The fight against the new coronavirus is accompanied by several parallel fights, including the fight against fear, which can turn into panic—one of the most dangerous social phenomena.
Panicked people are capable of much harm, because reason no longer guides them, and trust in God or the state authorities seems to disappear.
Experts say that one of the sources of fear is uncertainty—a person’s attitude towards uncertainty, to be more precise. How can we prevent such developments? First, by understanding the mechanisms that cause fear to get out of control. Then, through the wise management of uncertainty. Finally, by entrusting our lives to God. Okay, but how?
The need for certainty
We humans need a lot of certainty: every day we make predictions and develop scenarios, not necessarily on a large, lifetime scale, but for all sorts of small things usually related to the daily routine. When you talk to your partner, your child, a friend or a colleague, you start from the assumption that they can understand the statements you make; when you enter a grocery store you expect to find the food you need on the shelves; when you take the key out of your pocket to unlock the door to your home, you expect that it will work. In short, almost everything you do has some basis in certainty.
This has become so natural to us that we barely notice it anymore. But, when our subconscious expectations are refuted, we feel that our world is faltering, that something is wrong. Imagine the frustration you would feel if others were to regularly misunderstand you and give you answers you are not expecting, or if the food you are used to buying is no longer in stores, or if one of your house keys can no longer open the door to your home. Your world would be shaken! Why do we dread so much having our hypotheses refuted and our expectations denied? It’s because we live, without even realising it, in a universe of certainties.
But is everything about certainties? Strictly speaking, no! In order to have a theoretical certainty, it must have a rational basis, to be based on an irrefutable argument—usually on a logical deduction, such as if…then: “If all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is mortal.” Do we have new theoretical certainties every time we make a choice or take action? Of course not. That’s why the signature question of a famous character of Romanian writer Marin Preda—”What do you rely on?”—always baffled those to whom it was addressed. Most of the time, we do not have an absolutely rational basis for our actions. Then why do we take them? Because we have practical certainties. But what is a practical certainty?
Most of the time we do not have all the information necessary to establish a rational foundation for our actions, neither the means to obtain them nor the internal resources (patience, exigency or responsibility to act rigorously, to name a few). Under these conditions, people resort to probability. Of course, it is not a question of calculating mathematically the probability that something will happen (that the child will understand us, the food will be available in stores or the key will fit). It is a subjective representation of the chances that something will happen in a certain way—which is why psychologists have called it a subjective probability: it is more likely that the plane I board will land safely than crash or that the train I want to get my ticket for will reach its destination than derail.
This is what philosophers have called practical certainty: the probability of the plane crashing or the train derailing is so small that it is negligible. These events are theoretically possible, but they are so unlikely in practice that we behave as if they were impossible: we travel by plane and train, we go to work every day, and we do not always expect the worst; if we did that, other people would consider us weird and we would not be able to live our lives anyway. We probably wouldn’t even get out of bed if we expected to have theoretical certainties every time. In fact, we all live in a universe of practical certainties. We leave the theoretical certainties to the philosophers, and the aviation and railway accidents happen only “in the movies” or “on TV”.
But when the unforeseen happens to us, “normality” is abolished, and the world goes off track. Unexpected events throw us out of the world of certainty into complete uncertainty—exactly what the human being cannot bear. For the mind of man rejects skepticism; the ordinary man cannot live according to the precept formulated by Socrates (469-399 BC): “I know that I know nothing, and I do not even know that!”
When the unforeseen happens to us, “normality” is abolished, and the world goes off track. Unexpected events throw us out of the world of certainty into complete uncertainty—exactly what the human being cannot bear.
Relativism and mental illness
The contemporary version of skepticism has been called relativism. Journalists have found a name for it that is more attractive and easier to understand for the general public: “post-truth.” Although it sounds interesting, “post-truth” is also a description of a crisis, a serious disease, generating many other diseases of our civilization and something which we will have to overcome.
Looking at the first wave of scepticism that ancient thought experienced, Romanian historian of philosophy P. P. Negulescu observed that scepticism is a state of crisis for the human mind; the mind cannot abide in this disease, which it eventually overcomes: “The innumerable thought systems that came one after the other during the history of philosophy are proof of the inherent need of the human mind to fight off scepticism, that is a constant threat.”
