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Which Way is Up?

While we are not done with this virus, I am. In my entire lifetime I have never seen so much misinformation publicly offered as factual. People are making life decisions based upon the best-known medical advice and frankly, the longer this goes on the more readily apparent it is that the proffered advice is wrong. Just this morning, an “expert” has come out and told anyone who would listen that the best advice of using six feet for social distancing is wrong and inadequate and it needs to be ten feet; this after months of preaching by experts that six feet was safe. But wait! There’s more!! While this is going on, the WHO website still maintains that three feet is the safe distance. While the US is sharply divided on wearing of masks (required/requested depending upon the state), WHO still maintains that you should only wear a mask if tending to the care of someone infected with the virus.

So why can’t the “experts” agree? Personally, I think the true experts do agree. I think the most politically isolated, empirical, and objective scientists do agree and do have the best medical advice to offer, as it currently exists. These are the scientists who live cloistered lives in laboratories, performing the research and studies oblivious to anything else going on in the world. They have no desire or interest to appear on CNN or any other news media. However the world is filled with other professionals who are as much motivated by fame and fortune as they are by scientific study. They write papers in hope of publication, they write books in hopes of being recognized, and they eagerly accept requests to appear on public media as “experts” in their field to offer their scientific “facts”, real or manipulated. They do so without actually lying because it is an opinion; the power of the human mind – rationalization – they convince themselves of a single fact and build off that and peddle it as factual. The media, desperate for anything to contradict the latest position of the opposition, hungrily and happily latch onto any person with a degree and a title willing to offer a “scientific” position contrary or damaging to officially issued position. They then put their “expert” on the air and scare the millions of people watching who are merely trying to learn the truth. Many of these people never realize that they are hearing misinformation and go right back into panic mode. That, dear reader, is media manipulation.

We were once a nation of independent thinkers; the government and the news media didn’t try to tell us our opinion because we didn’t want that; we wanted facts; honest and truthful information with which we could decide for ourselves – make up our own minds. But once the news media latched onto the runaway freight train that is social media, all bets were off. We were at once both completely absorbed in spending all our free time on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram so as to be “in the know” on all the latest viral crazes sweeping the nation, as well as being constantly and incessantly deluged with the streams dumped into the social media by the news media. And we, as a culture, quickly became comfortable and content in receiving live and instant news updates on our phones and watches. And a new news media outlet was born.

Last night the USA crossed the 100,000 mark with deaths from the virus – yes, a horrific number. But not unexpected and still far better than the initial doomsday estimates being bandied about in late February. At the moment the number was reached, I was enjoying my family – all of them – on a warm and wonderful spring evening. But at that moment, my watch rang at least seventeen times; I turned off notifications after that. Each and every notification was the same – and from the same three news services. Why they felt the need to just keep resending the same notification over and over is no mystery – it is exactly how they drive home their agenda, with repetition. And why is that number important? Because the current administration had previously announced that the number would be below that value and the oppositional media couldn’t wait to prove the claim wrong. Again – my point has nothing to do with my personal support, or lack thereof, for the current administration; my point is that I detest partisan bias anywhere, by I particularly loathe it in my “news” media. What I want are the simple facts, the real ones, and let me make up my own mind.

I fear tremendously for those who blindly place their implicit trust in the news media; biased and inaccurate journalism is all they know. They make their life decisions based upon what they read in their respective news feeds on their computer or phone. So when that news is twisted or distorted by a political agenda, these folks don’t recognize that manipulation. If the current administration came out and said that ten feet is their official recommendation for social distancing I can guarantee you that the news media would grab the data from the WHO website and proclaim that three feet is the correct distance to remain safe. If the current administration was urging and imploring states to stay closed for health and safety concerns, the news media would be complaining that the administration is ruining the economy and insisting that the states should open. Red versus blue, us versus them, you versus me – a horrible way for a country to exist.

So how do we navigate these muddied waters? How do we make our decisions based upon factual data while ignoring the misinformation and manipulation? There is no easy answer, but here are a couple of things I do. I avoid the major news outlets: CNN, NBC, FOX, CBS, ABC, and MSN to name a few of them. I also avoid newspapers like the NY Times and similar. All of their opinion will inevitably turn up on your social media anyway. And always remember, they are not reporting news, they are providing their opinion. I rely much more heavily on foreign new services such as the BBC, the Sun, The Mirror, etc. as they are less politically motivated and therefore, less biased, more factual. I also use Google – a lot. Anything I am unsure about, anything I want to validate or verify, or anything into which I need to gain insight gets searched on the internet. And not just one website, I look at a number of sources and often actually go to page two of the search results – unheard of in these times of instant pudding!! But I face the facts, brutally. If my research proves my initial thoughts or beliefs wrong, I accept the data and revise my thinking; that is how rational humans function. You can’t dismiss the real facts and substitute your own! And I continue to fall back on a critical thinking book from a course in college years ago.  I would love to get my hands on another copy of it but I can’t seem to find it. I do, however, still recall the basic lessons in thinking critically and try to apply them daily. Separate fact from fiction, analyze the data, investigate the conclusions offered for perspective and frame of reference, and question everything.

