An osteopath named Sherri Tenpenny was invited by Republican legislators in Ohio to testify in support of a bill to prevent businesses and government agencies from requiring proof of COVID vaccinations. Dr. Tenpenny, a long-standing anti-vaxxer, told state lawmakers that COVID vaccines "magnetize" those who are immunized. "I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures all over the internet of people who’ve had these shots, and now they’re magnetized," Dr. Tenpenny said during the hearing. "They can put a key on their forehead, it sticks. They can put spoons and forks all over them, and they can stick."
Although Dr. Tenpenny’s title was apparently meant to lend weight to her testimony, she had absolutely no credentials as an epidemiologist. The fact that she would cite the internet in support of her claims told you all you needed to know about her bona fides. From a scientific standpoint, Dr. Tenpenny’s testimony wasn't worth two cents. The fact that GOP lawmakers would invite an obvious quack to testify told you all you need to know about their legislative bona fides. The whole thing would be laughable if it weren't so dangerous. People were still dying from COVID, which had already claimed nearly 600,000 lives when the hearing took place.
Real epidemiologists and public health officials struggling to contain the pandemic found themselves contending with an unprecedented volume of misinformation about the virus and measures to combat it. There was, to begin with, the spectacle of a sitting American president advising people to take bleach as an antidote to the disease. Quite apart from the video clips of the vaccine’s purported magnetic properties, the internet was awash in claims that the vaccines cause COVID or infertility; changes one’s DNA; and contains nanobots, microchips or tracking devices.
“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams once mused. But facts hardly matter if people refuse to engage with them or put forward “alternative” facts that have no bearing on reality. We appear to be well past the point when Daniel Patrick Moynihan could say people are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. Facts? We don’t need no stinkin’ facts!
I remember a cop show on TV when I was a kid called Dragnet, featuring a no-nonsense detective named Sgt. Joe Friday, played by the imperturbable Jack Webb. When questioning a witness to a crime, Friday would rein in flights of fancy by saying, “Just the facts, ma’m.” Likewise, witnesses in a court case are made to swear to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” This means they must stick to the facts, avoiding hearsay, speculation or anything they had not witnessed themselves.
Lawyers for both sides know that while it always helps to have the facts on your side, facts alone do not win court cases. This was something the prosecution learned the hard way during O.J. Simpson’s 1995 murder trial for the stabbing death of his ex-wife and her companion. Tests of Simpson’s DNA found at the crime scene had a probability of error of 1 in 9.7 billion. Yet the defense team suggested that the DNA evidence might be contaminated and compromised and perhaps planted by a racist Los Angeles police department. A mostly African-American jury, well acquainted with the LAPD’s reputation for racism, gave Simpson the benefit of a reasonable doubt and acquitted him on both murder counts.
Science, no less than criminal justice, places great store in the facts. Scientists are forever expressing bewilderment that people still cling to superstition and conspiracy theories rather than hard evidence. The problem, of course, is that science has only facts to offer, whereas most people crave meaning — meaning and certainty. Scientific truths are, by design, always provisional — true only until proven false or superseded by a new set of facts. According to Karl Popper, philosopher of science, a proposition can’t even be considered scientific unless it is at last theoretically falsifiable.
Religions traffic in absolutes, and their truths are imparted by revelation rather than by experimentation or empirical observation. But if it is certainty we seek, we may find it in religious dogmas but not in revelation itself. As St. Paul expressed it, “…we see through a glass, darkly.” Introduced in the Acts of the Apostles as Saul of Tarsus, a hard-nosed dogmatist, Paul was a notorious persecutor of Christians who was present when St. Stephen was stoned to death — until his blinding encounter with the Risen Christ on he road to Damascus. Then all his deepest certainties about life were suddenly obliterated. The issue wasn’t really the facts of the matter. He could have testified to the facts in a court of law. But now he also knew the truth.
I Corinthians 13:12