We all know by now that there’s a difference between the news we see on TV and the actual truth of the matter.
And yet, when we discover that the truth isn’t quite what we thought it was, we’re always surprised, often to the point where we’ll resist the new information.
Each of the startling statements in the following list contains some truth; some are even perfectly correct. Take a quick look through and try to guess which is which, and we’ll come back to them later:
- The sky is not blue.
- They’re lying to us all the time.
- There is in fact no “Opioid Epidemic”.
- Vaccines don’t cause autism.
- Vaccines actually can cause autism.
- The United States is the least free country in the world.
Let’s start with that first one: The sky is not blue.
Think about it for a second and you’ll come up with caveats and exceptions right away. Things like “Well, it’s not blue at night” and “Sometimes there are clouds” jump to the front of your mind, and of course they’re all true. But what I’m actually referring to is something quite different: The sky is actually clear, and has no perceptible color.
When we look up and see blue — and, likewise, when we see all the reds and oranges and yellows of a sunset — what we’re actually observing is just like the rainbow cast by a prism. The light from the sun hits the atmosphere and scatters, and the blue light (which has the shortest wavelength) scatters the most. NASA has an excellent webpage on the subject which I’d heartily recommend, particularly if you ever talk to small children.
But what we’re interested in here is not the details of why you see blue when you look at the sky. Instead, I’d like you to focus on your brain’s reaction to the information.
Most of you will already have had at least some idea of what I’ve told you, that the sky is actually clear and it’s the scattering of light that makes it blue. A few will accept that as perfectly true, but I can hear some of you thinking: “That’s cheating. So what if it’s the light or a prism or something; the result is the same — The sky is still blue, no matter what he says.”
So imagine something else: You’ve got a sheet of printer paper in your hand. It’s white. You know it’s white. But the only lightbulb in your room is neon red. So when you look at the paper, all you see is red. Does the light make the paper red, or is the paper still white?
“That feeling you have, that sort of pulling in your brain, is cognitive dissonance. It’s when your knowledge set is suddenly challenged by new information. It can actually cause some slight discomfort. ‘Thinking of that gives me a headache.’ It’s because your brain is having to open up new areas to new resources and the disused arteries swell causing a slight headache.”
-John Ringo, Islands of Rage and Hope
That term, cognitive dissonance, is overused these days. We hear it and we think it means that some people can’t change their minds, that they’re physically incapable of actual thought and comprehension. Which is partly true, but there’s more to it than that.
The thing to remember about cognitive dissonance is that, while it is in fact physiological, it applies to all of us all of the time, whenever we’re thinking. It is the mechanism by which thought takes place, the difference between a computer being told X=2 and a human observing There’s two apples in that basket. It’s not just natural and common to all of us; it’s a very good thing.
Don’t think about that too hard; you’ll just give yourself a headache.
Instead, just try to always remember the other side of that coin: That everyone, including you, will resist new thoughts and ideas that come from outside your own head. Some types of thoughts you’ll resist more than others, and there are a few people you’ll trust so much that you’ll automatically want to believe what they say.
Like, for example, the evening news. Which, to a certain extent, is lying to us all the time.
When you think about it, it even makes sense: Their job is to inform the public, which they can’t do if their news report is either too boring or too complicated for the audience to understand. So they simplify things, and they sensationalize them.
Add to this that the reporters and producers are employed by people and paid by advertisers, and you’ll start to understand why some important facts get glossed over or left out. Consider too that they’re all merely human, that they experience cognitive dissonance just like the rest of us, and that everyone in any given newsroom took the same classes from the same people while pursuing their journalism degrees, and you’ll see also why it seems sometimes that the media is incapable of grasping certain simple truths the rest of us take for granted.
“The trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that isn’t so.”
-Ronald Reagan, A Time For Choosing
Bear in mind, I’m not saying the national news media is intentionally twisting the truth or anything. To be frank, I’m not even saying they’re wrong per se — but instead, I’m attempting to tell you why it is that Ronald Reagan might think they are. Extend that a little bit and you can easily see why it is that some people detest Donald Trump and others swear by him.
The thing is, the truth is often complex and many-sided. More often than not, we’re only shown a tiny part of the truth, which is why There is in fact no “Opioid Epidemic”, even though we hear the term repeated all the time.
What we do have is a statistical spike in overdose deaths caused by opioids — that’s morphine, heroin, and other similar drugs. An awful lot of people are dying, and three root causes contribute to that number:
- There’s a large number of injured soldiers coming home with chronic pain management problems. Naturally, they’re prone to painkiller addiction.
- Heroin is deadly, but it’s also cheap and widely available — unlike painkillers. A lot of people use it casually, rather than for pain relief, but there are those who turn to it when they can’t get prescription drugs.
- Synthetic heroin substitutes, such as the extremely powerful drug fentanyl, are becoming widely available — and people in the illegal drug trade are notoriously poor at such things as quality control and processing under laboratory conditions.
So there are two parallel statistical spikes, one in addiction numbers and a second in overdose possibilities. Curiously, if you were to remove those two factors, opioid use is actually way down. The statistics show us it’s undergoing a major long-term decline. Thus, with respect to the present difficulty, it would be far more correct to say that (1) wars should be avoided because people get hurt, and (2) the “War On Drugs”, which makes heroin illegal, is causing deaths because it leads to poor quality control.
These aren’t the only valid conclusions, however. It’s important to remember that there’s also a long-standing painkiller addiction problem, and our medical establishment has been contributing to it by poor prescription practices. Some of this is due to corruption; more is inefficiency and ignorance. So, while there really isn’t an opioid epidemic of any kind, if we say there’s one, we can pressure drug manufacturers into reducing corruption and doctors into wiser prescription practices.
Just like the news media (if you’re feeling charitable, you could say the rest of the news media), I’ve been forced to oversimplify. You can read more in my earlier article on the subject, which can found here; likewise, this link might be of interest.
I’ve also written extensively on the links between vaccines and autism. If you want, you can read my magnum opus on the subject; I keep it updated. If you’d prefer it boiled down, though: Vaccines can sometimes lead to something called “Childhood Disintegrative Syndrome”, which is functionally similar to some forms of autism (and therefore classed with it in the DSM V). Causally, however, autism proper is genetic in nature, and therefore can never be caused by anything that happens after birth. Since a rubella infection in a pregnant mother actually can cause autism in the child, and since the MMR vaccine is effective only for populations rather than individuals, it’s actually far more true to say that vaccination prevents autism. (Read the article for details.)
And, as to why I say that The United States is the least free country in the world… again, I’ve written articles on that subject, and there’s no reason to repeat myself here. You can read them or not; it’s your choice. If I were in your shoes, I’d probably already have enough of a headache for one day… so maybe you could read them tomorrow.
The bottom line, though, is this: The truth is always more complicated than you think it is. And, even though it can be a pain to learn more about it (literally), you owe it to yourself to do so.