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Humility, Skepticism and Reality

Baker Lee • FOH at LargeNovember 2020 • November 5, 2020

Illustration by John Sauer/johnsauer.com

friend of mine just sent me a text, which included a picture of a card with a large Netflix “N” logo and “Netflix Fast Pass 2020” written underneath the logo. His text informed me that while working for Netflix, his girlfriend is required to carry this card as proof that she has tested negative for coronavirus. He also texted me: “and it begins.” Knowing full well what he meant by his cryptic “and it begins” phrase, I called to ask him “what begins?” His reply was, “you know that the Nazis didn’t just start tattooing the Jews, they started with other things first?” Let me stop the narrative right there and say that while my answer to him was “Yes, I know,” there is a lot more going on in that sentence that needs to be addressed.

First of all, in 1939, after the invasion of Poland, there were certain decrees requiring people of Jewish descent to either wear an identifying yellow Star of David over their heart or an armband brandishing a blue Star of David. Clarity is important here, so I asked if he was equating the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews to the Netflix Covid-19 speed pass? “Well, this is how it starts,” he replied. Again, for the sake of clarity, the implication here is that the final outcome would be a number tattooed on the Netflix card bearer. Just so there is no confusion, please be aware that while the Nazi badge and armband were marks of discrimination, the tattooed numbers were only dispensed at one place, and that was the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. The numbers were on the inmates clothing, but as there was such a high death rate and removal of clothing, the authorities started the practice of tattooing in order to identify the deceased prisoners.

‡‡         A Chip on One’s Shoulder?

Then, in a big leap of imprudence, he went from the Netflix card identifying Covid-19 tested workers to Netflix being a representation of the general population with the next item on the agenda being the 21st century identifying tattoo, the chip. This immediately brought the conversation around to vaccines, which — of course — was on my buddy’s “never gonna happen” list. He told me that there is mercury in vaccines, and that the mercury is a cause of the spike of autism that has occurred in our country. Okay, this has been an ongoing debate and, because I have an autistic niece, I have done a little investigating of the mercury/vaccines/autism conspiracy theory. While I do not consider myself to be an expert, this is what I learned from reading both sides of the issue and by speaking to a few different physicians.

In multi-dose flu vaccines, thimerosal, a mercury-containing compound, is used as a preservative to prevent contamination, but it should be noted that there are two different mercury-containing compounds. Methylmercury is the compound one wants to avoid as it can harm the nervous system. This compound usually enters the body with the consumption of certain fish or other foods. On the other hand, ethylmercury (which clears from the blood more quickly than methylmercury) is formed when the body breaks down thimerosal, which is the anti-fungal agent used in flu vaccines.

According to the CDC, ethylmercury causes no safety concerns, but I know that this is a contentious statement; I suggest one read more about the subject rather than just getting their information from social media or me. A few things regarding thimerosal — it has not been used in children’s vaccines since 2001. It is still used in some flu vaccines, but one can request a flu vaccine without it. Upon entering the body, thimerosal breaks down into ethylmercury and is quickly eliminated from the body.

Thimerosal has been used in since the 1930s and can be found in vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP), hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), rabies, influenza and meningococcal diseases. Live vaccines do not contain thimerosal, and these include the oral poliovirus vaccine as well as vaccines for yellow fever, measles, mumps and rubella.

More vaccine information can be found on the World Health Organization and Center for Disease Control websites. Oh wait, I forgot that neither the CDC nor the WHO can be trusted due to a now-debunked tweet.

My overall concern is not really one conspiracy theory or another, but rather the ease at which people latch on to them. Skepticism can be a good thing, but just being skeptical does not a theory prove. A good scientific mind is skeptical because it leads to critical thinking. Critical thinking helps in revealing negative aspects of a theory, which can then lead to a positive proof. Skepticism without the critical thinking can lead to what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is due to a lack of metacognition, which is the ability to analyze one’s own thoughts or performance. In many cases, this is due to overconfidence or the desire to not be wrong. In explaining the Dunning-Kruger effect, Psychology Today magazine states that “those who are the least skilled are also the most likely to overestimate their abilities,” and “those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.”

It should be noted that the Dunning-Kruger effect is not an evaluation of intelligence. Many individuals who are considered smart mistakenly believe that their experience and skills in one particular area are transferable to another. In essence, we probably all suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect at some point in our lives due to pride or arrogance.

‡‡         The Audio Side of D-K

To illustrate this on a personal level, I recount the time I was working as the engineer in a club and the performer — who was very well known — brought in their studio engineer to mix the show. He brought his own rack of outboard gear, patched it in and started to mix. I suggested that his gain structure was more apropos for the studio, but he let me know that he not only recorded the album, but had been in the audio business for many years. Needless to say, his show was a fiasco. Although I repeatedly offered my assistance, he refused the help and firmly placed the blame on a “lousy sound system” rather than reflecting on his own participation in the mix.

Clearly, it appears that anyone can fall prey to this Dunning-Kruger effect. I realize that I, too, have suffered from this cognitive bias of an imagined superiority and an inability to recognize my own lack of aptitude or the superior skills of others. While this failure on my behalf has put me in some embarrassing and possibly dangerous situations, I have managed to muddle my way through to make it this far. This is not to say that I am now immune to the effect just because I had it, I’m not. There is no antibody or vaccine to protect me from my own lack of self-awareness, nor is there one to protect me from other people’s absence of cognizance, but if we want to eradicate this virus and get back to work anytime soon, I suggest that we all be more careful in bandying about wanton theories and try to take a step back to examine these thoughts with a bit more humility.

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