We All Have a Piece of the Elephant
Sensemaking in the Age of Social Media Algorithms
“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” –Werner Heisenberg
The parable of the blind men and the elephant is popular in many cultural traditions and is probably familiar to you, but just in case you’ve forgotten, here is one of the earliest versions:
“A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch…." So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. The first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said, ‘This being is like a thick snake.’ For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said the elephant, ‘is a wall.’ Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.’ ”
As our friends at Wikipedia go on to describe it:
“In some versions, the blind men then discover their disagreements, suspect the others to be not telling the truth and come to blows. The stories also differ primarily in how the elephant's body parts are described, how violent the conflict becomes and how (or if) the conflict among the men and their perspectives is resolved. In some versions, they stop talking, start listening and collaborate to "see" the full elephant. … [The] blind men then learn that they were all partially correct and partially wrong. While one's subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of truth.”
One of my favorite sayings is, “We all have a piece of the elephant.”
Pieces of the Elephant: COVID-19 Information
Keeping up with accurate COVID-19 information and guidance is tricky. In the US, a leadership vacuum has led to unbelievably poor messaging. Think about it: After Pearl Harbor, after 9/11, we all pulled together, but when faced with the challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic, we didn’t.
Although armchair quarterbacking is easy, I’ll say this: From the start, someone should have been appointed at the federal level to explain to the public, at least weekly, all changes in the current situation, the changes in official guidance, and why the guidance was the guidance (including why changes were being made). All of this should have been up for discussion. Addressing public concerns and answering the public’s questions should have been part of the goal.
Instead of getting one evolving set of facts with clear explanations, and instead of inviting public discussion and debate, there have been, broadly speaking, several different versions of “the facts” going around, each representing a piece of the COVID-19 elephant. Depending on which social media echo chambers each of us are rattling around in (and most of us are on social media and thus subject to its algorithms, myself included), we tend to prefer one version of reality over another, regardless of whether we’ve got a tusk or a leg in our grasp.
Add to that, depending on what our social or professional roles are (in health care, education, customer service, etc.; as a business owner, parent, caregiver, etc.) we all have very different personal perspectives on which aspects of the pandemic are more important to us than others: Which things are problems and which aren’t? Is the pandemic more of a health issue, or an economic issue, or a crisis affecting children’s emotional and social development? It depends on which piece of the elephant you’re grabbing.
Instead of Team Human, all of us united against the virus, we’ve got at least four teams in the United States, each with their own versions of the truth. These are not rigid, all-encompassing, or completely non-overlapping categories, but any American surely recognizes these four teams generally:
This team viewed Trump as an outsider to the mainstream social order and was skeptical of the vaccine when Trump was in charge. Now that Biden’s in charge, all concerns have been forgotten. This team believes the vaccines are a good thing. They generally believe it takes a large-scale, population-level, cooperative effort to defeat a pandemic, and these folks are distressed not to see other teams playing along nicely.
Unfortunately, this team, like any team that is currently dominant or “winning,” can sometimes fail to acknowledge others’ valid concerns. Team members generally say “trust the science” as portrayed in the mainstream media, even when the science is not completely settled or is portrayed in a one-sided way.
Sometimes Team Mainstream forgets: While it’s true that non-experts must eventually decide which experts they trust, the point of science is to continue to ask questions and test hypotheses, not simply unquestioningly “trust.”
This team sees the pandemic as having created big problems with restrictions on freedom, and those concerns are foremost in their mind. These folks tend not to like anything about Biden, the vaccine, masking, Fauci, the CDC, the guidance, etc. Some of the older members of Team Freedom might accept the vaccines, but a lot do not, and they really don’t like those annoying, controlling people from Team Mainstream telling them what to do! They can perceive Team Mainstream as arrogant, out-of-touch, or authoritarian.
Team Freedom had a lot of concerns about freedoms being restricted when people were asked to stay at home and many things were shut down, including churches, schools, and small businesses. They raised some valid concerns, such as “Why are beaches closed but large outdoor protests allowed?” or they questioned the speed with which the vaccines were approved, or the length of time kids were kept out of schools, or what was happening with the economy.
Instead of those concerns being taken seriously and engaged with, Team Freedom members were instead often dismissed — even called ugly names — by those in power. This tends to put a damper on good-faith discussion.
This team is composed of people—some of whom would normally play for Team Mainstream or Team Freedom in other contexts—who just don’t trust what’s going on, and they have a point. They pride themselves on being independent thinkers, and whether they had beef with Trump, Biden, or both, they perceive, correctly, that our leaders have often not been competent, honest, or transparent.
They believe, based on past behavior, that the mainstream in general and Big Pharma in particular are corrupt. The leaders, the CDC, the WHO, Pharma—none of them have shown themselves consistently worthy of anyone’s trust. Team Contrarian, like the two teams above, has some valid concerns that other teams aren’t necessarily listening to. If you can’t trust what you’re hearing, what do you do?
