Dawn and I took Calvin to our local dog park yesterday afternoon. It’s a time of socialization for our dog but if you have dogs you know it’s also a socialization opportunity for their owners. You can get a real slice-of-life at the dog park and yesterday we got ourselves one very unusual slice!
Our doodle was playing with an older doodle who’s owner was only too happy to talk doodle stuff. But then the conversation took an unexpected turn after about 5 minutes of chit chat. Forty minutes later Dawn and I were getting in our car reviewing the valuable information we had just learned.
It began when our new friend told us that we were going to have the worst winter in 100 years including record amounts of snowfall. I asked how he could be so sure and he talked about the lakes being too warm but then when I said that lake-effect snow would depend on the Jetstream he launched into a lesson on physics and meteorology building to a final point about how winds on earth could not work if we were traveling through space at 1000 miles per hour. He said “look around, you can’t tell me we are moving 1000 miles an hour. This earth is not going anywhere.”
I didn’t say anything as I was pondering how to respond to this obvious geocentric/geostatic viewpoint. But then he informed us that there are many other things that we have not been taught correctly in the last 100 years. I had a feeling this might be going in the direction of coronavirus but just responded “really?” He then proceeded to tell us about how he went to medical school but it was going to take too long to become a doctor so he quit but he knows a lot of stuff about biology. I was thinking to myself, this could get really interesting now.
So what had he learned in college and medical school that was really important? He had learned all about viruses. He told us that viruses are very tiny things that are composed of very important molecule called RNA and that this RNA was also bound to proteins. I’m thinking, OK but I could tell he was definitely working up to make some point about coronavirus.
As an aside, during the entire conversation we are outside without masks on but he is something of a close talker. I was constantly moving back to get myself some distance but every step I took back he took one step forward so it was this weird dance we had going on for more than a half of an hour.
Anyway, about those viruses. After telling us what a virus is he informed us that our bodies are responsible for making viruses and that they are completely inert and can’t do anything to us and that they aren’t alive. I tried to give him some credit for this because most scientists do not consider them living things and they are inert in the environment. I was about to suggest though that they have the capacity to become activated inside cells but he was quick to add one very important lesson that he was sure I would not know.
He informed us that we may not have realized it but viruses play a useful role. That RNA and messenger RNA in particular that we produce is partly made to go around our cells and bind to toxins and – now this is where I was a little fuzzy—apparently we process these bound toxins into viral packages and then expel them from our bodies. So viruses are not hurting us but rather are something we all have and make to protect us. They are a necessary part of our biology.
Now he did go on to admit that some viruses can cause sickness but they can’t be passed through the air between us like this coronavirus nonsense. If a mosquito were to bite him and then come and bite me it might transfer the virus to me and I might get sick. It was unclear to me why this might be but maybe his toxins bound in the viruses would then be released into me. He had contracted yellow fever and he seemed to understand that this was a virus and it made him sick but he seemed quite sure that was just an unfortunate transfer and he was quick to say that that coronavirus wasn’t real at all and that “it’s all a hoax.”
Mostly I’m just listening through this but I decided that the coronavirus hoax needed a little push back. I asked, “so if it’s just a hoax why are more people dying right now than usually would being dying per day.” I was surprised. He was ready with an answer. He asked me “do you know how many people die each day?” to which I had an answer. I said an average of 7700 people in the US die per day over the whole year. He says, that’s right and they were going to die anyway. I responded. Sure, we can predict that that many people are going to die every day next year as well but I then asked him how many people were dying each day for the last six months. He responded about 8000 per day. I said that wasn’t correct that it was about an average of 8700 people per day. I then asked him, why are 1000 more people per day dying that we would expect? His response was that there are more old people than were before. My wife was perplexed by this and chimed in and asked how there could be more old people this year than last? He informed us that the baby boomers are getting older and it’s a generational thing.
I give him credit he was attempting a demographic argument which could be plausible but I pointed out that deaths are higher in almost all counties the last six months compared to expectations. His response was that the entire world’s population is going older. I granted him that everyone is getting older but that there were old people in this world last year too.
He told us we were obviously smart people and so we should be able to do some real research and find out the truth that the government and world leaders were not telling us. He returned to the theme of disinformation and how we are teaching false histories in school and then proceeded to provide illustrations of how we could be so duped. For example, if you go the local convenience store and give the cashier a ten dollar bill they won’t be able to make change because they can’t do the math in their head.
I think you get the idea. But as we are talking—or rather as we are listening—I was thinking to myself what should my response be at this point? We are being very polite and I’m asking some pointed questions but do I tell him I am a biology professor and know a lot about viruses and show him where he is wrong? I felt it was unfair and would likely be unproductive to simply assert that I know more than you do approach especially after listening and not saying anything earlier.
