Fear and certainty are enemies of wisdom and powerful tools used by the merchants of doubt. Sadly, many people are fooled because they are told things that they want to hear. They are in a state of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt. They are prey for powerful interests who deliberately spread ignorance for profit. In a life full of uncertainty, doubts are inevitable. A speaker can form a bond with an audience by telling them that their religious and moral beliefs are right and good. Those who think otherwise are wrong and bad, even when their ideas are guided by facts that were discovered using scientific methods. This enables the speaker to sell some horrible ideas simply because the bad people believe them. Powerful personal testimonials can evoke strong emotions that convince many people and affect their behavior.
In contrast, most mathematicians, scientists and engineers trust the scientific method while realizing that only math facts are completely certain. We want to see data about the effects of drugs or vaccines on many people. Individual testimonials are useless. Scientists can be sure that an apple falling from a tree on Earth will have an acceleration due to gravity of about 9.8 meters per second per second (m/s2). That is, its speed will increase by about 9.8 meters per second for every second that it is falling. However, the exact acceleration depends on where the apple is dropped. If dropped at the equator, its acceleration will be about 9.78 m/s2, but will be 9.83 m/s2 at the poles. The acceleration varies by a much lower amount of the density of the Earth’s crust and the altitude from which the apple is dropped. The acceleration can be measured with an accuracy of about ten parts per billion. That’s good enough to enable scientists and engineers to send probes to the dwarf planet Pluto billions of kilometers from Earth. We don’t need to be absolutely certain or perfectly accurate. When we submit an article to be published in a reputable scientific or engineering journal, we expect to receive reviewers’ comments and corrections. To be a scientist, one must be able to accept criticism, admit when he or she is wrong and change one’s ideas and behavior.
Almost all scientists agree that there is some uncertainty in all physical, chemical and biological measurements. Almost all engineers would agree. Engineers design many wonderful things (like bridges). Part of the design process is to do a worst case analysis. Engineers try to think of ways that their bridge might break. They will make computer models of the bridge and calculate the amount of stress that will exist on every part of the bridge by doing finite element analysis. From the calculations they can design a bridge that can bear higher loads that cause more stress. Eventually, an estimate of risks and benefits will guide the decision that a sturdy bridge can be built safely and provide important social and economic benefits. The same principles are used by pharmacologists and virologists when they design and manufacture new drugs and vaccines. An honest pharmacologist or virologist will admit that there will always be some uncertainty. Humans and other organisms are not machines. A new vaccine or drug might save one million lives, but cause a serious side effect or death in one or more people. So, public health experts would be right when they say that the overall public will benefit from a new drug or vaccine if the data from clinical trials demonstrate safety and efficacy. However, no public health expert or scientist can possibly know for sure that the drug or vaccine will be safe and effective for an individual.
Most scientists realize that the search for truth and knowledge never ends. Each new observation or discovery raises new questions. The results of experiments help us to understand some aspects of the discovery, but usually raise many new questions. Science is often mostly concerned about asking the right questions. There is an inherent skepticism. Scientists should always be willing to realize their mistakes when confronted with new evidence and insightful interpretations of the results. It’s about the journey, not the destination. We doubt that there will ever be a single theory that describes everything. We are especially open-minded about biology, health and the diversity of life. We will make decisions based on the evidence at hand, and will change our minds when confronted with new evidence. We don’t need to be certain and distrust those who say they are certain. We want to read peer reviewed scientific articles and look closely at the tables of data and the graphs that show relationships between variables. We are often bored by speeches – especially emotional testimonials by a single person. So, the speakers who entertain the gullible find us and our journal articles boring and dangerous. Science itself can become the enemy when it shows that there is only one race – the human race, or that greenhouse gases cause global climate change. It can be especially disturbing to be told that not all babies are born fully female with two X chromosomes or male with one X and one Y chromosome. Some have three or more sex chromosomes, such as two X and one Y.
For the tobacco industry, it was very inconvenient when scientific studies showed that smoking can cause many types of cancer and that nicotine is addictive. So, they funded research to study other causes of cancer, especially lung cancer. They found that obesity, environmental carcinogens, some viruses, genetic and epigenetic factors are also involved in causing cancer. Moreover, not all smokers die of lung cancer and many non-smokers do die of it. The tobacco industry created doubt by fixing the blame and not the problem.
Even though they denied science in public, they knew its power and used the scientific method in their efforts to mislead and misinform their potential customers and victim. They learned about agnotology, the study of ignorance1. Ignorance is often more than just an absence of knowledge. It can also be the outcome of economic, cultural and political struggles. "Doubt is our product" was the slogan for Big Tobacco. Fear and doubt also seem to be the main products of people who deny global climate change, the dangers of eating meat, the importance of vaccines and the reality of modern slavery. So, it is important for scientists to explain how and why various forms of knowledge do not emerge, have disappeared or have become invisible1.
Another common trick is to blame your accusers of doing the very thing that you are guilty of. The Republican Party of Donald Trump does this when they accuse their accusers of doing things like stealing elections or limiting their freedoms. Sadly, that slave owners in American history used the same tactic. They accused abolitionists of trying to take away their freedom to rape, torture, murder, buy and sell slaves2. Today, many healthy people are saying that the government is trying to take away their freedom by making them get vaccinated. They insist that they have the right to endanger and even kill people who are immunocompromised through no fault of their own. Conservatism in the USA used to mean that the strong protected the weak. We also protected the environment. We taught our boys to always leave a campsite cleaner that it was when you found it. We wanted to conserve the clean environment. President Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by Executive Order on 9 July, 1970. During World War II, the strong, healthy men who were strong enough fought to protect those who were not strong enough to protect themselves. We favored the underdog. We were repulsed by the way Nazis in Germany killed the handicapped because they were supposedly parasites. There was a popular saying: A man never stood taller than when he bent down to help a child.
