In early 2015, a group of unvaccinated children visiting Disneyland in California triggered an outbreak of measles that spread to about 150 cases across eight states, as well as into Canada and Mexico, before the flare-up was declared over. Following the emergency, to protect the public from an easily preventable disease that can have serious and permanent health consequences, the state of California strengthened its law requiring vaccinations for children and blocked parents from routinely opting out of vaccinations.
California politicians let science guide them, not the personal opinions of parents. I look back on 2015 as the “good old days,” when people in charge listened to the quiet voice of experts, not the bullhorn of idiocy on the internet. I say the good old days because now we have a growing number of parents, politicians, and conspiracy theorists questioning the efficacy of vaccines following massive misinformation campaigns that undermined trust in the COVID-19 vaccines.
This, by the way, is not a column about the pandemic or doctors vs. anti-vaxxers. This is a column about facts vs. opinion and why political leaders at all levels need to stand up for one and discount the other, otherwise we are headed toward a slippery slope. In fact, it would seem the slide has already begun. According to an Associated Press article last January, as many as 275,000 kindergartners in the United States lack full vaccine protection.
“Falling vaccination rates open the door to outbreaks of diseases once thought to be in the rearview mirror,” says the article, quoting medical experts. “They point to a case of paralytic polio reported last year in New York, and to recent measles surges in Minnesota and Ohio. Those outbreaks coincide with anecdotal and survey information suggesting more parents are questioning bedrock childhood vaccines long celebrated as public health success stories.”
Too many times, when asked why they reject vaccines, people respond, not with scientific facts but with, “Well, that’s my opinion.”
“My opinion,” is valid and harmless when discussing inane subjects like the benefits of eating eggs for breakfast or thinking platform shoes were the height of fashion. Yet it is common practice these days to express uninformed opinions about serious subjects despite facts and evidence to the contrary, and to stifle debate and avoid responsibility by simply saying, “Well, that’s my opinion.” Let’s be clear, experts who have data, education and experience rely on the evidence to prove their case. You won’t see them shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’s my opinion.” Reducing facts, evidence, and truth to the same value as opinions, can be extremely dangerous for society.
Truth, facts, evidence, and science matter because they propel our society forward and make our lives better. Valuing vacuous opinions over science, choosing feelings over facts, raising ignorance above evidence, viciously attacking anyone who disagrees, propels us on a backward trajectory where our health, our economies, and our democracies are threatened. This should be sounding alarms for all politicians on all levels of government from the national to the state/provincial and the local.
It doesn’t need to be a life-and-death issue like vaccines during a pandemic. Using “my opinion” as a defense in a myriad of serious issues is despicable.
Take the case of James Keegstra in my home province of Alberta, for example. Forty years ago, Keegstra was mayor of a small town called Eckville and a teacher who openly taught high school students the Holocaust was a hoax and that the Jewish people were “treacherous,” “sadistic” and “child killers.” Facing charges under Canada’s law against “willfully promoting hatred against an identifiable group,” Keegstra claimed he was simply exercising his constitutional right to free speech guaranteeing “freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.”
Yes, believe it or not, he said teaching students the Holocaust was a Jewish conspiracy – and demanding the students parrot this in exams – was okay because it was his “opinion.”
Keegstra lost his legal fight and his job and was fined $5,000. The people of Eckville spent months looking for ways to impeach him before simply voting him out of office in the next election by an overwhelming margin.
Keegstra’s opinion, needless to say, was not based on facts. I’m reluctant to use the word “opinion” because it gives a veneer of credibility to what is verifiably wrong, loathsome and dangerous. Neo-Nazis, like the late Keegstra, see their hateful manipulation of history as facts. They believe their opinion is as valuable as the truth. Actually, they think their opinion is the truth. That is arrogant, ignorant, and dangerous.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am completely in favor of free speech, but shouldn’t there also be responsibility and accountability for what we say and consequences if it causes harm. If you yell “fire” in a crowded theatre, there better be smoke. If you know there is no fire, shouldn’t you be held accountable for the people that are hurt in the stampede that ensues?
What about something like saying the “world is flat”? Surely, that is harmless. After all, you have a right to express such an opinion because it is not hate-speech. But are you sure it is harmless? The “flat earth” movement might be tiny but it was growing rapidly at one point, and thanks to social media it can cast a wide net to catch and indoctrinate gullible new recruits who are told their personal and limited observations are as valid as every scientist in the world.
Pushing that false narrative fosters a culture that distrusts science, distrusts education, distrusts leadership, and ignores truth in favor of opinion. Even the ancient Greeks, after doing some simple measurements, realized the world is a sphere. How can so many people fall for this harmless opinion of a flat-earth? How many of those will someday fall for an opinion that isn’t harmless? When an increasing number of people, especially those in positions of authority, start to believe in and peddle conspiracies rather than verifiable truths, we are in trouble.
This is true no matter what level of government is involved. Let’s say you’re a councilor who wants to explore the use of electric buses to reduce emissions from your community. That’s a debate worth having on the cost/benefit of switching the fleet over in terms of not just the price and environmental benefits, but also the goodwill added to your community’s brand. But let’s say your opponents insist human-made climate change is a hoax, and in their opinion a cold snap in January is “proof” global warming can’t be happening. In that case, you would be sidetracked from a valid debate over how you could respond to the reality of climate change to a useless argument over whether climate change is real.
We shouldn’t stop free speech, but before anyone spreads misinformation and twisted logic, they should seriously consider the ramifications of what they are doing. Of course there are those who deliberately lie about facts for political or financial gain, or simply to gain clicks on social media. Perhaps there should be consequences given that social media allows lies and misinformation to spread so quickly, and dangerously.
But let’s say you simply don’t trust experts. After all, scientists have been known to get things wrong. Science, though, is not about being perfect. The “scientific method” is the painstaking process of objectively establishing facts using tests and experiments. Science tries to prove its own theories wrong, and changes its theories when new evidence or information comes to light. People spouting incompetent confirmation-biased “opinions,” on the other hand, have usually spent a few hours in a social media echo chamber determined to prove themselves right, usually ignoring facts and truths they don’t want to believe.
Ah, social media. Once upon a time we thought it would allow for the easy exchange of ideas to help inform society. Instead it has too often become a platform for conspiracies, allowing fringe groups to band together into a dangerous force that threatens to undermine society.
A poll published in 2022 by the New York-based Schoen-Cooperman Research firm indicated a disturbing percentage of Americans believe Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” that he won the 2020 election. “Republicans’ peddling of this falsehood and legitimizing the behavior of the violent mob that attempted this insurrection has led to dire consequences,” say the poll’s authors. “Just 54 percent of Americans believe Biden legitimately won the 2020 election — marking a 10 percent decrease from when we asked this same question in April 2021.” I can’t imagine a more dangerous action than deliberately undermining trust in democracy for political gain. It feels treasonous.
In these times of fake news, access to unprecedented numbers of opinions – some factually supported and most others completely bogus – it has never been more important to think critically, to question what we see and to take responsibility for what we say and what we circulate.
If you’re an elected official, it can be tempting to take the easy way out and simply submit to the bullhorn of outraged opinion, but that is not leadership. Only when we recognize that truth, facts, and reason matter more than opinion will we continue to advance our communities and our societies. Knee-jerk, uninformed, and conspiracy based opinions don’t matter. To consider unsupported opinion as equal to verifiable facts is to abandon progress, undermine trust, and ultimately shove us back into darkness.