Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine coronavirus
(Image: AP/Esteban Felix)

In Both Sides Now, author and ethicist Leslie Cannold presents two sides of an argument and then it’s over to you: what do you think is true, and what do you think Cannold really believes?

Today she asks: is the average person capable of telling the difference between the facts and the fiction that proliferate on the internet?

No case: it’s hard as hell. You need to know how academic works are built and verified. Yes case: of course we can! What do you think we are? Children?

No

The argument against doing your own research could begin and end with a list of those who espouse this method for becoming informed about critical issues — a list that begins with anti-vaxxers such as Pete Evans, continues to Greta Thunberg’s attention-seeking nemesis Naomi Seibt, and ends with QAnon, for whom “do your own research” has become a motto.

Expertise is seen as elitist, except when it’s not. Few do their own research to diagnose what ails their car or how to fix it. Almost no one offers to do their own research so they can perform granny’s brain surgery.

Yet when it comes to life and death issues of even greater magnitude — putting the lives and livelihoods of billions at risk — everyone’s an expert. They’ve been surfing the web since lockdown started, you see, and have uncovered “the truth” about climate change (it isn’t real or dangerous), COVID-19 (which joins cancer, autism and HIV/AIDS as a medical condition prevented by swallowing a bleach-like substance available online), the paedophile ring run by Bill and Hillary Clinton, and the “deep state” that ex-president Donald Trump of all people was working to expose.

Conspiracy theories are not new. They are attractive to those perturbed by the randomness of catastrophic events and want to feel in the know and in control. Anxiety and fear drive new adherents that include members of groups that are discriminated against and — because of this — more prone to accept claims that the system is rigged.

As Adrian J Ivakhiv argues, while anti-vaxxers and climate change denialists may urge followers to find out for themselves, what they’re really saying is: “Do your research building on our research. Follow the clues we have laid out for you.” Rather than cite sources that are part of the larger ecology of research, knowledge and theory — as academics do to achieve publication — conspiracy research starts with a random selection of materials and says: “Trust us. Ask the questions we ask and follow us in answering them.”

How to spot the difference? The truth is that it’s hard as hell. You’d need to know a lot about how academic work builds and verifies knowledge and have the emotional wherewithal to avoid motivated reasoning. Most people can’t and shouldn’t be expected to do this, which is fine. But that doesn’t mean they can get to the bottom of complex events and evidence themselves. Instead, they are obliged to accept their own limitations and trust the experts.

Yes

The arrogance of the “no” case is astounding. Trust you? You? The doctors who experimented on twins in the Nazi death camps and the scientists who made disabled kids sick so they could test a new treatment on them, or the ones that turned cells from a black woman with terminal cancer into a cell line without her — or her family’s — knowledge or consent? Or countless other examples of abuse of power and exploitation I could name?

We’ve had a gutful of you — your half-truths and lies about vaccination, for a start. I don’t care that the percentage of kids who suffer serious side effects from them is less than .01%. That’s more than what you told us about when we handed over our babies for the shot. The careful words you deploy reveal only what you think we should know. Like we’re children who can’t understand.

We can understand just fine and, if we don’t, then why don’t you explain it to us, given all your smarts and expertise? And while you’re at it, can you explain why science is the only way of knowing that matters? What’s wrong with intuition, faith and practical experience, other than that these — unlike scientific training — is available to everyone.

You can bang on all you like about conspiracy theories and the state of the world as it is now, but don’t blame us. We don’t run things. You do. We’re just responding to it. If you want us to trust experts, then experts need to become a lot more trustworthy.

Otherwise, what choice do we have but to search for the truth ourselves.

Which side do you think Cannold sits on? And what do you believe? Send your thoughts to [email protected] with Both Sides Now in the subject line.