I’ve taught high school English for over 20 years. I am tasked with teaching young people how to formulate an opinion, test that opinion through fact-based research and then modify that opinion into a statement of fact using vetted and peer-reviewed evidence.
However, every year when I begin discussing the plan for writing said paper, I hear a collective groan from my students. This collective groan is because students are going to have to write something substantial, to think for themselves, to “think about what they think about” as one of my mentor teachers used to say, but the collective groan is troubling and is an indicator of what we are seeing currently on social media regarding the deadly coronavirus.
But you say: “Oh it’s not so dangerous. They are inflating the numbers. Big Pharma just wants us all vaccinated so that they can make money off of us and control us.” Of course, “Godwin’s Law” states that “as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1”. Currently in a video circulating the internet, Dr. Judy Mikovits, a researcher who was convicted of criminal activity in her lab (and who is a leading antivaxxer) accuses Dr. Anthony Fauci (who has these credits to his name) of being a deep state “Dr. Death” who is part of some Big Pharma conspiracy linked to Hillary Clinton and eugenics. In this time when we should probably listen to the experts in virology and infectious diseases we are somehow skeptical of their years of experience focusing on countering these deadly problems.
I believe we English teachers have done a good job of making people question their world but we have failed in helping students know how to accurately vet material they find on the internet for fact-based and peer reviewed truth. It seems to be human nature to be suspicious of the experts, but where does this fear and skepticism come from? The internet is a wonderful tool, but in the wrong hands it can become a blunt weapon that sews doubt, mistrust and outright tin-foil-hat-wearing nonsense. Both YouTube and Facebook have removed Dr. Mikovits’s video as well as the QAnon conspiracy theorists (because it is dangerous misinformation in a time of crisis), but those who shared the video now suspect (with zero evidence) that it was because Dr. Mikovits “dared” to share the “truth”. Not once do people dig in to her credentials or the fact that she believes (contrary to peer-reviewed science) that vaccines are not necessary and that they cause autism. (They don’t). The reason she was fired from her position as a medical researcher was because she stole from her lab.
“The Scientific American” produced an article about how to recognize a conspiracy theory in 2010 and it’s still the go-to for how to realize that your reasoning is probably off track. The point here, ultimately, is that all those groaning students who didn’t want to do the research paper, who did it because it was for a grade, and who may have just turned in a paper someone else wrote, are now posting of Facebook and Twitter about how Dr. Mikovits is right. If people who did their paper and really learned about good research are sharing this video, then they have forgotten what they learned.
In this most dangerous time, the worst thing that could happen is making huge, ill-informed, mistakes in managing a deadly virus. Just because an expert makes informed and researched comments that contradict a politician you happen to love doesn’t mean he’s part of some horrific conspiracy. It might mean that you are following a politician who, by his own omission, is “not a doctor” rather than listening to a doctor who has dealt with infectious diseases for decades and probably knows what he’s talking about. Of course, by writing this, there will be some out there who will call me partisan or whatever. I’m not. I’m just a humble teacher trying to get people to use facts when formulating their opinions. As the great Harlan Ellison said: “‘Well, I’m entitled to my opinion!’ No, schmuck, you are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. Everything else is just hot air and farts in the wind.”
Research, fact-based and peer-reviewed, is more important than ever when navigating this horrid plague. The rise in armed anti-quarantine protests, the hapless sharing of conspiracy videos as “the real truth” and the consideration of disbanding the federal task force fighting this disease (which was recanted yesterday, thank God) is proof that we desperately need to teach students how to research carefully.
I have my job cut out for me.