Internet websites have provided me with a wealth of information concerning Richard Lechtenberg. Much of this information is wrong, which is useful for me in frustrating efforts to steal my identity. One site identified my mother as my wife. That struck me as truly mythical. I expected that site to list my middle name as Oedipus Rex. For those of you who have fallen behind on your Greek literature, Oedipus Rex was alleged to have killed his father, married his mother, and blinded himself.
That so egregious (another Greek term) an error could travel along the information highway is no longer surprising to anyone with access to the Internet. The irony is that the Internet developed out of a system designed to rapidly (and accurately) disseminate scientific information. Currently it serves to disseminate both information and disinformation. Discerning what is true and what is intentionally false has become impossible. That is no accident.
In the 1960s, John Kenneth Galbraith, an economist, made the absurd prediction that in the not very distant future the most valued and valuable commodity would not be coal or iron or oil or even precious metals but would be information. What he did not anticipate was that misinformation would be just as valuable as the truth if it was effectively disguised.
With more than 350,000 dead and millions sickened by Covid-19 in the U.S. alone, there is abundant evidence on the Internet that the lie that this pandemic is a hoax gets more traction than the truth. Political riots, like the one in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, are still populated by mask-less people packed so closely together that emergency room staff around the country must have chest pain watching these super-spreader events.
Of even more concern should be the misinformation about vaccination against Covid that is being distributed on numerous web sites. The easily and repeatedly debunked claims regarding election fraud helped foment the riot on Jan. 6. The event will almost certainly lead to copycat attacks on already targeted state capitols and politicians who do not support Trump. It is naïve to believe that the violence already spawned by this well-organized misinformation campaign will not affect the national response to the pandemic.
Facilities trying to distribute vaccinations are soft targets for those who have embraced the lie that there is no real medical emergency or crisis in America. Many of the legislators crammed into secure holding pens during the Jan. 6 riot refused to wear masks, even when security personnel offered them to the men and woman who had arrived for the congressional session without masks. These legislators obviously consider the pandemic a hoax. Perhaps they consider the Covid-related death of their colleague from Louisiana, Congressman-elect Luke Letlow, a hoax.
Of course, news that a vaccine has been developed that can stop this pandemic is much less interesting than the claim that the vaccine will alter the DNA of the person receiving it. One pharmacist recently bought into this fantasy and decided to protect the public from this evil vaccine by injecting them with inactive material. This was not a talk show host promoting a conspiracy theory: it was a trained pharmacist accepting a conspiracy theory. There would have been no consequence if he kept his misinformation to himself, but there is an innate human need to question a simple truth and spread a convoluted lie.
The Covid vaccine uses messenger RNA, an information conveying material that has been studied for decades, to elicit immunity to the virus. It was tested in tens of thousands of people to establish that it did not cause problems. The irony here is that for decades researchers have been trying to find ways to change human DNA to cure hereditary diseases and have failed. If the Covid vaccine could be manipulated to change human DNA and cure a hereditary disease, it would warrant a Nobel Prize. You need to look elsewhere to find the clever injection that will transform white supremacists into Antidefamation League members.
Unfortunately, lies are like cockroaches: they multiply quickly and are indestructible. Unlike cockroaches (which are disgusting but largely harmless), lies kill. As of Jan. 9, the riot in Washington, D.C., resulted in the deaths of five people. As the Covid-infected rioters return home, the deaths from the virus will add to the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s surges that have already pushed American hospitals past their breaking points.
Pro-Trump legislators, who curiously ran for cover when their like-minded supporters forced their way into the Capitol building, will oppose and hinder national and state responses to the pandemic, and we, the people of the United States of America, will die from heart attacks and strokes and motor vehicle attacks because hospitals are so overwhelmed by Covid cases that there is no room for all those other problems that were killing us before 2020.
And, yes, the riot was a product of carefully crafted misinformation that still defies extinction. I shall refrain from finger pointing because my political opinions are inconsequential, and I have only 10 fingers. The riot on Capitol Hill was envisioned, enabled and initiated by dozens of self-promoting, self-interested (white) men (and a few women). The political effects of their arrogance and avarice will hopefully be transient, but the public health consequences of their actions will be felt by all of us for months to come. The deaths occurring as a late consequence of this riot will be felt by many of us for years to come.
I believe most Americans want our families, friends, neighbors and visitors to live long and healthy lives. The Internet should assist in achieving that goal, but perhaps it is merely too soon and we are too naïve to expunge the destructive forces from this medium. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, coal fueled the engines of progress.
The pollution from burning coal produced an epidemic of rickets, a vitamin deficiency disease, because sunlight was blocked. Sunlight enables the skin to produce the vitamin D needed to avoid rickets. The development of massive sailing ships allowed for the expansion of commerce but introduced the world to scurvy, another vitamin-deficient disease resulting from inadequate vitamin C in the sailors’ diets. These same ships allowed for the spread of infections, including measles, syphilis and plague. Honest and clever people learned how to take advantage of innovations in the past and eliminate the toxic side effects of these innovations. Perhaps we shall find ways to identify the truth on the Internet and eliminate the lies.
Dr. Lechtenberg is an Easton resident who graduated from Tufts University and Tufts Medical School in Massachusetts and subsequently trained at The Mount Sinai Hospital and Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in Manhattan. He worked as a neurologist at several New York Hospitals, including Kings County and The Long Island College Hospital, while maintaining a private practice, teaching at SUNY Downstate Medical School, and publishing 15 books on a variety of medical topics. He worked in drug development in the USA, as well as in England, Germany, and France.