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BERNSTEIN: Concerns posed by vaccine conspiracy theorists are hypocritical

Column: Mind You

Misinformation about the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine may cause more harm than we can anticipate, as vulnerable people shy away from something that may save their lives.  – Photo by Cnbc.com

I always find it mildly startling how easily so many people simultaneously entertain both an unwavering skepticism of their government and a wholesale acceptance of modern culture's most invasive and powerful institutions.

Consider the following anecdote: While talking on the phone recently with a good friend of mine, I brought up that I would soon be getting vaccinated against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). I saw his face drop. When I asked him what was the matter, he expressed his suspicion about the vaccine and asked me why he should trust the government to put anything in him.

This suspicion, I suspect, captures the minds of many disaffected Americans who worry about conspiratorial plots to have them "microchipped" or to pump toxins into their system.

But these same people have no problem carrying a mobile cell phone in their pocket that tracks wherever they go or eating processed foods manufactured by American companies three meals a day.

Conspiracy theorists, for all their efforts to question and uncover the affairs of the "elite," do not have much of a head for pragmatism: If the government really wanted to poison its citizens, would it spend a year manufacturing sham medicine that many Americans distrust in the first place, or would it simply taint our cheese-flavored orange dust supply? 

I kid, of course. But I would argue that the purposeful doctoring of our junk food is no more of a ridiculous notion than claims of widespread malfeasance in the production of modern vaccines.

To cast doubt arbitrarily on life-saving technology, but not on so many other norms of our time, is an irresponsible kind of cherry-picking skepticism. It is also the sort of double standard that underscores nearly everything wrong with the public discourse and politics of the last few years.

Take QAnon, for example, an online band of anti-establishment former President Donald J. Trump supporters so fed up with what they perceive to be dishonest mainstream news that they are willing, instead, to shape their entire worldview on the preachments of anonymous message-board posters.

Of course, if we took a scalpel to the festering corpse of the Trump Administration in an effort to uncover every trace of irony contained within, we would exhaust ourselves well before we had accomplished half our goal.

But this bit of cognitive dissonance will be a core facet of Trumpism's legacy: This tolerance for such blatant hypocrisy, for people who shriek and call others "sheeple" while chugging diet sodas, posting every sordid and semi-legal experience they have ever embroiled themselves in on social media and flouting CNN in favor of teen YouTubers with studio microphones.

Naturally, I do not dare allege that the tendency to oscillate between the role of the skeptic and that of the believer as it suits one's needs only afflicts the ultra-conservative wing of American politics or that well-respected journalists and thinkers do not fall prey to such temptation.

I myself (no more well-respected than any other lowly undergraduate, but bear with me) was confronted with a challenge to the consistency of my own beliefs in January when I read an article by columnist David Brooks of The New York Times.

In his article, Brooks pushed for school reopenings and said that "the educational system" was being "powerfully influenced by organizations that don’t seem to believe in critical thinking, adjusting beliefs according to the evidence or combating fear with science."

Personally hesitant about the prospects of school reopenings at what seemed like the height of the pandemic, I bristled at his remarks and wondered: Could I be on the wrong side of this? Was I guilty of not bending to the facts, of cherry-picking when I give credence to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines?

Fortunately for my unflappable ego, vindication struck when the CDC announced school reopening guidelines earlier this week, which recommended hybrid learning in elementary schools for the vast majority of U.S. counties and fully remote learning in many middle and high schools, especially along the East coast.

If Brooks, or anyone else who has advocated for the importance and feasibility of school reopenings, objects to these guidelines, they will have to take it up with the CDC and risk being accused themselves of dismissing the warnings of the scientific community.

Amid hypocrisy, accusations of hypocrisy and the levying of hypocritical accusations to hypocritical ends, here is my simple advice: Nourish your humility so that you may lead with your panache. And get vaccinated.

Daniel Bernstein is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore looking to major in cell biology and neuroscience and mathematics. His column, "Mind You," runs on alternate Mondays. 


*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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