Checking Our Sources, Knowing Our Contexts —by Jinny Batterson
As the pandemic caused by the corona virus drags on, amid increasing conjectures about how to respond, increasing finger pointing about whose “fault” it might be, I can feel emotionally overloaded. So far, no one close to me has died of the infection, though several friends and relatives have had cases of varying degrees of severity. The small enclave where I live stays mainly quiet, those of us retired or furloughed staying pretty close to home, those still in the paid workforce adjusting work routines to stay as safe as practical.
More of us live more of our lives in virtual spaces—emails, virtual meetings, social media posts. It can be tempting to get all of our input filtered through some electronic medium or other. My biological and intentional families are politically diverse. In these fraught times, we sometimes avoid discussing politics, but it can be nearly impossible not to be influenced by what we see, hear, and read. When discussions get especially heated, I try to remember some of my history teachers, including my part-time historian mother.
“Check your sources,” they would repeatedly caution. “Everyone has an angle. Why did this particular source frame this particular event in this way? What advantage did they gain from telling their story from this viewpoint?”
It’s disturbing to me that a fair amount of “information” these days is murkily sourced, if sourced at all. Lots of groups with high-sounding names have turned out to be unreliable at best, malicious at worst. Conspiracy theories abound.
It’s unclear where the virus causing covid-19 originated. It’s unclear exactly when it first spread among humans. It’s unclear all the ways the virus may be transmitted. It’s unclear why some people have few or mild symptoms, while others with similar backgrounds can be severely affected. Given these uncertainties, it’s natural for us to form theories about what’s happening. What’s not natural is for so many of us to be so adamantly certain of “answers.”
I try to vary the sources of information I review, to filter out the obviously bogus. I know, too, that I respond to content in part from the contexts in which my life has unfolded so far. During my childhood, polio was a crippling pandemic that tended to reappear each summer, impacting both children and adults in seemingly random fashion. In some years in the early 20th century, as many as 6,000 Americans had died. Most Americans knew that president Franklin Roosevelt had contracted polio as an adult during the 1920’s and never fully regained the use of his legs. At its maximum in the U.S., in the early 1950’s, there were nearly 58,000 U.S. cases annually, with nearly 3,000 deaths. Swimming pools closed. Parents restricted their children’s friendships.
Eventually, medical researchers tracked down the source of the illness and developed successive vaccines. I remember when I was in elementary school being part of a large-scale medical trial in which many of us got doses of an oral vaccine. In 2020, polio infections exist in just three countries globally, with fewer than 200 annual cases. Global health workers do their best to detect and isolate pockets of infection, often in war-torn areas, and to make sure at-risk children get vaccinated against the disease.
At some future point, this novel corona virus that is spreading illness and death will yield to research and to more effective responses. Until that happens, it behooves us humans, whatever our political leanings or backgrounds, to check our sources and to be as aware as we can of our contexts.