Ignorance and misinformation in times of crisis is dangerous
Misinformation. It’s floating in the air out there like an invisible virus.
There is tons of misinformation since the COVID 19 virus was unleashed in 2019: People panic that foreigners are the ones bringing disease.
People jump upon conspiracy bandwagons. People storm stores (in crowds) to buy out all the toilet paper.
Heads up, toilet paper is not a survival guarantee.
Then there are the lesser threads of ignorance that — although not so outlandish — that are that much more pervasive when woven into public discourse: People buying ineffective face masks that should be reserved for the sick, and for care providers. Then, there are judgments along the lines of “Who could have predicted this?” and “I can go to work because it’s just a common cold.”
We who study ecology and environment have warned for years that as part of our misuse of the planet, pandemics have been on their merry way for some time now. A Zoonotic virus jumps from animal to human host in those situations where you add wildlife trafficking and over-harvesting of species to jet airplanes and cheap cruises.
COVID 19 is believed to have begun in open wet markets in Wuhan, China. The trafficking of rare species, bats, pangolins, snakes, and palm civets, etc., is part and parcel of our upending of nature’s balance. It cannot be untangled from the Sixth Extinction, or the Climate Crisis. All are due to our impact upon a planet with finite boundaries.
David Quammen’s outstanding book, Spillover, was published in 2012. Prior to that books such as The Hot Zone, and The Coming Plague were out in the 1990’s. Each of these, and many more, are stuffed with details and knowledge about what we knew was coming.
How come the general public then, did not know? I think there are many factors.
People, having evolved as abstract thinkers and social species, reject bad news. This is a topic I write about frequently, it involves our confirmation bias, our need for reassurance, and our inability to embrace the “other.”
Also due to our social need to belong are those activities such as sports, (March Madness comes to mind) that people really need to distract them from stressful, dying planets. And, no, I don’t mean that Earth is dying, just our healthy and sustainable biosphere. But as that slowly heats up and melts away, it certainly will be a different Earth. Only by knowing this can we hope to change habits enough that we will prevail.
Also, by our human nature, people are divided into unhealthy binary bubbles. A person must prove either their “wokeness” or their disdain for “political correctness.” This distraction tends to keep people in outrage rather than in research. This is just one such division.
Modernity and the Information Age
It is the information age. But a very great deal of it is misinformation. People are disconnected from the actual, living breathing world. We are on our devices, addicted to the next juicy tidbit to confirm our bias. Or, we are actively seeking the aforementioned distraction in gaming, shaming, blaming, proclaiming, or inflaming. It’s always one of those, sometimes, all.
Media has germy hands too. Coverage of a topic without a sensational scandal or conflict is rare.
Knowing stuff, however, factual things, allows people to recognize their actual belonging. We belong to Earth. As Greta Thunberg has warned, we should all pay attention to the science, not to popular opinion. Tribalism leads people to find scapegoats. One man told me “The Chinese will eat anything that moves.” He meant no harm, at all. He believes that one culture is just more damaging due to their bad habits. But that sort of sentiment displays that our own bad habits, pollution, factory farming, and record emissions in the name of “progress” are somehow acceptable, which they are not.
Heads up, again. It is the elite, not general populace of any one nation, who demand non-science based supplements for health and energy.
Those who want to show their high status buy the ground tiger bones, and sexy, sexy rhino horns. Yes, there is a cultural component at work, but there are none without blood on their hands if we look the other way.
For decades now, most of us have looked the other way, despite warnings.
If all this information is out there, it is maddening that people persist with ignorance. Yet, at the same time that experts get exasperated by ignorance, they recognize that collaboration for cures, and cooperation for infrastructure, are more crucial than ever before. Networking across borders is vitally important. If we used the model of testing for COVID 19 that other nations did, we may have stopped a few more cases, and possibly, limited the death rate.
If we want a positive outcome, we cannot scapegoat the misinformed any more than we should scapegoat the Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood. Please stay informed with facts. And stay safe.