This blog is merely a compilation of my thoughts and opinions, except for data presented as factual; that data was retrieved from scientific websites (universities, CDC, WHO, etc.) It is easy to recognize fact from opinion in most cases – consider the reopen / stay closed debate. Those in favor argue that “it’s time, people need to get back into the routine of their life.” So first off, there is nary a single scientific fact in the entire sentence – not a one – it is all opinion. What “time” is it to which “they” refer when they say it’s time? How do “they” know what people need? There is no poll data provided, no clinical psychologists or sociologists cited as providing a scientific basis for the claim. It is not a fact, it is an opinion. And the root of the opinion? My guess is that the administration needs to stimulate economic growth; no president has ever been re-elected while in the midst of a massive economic downturn or depression. That, however, is not a fact – it is my opinion. For it to be factual, the president, or someone with verifiable first-hand knowledge, would have to tell us that. Anything else is an opinion, a guess (albeit likely a good guess).

And the argument for keeping the states closed? “It’s too soon.” Or “It’s not safe.” Are the top two. Too soon provides absolutely nothing from a factual perspective and is just an opinion. It’s not safe makes more sense critically, but is not backed with data. And it is not backed with data because no one knows what will happen. There is little doubt that we should expecting an uptick in the number of people testing positive; it only makes sense that if we add people who have been sheltered into the general population, there should be more infections. But….(there’s always a “but”)…the question we need to ask if and when that happens is: “Are we testing the same number of people each day as we did previously?” Because if we change the amount of testing, the frequency of testing, the number of people tested, you basically have to see an increase in positive test results, statistically speaking.

But even that doesn’t get me there. All along I’ve been irked by the term I hear or read every day “new cases”. First thing I read this morning was “There were 124 new cases in RI yesterday.” (Or whatever the number was.) The term “case” makes it medical by perception; we filter words by association. The term case, when used in a report on a virus implies an illness. By hearing about a case of measles or a case of chicken pox through the years, when we hear the word we automatically infer that someone is sick. So most people hear “77 new cases” and they assume that there are 77 sick people. But that is NOT the case. What it means is that there were 77 positive test results; not that 77 people are ill. The critical thinker is more interested in the daily number of new hospitalizations – those are the true “cases” of the virus. Frankly, seeking medical treatment (such as seeing a doctor or clinic due to symptoms) would be preferable to hospitalizations, but no one is keeping data on medical care less serious than those being hospitalized. So, you make do with the data available.

The true answer lies, as I am always saying, somewhere in between. There is not real right or wrong time to reopen the states. In a perfect world, every living person would have been locked away from contact with all other living people until there no one was becoming ill, as in the virus was gone. But that is impossible; just to name a few: police, fire, rescue, food providers, garbage collection, health care, and literally thousands of other jobs required people to continue to work. And once we made that decision, any chance to contain and eliminate the virus was lost. If people are circulating with other out in public, there is no other outcome but for it to spread. And once it spreads, it will run its course, whatever that course may be.

Recall that the initial sheltering throughout the country was explained as being necessary to “flatten the curve”. In other words, to avoid overloading and breaking our healthcare resources with too many cases all at once, we could spread them out over time to lessen the impact. Take a big dollop of peanut butter on a tablespoon and plop it on the table. It is a large blob in a small area that stands an inch or more above the surface. Now take a squeegee and spread it out across the table. Spread far enough and you can cover the whole table with a very thin layer of peanut butter, so thin that it is essentially unmeasurable. Same amount, just spread out to flatten the peak. That is what we did, it was our intent. Our intent was not to hide out until the virus is gone or a vaccine is developed; it was all carefully predicated on keeping the number of critically ill people from overwhelming hospitals. Once the rate of daily hospitalizations dropped to a level at which each individual state cold handle the new daily cases and it is then time to reopen.

But like everything else we do these days, we’ve politicized it. At one point (and I don’t know if this is still true) the red states were all open and the blue states were all closed. Red of course representing the current administration and blue, the opposite side. And the news media instantly began the attack on the states that had reopened with doom and gloom elevated death count forecasts, and an almost obsessive fixation on the new positive test counts from those states, regardless of whether the states were testing more people more often or not. The problem with all of this, on both political sides, is that the decision to bring people out is being predicated on political agenda, not a factual scientific analysis of new hospitalizations versus healthcare resource availability, which is what we all agreed to way back in March.

Yes dear reader, March. Schools were closed right around the middle of March and the first two week stay home order came out at the end of the month. It has been two full months for most, and three months for others. And of course, nothing for the huge number of essential folks who slogged through this mess without a break. And happily, many of them unaffected by the virus. Out the fear and panic instilled by the news media daily death count, people seem to have forgotten that 80% of the people infected have minimal symptoms, if indeed any at all. And of the fifth of the people that do experience symptoms, only 20% of them require hospitalization. So let’s assume a group of 100 people who actually have the virus; of that group, 80 have no symptoms while 20 will have symptoms. Of the 20 with symptoms, 4 will require hospitalization. That is a 4% hospitalization rate – 4 out of 100. And those people will almost exclusively be 80 years old or older. In my state, 82% of our deaths are aged 70 and above, most being aged 80 and above. And most all of them came out of nursing homes and long-term care facilities. That is our data, our reality.

So, after all this typing, all these opinions and facts, we land here, at the end of this post, with me deciding to reopen my own personal state based upon not the news media advice, not either of the political party’s advice, and not on my governor’s advice, but simply on my own personal analysis of the data I can obtain, my own personal observations, and some critical thinking. I believe that is the best possible option for any of us; allow us to see the information and make up our own minds. It is not clean, it is not neat, and it is not going to be a good fit for everyone, but I don’t see another option out there. Think about it….and stay well!!

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