“The sky is blue.” That’s a pretty obvious statement, right? Nobody has ever doubted the color of the sky. But every day, people continue to doubt statements that seem just as obvious. Only, unfortunately, they’re less easy to prove than a quick glance upwards.
In anything even a smidgen more abstract than the color of the sky, proof is surprisingly twistable, and that is where the art of misinformation makes its home. It is this issue of misinformation that needs desperate attention.
“Why?” You might ask. Misinformation has always existed, and it’s an issue that has been acknowledged before. More often than not, we just take a deep breath and look away. But the pandemic has brought misinformation to new heights—heights that we cannot ignore.
Where claims like “George Washington was Black” are harmless, beliefs like “masks kill people” can persuade people to abandon critical equipment. The recent hydroxychloroquine hype even caused Gary Lenius to die from drinking cleaner just because an ingredient looked like hydroxychloroquine and “Trump kept saying it was pretty much a cure.” The virus has given misinformation the ability to harm human lives, and that is the significant issue.
Hence now, more than ever before, misinformation needs to be addressed. But more importantly, it needs to be addressed differently than before. Over the course of history, our reaction to misinformation has always involved educating the other party, leading to useless arguments where nothing is changed and no one is convinced.
Those arguments run something like this: The doubters express their ideas passionately, but their vitriol destroys their credibility. Then, defenders sneer at such attempts and ridicule the doubters, like this youtube comment saying, “Let’s burn the 5G towers… you can trust me. I have a Cancerology PhD from google.com,” mocking the misinformation about 5G and health concerns.
Frequently referenced is Einstein’s quote that, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” Neither side is considering the other’s argument, and even if they tried neither side could be convinced either.
The issue with this system is that both sides are blinded by their bias, and bias is not something that other people can “educate” out of you. It never has been. Sure, someone else can help you discover bias, but bias can only be truly removed by yourself.
This personal approach to bias is especially important because of quarantine. Whereas the pandemic has given misinformation more weight, quarantine has created the perfect breeding ground for it. The amount of time we spend on the internet, where legitimate scientific proof and twisted scientific proof look surprisingly similar, increases our chance of accepting misinformation.
Our friends, classmates and coworkers—the judges and juries as to whether that Twitter post we read was a fresh new perspective or complete baloney—are now muted from our lives. Our muddled brains, isolated at home, are unrestrictedly distilling our hatreds, prejudice, and political beliefs into confirmation bias. In fact, the idea of quarantine itself, this surreal world we never imagined we would find ourselves in, is helping to make us feel like anything is possible.
The key to all these points is that we’re alone in making these decisions: alone in exploring the internet, in being apart from friends, in brewing our bigotry, and in handling our surreal world. After all, this is quarantine — we’re bound to be alone. Therefore, our bias is our personal responsibility more than ever before. And no one is exempt from this responsibility.
Sherlock Holmes said, “when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Now, there are many more facets to misinformation than a whodunnit, and there’s often more than one “truth.” But if we look beyond our bias and exclude all that is unreasonable, whatever remains, however improbable, is the most reasonable truth. We’ll discover what we’ve had wrong, what we’ve had right, and everything in between.
The goal isn’t for everyone in the world to suddenly shed their bias, see some holy truth, hold hands and sing kumbaya. Nor is it doubting and questioning everything you know. Understanding the misinformation pervading us, and using that to truly consider what you want to believe, is a personal step.
It’s like combating coronavirus itself: We don’t don masks for COVID-19 because they magically eradicate viruses. We do it because it’s our small step towards protecting ourselves, and that protects those around us. If we are to confront this “massive infodemic,” we must examine our personal biases, and review our beliefs, for the same reason.
Yang is a rising sophomore at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North