fbpx

Truth and Truthiness: The Changing Public Discourse About Masks and Vaccines

Even prior to COVID-19 ours has not been an era for facing stark reality.
[additional-authors]
April 14, 2022
mohd izzuan/Getty Images

Truth can ambush you. Just ask my patient Bill. Last Father’s Day, Bill’s kids chipped in for a 23andMe kit to investigate his family genetics. When the results came back, his ethnic background looked different than what he expected. After a second check to confirm the findings, Bill found a connection to a cousin. It was a surprise as Bill had only one cousin that he knew of, not this second one that showed up on the genetic test. So, who was this mystery relative? It turned out not to be a cousin at all. It was his half-brother.

Bill wasn’t ready to contact this newly discovered sibling. With some internet research he learned that his half-brother’s father worked as a lobbyist for the airline industry. Bill’s mother, who passed away several years ago, worked as an executive for an airline. It didn’t take much imagination to figure out the rest. Bill’s biological father wasn’t the dad who raised him. Some Father’s Day gift, no?

Despite his discomfort, Bill didn’t dispute the findings. The truth of DNA science is broadly accepted even though other science in areas like vaccines and masking generates much skepticism. Why is that? DNA’s acceptance is probably due in part to the high profile “parlor trick” of criminal identification. Just as DNA ferrets out family relationships, it can also reach back in time to strip hidden villains of anonymity. The case of the notorious rapist, Joseph DeAngelo, showed how even a partial match to a distant relative can quickly heat up a cold case. Once a DNA identification occurs, the fact that the rest of the evidence tends to fall into place validates the DNA process. Few people, perhaps other than the criminal, would challenge the scientific validity of such searches.

Unfortunately, winning public acceptance for the science behind vaccines and masking practices has not been as easy. For starters, there’s no “parlor trick” like using DNA to ID crooks. There are only dry statistics on the frequency of illness, hospitalization and side effects. And the public’s view of statistics recalls 19th-century British Prime Minister Disraeli’s reflections on “lies, damn lies and statistics.”

Unfortunately, winning public acceptance for the science behind vaccines and masking practices has not been as easy.

Even prior to COVID-19 ours has not been an era for facing stark reality. In 2005 comic and television host Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to describe the private and secure certainty that resides in one’s gut, independent of mere facts. We saw “truthiness” take center stage during the pandemic as a virtual army of often ill-informed Americans not only challenged scientific truth about vaccines but also promoted a “truthy” narrative on largely discredited alternatives like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.

In the political sphere, the ”truthiness” of voter fraud allegations was accepted by many as tainting the 2020 presidential election even though the objective evidence showed that the election was fair and by historic standards not even remarkably close. Do facts matter? Take Georgia, the state with the victor’s smallest margin. Prior to the election, multiple polls showed a toss-up. So, a loss should not have surprised partisans of either side. Although the vote broke nearly 50% to 50%, the margin of 0.23% amounted to nearly 12,000 votes. Those alleging fraud might consider the plausibility of a political organization conspiring to steal more than 12,000 votes without leaving a trace of hard evidence.

Daniel Kahneman, author of the landmark “Thinking Fast and Slow” won a Nobel Prize for his research with Amos Tversky showing just how flawed our “truthy” intuition can be. Although useful in emergencies, our instincts and “gut feelings” turn out to be flawed no matter how reliable they seem.

We need to be skeptical, even of ourselves.

As Bill’s case shows, undesirable truths may cause us discomfort more often than they “set us free.”  Still, in the long run we must realize we will make better decisions and be better off if we take our truth “straight up.” That’s what science itself seeks to do. In both politics and science, we would be better served by talking less about our specific beliefs and looking more carefully at how we come to accept what we believe to be true. Truth and justice should be the American Way, not truthiness.


Daniel Stone is Regional Medical Director of Cedars-Sinai Valley Network and a practicing internist and geriatrician with Cedars Sinai Medical Group. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of Cedars-Sinai.

Did you enjoy this article?
You'll love our roundtable.

Editor's Picks

Latest Articles

Courting the Antisemitic Vote

We’re accustomed to politicians courting the Black Vote, or the Jewish Vote, or the Youth Vote. But what about the Antisemitic Vote?

More news and opinions than at a
Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.