The contemporary version of scepticism has been called relativism. Journalists have found a name for it that is more attractive and easier to understand for the general public: “post-truth.” Although it sounds intriguing, “post-truth” is also a description of a crisis, a serious disease, generating many other diseases of our civilization and something which we will have to overcome.
That is why I believe that the pandemic triggered by the new coronavirus is more than a threat to our bodily health: it endangers our mental health. In The Psychology of Pandemics, published last year in Cambridge, psychologist Steven Taylor talks about our need for psychological training. He devotes an entire chapter to psychological reactions to pandemics and another one to the personality traits that make us emotionally vulnerable. Among these traits, intolerance of uncertainty is highly significant.
We would expect one of the recommendations to be to educate resistance to uncertainty, but Taylor does not say that, for the simple reason that attitude towards uncertainty is a personality trait and is therefore ineducable. Consequently, our main concern must be to reduce uncertainty—in other words, to block its sources and unblock the sources of certainty. When we talk about sources of certainty, we must first think about information: its quantity, its structure and nature, its sources and the channels through which it reaches us.
Two sources of uncertainty: fake news and distrust of institutions
While we fight the war against the new coronavirus, other wars are simultaneously being waged: against fake news, against panic, against a lack of responsibility (irresponsible people become the ‘enemies’ of responsible people, whose health and even lives become endangered).
So-called “fake news” resembles the new coronavirus—it spreads extremely fast, faster than most bad news. During the US presidential campaign in 2016, the first 20 fake news items surpassed the first 20 real news items in terms of size of audience. Interestingly, the fake news came from obscure sites, and the correct ones, from well-known media outlets.
As we can see, in the “post-truth era”, appealing to authority no longer works, not even in terms of the source of the information. The social background on which such diversions from logical thinking and traditional common sense take place is the generalised crisis of confidence. People simply no longer trust institutions, be that public authorities or media institutions.
Research in the field of information warfare highlights the crucial role the credibility of institutions plays in the misinformation-manipulation equation: “What we need…instead of a simplistic and uneducated sociological causality, is two-step thinking. The first level is to research the degree to which people trust state institutions or macro-institutions (EU, NATO, etc.). When this trust is solid, the chances of successful destabilisation actions by an external enemy through a media attack are reduced. When a society is already in a crisis, when the wounds are open, when the level of trust in the institutions (in the “System”) is collapsing, then external intervention has indisputable chances to change the profile of this society.”
How do we defend ourselves against fake news?
But how can we reduce our uncertainty? The worst way is to accept fake news, at the cost of reliable information, just for the sake of certainty.
The main reason people embrace conspiracy theories is because these theories meet their need for certainty: they confirm certain suspicions, certain vague hypotheses or just certain clichés of thought. At this point, the need for certainty is intertwined with the need for self-validation, and the end-product is very harmful: a misinformed person claiming to be informed. That is exactly the double error that Descartes spoke of: “the error believed to be truth.”
But how can we reduce our uncertainty? The worst way is to accept fake news, at the cost of reliable information, just for the sake of certainty.
Self-deception grows until it shatters under its own weight, just like a snowball rolling down a hill. At some point, the sheer volume of fake-news ends up contradicting itself, and the picture we have built cracks, just like a mismatched wallpaper on a damp wall. At this point, uncertainty becomes all-consuming, fears of all kinds are activated, and panic, the final product of this process, paralyses us.
Therefore, conscious steps must be directed towards the wise management of the intermediate stages, prior to reaching panic: mastering the ability to gather correct information and learning to manage the fear of the unknown.
Here are just a few tips from communication psychologists:
With regard to online messages (circulating on social networks, through various chat applications or via SMS) we should remove from the scope of “possible information” all messages with manipulative intentions: 1) those that do not indicate one or more reliable sources; 2) those that end with an imperative exhortation such as “Pass it on!”; 3) those with titles that sound alarmist, unbelievable or conspiratorial, containing superlatives or words that refer to conspiracy and secrecy (“The Truth Behind…”; “The Hidden Face of…”; “The Invisible Hand of…”); and 4) those with titles that announce content that is probably exaggerated, misinterpreted, or downright false: extreme emotional states (“terrifying”; “heart-breaking”; “dramatic”) or exaggerations and the extraordinary (“fabulous”; “colossal”; “catastrophic “; “hot”).
