People who make self-destructive choices aren't just stupid. Often, their minds have been poisoned with bad information.

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[Previous: Lack of trust is the universal acid]

Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead of COVID because they turned down a free, safe vaccine. Tens of thousands more have died of gun homicide and suicide because they believed that more guns, everywhere, for everyone was essential for safeguarding their liberty. Millions more are living in sick, impoverished, depressed regions because they voted to reject health care, gut education and drive away immigrants.

Can we blame them? Are they responsible for their own fate?

This seems like a question with an obvious answer. But it leads into the murky waters of a bigger, more complicated issue: How do we know who to trust in the first place?

The impossibility of not trusting

To live in the world, we all have to trust when we can’t verify. You don’t know what’s in that sausage you bought at the supermarket, or what pesticides were sprayed on the vegetables. If you eat at a restaurant, you don’t know whether the cook washed his hands or whether the food you’re served was left out at room temperature. You don’t know whether your medicines contain the active ingredients the label says, or whether your doctor is ordering unnecessary tests to run up the bill.

Multiply this by every product you use and every person you meet in an average day, and you see the impossibility of not trusting. If you tried to test everything yourself, you’d have no time for anything else. And even then, how would you know whether the makers of the test kits were trustworthy?

Viewed in this light, the problem isn’t that anti-vaxxers (or religious fundamentalists, or woo-peddlers, or any kind of irrationality—take your pick) are stupid people who don’t know how to think. They could well be just as intelligent as you or me. But they were led astray by people they trusted. We all have to choose who to trust, it’s just that they chose poorly.

The first link in the chain of trust

For nearly all of us, the chain of trust begins with our parents, who tell us what we need to know to survive. Soon after, it expands to teachers and, often, religious authorities (both usually chosen for us by our parents). As we get older, we branch out and add others to our stable of trusted authorities: philosophers, authors, politicians, celebrities.

You can see how the problem arises. If someone is fed bad information about the world from the beginning, before they’re old enough to question it, it will become a cornerstone of their worldview. Because having your views echoed back to you feels good, most people, as they age, will seek out sources that reaffirm and build on those early beliefs. And as they have children, they’ll pass on their ideas to them. In this way, differences of opinion become self-replicating down the generations, and even obvious fallacies are set in stone as ancient dogma and long-established tradition.

If someone is fed bad information about the world from the beginning, before they’re old enough to question it, it will become a cornerstone of their worldview.

And social media has dramatically worsened this problem, because its mindless algorithms show you more and more of what you already agree with, and less and less of what you don’t. In this way, each person can construct a bubble around themselves where they’re never exposed to information that contradicts what they believe. On the internet, it’s easier than ever for the like-minded to find each other and form communities of mutual validation, however ridiculous or dangerous their beliefs may be: from flat-earth believers to UFO buffs to pro-eating-disorder forums.

That’s how we’ve ended up in the absurd situation we’re facing now. Conservative Christians have died in huge numbers, because everyone they look up to—the trusted leaders of the tribe—told them that the coronavirus is nothing to worry about, while vaccines and masks are part of a sinister plot to steal their freedom.

The chicken-and-egg paradox of expertise

This is why a naive public-health strategy—just trust the scientists, they’re the experts!—won’t work. If, in your daily life, you’re bombarded with the message that scientists are sinners who spread doubt about the clear commandments of God, or that scientists are shills in the pocket of big money-grubbing corporations… you’ll be primed to distrust them, and their words will fall on deaf ears. You already have to know what expertise is to be able to recognize it.

Now, I’m not making the argument, beloved by creationists, that the conclusions you reach are purely a matter of what premises you start with. I’m also not arguing that human beings lack free will or that they have no culpability for harmful beliefs they adopt.

When it comes to trust, we can’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

What I am saying is that, when it comes to trust, we can’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. No matter what Descartes or Ayn Rand believed, you can’t sit in an armchair and think until you’ve derived a complete picture of the world from pure logic. We all have to start by trusting someone to tell us what to believe. And this goes a long way toward explaining why it’s so difficult and so frustrating to get people to change their minds. Naked facts have no power by themselves, if they’re not coming from someone the hearer doesn’t already trust.

To be sure, some people can and do shake off bad ideas they’ve learned. There are ex-believers from every faith who’ll testify to that. But as atheists should know, deconversions are rare. Ripping up the principles that have guided you your whole life and starting over is a scary prospect, and few people have the courage to do it. And even if you do, the same bootstrapping problem comes up: Whose guidance should you trust in constructing a new worldview for yourself?

So, how do we break through to people who are trapped in impenetrable spheres of disinformation? More to the point, how do we know that we’re not in that situation ourselves? Coming up, I’ll make some suggestions.

DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...