Misinformation is tightening its stranglehold on the American psyche. My 9-year-old daughter, Sonia, knows no other world than one where truth and fiction are often indistinguishable. That’s the reality for a generation well-versed with social media and the internet.
This stranglehold is not a looming threat — it’s affecting children right now. Most parents, including many who accepted other childhood vaccines, are hesitant or outright opposed to vaccinating their children against Covid-19. This is despite sound evidence that vaccines are safe and effective and recent endorsements from the Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There are 28 million children 5-11 years old now eligible for the Pfizer vaccine, and 16.7% of them have been vaccinated. Now is an opportunity to teach these children to thrive — not just in a world where Covid-19 poses a constant threat, but in one dominated by misinformation.
I foresee two possible futures. In the bright one, children become skeptics. They adapt to a world of ubiquitous misinformation. They develop the skills to tune out noise and zero in on the signal.
In the dark future, Sonia’s generation — one in which parents invest so much hope — becomes cynical. Inured to misinformation, they buy its false promises. Jaded, out of touch, and resistant to change, they cling to whichever beliefs are convenient, even if they’re harmful or even deadly.
The line that separates these two starkly different futures is razor-thin. The path children choose depends on their parents. And right now, most parents are straddling the line between skepticism and cynicism as they interpret the latest narratives, which emerge quickly as scientists strive to improve our imperfect understanding of a novel virus.
As a physician and mother of a school-age child, parents ask me questions about the latest health news all the time — vaccine-related or otherwise. If there’s one thing they all have in common, it’s that they want to do right by their children.
While some parents follow the science, others remain loyal to what they already believe. I tell them the same thing: Children are growing up in a world where scientific advancements outstrip everything people thought they knew when they were kids. Knowing this, parents should not tell children what to think, but teach them how to think critically. Children need to be armed with skepticism.
Skeptics demand evidence. They question and probe new information. They assess its strengths and weaknesses. And they arrive at conclusions that adapt, just like they do, as evidence emerges.
Skepticism is a strength. It is an engine of positive progress. And it’s foundational to science. It drives great leaps forward, like when scientists across the globe worked to develop safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines. And it’s behind baby steps, too, like when the CDC changes its recommendations as our knowledge compounds.
Cynicism, on the other hand, is a weakness. It often masquerades as skepticism, but it’s an engine of decay, not progress. Cynics arrive at conclusions despite the evidence. They ignore whatever counters their beliefs and cherry-pick supporting evidence, no matter its quality.
Cynicism drives almost every decision to do nothing when evidence suggests that something must be done — for example, when someone at high risk for Covid-19 refuses a vaccine with no long-term side effects because they claim it is riskier than a contagious disease that has killed more than 5 million people and burdened many millions more with long-term side effects such as fatigue, insomnia, cognitive dysfunction and other hallmarks of long Covid.
In the book “UnSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation,” authors Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson put it eloquently: “Cynicism is a form of gullibility — the cynic rejects facts without evidence, just as the naïve person accepts facts without evidence.”
In a world where misinformation dominates, how would a generation of cynical, gullible Americans fare? Covid has answered that question. Too many Americans have fallen victim to misinformation. As much as 20% of adults, including parents, have vowed to spurn vaccines that could save their lives. Now, one American child loses a parent for every four Covid-19-associated deaths.
Cynicism will continue to be deadly long after this pandemic becomes endemic. There will be new threats, new evidence, and new mitigation strategies. Will those strategies be safe and effective? As a skeptic, I can’t say. I’ll have to weigh the evidence.
But I am convinced of one thing: I want our children to live safer, happier, healthier lives than their parents’. I want my daughter’s generation to benefit from the innovations in technology and medicine that our generation has fought so hard to achieve.
Cynicism has incredible power to stifle that progress. Only skepticism can bring that brighter future to life.
Geeta Nayyar is a specialist in rheumatology and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Miami. She serves on the board for the American Telemedicine Association and the University of Miami Medical School Alumni Board.
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