One of the most influential medical studies I read about was performed in the 1950s, predating the internet and thereby making the actual paper all but impossible to find. It also predates a lot of ethical considerations that we now consider important, like not physically or mentally harming your subjects.
The study was at the advent of psychosocial research after World War II as we struggled with the way entire populations were able to be manipulated into either turning a blind eye or being complicit in atrocities against their neighbors. While this likely could not be repeated today, we would do well to learn from the results and at least take away something of value.
The goal was to evaluate how we form and internally rationalize our belief systems. While the results are almost shocking, if you apply them to the world around you, they become genuinely obvious. The researchers split subjects into groups with similar deep-seated political and religious beliefs. They then presented various forms of evidence, some of which supported these beliefs, some of which refuted the beliefs. What they found was this: when shown evidence that supported deep-seated personal beliefs, the evidence would strengthen that belief. (No surprises here). But, when shown evidence that refuted these beliefs, instead of questioning them, people grew stronger in their convictions to an even greater degree than that generated by the supporting evidence. The more logical and irrefutable the evidence, the greater the effect. In addition, the person or persons presenting that evidence was discredited, and subjects no longer trusted anything further from them, no matter what.
This is not an easy thing to consider through introspection, but if you think of things like extreme religions or even cults, you can easily see the effects. Once indoctrinated, it is extremely difficult to pull people out. “Normal” people on the outside can present clear and logical evidence that categorically denies the tenets of these groups, but instead of people waking up to the lies, all it does is strengthen their resolve and prove the ill intent of the misguided masses trying to tempt them from the true path.
One hypothesis is that this is an evolutionarily beneficial trait maintaining tribal relationships imperative for survival in early societies. The problem with all of this is the subject doesn’t see what’s happening. As we go through our own relatively mundane lives, we rationalize that this type of behavior only happens in extremes and doesn’t really apply to us.
But remember, most Germans were just regular people. Furthermore, it’s not as if we have changed in the few decades since, so we need to be cognizant of our own limitations lest we fall into the same bad habits.
During the leadup to the 2016 election, I looked around and felt like things were starting to come off the rails. I interpreted our most glaring problem to be our trust in leadership from a government that was clearly broken and getting worse. Even then I put a significant amount of blame on social media, a societal force that was new and clearly not created for the dissemination of important facts in a logical manner. Back then, both political parties also admonished these out-of-control platforms: they allowed outside forces to muddle with public opinion and election results as well as facilitating the propagation of damaging “disinformation” about a variety of topics.
In the years that have followed, the outcry from the government about the impact of social media has dwindled. Why? Is it because the mischief has been managed? Or is it because these unruly forces that previously disrupted the impact of political messaging have been wrangled up and can now be harnessed to advantage?
Impossible. Let’s be realistic: in this modern world where so much information is at our fingertips, it is simply impossible to manipulate people – intelligent, educated, ethical people – into doing something that might bring harm to their neighbor without them seeing through the ruse. Unlike the people of Germany in the 1930s, we can no longer be misled, and certainly not to that extent.
Because this is all a bit of a downer, let me change the subject. Instead of dwelling on things we might not be doing so well, let’s instead look at something we have done extraordinarily well that you likely don’t know about: the Mectizan Donation Program.
We are all aware that big industry is – like it or not – ultimately driven by profit. Nevertheless, many large companies have made massive strides in improving the lives of people all over the globe. Though I personally rank the air conditioner as the number one invention of all time, it’s fair to say that the industry of medicine has made life on earth a completely different ball of wax for all of us. The Mectizan Donation Program is one in which a life-saving medicine has been systematically produced and distributed to millions and millions of needy people all over the earth, free of charge:
“Most patients who would benefit from Mectizan live in developing nations. Recognizing that these patients would not be able to afford the drug at any price and no donors were willing to pay for it, CEO P. Roy Vagelos in 1987 announced the company’s commitment to donate ‘as much as needed, for as long as needed.’
In order to reach this goal, they recognized that many organizations with unique skills would need to work together as a team. To enable this collaboration, the company established the Mectizan Donation Program (MDP), a ground-breaking public-private partnership.
Today, the MDP program reaches more than 300 million people annually, with more than 4 billion treatments donated since it was established.”
This largely unheard story should be a model for all corporate leadership teams, as it clearly shows that benevolence does not have to jeopardize the ability to satisfy the seemingly insatiable needs of the stockholders.
What does this have to do with the original topic, you ask? Well, that depends on how you manage your own beliefs. As most of you have probably never heard of any of this, it is unlikely that you have any preestablished positions, and that leaves you open to rational discussion. If, on the other hand, you were already aware that Mectizan is widely known today by its generic name – ivermectin – you might be able to see the internal gears of cognitive dissonance begin to turn.
Across the globe, millions of people annually are alive because of the efforts of a corporate leader who over thirty years ago put in place an innovative program purely for benefit of humanity to distribute a medicine to fight debilitating and deadly disease. Today, the same company is arguing – loudly – that this same medicine is unsafe for humans, and we are all believing them. Across the globe, doctors – intelligent, educated, ethical people – are systematically withholding its use in the face of a pandemic citing safety and efficacy concerns. When shown overwhelming evidence of safety and additional evidence that it works – evidence that refutes their preformed internal beliefs – instead of questioning these beliefs, it strengthens their resolve and discredits the source of evidence.
The fundamental danger threatening our society is not being spread from person to person, it is the way in which we are connected and communicate. We are now living in a world where intelligent, educated, ethical people can be manipulated into believing things in the face of irrefutable evidence to the contrary, even when it facilitates suffering and death – and not of people in faraway lands where we can easily compartmentalize our anguish – this is the suffering and death of our neighbors. The people doing this are not bad people, but they believe these things so deeply that the doctrine is being mandated in a systemic fashion in which no discussion or dissent is allowed.
Again I ask, sound familiar?