The Republican Party of Donald Trump rejects these ideas. They claim that they have the right to not just endanger, but kill those who they consider to be weak. They refuse to acknowledge that there are people who are in mortal danger from an infection by the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. They refuse to acknowledge that global climate change will destroy civilization and kill billions of people. They don’t care that they are stealing the future of their children and grandchildren. Their attitude is “I don't know, don't care, and I'm annoyed by those who know” 3. They continue to act with disregard for scientific evidence. Some of them are paid well to call well-established evidence fake news and the sign of the Devil.
This has been called strategic ignorance. It is the personal avoidance of inconvenient or uncomfortable evidence. The tobacco industry and the Republican Party of Donald Trump exploit doubts to maximize profit and maintain power. Strategic ignorance helps to prevent inconvenient facts from becoming more widely known or accepted. Not just Big Tobacco, but Monsanto, ExxonMobil and others use strategic ignorance to deny evidence of the deaths that they cause. The tobacco industry denied for decades that smoking can cause cancer. Naomi Oreskes’s and Erik Conway’s book, Merchants of Doubt described effective efforts to deny well-established scientific data4. The trap that they laid was effective. Once a victim doubts or denies the evidence that their behavior has deadly consequences, they have an excuse not to change their minds or deadly behavior.
Many people feel the need for certainty. In a world full of dangers, they crave the sense of security that comes from feeling certain about their safety. They communicate with confidence and certainty. They communicate by saying either smoking does or does not cause cancer. They often want simple answers to complex problems that have many causes. Scientists will say that smoking can help cause cancer, but other factors are important. When talking to each other, they will also say that the results of a clinical trial demonstrated that the vaccine being tested met its anticipated end point. There was a statistically significant difference between the placebo and vaccinated groups in the number of people who were infected by the virus, the number who were hospitalized and the total mortality. When talking to a broad audience full of people with little or no education in math or science, they might simplify their statements. They can save millions of lives if they simply say the vaccine is safe and effective. The vaccine may not be safe or effective for people who are immunocompromised and produce no immune cells, but their physicians will know this and advise their patients appropriately. Most scientists will also realize that most people under 17 are in very little danger of dying from Covid-19, but there is a real danger of serious health problems emerging after being infected5. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recognized that Covid-19 can sometimes caused prolonged illness, even in young adults and children without underlying chronic medical conditions. This includes a rare, but serious disease called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, or MIS-C6.
Sadly, economic systems like Capitalism encourage maximum profit and accumulation of wealth. Much of the global elite act as if one’s worth is measured solely by one’s material wealth. This can lead many of them to work with Big Tobacco, Fossil Fuel industry and others to sew doubt for profit and deny the deadly effects of their products. Big Pharma is also guilty of charging their customers whatever the market will bear. Poor people die because they can’t afford life-saving prescription drugs. Others are forced into bankruptcy when they have an accident or serious injury that requires expensive drugs and medical treatment. This does not mean that the prescription drugs and vaccines don’t work. They do. The tragedy is that they are not available to everyone. Even though at least 217 countries and territories have administered over seven billion doses of a Covid-19 vaccine, including over two billion in the People’s Republic of China7,8, billions of people throughout the world would love to become vaccinated, if they could. Only 4.5% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose8. At the same time, countless millions of misinformed people in the USA and other high-income countries refuse to get vaccinated and subsequently die of Covid-199. Also, unvaccinated people who become infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus are potential factories producing new variants or mutants that could be quite deadly.
Still, some managers argue that they will lose some important talent when some of their workers who refuse to be vaccinated quit their jobs or are put on unpaid administrative leave10. In contrast, many other managers are far more concerned about their valuable workers who are immunocompromised. They would prefer to see some of their workers quit than see others die.
Meanwhile, every day thousands of former skeptics who refused to be vaccinated become very sick and have an epiphany. Suddenly they lose their doubts. They trust the science, medical community and Big Pharma that provide life saving care for most. Sadly, that is not good enough as thousands of them die every week.
1 Proctor, R.N., Schiebinger, L. Agnotology. The Making & Unmaking of Ignorance. Stanford University Press, 2008.
2 Smith, R.E. The five American wars for slavery. The slave owners won the first three. Wall Street International, 25 September, 2020.
3 Marques, T. Strategic ignorance in the time of pandemic. Why do people act as if they don’t know the consequences of their behavior?, Ara, 9 Oct., 2020.
4 Oreskes, N., Conway, E.M. Merchants of Doubt, Bloomsbury Press, London, 2020.
5 Smith, R.E. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Total Quality Leadership (TQL). Wall Street International, 24 March, 2021.
6 Consiglio, C.R. et al. The immunology of multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children with Covid-19. Cell, Volume 183, pp. 968–981, 2020.
7 Pettersson, H. et al. Tracking Covid-19 vaccinations worldwide. CNN Health, 13 Sept., 2021.
8 Our World in Data, Coronavirus (Covid-19) vaccinations. Accessed 13 October, 2021, but updated daily.
9 Smith, R.E. The unvaccinated are dying from Covid-19. The delta variant is now the dominant strain in the USA and many other countries. Wall Street International, 24 July, 2021.
10 Lamb, H. Vaccinate or terminate. Say goodbye to today’s U.S. federal workforce. Wall Street International. 27 Oct., 2021.