Advice From the Trenches

Has the World Gone Insane?: One reader is still looking for a great awakening

Dear C and Dr. B;

The events of the last few weeks have me shaken. Watching the POTUS being flown to Walter Reed with COVID has to be a moment of awakening for the thousands of people who were following his cue to ditch the masks. But it seems like so many people will just reject the truth, even when it’s right in front of their faces! 

We’ve known the science, yet the lies and the denials and insane conspiracy theories managed to thrive anyway. How does this happen? I feel like half this country has gone insane!

Mad Hattie

Dr. B says: There are many studies that show that humans are not rational creatures but are, instead, emotional ones. If we want something to be true, we find evidence to make it true. It takes a lot more than evidence to dissuade someone once they’ve made up their mind. We are also taught from birth many things that have no rational basis, and that defy science and observable truth. Both Santa and faith are taught as fact. It isn’t until much later that we are taught logic, questioning and hypothesis-based problem solving – that is, if we have access to a good higher educational program. Unfortunately, much of America is denied this.

One of the problems with faith is that it allows people to engage in magical thinking and believe in hogwash. People tend to look for what they already know, and if stuff looks familiar, then they tend not to question it. As a result, we are easily manipulated by social media, conservative media, movies, our leaders and advertising. We can’t evaluate truth for ourselves even if it stares at us in the face.

Because humans are pecking order animals, we are wired to defer truth to our leaders. So it really doesn’t help when the leader of our country lies and spreads conspiracy theories and misinformation, denounces science and promotes his self-interest as if it’s something that is good for us. And the people who could benefit the most from programs such as free health care – the poorly paid workers – all fear these programs because their country’s leader tells them that these things take away their rights.

What can be done? I am not sure if free and equal education through college would change the world, but it is where I would start.

C says: I’m not sure education is going to do it. I know a surprising number of otherwise intelligent and well-educated people who are falling into conspiracy thinking and farfetched rumors right now.

I think that the country has, in fact, gone insane. Uncertainty is the one thing that will drive people crazy above all others, and this is a time of greatest uncertainty. Everyone who has a theory holds onto it for dear life, as if they were victims of a shipwreck and the theory was their only life preserver in sight.

This plight of ours is an excellent example of one of the dangers of faith – faith requires unthinking adherence to an ideal or concept, and most religions train us to believe that our faith will be tested, and that we must hold on to our beliefs, no matter what temptations or other truths are dangled in front of us. This probably explains how Trump’s followers will believe anything that comes out of his mouth, no matter what scientific or material evidence belies his words. Trump says the pandemic is no big deal, that he has conquered it, and his followers throw their masks into the garbage and infect each other as patriotic Americans. What I find deeply troubling is that our current culture is so steeped in conspiracy theories that otherwise sensible people are insisting Trump’s whole COVID illness is just a publicity stunt – this, in spite of the fact that Trump’s COVID has spread to many others, and Walter Reed Medical Hospital admitted him as a patient. It is surely a sign that we, as a nation, are on our way to hell in a hand basket.

I would like to issue a plea to everyone reading this: PLEASE do not reflexively jump to conclusions without examining hard evidence. This is no time to rely on faith or to make assumptions. This is a time to ask questions, listen to science and stay sane. Our future as a nation depends on it.  

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