobel prizes which have been awarded have gone to American researchers. Of the top 25 global universities listed in the 2021 U.S. News and World Report rankings, 19 are in the United States (https://www.usnews.com/education/best-global-universities/rankings ).


But that’s the state of the nation at the top of the intellectual food chain.


The Literacy Project has found that the average American now reads at a 7th or 8th grade level. Even more disheartening, a shocking 4% are nonliterate. This means that they cannot read well enough to perform activities of daily living in society. Another 14% have below-basic literacy levels, meaning that they cannot reasonably interpret tabulated data on a chart or comprehend the meaning inherent in a written paragraph (https://www.wyliecomm.com/2021/08/whats-the-latest-u-s-literacy-rate/ ).

It gets worse: A recent Microsoft study showed that the average attention span for an adult in this country is only 8 seconds. That’s less than the 9-second attention span for the average goldfish (https://time.com/3858309/attention-spans-goldfish/ ).


Interestingly, Microsoft compared the data to a similar study from 2000 (about the time cell phone usage really started to take off) and found that attention spans dropped from 12 seconds to 8 seconds during that interval. Is this mere coincidence? It’s doubtful.


To make matters worse, Americans have seen recent erosion of critical thinking skills. A 2020 study by the Reboot Foundation showed that nearly half of all Americans acknowledged that they do not engage in discussions with people who hold opinions different from their own. Instead, they seek information from others with similar outlooks, obtaining confirmation bias by reinforcing their own erroneous assumptions (https://reboot-foundation.org/the-state-of-critical-thinking-2020/ ). The ready availability of specialized social media sites on our cell phones, the lack of fundamental literacy skills in large segments of the population and the inability of people to think critically are all reasons why today’s society has become so polarized.


Unfortunately, it is the less well-educated individuals—those lacking in the ability to process basic information and comprehend potential bias in what they see or hear—who are more susceptible to disinformation or misinformation propagated both in traditional and social media. Enemies of America based in places like Russia, China and Iran take advantage of those tendencies to manipulate public opinion in order to sow dissent in our country. Other groups also try to manipulate the vulnerable. Senior citizens are particularly at risk, since they may not be able to differentiate between legitimate sources and illegitimate ones. The AARP has been very active in trying to help senior citizens to recognize sources of media misinformation (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/22/at-home/recognize-misinformation-internet.html).


In 1995, Carl Sagan wrote in his book “The Demon-Haunted World” about a future America where “no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues” and when, “clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”


It looks as though Dr. Sagan’s nightmare scenario has arrived.


Still, all is not lost. We can do better.


Rational discourse has always been the bedrock of democracy. Each of us could benefit from hearing viewpoints which do not precisely mirror our own. We should also consider the source of each media item we see, making certain that the things we read (and especially the things we repost) have a legitimate basis and are not being used simply to sow discord or spread falsehood. Learning the basics of statistical analysis would also be helpful. For example, a large randomized controlled trial published in a reputable peer-reviewed journal like the New England Journal of Medicine carries far more academic heft than the rant of a single health care provider on YouTube.


I tried to educate the blue-eyed woman in my office about my viewpoint, but her mind seemed made up.

“I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree,” she said as she packed up to leave.


But then she stopped.


“What was the name of that debunking website you mentioned?” she asked.


“Snopes.com,” I said.


She wrote the website’s name down and smiled at me.


“I might just check it out,” she remarked as she walked out the door.


I smiled.


Perhaps there’s still hope for us yet.

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