When it comes to news sites, we should not credit those who: 1) do not introduce their editorial team through a public description or do not have a responsible signatory (an author, writer, editor-in-chief, etc.) of the submitted articles; 2) do not announce a transparent contact address and a contact person, which would be useful and even necessary for a possible comment/correction; 3) do not publish details regarding the sources of the articles; 4) do not credit the sources of the photos it uses (usually, news photographs come from either a photojournalist or a photo agency, and their origin must be specified); 5) do not mention an editorial headquarters, so do not provide any details about the natural or legal persons behind the press outlet.
The same specialists tell us what the characteristics of a trustworthy public speaker are: 1) they are qualified to give informed opinions on the subject under discussion—either by being endorsed by a socially recognised professional authority or through the discursive behaviour they have consistently shown over a significant period of time; 2) they transparently present the source of the information transmitted and the evidence and reasoning on which their statements are based; they are open to dialogue, do not resort to misinterpretation or intimidation and do not display a mysterious secrecy—thus showing that they are honestly preoccupied with finding a solution or in approaching the truth; and 3) they respect the principles and ethical rules of public discourse by showing caution in how they express themselves: they avoid being categorical and avoid absolute conclusions—which shows that they are more concerned with communicating information, ideas, values or feelings about a reality rather than with convincing us of their own reputation as an informed, competent, responsible and well-intended person.
Regarding press articles or statements, Seramis Sas advises us to avoid those that: 1) do not refer to the original sources and/or that do not quote in quotation marks (they are dubious and, very likely, false); 2) do not contain precise references to a certain verifiable source of information (even a web page); and 3) do not contain references to evidence and data used.
In the case of any such message, we are advised that, before forming an opinion and especially before validating the message by passing it on, we should ask ourselves the following questions: 1) Where did we get the news from? (The credibility of the source is worth investigating even when the news comes from a friend or person in authority); 2) What do I know about the site that published it? (We can search in sections such as “about”, “mission”, “team” or “contact”); 3) Who owns this? Who finances the press project? (Partisanship becomes bad when it circulates misleading news, based on the misinterpretation of evidence and facts that support a certain position); and 4) Is the news confirmed by at least two sources that are independent from each other? (If the information does not appear in at least two or even three other places, then it is either too new and, implicitly, still debatable, or it is a lie).
If we do not make an effort to cultivate critical thinking and reduce the sources of misinformation and uncertainty, we will reach a stage where our instinctual fear of the unknown will get out of hand and turn into panic.
How do we control our fear of the unknown?
Certainly, cultivating critical thinking and an informed selection of information is not our only chance. Fortunately, we Christians have a God of whom the apostle Paul said, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7).
Therefore, critical thinking is not enough to orient us in the informational quagmire, to choose the wheat from the weed, to control the fears that test our soul. What we need is spiritual thinking, the help that comes from Above: “But God has revealed them to us through His Spirit. For the Spirit searches all things, yes, the deep things of God” (1 Corinthians 2:10).
We can always call on our God, who is both eternal and unchanging. Being eternal, we have the chance to overcome temporal troubles and fears, in the name of eternal values. As the Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviov said, “The interests of the civilization of our age are some that did not exist yesterday and will not exist tomorrow. It is good to prefer what is valid forever.”
“For I am the Lord, I do not change; Therefore you are not consumed, O sons of Jacob” (Malachi 3:6). Here, God is addressing sinners who had strayed from His commandments but He was waiting for them to repent: “From the days of your fathers you have departed from My commandments and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to You” (Malachi 3:7). Therefore, finding a safe haven presupposes an authentic change, a metanoia.
Fortunately, in times of confusion and uncertainty, fear and panic—in these times of pandemic—we Christians have a place to return to where we can find peace, certainty and meaning for our lives. Fortunately, we have Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who “overcame the world.” He is more than that: he is the Rock on which we lean, and which provides us with stability, trust and hope. By sharing these gifts from God with our fellow man, we can become to them a pillar of stability, trust, and hope.
Dumitru Borţun, PhD, is a professor at the Faculty of Communication and Public Relations of the National University of Political and Administrative Studies (Romania).