Fact vs. Fiction. Half truths and lies in pandemic times.

Today’s world is complex. We are bombarded with a never ending flood of information; through news, social media and personal conversations. News hits us from all corners of the globe: a hundred years ago nobody would have known (or cared) about forest fires on the other side of the world; today we feel directly affected by them. In addition, we are more than ever confronted with developments that impact all of us, such as the Corona/Covid19 pandemic (see previous blogpost) or climate change.
How to handle this confusion? Only a level-headed “cool analysis“ of the facts helps us deal with this complicated world. Without reliance on facts, the world becomes even more complex and reality even more difficult to handle. And we start making mistakes, after all, who wants to base decisions on wrong facts?

But how to distinguish fact from fiction? People spread half truths or lies in a number of ways. Here’s an example of how that works.

Creationists are convinced that, based on the texts in the Bible, the world is only a few thousand years old. You can think about this any way you want (many will conclude that his perception is wrong. As a biologist, I am slightly biased in this matter), but that is not the point that I would like to make. I would like to talk about the dilemma this causes for the creationist. The creationist has two options. First, the creationist could decide that the biblical text is correct and that no further discussion is needed. The creationist could then simply stick to this belief and not enter into any further discussion with anybody. This would be 100% consistent. After all, we all believe in certain things, and sticking to those beliefs is fully acceptable. Sure, it may have some disadvantages for the creationist: this person might feel isolated as many people will smirk at this idea, and/or the creationist wouldn’t be able to gain more followers. The creationist would definitely get less air time on national television! Many religious groups follow such an approach (e.g. the Amish people in the USA, who self-isolate pretty efficiently). Perfectly fine: they can go on with their lives, and I with mine. We mutually respect one other and might even enjoy our differences.

The alternative for the creationist is to collect information to prove that the world is indeed only a few thousand years old. The apparent advantage for the creationist is that the creationist can continue to interact and discuss with fellow humans, thus there is less risk of having to live the life of a recluse. It also provides a feeling that the theory is scientifically validated. And you can actually get invited for a quirky interview on TV.

This is what I call the Creationist Dilemma: the creationist needs to choose between these two options.

Remember, I’m not discussing the pros and cons of creationism. This blogpost addresses the dilemma that confronts many believers in many topics.

There are tremendous flaws in choosing the second option: what I call the Creationist Trap. In choosing the second option, the creationist starts to collect (scientific) evidence that “proves” that either the evolution theory has weaknesses, or that creationism is correct. In other words, the creationist starts out with a theory and then picks and chooses the evidence that supports that theory.

However, this is not how science works. To put it bluntly, it completely contradicts common sense.

It’s like driving a rattling car through the desert and firmly believing that it won’t break down (~theory) because you had it checked, the tank is full, the wipers and horn are working, and your highly concerned passengers were wrong in the past (~facts). Based on which you conclude: we will continue driving! (~action).

In contrast, real science starts out by collecting facts, from which a theory is created. To stay with the car example: oh my, the motor doesn’t sound good at all (~fact); is it breaking down? (~theory), let’s stop and check the motor before it gets worse (~action, leading to the collection of more facts).

The “beauty” of the creationist approach is that it allows anyone to “prove” anything.
Example: climate change. Many climate change deniers have a reason (their starting “theory”) for their denial of human-caused climate change. Perhaps they fear for the economy, or their job. Or they love big cars that use a lot of gasoline, or the theory doesn’t fit their understanding of freedom. Perhaps deep down inside they are afraid of change. In any case, they fall victim to the creationist’s dilemma: instead of simply saying: “Hell, I am not going to change my ways. I’m going to produce carbon dioxide and I don’t care what’s going to happen to the climate” (which would at least be consistent), they are tempted to start collecting data that “substantiates” climate change isn’t happening: they choose option two and fall into the creationist trap. They may refer to irrelevant climate change events that happened thousands of even millions of years ago, or to other „mistakes“ that so-called „experts“ made.

You think the Earth is flat? You think that the whole corona reaction was unnecessary? Do you believe humanity never landed on the moon? Are vaccines bad? Is homeopathy a proper medical treatment? You think brushing your teeth has no benefits? I can help. I’ve been working in science long enough to know where to find information, just give me sufficient time, and I will collect all the evidence you need to support ANY of your theories.

Is that a valid approach? No.

How to spot people that have fallen victim to the Creationist Trap? Have you perhaps fallen into it yourself? Here some indicators to look out for.

First, always question: why is this person making a certain statement? What is this person’s underlying motivation? In the case of the creationist it is simple: religion. Anti-vaccers may be driven by fear or uncertainty, or mistrust in institutions (like Big Pharma). In many cases the motivation may not be directly obvious, e.g. climate deniers may have many different reasons at the same time. And many won’t even tell or disclose what motivates them. Sometimes they do not even know themselves.

Second, are the person’s statements overtly negative, in a sense that the person is trying to DISPROVE a theory? An expert (this can be a scientist, but also a football coach, an iron monger or an accountant) makes mostly positive statements about theories, since they know the facts that support them. They feel comfortable with the evidence on which the theory is based. A flat-earther is on constant defence against scientists, the media, the world, and is thus attacking the idea that Earth is a globe.

Another telltale sign: is the person heaping up more and more evidence (true or false) from as many sources as possible to make their point? And if one argument doesn’t work, quickly switches to the next one?

Is the person relying on (sometimes amazingly good) oratory skills, is this person a smooth talker? Does the speaker transport knowledge or emotion? Knowledge and facts can be very boring; emotion can be very gratifying and exciting.

An expert knows that no one can know everything about a discipline. As a result, an expert will regularly use phrases such as: “there is no data to support that theory,” or even simply admit “I’m not sure.” A person stuck in the creationist trap will not allow any doubt to shine through. They do not discuss; they debate.

Is the evidence provided actually related to the topic? Are observations pulled in from cases that may seem similar, but that are in fact unrelated: whataboutisms? Typical statements to watch out for are “they were wrong about XYZ too” or “something similar happened then-and-then, and it turned out be completely innocent.” 

The indicators above may apply to any individual. But if many start to bubble up at the same time, your alarm bellS should start to go off.

In the end, the scientific method relies completely on common sense, the two are inseparable. Facts know no religion, no politics, no emotions. But they are key to get your rattling car out of the desert.

Find my visionary, corona pandemic novel TWO JOURNEYS for Apple devices here: https://books.apple.com/de/book/two-journeys/id381201439?l=en

You can get a copy of SHORT STORIES here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/1014440 or on any device.
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