Rather, after talking for a while about how we can trust anything we have been told he finally used the phrase, “everything you have been taught is a lie and everyone is lying.” I responded, “so if everyone lies how can I know you are telling us the truth?” He responded that he has gone to college. He reminded me again that he has gone to medical school a long time ago (apparently when they told more truth) and has done a lot of reading on these matters. He has been open to learning from other sources. And then told us—in case it wasn’t already clear—that he is a really smart person with example of his successful career. Thankfully, he did assure us that we also seemed like a very smart couple—after all we have an exceptionally featured golden doodle!
He assured us that we are smart enough to understand we had simply been lied to all our lives. I guess we are not at fault for our unbelief but now that he has enlightened us, we needed to run with that information and educate ourselves on the real truths—the last of which was how Adolf Hitler was a product of Hollywood and Walt Disney was really pulling the strings in world affairs in the 1940s. That is a whole other story that I won’t recount now but I couldn’t help but think of how similar his argument was to those that say that George Soros and Bill Gates are running the world today.
What was my responsibility in this conversation?
During most of our one-way conversation I was pondering, what should I be doing here. Should I be arguing, if I just nod my head am I furthering his delusions? Is there something I could say here that could help this person? How can I be compassionate without confirming his errors?
I could tell early on that arguing and telling him he was sorely misinformed would not be productive so we just listened but I still felt like it wasn’t fair to simply listen as if we were agreeing. There was one moment were was tempted to interject that he didn’t know what he was talking about. This was when he was going on in detail about how we make RNA from our DNA to tell him that I had just given a lecture on this very topic to 100 pre-med students. But it seemed unfair to make that a gotcha moment and I felt it would make no difference and just make me look rude.
I was very interested in understanding just how a person with these conspiracies comes to those beliefs and so found the entire conversation fascinating and I admit some my questions were meant to test his responses because I was curious. Unfortunately when the conversation turns to being told that everything you are being told is a lie you realize that there is very little you can say in such a conversation.
You might be wondering. Did we just get played at the dog park? Was this part of some hustle or experiment to see how many bystanders could be convinced of conspiracies with no merit? The thought crossed my mind several times during the conversation. If the conversation was a hoax, he is truly a brilliant person because he was very convincing playing the role of conspiracist.
But, I’ve seen this man and his dog before. I have heard him talk to others and talked briefly to him myself in the past but never gotten gone to this conversation before. He comes across as very genuine and I’ve never seen anything but the same slightly eccentric behavior from him before suggesting this is genuinely who he is. I would not characterize him as crazy. He is completely capable of normal conversation, is married and has held down a real job for many years. He made statements that were wrong but they were misinformed rather than completely irrational. His arguments were mostly logical and he attempted to use evidence to support his views but in many cases his evidence was apparently coming from unreliable sources but the point is he wasn’t simply making stuff up. The conversation was very cordial and he never got upset about anything.
I view him as misguided and misinformed. But how does one go down the rabbit hole that far? I don’t think we have to go far to see that though we may laugh at someone who thinks the world is not moving and viruses are not what they think, are not that different than what we see promoted on Facebook and Twitter every day by large numbers of people. They may not have gone that far but many are on the slippery slope to believing similar unfounded ideas.
If the man we met finds this post I want him to know that we enjoyed our conversation and wish him well. There is a chance we will meet again, when we do let’s discuss the more important topic of what is truth and ultimate Truth. I don’t really care that much if people have erroneous beliefs in how the world functions physically but where he find ultimate Truth is very much a concern of mine and I feel like this is where I failed in our conversation. I failed to turn the conversation toward just where does he find his hope in this life. I failed give him something he really needed which is a way to find real answers to the most important questions. I hope that I will be given the opportunity to have this conversation with him in the future.
I suspect the guy is very lonely, he sounds like the classic (pre-internet) crank in the attic. I suspect that loneliness is his real problem, not having anyone to talk to.
Thanks for sharing this story, Joel. I will say that one word stands out for me “research” as when he told you to do research to see that what he was saying is true. The modern internet age has given us a different definition of what research is, than the one we (especially we scientists) are used to. Research no longer means doing experiments or surveys, or observations in a scientifically controlled environment, with strict adherence to the rules of the scientific method. It now means looking stuff up online, starting with Google, and then following the links to stuff that sounds like you already agree with, and then following more links, taking notes for future talking points, and looking for more. The supply of such (mis)information is unending. And all this…um… material can be easily stated with authority and conviction, because, well, its the result of research. Heaven help us all.
