It’s a shame, really, that there’s no functionally equivalent poetic justice for Holocaust deniers (or any other kind of deniers) as there is for Covid-19 deniers. You aren’t suddenly carted off by Nazis and gassed if you’re a Holocaust denier. You’re not kidnapped and taken to the moon and shown the Lunar Module descent stages and various bits of equipment left behind from six different Apollo missions if you’re a moon hoaxer. You don’t die of excessive carbon dioxide if you’re a global warming denier. Well, not yet at least. But you can get very, very sick and even die from coronavirus if you’re a Covid-19 denier. And lots and lots of people are doing just that.
Take Fred Lowry, a councilman for Florida’s Volusia County, for instance. Lowry frequently verbally attacked Dr. Anthony Fauci, whom he nicknamed “Dr. Falsey.” He insisted the President’s top medical advisor was a liar and — get this — a pervert. In the headlong quest to find new ways to irresponsibly besmirch Dr. Fauci’s reputation for the “crime” of making Donald Trump look like what he is — an idiot — Republicans are finding new lies to invent about Dr. Fauci. What’s next? Drug abuser? Serial killer?
Lowry also did what Republican politicians are doing more and more frequently, mixing religion with their politics. Lowry, who is a Baptist minister at Deltona Lakes Baptist Church, recently gave a sermon where he said, “We did not have a pandemic … we were lied to.” He also spread a number of other conspiracies, including the lie that global warming is a hoax and that, according to the QAnon movement, Hollywood elites are running paedophile rings.
Unlike so many others in my rapidly growing “Another one bites the dust” file, Lowry isn’t dead yet. But he is very, very sick from coronavirus. The 66 year old minister now has double pneumonia and he may yet die. It’s touch and go for now.
I don’t know what it’s like to get coronavirus and I don’t plan to find out. If I get it it won’t be because I didn’t take every precaution. But I can’t say for sure how I’m going to die. If I’m like most people I will probably eventually die of old age. I can’t control it and neither can you. We can all only take rational precautions with our health and hope for the best. But one thing I refuse to die of is stupid. Dying of stupid is for stupid people, and Fred Lowry is stupid.
Stupid people believe stupid things. They believe in things for which there is no credible evidence, like the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen, or other things for which the evidence is flimsy, poor and highly speculative. Why does this happen? That’s a complicated question for which there are many complicated answers.
But one reason is so common I’m going to briefly outline it here. There are many traps and tricks that promoters of conspiracy theories use to entice the gullible. One of them is to present a series of “breathtaking” bits of “evidence” that sound credible and startling on the face of it. If you are not given the whole truth you are susceptible to falling into the trap that Nobel Laureate Dr. Daniel Kahneman calls WYSIATI, or “What You See Is All There Is.” In other words, it’s a cognitive bias that causes people to believe that when they first learn about something they have learned all there is to know about the subject.
I realize two things. First, when presented in bald language it sounds absurd to most of us. Second, it’s a trap we all fall into, sometimes every single day. It’s a bias so deep in us that it’s difficult to be conscious of it. But we really are susceptible to thinking that reading a single article on something or watching a single video on YouTube makes us, not just experts, but know-it-alls. It’s a bias that you must consciously fight or you almost certainly will fall for it.
This is why people who believe in conspiracy theories are so sure of themselves. They are unaware of the very simple and often easy-to-understand explanations that exist to refute the “breathtaking” collection of “facts” that they already know. And since they’re already experts and they already know everything there is to know about a topic you cannot teach them anything new. You are merely sheep who don’t know what they know, when in fact the rest of us have all the same facts, information and misinformation that the conspiracy theorist has, we’re just not idiots.
The Dunning–Kruger effect describes a hypothetical cognitive bias that says that people who have low ability at a task overestimate their own ability to perform that task. The frustrating part of the Dunning–Kruger effect is that people who are examples of it are almost impossible to reach by telling them about the Dunning-Kruger effect. Most of them don’t understand it. In fact it takes a certain amount of baseline wisdom to understand how little each of us actually knows about the world around us, and many people, conspiracy theorists in particular, are immune to that baseline wisdom.
All of which is to say, people like Fred Lowry will continue to get very sick and sometimes die, and people will still continue to deny that coronavirus really is serious and it really can be controlled by regular hand washing, mask wearing, social distancing and vaccinations. Most of them will not change their minds until it’s too late. And that’s how you die of stupid. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.