The Kansas City Chiefs beat the Green Bay Packers last Sunday. The opportunity opened up when the Packers’ star quarterback Aaron Rodgers could not play after testing positive for COVID-19. Previously, Rodgers had said he was “immunized,” but under scrutiny he admitted he had used homeopathic treatments and drugs not approved for COVID, including one used to treat people and animals for parasites. Ivermectin is neither approved nor effective as a COVID vaccination, and its misuse can lead to hospitalization and even death. Rodgers claims to be allergic to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines but will not say why. Even if true, he is still eligible for the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which he has not received.
Social media lit up with jokesters having a ball at Rodgers’ expense. One New Jersey mom volunteered to play quarterback in Rodgers’ place. She acknowledged that she has never played and knows little about football, but “I did my own research, so I’ll be fine,” she wrote.
At least she was kidding. Most people who use that phrase are deadly serious —and dead wrong.
Looking up un- or improperly fact-checked nonsense on the Internet and taking it for truth, all under the auspices of “doing my own research,” has become the bane of teachers, healthcare workers, researchers and government officials alike. It disrupts classrooms and town hall meetings and makes effective policy making nearly impossible. It even leads to the occasional death threat.
It is just as bad in the political arena. Politicians who should know better continue to spread conspiracy theories about the 2020 elections, certified by Trump appointee Christopher Krebs as the most secure in U.S. history. Many of these politicos know they are lying, but they must placate their party’s base. Meanwhile, people die needlessly because of anti-vaxxer nonsense, and the deranged QAnon conspiracy theory refuses to go away.
Conspiracy theorists justify all this by claiming that traditional news media reporters and editors show bias. Sometimes, this is true. However, reporters also rigorously check their stories using reliable sources and professional journalism training. This is the difference between information and disinformation. Information is not perfect, but it is credible. Disinformation is neither.
We all want to be experts on things about which we know very little. Many of us would probably like to play quarterback for the Packers, too, but we are not qualified. It takes talent, luck, discipline and practice to become a football player, and years of schooling and practice to be a good epidemiologist, doctor or nurse. When it comes to election analysis, we read countless books, articles, depositions and reports, serve as expert witnesses, and spend months deep-diving into elections data using advanced statistical programs and methods training. Some findings surprise me, for example when I discovered that photo ID laws do not suppress Democratic votes as is widely believed. Sometimes, we have to admit that our hypotheses are not confirmed by the data. It takes a long career of education, successes and even a few failures to get here.
None of this can be summed up in a TikTok video or viral Facebook post.
Aaron Rodgers did not do his own research. He fell for ridiculous conspiracy theories that put himself, his family, his team and the opposing teams at risk. He also handed a badly-needed win to the Chiefs, who have one of the highest vaccination rates in the NFL.
Thanks, Aaron. Now get off social media and go get vaccinated. Go Chiefs!
Michael Smith teaches political science at Emporia State.