Updated: Oct 15, 2021
BY TODD SCHOLL We are right in the middle of hurricane season. Thankfully, we have not had any major threats along our South Carolina coast this season. I know. I need to go knock on some wood. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) plays a critical role in preparing the public for hurricane season. These experts observe, monitor, and collect objective data to provide reliable information about tropical systems, and we are all safer thanks to their work. In May 2021, NOAA predicted we would have 13-20 named storms this season. They recently updated that to 15-21. These are not numbers they pull out of a hat. They are based upon detailed analysis of atmospheric conditions and global weather patterns by meteorologists who dedicate their lives to collecting and interpreting data to make the most accurate forecasts possible. Imagine, for a moment, that NOAA warns us of a major hurricane heading towards our shores this week. They release a forecast track that shows catastrophic impacts to our coastal communities. Now imagine a campaign on social media that began sowing seeds of doubt about that. Thousands of South Carolinians begin accepting this disinformation and fail to take the precautions necessary to safeguard their homes and lives. The storm comes and ravages the coast. Thousands die, needlessly, because they believe the research they did on YouTube was more reliable than the research done by the experts at NOAA.
SAMPLE OF NOAA FORECAST TRACK FROM 2019
Twenty years ago, this hypothetical scenario would seem preposterous. Today, we see that the glut of disinformation proliferated on social networks and countless websites, combined with a lack of critical reasoning, has produced the perfect storm of ignorance and arrogance. This perfect storm has rolled in during a global pandemic. It has cost thousands of lives and threatens to continue doing ongoing and unnecessary damage to our state. Like NOAA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is an agency designed to help protect the public. Their experts have studied COVID-19 and make recommendations based upon their research. Similar to the constantly updated track and intensity of a hurricane, the recommendations on how to best safeguard ourselves during a global pandemic are subject to change as new data is collected and analyzed. These changes to forecast models or CDC guidance don’t imply incompetency. They imply a capacity for experts to modify their understanding based upon that new data. It’s called science, and it’s awesome.
The CDC is, as of today, advising all people, regardless of vaccination status, to mask up in indoor public spaces if they are in areas reporting “substantial” or “high” transmission of the virus. The CDC stated that this will “maximize protection from the Delta variant and prevent possibly spreading it to others.” They have also advised universal indoor mask-wearing in K-12 schools for everyone over the age of 2. This includes teachers, other staff members, students and visitors, even if they are fully vaccinated.
In South Carolina, however, some state leaders believe that they know better. These lawmakers have decided that their beliefs about the pandemic, grounded in a surface level understanding of epidemiology (at best), are more valuable than guidance coming from experts who have dedicated their lives to studying diseases. (Educators are all too familiar with this arrogance as their expertise is too often ignored by lawmakers who force ill-advised policies upon them and their students.) This hubristic mindset is killing people. Many South Carolinians are dying because our elected officials believe that their thirty minutes of internet research is more valuable and trustworthy than the exhaustive work conducted by the CDC. The cynic in me believes many of these leaders know better, but have calculated that telling the truth to the public would result in too much damage to their political careers. Their desire to be reelected means more to them than protecting human lives. I don’t enjoy wearing a mask, but if the folks at the CDC are now making new recommendations, who am I to object? If experts have determined that wearing a mask, in certain environments, can help reduce the spread of a deadly virus, why would I choose my own selfish preferences over the health and survival of others? It does not take a Herculean effort to wear a mask until we can safely stop doing so, especially when such a small gesture could save someone else’s life.
The internet has been a wonderful tool and democratized access to knowledge, but it has also opened a Pandora’s Box of nonsense. It has provided a megaphone to anyone who wants to spread deception and ignorance. Without safeguards, too many of our fellow citizens who lack critical reasoning skills will fall further into the rabbit holes of conspiracy theories and disinformation. Rather than acknowledging the limits of their expertise, folks now believe that watching a handful of YouTube videos on a subject makes them MORE knowledgeable than the experts at the CDC. I don’t know how we stop the momentum of this, but it is incumbent upon educators to take a stand. While we should always be critical of official sources and question authority, we should not assume that our own understanding of any subject supersedes that of the experts. If we continue to travel down this road to insanity, it is only a matter of time before we begin doubting all authority. Those category five storms will come. NOAA will warn us. And many of us will be blown away. Join the movement for the schools that South Carolina students deserve!