There are many aspects of the ongoing pandemic that defy easy understanding. It’s not always clear why it has spread in some areas of the world and remained more contained in other parts. But we do know proven ways to reduce the spread of COVID and its variants. A simple list of public health precautions is available to anyone who cares to look: mask up especially indoors around other people; get tested if you have symptoms, and be sure to be vaccinated with one of the amazingly effective shots that will greatly increase immunity and lower the chances of death. The science is clear: these precautions work. A person is more likely to get sick and die without a vaccine. As of this summer, 97 percent of the individuals in hospital ICUs for COVID were unvaccinated. No wishful thinking can change these facts.
Even so, the denial of this most elemental of realities persists, and gives the virus a chance to change and infect new victims. Meanwhile, alternate narratives circulate and gain credence mostly because they affirm what the deniers want to believe. Hence COVID becomes a tool of control cleverly engineered by big-pharma, big government, or a host of other phantoms.
The Mechanism of Evidence Denial
Years ago, social scientist Robert Bales noted that groups of people put together in a room to solve a problem often reach a moment when there is a convergence of views around a preferred narrative. In many cases folks in the group didn’t have the facts or knowledge to make a judgement picked up bogus ideas from other like-minded people around them. Think of a jury reaching a judgment on a case based on a shared prejudice.
Later on theorist Ernest Boorman at the University of Minnesota refined Bales’ ideas into a convincing and solid theory called Fantasy Theme Analysis. Boorman acknowledged what we all sense: that even in the presence of good information, we tend to rely on the views of our reference group and our natural compulsion to spin narratives that allow us to move from uncertainty to conviction. This is more likely to happen with people who were never adequately trained in even the rudiments of fact-checking or assessing a source’s likely credibility. One result is the protective responses of fantasy themes that “chain out” to others with similar views and the same inabilities to process truth claims.
Such flawed thinking may well cost us our republic.
Fantasy theme analysis helps us understand the contagion that happens when incomplete information combines with our hard-wired impulses to see the world in sets of comfortable stories. Each one is filled in with actors, motivations, villains, and final outcomes. We hate incomplete narratives, as when there is an airplane accident caused by bad weather. So we are happy to construct our own story, regardless of what solid evidence might oblige us to believe. We especially want to put human agents in the picture to be at least partly responsible.
Here’s another example I have used that suggests that none of us are immune from fantasy thinking. I was sitting in my office one day in the 80s with a copy of the New York Times opened up on my desk. A colleague dropped by and, at the same time, we both noticed the paper’s front-page picture of the new Soviet version of a space shuttle. The Buran space craft looked exactly like the American version. Same wing shape. Same color. Same size. And without missing a beat we both blurted out the view that “they must have stolen the American design.” End of story. We “knew” it and we were ready to fill in the blanks. The similarity of the shape was enough to accept the fantasy of a theft of our plans. All the while, we pretty much ignored the physics of space flight, which mandates similar design parameters for any earth-to-space vehicle.
With group fantasies, the world is explained from existing beliefs. Without them, we would have to live with the continuous uncertainties mandated by the real world of incomplete information and awkward truths.
In my field the phrase homo narrans is sometimes used to describe the essence of our species. We tell stories to live. That is our priority, with Truth far down the list of imperatives. Truth is often too inconvenient. It feels better and it is much easier to bolster each other’s views with agreeable tales that put a disliked faction or renegade political group behind a particular phenomenon. Such flawed thinking may well cost us our republic.
If we are looking for reasons for the current peril of the American experiment, we need to deal with the paradox of a society awash in “information” that makes it possible for frail minds to cherry-pick beliefs that fit with what they already “know.”