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Laura Hollis / October 28, 2021

We Need to Be a Nation of Skeptics

We’d actually be less polarized and more unified if a lot more of us were professional skeptics.

Remember when we were assured that the Wuhan Institute of Virology “lab leak” theory for the origin of COVID-19 was “conspiratorial nonsense” and that we should “believe scientists” like Peter Daszak, who sneeringly told us as much?

Those of us who questioned the party line were smeared by people like Daszak, the media and true believers as “conspiracy theorists” or MAGA mental midgets. We aren’t physicians or experts in infectious diseases; how dare we doubt the Chinese government, our own government, the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?

It turns out that our suspicions had merit.

Daszak is the president of EcoHealth Alliance. Recently released documents appear to show that his organization applied for a federal grant in 2018 to study ways that bat viruses could be modified to become more infectious to humans.

Similarly, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the public face of the U.S. government’s COVID policies, has repeatedly assured Congress and the public that the U.S. government has never funded this kind of “gain-of-function” research in China or elsewhere. But in a letter published just last week, Lawrence Tabak, head of the National Institutes of Health, admitted that gain-of-function research had been conducted at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, and that NIH had provided funds for it.

Even left-leaning publications like The Intercept and The Atlantic are calling foul. The Intercept recently released hundreds of research documents obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests and court orders. The Atlantic published an article last month describing the COVID origin information as being under a “toxic cloud of secrecy.” “The pattern here is unmistakable,” Atlantic authors Daniel Engber and Adam Federman conclude. “At every turn, what could be important information has been withheld.”

It didn’t take subject-matter expertise to doubt what we were being told; all it took was a little bit of life experience and a modicum of common sense. When you cannot ask logical questions, when only one viewpoint is “permitted” (and those doing the “permitting” are the same people assuring you that they did nothing wrong) and when actual subject-matter experts are denounced, censored and silenced for both asking those questions and for introducing evidence contrary to the “permitted narrative,” all our red flags should go up.

An honest response to the questions people first raised over a year ago would have been, “You’re right. Those are suspicious circumstances, and we need to get the facts,” followed by a thorough investigation and public disclosure throughout the process.

But of course, you can’t do that when you’re covering up for your own negligence, malfeasance or less-than-altruistic motives. In that case, what you do is lie, silence and smear anyone who questions your lies, and engage an army of millions of trusting but uninformed people to amplify those lies and smears by associating them with a red herring, an unpopular person or a disfavored viewpoint. (“Conservatives want people to die of the virus”; “Donald Trump said it, so it must be false”; “Claims about Wuhan are anti-Asian racism.”)

This isn’t limited to the virus origin theory; it’s endemic: “Joe Rogan took horse paste.” “Doctors prescribing ivermectin should have their licenses revoked.” “We’re not keeping track of or publishing information about injuries associated with the vaccine.” “Parents at school board meetings are domestic terrorists.” “Jan. 6 was an insurrection.” “There was no fraud on Nov. 3.” “Trump colluded with Russia.” “If you like your plan, you can keep your plan.”

Many otherwise well-intentioned Americans have fallen for this and allowed themselves to be made pawns in these deeply deceitful tactics that are corroding public confidence and national cohesion. That must change now.

It’s not always easy to determine who is telling the truth, or what the truth is, at least before all facts are known (and assuming that factual inquiry is even permitted). But certain behaviors are characteristic of people who are not telling the truth. We can start by acknowledging that powerful people have plenty of incentives to lie, and often do, so there is cause to be skeptical, if not outright suspicious, when those in power make sweeping pronouncements.

Our suspicions should be heightened when they use their power to foreclose inquiry. Honest people of all political viewpoints, persuasions and professions do not need to silence inquiry. Real scientists and scholars certainly don’t. The truth is strong enough to survive rigorous questioning. But lies won’t withstand scrutiny; they need the protection of deflection.

And when those in whom we reposed our trust are caught having lied to us, there is little reason to believe them ever again. They do not deserve our trust, nor should they be in positions of leadership.

Perhaps the most pernicious lie is the claim that mistrust of the government and the press is creating “division.” That’s just more gaslighting by people who are pitting Americans against one another while demanding that everything they say be treated as gospel. Think about how much of the internal conflict in this country is between those who tend to believe what they’re told by the powerful and those who question it. The issues are myriad: the origin of COVID, the efficacy of masks, the reliability of vaccines, the events on Jan. 6, the enforcement of immigration, the urgency of “climate change,” the prevalence of “systemic racism” or the desirability of racking up trillions in federal debt.

We the People have been lied to — repeatedly. Our doubt is well-substantiated. We have good reason to demand proof and facts, not settle for partisan press releases and glib public relations statements or manipulable computer models. In the current climate, where our leaders lie and the media helps them do it, we’d actually be less polarized and more unified if a lot more of us were professional skeptics.

And the country might just survive the current crop of professional liars.

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