Pisani: Seeking truth among a sea of voices
I hesitate to say what I’m going to say because later I’m going to say, “DID I SAY THAT?”
But here goes. The coronavirus crisis has taught me one thing. Not that self-quarantine can be a painful experience. Not that our healthcare workers are among the most selfless in the world. And not that China can’t be trusted, because I already had that sneaky suspicion.
What it taught me, in the words of my father, is “You can’t always believe what you read.”
Throughout this crisis, I’ve often scratched my head in bewilderment and befuddlement and asked, “Can I really believe that?”
I read the FDA said there’s no evidence that groceries can transmit the virus, and then I read that gloves don’t help in the supermarket and that the New York Public Library may quarantine books so they don’t spread germs. (So groceries are OK, but books can kill?) I also read the virus is not transmitted through sex, and that it can live up to three days on metal and plastic but only 24 hours on cardboard.
I’ve seen interviews with more experts than at a National Institutes of Health happy hour, and I came away thinking, “That person doesn’t know what the #%*@#$ he’s talking about.” I’ve heard one expert say one thing and another expert say another.
It reminds me of a civil lawsuit, where one expert gets on the witness stand and you think, “Heck, she really knows what she’s talking about.” Then, another expert gets on the witness stand and says the exact opposite, and you ask yourself, “What is truth?” — to quote Pontius Pilate.
Experts have been disagreeing ever since they told us masks wouldn’t help and might harm us because special skills were required to put them on. If face masks don’t work, then why were members of the House of Representatives wearing the super deluxe models — not masks made in China — while they debated the relief package?
Gandhi put it best: “The expert knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.”
The same is true of politicians, but politicians do it for self-promotion and self-preservation. Experts do it because a reporter puts a microphone in front of them, and they feel compelled to say something, anything, to convince us they know what they’re talking about.
“Even when experts all agree, they may well all be mistaken,” said Bertrand Russell, himself a self-proclaimed expert on the existence of God.
So what should we believe? I put all the headlines and expert opinions together and came away scratching my head, wondering whether masks work or don’t work, whether I can catch the virus from touching my mail, whether it will be worse in the autumn, whether it began in a Chinese wet market, laboratory or fried pork dumpling.
Then, I turned to celebrities for guidance. Lady Gaga wants us to reach into our pockets and give our grocery money to the World Health Organization, while Chelsea Handler wants to lift our spirits by posting nude photos of herself in the bathtub.
George Burns said, “Too bad that all the people who know how to run the country are busy driving taxicabs and cutting hair.” He should have added, “and taking nude photos of themselves to put on the Internet.”
I’m also reluctant to believe what newspaper columnists say ... especially this one. Just because someone has a column doesn’t mean he knows what he’s talking about. Always remember that most columnists have no other claim to credibility than a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Which leads me to Edgar Allan Poe.
In one of Poe’s stories, the head of a mental institution tells his protégée: “You are young, my friend, but the time will arrive when you will learn to judge for yourself what is going on in the world, without trusting the gossip of others. Believe nothing you hear, and only half of what you see.”
So instead of this column, you should be reading Poe. Did I really say that?
Joe Pisani can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.