In the summer of 1999, 42 schoolchildren in Belgium became mysteriously ill and had to be hospitalized. Two days later, eight more children became similarly ill, followed by dozens of others in nearby towns until more than 100 kids had been taken to a hospital complaining of nausea, dizziness and headaches.
Their families were, or course, concerned and questioned what might be causing the illness. Someone pointed to the drink Coca-Cola since many of the affected children had drunk it the same day they were hospitalized. From there, an outcry grew until Coca-Cola made its biggest recall in the company’s 113-year history.
Upon further investigation, however, it was discovered that the soda likely had not been the cause of the outbreak after all; half of the affected students hadn’t touched the drink in the first place. In the end, the real culprit of the mysterious illness evaded people too distracted by the hysteria of a faulty assumption to ever get to the root of the problem.
This true story is one of many examples that Malcolm Gladwell provides in his book ”The Tipping Point,” illustrating the dangers of asking consequential questions of unqualified people and then jumping to conclusions based on the misguided information they provide.
It’s a pattern we see too often these days on social media, especially when it comes to COVID-19.
For example, early in the pandemic, I saw many people across social media openly question influencers, politicians and even their own peers whether face masks worked in preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Some answers were informed by hearsay (everyone seems to have a “friend of a friend whose husband is a doctor”); others by homegrown science experiments such as exhaling smoke through a face mask to show that masks can’t trap everything. This was enough to convince many of my family members and friends to abandon masking from the get-go.
In fact, every anti-masker I’ve known throughout the pandemic made up their mind about face masks before a single study had been conducted on the matter. And data that eventually emerged to show the effectiveness of face masks as part of a broader strategy in preventing the spread of COVID-19 largely failed to change the knee-jerk assumptions that had been made months before.
Beyond the trivialization of face masks, however, the pandemic has seen a host of more catastrophic consequences, such as people downplaying the seriousness of COVID-19 or dissuading others from getting potentially lifesaving vaccines. Such behaviors have contributed to countless preventable deaths and the inundation of numerous hospital systems. Misinformation has proven especially damaging in the age of social media when falsehoods spread faster and wider than qualified people were able to correct them.
Examples of such behaviors include the time when commentator Clay Travis incorrectly expounded on a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report about comorbidities and the lethality of COVID-19 to his many followers, prompting numerous public health officials to refute his logic. Ditto for when Fox News host Tucker Carlson and podcaster Joe Rogan touted animal dewormer ivermectin as a safer or better means of COVID-19 prevention than vaccines — a dangerous position that had to be refuted repeatedly by both the CDC and Food and Drug Administration.
More recently, misinformation was spread far and wide about hundreds of professional athletes who supposedly died after becoming vaccinated against COVID-19. One fact checker traced the rumor to when a Danish soccer player suffered a heart attack in the middle of a match. A Czechian blogger tweeted that the player had been vaccinated 12 days before the match and blamed the vaccine for the player’s collapse. It turned out the player hadn’t been vaccinated at all.
But by that point it didn’t matter. Questions about why this athlete (and then seemingly dozens of others) had “dropped dead on the playing field” were already spreading across social media. Just like Coca-Cola was wrongly implicated in the hospitalization of children in Belgium, coronavirus vaccines became the culprit. Such theories were eventually promulgated by no less than a sitting U.S. senator and a former NBA star. The depressing saga was like a game of telephone, only in this case, everyone is able to see exactly where the messaging went awry each step of the way.
Throughout the pandemic I’ve often wished that more people appreciated the wisdom of Occam’s razor, a centuries-old principle that says that if you have two competing ideas explaining the same phenomenon, the more obvious explanation is the likeliest.
For example, yes, it’s theoretically possible, as Jacob Hess argued in Public Square magazine, that the COVID-19 vaccine contributed to the deaths of any of the 24 people who died at a New York state nursing home two weeks after 193 residents were vaccinated. But it’s far more likely that they died of COVID-19 and its effects, given that a mass outbreak of the disease had started days before the residents, who are especially vulnerable to the disease because of their age, had gotten even the first dose of the vaccine.
Suggesting otherwise is like raising suspicions about a meal of oysters and poached salmon that 1,500 people shared hours before perishing at sea, without mentioning an iceberg or that the deceased ate this meal while aboard a ship called Titanic.
None of this, of course, is to deny that the scientific process demands a rigorous skepticism of evolving scientific observations in order to reach research-supported conclusions. Asking thoughtful questions is also necessary in the advancement of new ideas in any field and important in keeping the powerful in check.
But there is danger in questioning already irrefutable evidence or asking questions and presenting information in a way that sows doubt in the very tools and practices needed to get through a pandemic with as little death as possible. Even people with the best of intentions can pose questions and make statements in a way that fosters skepticism or causes people to reach faulty conclusions.
In the end, I pray that the worst of the pandemic — along with the most restrictive of preventive measures — are finally behind us. Even so, I hope we won’t forget the lessons we’ve learned along the way, including the importance of having all the facts before jumping to conclusions and the need to be responsible with any information we seek out or pass on.
We’d be wise to remember, as Gladwell put it, that we live in a day and age “ruled by the logic of word of mouth, by the contagious messages that (people) pass among themselves.”
Daryl Austin is a journalist based in Utah. His work has appeared in National Geographic, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today and The New York Times.