Truth, science, and herd immunity

In epidemiology, “herd immunity” is the essential concept that prevents the spread of deadly viruses. Now that disinformation and fake news are viral, we need to start thinking about herd immunity for the health of the nation’s perception of reality.

When it comes to actual viruses, here’s how herd immunity (also known as community immunity) works. To spread, viruses that infect a host need to find other hosts to spread to, by airborne particles, for example. If everybody in the population lacks immunity, the virus will spread unheeded. But if nearly all of the population is vaccinated — or has had the disease before and has the antibodies in their immune systems — then the virus will have difficulty spreading, and will die out.

This is why being vaccinated against measles or chicken pox, for example, is not just a matter of personal choice. Unvaccinated people put more than themselves at risk. There are always people in the population who cannot be vaccinated — infants and people with compromised immune systems, like those undergoing cancer treatment. Herd immunity protects the vulnerable individuals by protecting the whole community.

A few individuals going unvaccinated doesn’t matter that much — but when enough are unprotected, diseases like measles can spread in a deadly way.

What this means for information hygiene

There was a time when the information stream that citizens accessed was relatively clean. Newspapers and radio and television news disseminated the truth — or at least their version of it (“All the News That’s Fit To Print“). Educated journalists made the decision about what we would hear and read. We essentially outsourced the job of determining truth to them.

Now there is more diversity in reporting. But there is still such a thing as truth. There is also distortion, falsehood, and plain old disinformation. Foreign governments have a vested interest in sowing that disinformation, since it inflames divisions and tears apart the fundamental trust in truth that’s at the center of what holds this country together.

This fake news is viral, just like a case of the measles. It spreads rapidly from person to person, intensified by Facebook and Twitter.

The lone conspiracy nut in 1980 had very little effect on the general population, because their conspiracies were hard to spread. Most of the general population was immune to the conspiracy theories, because the news they shared made it clear that the nuts were nuts.

But we no longer have the immunity that came from a shared news perspective. Truth and lies jockey for position in our minds, and lies have an unfair advantage — they’re usually sexier.

How bad could this get? In his science fiction novel Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, Neal Stephenson has a subplot about it. Much of America has devolved into “Ameristan” where the population is manipulated by a constant, steady feed of false and misleading information. Those with means have editors, virtual or real, who condition their feeds to reinforce truth and block lies and distortions, but the rest of the population no longer knows what truth is. (A central plot point involves a nuclear attack on a town in Utah that many people are sure they’ve seen and heard about, but which never actually happened.)

This is an extreme extrapolation, but it’s plausible enough to be terrifying.

It’s time to reestablish our herd immunity to pernicious falsehoods.

One source of truth is science. Scientists are telling us, for example, how fast and in what ways the coronavirus is spreading. This is essential information, because in its absence, people are swilling bleach and acting as if mail packages can carry the virus (they can’t). Ironically, disinformation about coronavirus is spreading faster than the virus itself.

Science is what makes GPS work (which would be difficult if the earth were flat, as some idiots believe). It’s what makes planes fly. And if nearly all the scientists believe that greenhouse gases are warming the planet, well, that ought to be more worrisome than any conspiracy theory you can come up with.

The other source of herd immunity is skepticism. We need to learn the difference between fact and opinion, between trusted news sources and random fake news sites, and between memes and reality. We need to be especially suspicious of news that confirms our preconceptions. We need to check for independent reporting.

When just a few people were susceptible to fake news, it didn’t matter — the electorate was healthy. But the fake news about the election is already starting.

Unfortunately, it takes time to immunize people against falsehood, just as it does to protect them from viruses. Start by talking to your children about how to be appropriately skeptical of what they read, and how to distinguish believable news sources and facts from dubious sources and opinion. Lobby to get this information into school curricula. Talk to your neighbors and friends, online and off.

Unless we reestablish our herd immunities to lies and fakery, the truth is going down. The body politic will get less and less healthy. And we’ll be vulnerable to whatever forces create the most persuasive fakery. That way lies Ameristan. Let’s try not to live in it.

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