Every now and them when I have the patience, I take a deep breath and visit pseudoscientific websites. These websites are laden with misconceptions, misinformation, and lies that tend to make my blood boil, but it is important to try to read what these people are arguing so you can counter it effectively. Recently I was reading a creationist website, Answers in Genesis, when I happened upon an article regarding whether we really landed on the moon. The article goes over the skepticism that some people, including Christians, have expressed about whether we really landed on the moon. The author of the article stated that he could rebut point by point the arguments made by the moon landing skeptics, but since that has already been done, he pursues what he calls a “much more straightforward approach”.
The author of the article mentions that two of the twelve men who landed on the moon are now born-again Christians, and that they wrote books about their experience as astronauts. Thus, to doubt the moon landing is tantamount to accusing two fellow Christians of lying. And because the standard in the Bible to establish the truth of certain issues requires two or three witnesses, the testimony from these two reliable Christians should be enough to allow other Christians to accept that the moon landing is true.
Reading this I chuckled. Of the 12 men who landed on the moon, there were 10 non-born-again Christians that would have told you exactly the same thing that the two born-again Christians would have told you. However, because these ten men were not in this religious category, their testimony is presumably not as trustworthy as that from the two born-again ones. Although the author acknowledges that there is other evidence and arguments that could be brought to bear on the issue, he considers this the most straightforward approach. People should accept this is true because those who they should trust claim it is true.
As it turns out, this method of settling the truth is in fact very ancient. People may not understand the arguments regarding an issue, and they may not have confidence in the evidence, but they will believe those who they trust. And those who they trust have been traditionally those who they know and those with whom they share the same values. In fact, this phenomenon is so well recognized that when governments or organizations wish to disseminate a message of public importance, they often contact respected members of the target community who are willing to transmit the message. For example, Dr. Fauci has outlined a government strategy to increase vaccination levels that involves recruiting “trusted messengers” in communities across the country to explain why it is important to get vaccinated. Finding these trusted messengers is as important as the message itself.
Most of the time these trusted messengers belong to the circle of family, friends, or those who are known in the community (preacher, police officer, etc.). People may also trust total strangers as long as they are convinced that the strangers share the same beliefs and values as they do. From antiquity, this propensity to trust those who you know and those who share your beliefs and values has created bubbles that have insulated groups of people from outside influences, so much so that throughout history a lot of time and effort has been spent by people or groups of people figuring out how break past these bubbles to earn the allegiance of others.
The advent of mass media has made it possible for individuals and groups to penetrate these bubbles and reach people at the very heart of their communities, and this process has accelerated with the advent of the internet and has had a cascading effect. Nowadays total strangers can reach with ease people they have never met and deliver to them messages to earn their trust which they then pass to others. Sometimes this is a positive development as, for example, when people are convinced that vaccination is important. However, individuals who do not provide people with factual information can also gain their trust. One example of this was the fraud claims of the 2020 election.
The 2020 election will go down in history as one of the most scrutinized and contested elections. The large amount of court cases, recounts, audits, and other investigations that were, and are still being conducted is breathtaking, not only for the sheer numbers, but also for the fact that no evidence of significant election fraud has been uncovered. But what was even more remarkable is what happened to Republicans who had been trusted members of their communities and parties, and then acknowledged the reality that there is no evidence of significant fraud.
For example, Georgia’s top election official, Brad Raffensperger, called Georgia’s election for Biden and reaffirmed that after two recounts and an audit. Raffensperger is a pro-life Republican who has never voted for a Democrat, and who twice voted for Trump. Nevertheless, he received death threats to himself and to his family and had to go into hiding for a week. The death threats kept coming even months after the election. Instead of supporting him, the Republican party of Georgia censured Raffensperger, and it looks like Republicans will not support him for reelection.
Another example is, Ed McBroom, a state senator for Michigan who headed an exhaustive 8-month investigation into the legitimacy of the Michigan election. McBroom, a fourth-generation farmer and a pro-life Republican who is music director of his church, reviewed claim after claim, found no evidence of fraud, and issued his report. Almost overnight, people who had known him for years, supported him, and believed him to be honest, ceased to trust him. McBroom also received a barrage of emails, texts, and phone calls insulting him and threatening him.
The above has also happened to many other Republican officials ranging from election operatives to governors who declared they did not find any significant fraud in the results of the election. It seems that the ancient bubble that protected people from outside influences has been busted forever. People now regularly anoint as trusted messengers individuals from outside their immediate communities whom they don’t know and have never met. And this happens to the detriment of the trust they would otherwise normally place in family, friends, acquaintances, or those whom they know for sure to share their beliefs and values. This power in the right hands can be used to do good, but in the wrong hands it can be used to isolate people from reality and manipulate them.
Such is the unsettling power of the trusted messenger.
Trust sign by Nick Youngson from Picserver.Org is used here with no modification under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.