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Excellent point. Going along those lines, when he said that you can’t trust what you are told and then he told me to do my research the point of possible conversation could have turned to, what does “research” mean and how could we agree what good “research” is as a way of getting to the question of how do we know what is true.
“You might be wondering. Did we just get played at the dog park?”
That made me spit out my Coke Zero.
It’s hard to determine what your responsibility is, and I doubt we could find a rule that was applicable to all people in all contexts. I usually do some kind of likely outcome to pain ratio calculation in my head. It’s very unlikely that you’re going to sway this person with your information as they have already devised a game plan for dismissing it. So, while the empiricist and romantic in me has some ideal about the value of sharing the truth and countering misinformation, I also have to keep in mind that, in all likelihood, you would have just made him angry and not moved the needle at all. If all other states are the same except someone is now angry who normally wouldn’t have been, I don’t think that’s a win.
However, if you see this man often enough at the dog park, and you can deal with this person in a charitable spirit, maybe you’ll develop something of a relationship with him, and in the context of that relationship, you might have enough of a platform that you can begin to push, and maybe the outcome of those discussions will move from “making this guy mad” to “kind of upsetting this guy at the time, but then he goes home and thinks it over.”
I found your story a bit unnerving Joel, because I was in a similar predicament just 2 days ago having lunch with a professional woman with a keen mind, who was saying the Covid virus was a hoax and the numbers were inflated because hospitals received more funding if Covid appeared on the death certificate. I replied in astonishment that if doctors deceived like this they could lose their job and their license. I didn’t stay quiet but during appropriate breaks I said why I could not believe what she claimed. Thats how the lunch went – back and forth. Since we were friends this approach kept the two-way conversation respectful. Re your Truth with a capital T, Andy Stanley has a marvelous YouTube video on how we should listen and speak respectfully to each other even with those on the other side of left vs right. Simply stated, our relationship with God has to override our political differences.
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I had a recent experience with a relative encouraging me to ‘hold my nose and vote for Trump, he’s done so much for our country. I know people don’t like his personality.’ Awkward, even in a friendly situation, just barely able to demur that I was past that. Back in my news bubble, I could come up with a 100 great reasons why not to vote for Trump. But in person, I couldn’t come up with the facts, let alone the will to discuss it with this person. Without a common set of facts, or practice communicating in such a situation, it feels like a really bad first date where they want to talk about their favorite player of their favorite team of their favorite sport. (And it is both sides, he doesn’t know how to communicate either.) Equally awkward is the ‘Truth’ conversation with a stranger these days. So while we are so connected these days, we are struggling to connect.
it’s strange but when i ask people why they dislike Trump in the sense of what has he done to hurt this country, i usually receive blank stares or frustrated sputters When i ask what Biden has done with his four+ decades in congress to help this country, i receive the same. We live in a country where everyones feelings count as trumping (sorry) facts. And this is perfect for the democrats, as they love to manipulate emotions and have their sycophants living in fear of not being able to survive without their masters in charge of things. I personally would absolutely love to see a portion of your top 100 list. i am curious as to how much if any of it has to do with actual governing or the state of the nation. Please share with us.
Similarly, people at my church (and I think this view is fairly widespread), keep telling me that once the election is over all the talk about the virus is gonna go away quickly. As if the media is conspiring with politicians in some kind of ploy to manipulate people to vote against the incumbents. I don’t really say much in reply since we’ll find out soon enough whether it’s true, but what I’m thinking is “The virus does not care about politics.” Some of these people were vocally skeptical back in March that this virus was gonna amount to anything, but haven’t learned the lesson I guess. I think people would prefer to believe something simplistic rather than deal with reality.
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So, now also this blog is politicized. Like everything else in the USA. That is a pity. I prefer science and discuss, among other things, this new hypothesis:
Uh, how is my post politicized? Because I think coronaviruses are real and can infect people or that I don’t think Walt Disney was really Hitler? Just not seeing how I am being overtly political here. I’m asking how we respond to really crazy ideas and I didn’t even say “this fellow isn’t that different than this Peer guy I know:-)” You do see the smiley thing right?
Okay, that good to hear, Joel! I also think the virus might be a real thing. Do you think the hemizygosity hypothesis is a crazy idea?
peer, the virus is certainly real. just ask the chinese scientists that made it.
What was really hilarious is the Ultimate Truth Prof. Duff is talking about. it isn’t any more crazy than what the guy in the park thought–In fact, it also involves the earth being flat and stationary (although Prof. Duff will deny that, that is what the book that contains the Ultimate Truth says) and it also involves, magic, ghosts, and zombies (I am sure if Prof. Duff responds he will insist on using different terminology, but that is still what the book talks about).