Way back in March of 2020 I was, like many of you, sorting through a load of new information about a very scary, quickly escalating virus. I distinctly remember conversations with family members who were either flipping their shit or repeating the “it’s no worse than the flu” line (which, I must take pains to point out, was the worst when said by people who didn’t think the flu was a big deal. It was and it is and if COVID-19 had been no worse than the flu then it still would have been a big fucking deal that we needed to address. But I digress).
I recall in those early days that one of my family members had read somewhere that COVID-19 was airborne. I pointed out that according to experts it was not airborne, that it was primarily spread via surfaces, which is why it was so important to wash your hands and stop touching your face.
Well, that turned out to be wrong. First came the healthy debate over what scientists and the general public both mean when they say “airborne”: the difference between airborne and not airborne isn’t a clear solid line, but a spectrum. With many viruses, they cling to droplets that you expel from your nose and mouth. Some viruses can cling to and continue to be infectious on much smaller droplets than others, like measles. Smaller droplets stay aloft in the air for longer periods of time, meaning that if someone with measles sneezes in a room and then leaves it, and you enter it TWO HOURS later, those droplets may still be floating around and can infect you.
COVID-19 is not that infectious, luckily, but over the first few weeks after the pandemic fully bloomed in the United States, researchers came to realize that it was more airborne than they originally estimated. Technically, organizations like the CDC still say that COVID-19 isn’t “airborne” in the proper scientific sense, since droplets don’t hang around for hours with the ability to infect. You need “close contact” to contract it, meaning you need to be near a person who is positive in order for the virus to jump over to you. But still, the experts were wrong when they first stated that transmission was primarily via surfaces, and therefore I was wrong to repeat that.
And yet! While I regret not being clearer with my family about the scientific definition of “airborne,” I do not regret being wrong because I trusted the experts. Sometimes the experts are wrong, but I guarantee it’s rarer than a random comment on Facebook.
My friend Katie Mack, an amazing astrophysicist, put it nicely when she Tweeted, “There’s a disconnect around the concept of “consensus” in science. People say: science would never advance if we trusted consensus. The point is: consensus is the best info experts have. If you’re outside the field, take it. Because WITHIN the field, we challenge it constantly.”
I touched on this in a video last year where I deconstructed a very bad viral Medium post by a marketer named Aaron Ginn who spread some seriously bad science: “Tip 1: know your source! In this case the author is Aaron Ginn, who is a silicon valley marketing guy. Does that mean he’s wrong? No! But you need to ask yourself: what does the scientific consensus have to say about this issue, and what is the author arguing? In this case, the consensus of epidemiologists are telling us that COVID-19 is an emergency pandemic that needs to be mitigated with extreme measure to prevent significant loss of life. The author is arguing that it’s not that big of a deal and we shouldn’t bother sheltering in place. If the author was an epidemiologist, you’d want to read his dissenting opinion carefully. If the author is formerly a writer for Breitbart with no previous expertise in science, you’d want to read it with extreme skepticism.
Think of it this way — most physicists think that dark matter exists. If a respected physicist writes a paper about an alternative hypothesis that involves modifying general relativity, it may be worth your time to read it. But if your accountant writes a paper on the same subject, you’d be forgiven for finding better things to do with your time because it’s probably going to take a theoretical physicist to point out all the things that are wrong with it.”
And on this topic, I want to give a shoutout to a Republican politician. I know, it’s been so long! Former Governor of California Arnold Schwartzenegger, who honestly I think I prefer to the current Demoratic governor Gavin Newsome, who is some kind of wealthy robot man, just posted a video on his Facebook page showing him and his family getting vaccinated against COVID-19. A lot of people have been angry about politicians getting vaccinated early on in this process (especially those politicians who spent the past year telling people COVID isn’t a big deal) but I’m not one of those people. Not only do I think every new vaccination is a good vaccination because that’s one less disease vector, but also famous people getting vaccinated leads to a larger uptake in vaccinations in the general public, like when Elvis was vaccinated for polio in front of a large media presence.
Anway, Schwartzenegger is 73 and therefore in the high risk category that is currently eligible for vaccines, and it appears that he waited in line for it with everyone else, which is cool as shit. I say all this just to head off the whining. Yes, I know he’s rich and famous. He still deserves to get vaccinated. Anyway.
Because it’s Facebook, the replies to this video included some very upset vaccine denialists, like “I hope nothing bad will happen to you… ??? I will not take the vaccine. I love you Arnold, as a hero” and “Wow the actual terminator is scared of a cold?!?! Good try Arnold we know you were put up to this to make the sheep think it’s cool to be vaccinated” and “As a life long fan I am devastated that you are supporting this rushed vaccine for a common flu virus. I’m finished.”
Most celebrities would never bother to read replies to them on Facebook. Schwartzenegger not only reads them, but he replies. And he had a very, very good reply that I will read to you now. As a favor to you, I will not do it in my pitch perfect Arnold voice.
“I always say you should know your strengths and listen to the experts. If you want to learn about building biceps, listen to me, because I’ve spent my life studying how to get the perfect peak and I have been called the greatest bodybuilder of all time. We all have different specialties.
“Dr. Fauci and all of the virologists and epidemiologists and doctors have studied diseases and vaccines for their entire lives, so I listen to them and I urge you to do the same. None of us are going to learn more than them by watching a few hours of videos. It’s simple: if your house in on fire, you don’t go on YouTube, you call the damn fire department. If you have a heart attack, you don’t check your Facebook group, you call an ambulance. If 9 doctors tell you you have cancer and need to treat it or you will die, and 1 doctor says the cancer will disappear, you should always side with the 9. In this case, virtually all of the real experts around the world are telling us the vaccine is safe and some people on Facebook are saying it isn’t.
“In general, I think if the circle of people you trust gets smaller and smaller and you find yourself more and more isolated, it should be a warning sign that you’re going down a rabbit hole of misinformation. Some people say it is weak to listen to experts. That’s bogus. It takes strength to admit you don’t know everything. Weakness is thinking you don’t need expert advice and only listening to sources that confirm what you want to believe.”
Like, holy shit. Did Arnold Schwartzenegger miss his calling as a science communicator? Because that reply is amazing. He explained scientific consensus, why you should trust the experts, and he even finished by encouraging people to leave their echo chambers. And he did it all while referencing the very reason why many of these people listen to him: his physical strength. That is just masterful polemics. Arnold knows (and points out in this very reply) that building big muscles doesn’t make him more qualified to speak on this issue than anyone else, but he still manages to reference it because so many of these science denialists reject masks, vaccines, and social distancing as a weakness. It’s not, and while they won’t listen to puny weaklings like Dr. Fauci, they might listen to a big strong man who has never been accused of weakness.
Remember a few weeks ago when I talked about how political polarization isn’t always a bad thing and sometimes your political opponents really are ignorant and immoral? Well, please note for the record that I would vote for Republican Arnold Schwartzenegger for whatever office he wants to run for (though he’s sadly ineligible for president due to being born abroad), and those researchers wouldn’t even have to pay me to do it.