The challenge this team faces is that some—not all, but some—are easily drawn to people on the basis of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” (“You’re angry at Fauci too? Tell me more!”) People like Bret Weinstein or Robert Malone often portray themselves as knowing what they’re talking about, but they don’t always have the evidence to back it up.
It’s complicated because Weinstein and Malone are both smart guys who are right about some things, and like Team Contrarian, they like to think for themselves, so it’s a natural fit—but since those guys’ fatal flaw is “not knowing what they don’t know,” they are not always right, so members of Team Contrarian are sometimes too quick to trust, and they jump to the wrong conclusions.
Team Contrarian has seen how badly the “powers that be” have handled things, but sometimes they can outsource their sensemaking to people who don’t make sense, and they trust their own intelligence so much that they might fail to consider that other teams have a piece of the elephant, too.
These folks believe some extreme ideas, such as the idea that this was a Plandemic, that Bill Gates was involved, that there are magnets or chips in the vaccine, that the pandemic was a way to test a dangerous vaccine on the masses, that omicron is a white-hat effort to release a virus to end the pandemic, etc.
Even if their beliefs seem extreme, Team Conspiracy has valid concerns in the sense that they recognize, correctly, that our leaders have let us down and have not been trustworthy or transparent. That’s true. But unfortunately, they believe the worst, and it’s likely that their beliefs can in some cases lead to harm. Of all the teams, Team Conspiracy might be the most resistant to engaging with the others.
What to Do with Our Pieces of the Elephant?
How is our “parable of the blind men and the elephant” going to end when it comes to COVID-19 information? Will it end in violence and suspicion? Will it end in a more comprehensive effort to see the elephant clearly? Right now we’re at the point of “suspecting the others to be not telling the truth and coming to blows.”
I have a notion that we can crowdsource some of these controversies and involve anyone, from any Team, who wants to share information, so that collectively we can vet it, make sense of it, and come to a more nuanced understanding of the elephant, where we all (more or less) agree what’s real. In fact, that bigger goal of collective sensemaking, inviting a broad range of people and perspectives, was one of my main goals in starting this substack. You are welcome to participate. You are included. I want to hear what you think.
Here’s one example of what I’m talking about, from last night. Everyone sees this news item (discussed below) a bit differently — but everyone’s got a piece of the elephant.
The Vaccines Don’t Work as Expected (But Spoiler: Get Vaxxed Anyway)
Many people, including many or most of the vaccine-hesitant, believe that the vaccines don’t work as promised or expected.
You know what? They’re right.
Here’s what they’ve observed. In Winter 2020‒2021, these vaccines were portrayed as a near-miraculous triumph of science: safe and 95% effective.
As a matter of fact, these vaccines are safe (with the understanding that no vaccine is a risk-free choice), and they were 95% effective for the original virus, but not for the variants that came after.
If you remember, in Spring and early Summer 2021, due to a combination of vaccines and probably some seasonal effects (people spending more time outdoors), cases were dropping hard, and the CDC told us if we were vaxxed we didn’t need a mask indoors anymore. I was glad to get rid of the masks, go on a little vacation, eat indoors at restaurants again. It was great.
Then came delta. And CDC needed to immediately explain to the public how this changed things quite a bit—that we were going to get hit hard again, that the wisest thing was to return to wearing masks again, and by the way we don’t know how well or how poorly the vaccines will hold up, but we’ll get back to you on that. The CDC needed to do that—but didn’t.
People who follow covid because their jobs require it understood the implications of delta, even if the government didn’t message it very well (or at all), but it’s important to understand that the general public did not really understand what was happening or why.
If you’re on Team Freedom, Team Contrarian, or Team Conspiracy, all you saw was that covid didn’t actually go away as promised, a new and worse variant came along, and a lot of people were in hospitals, including some vaccinated people. You never thought the vaccines and masks were all that great to being with, and here they are, performing more poorly than expected—just as you feared. And if you asked the natural questions that come to mind, Team Mainstream was pooh-poohing you and telling you the vaccines were still great, just get vaxxed. It didn’t inspire confidence.
Then in late November 2021 it became even worse: Along came omicron. Team Mainstream is still telling people to get a booster for sure. Well, that doesn’t make sense to the other three teams. Wasn’t this problem supposed to be solved with two doses? Now you’re telling us three? And you hear Israel is doing four? Do we just keep giving this vaccine, which doesn’t seem to work very well, to people forever, every few months? It sounds like a bunch of crazy-talk, especially since the vaccine seems to work less well than ever! Maybe the vaccine is even causing the variants! (No it’s not, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
Team Freedom, Team Contrarian, and Team Conspiracy have a piece of the elephant, though. The vaccine works less well than they were told it would, which increases their hesitancy, uncertainty, even suspicion. And no one in power is addressing those concerns. Instead, the people on those three teams are treated as if they’re uncooperative idiots — and they know they’re not.
To be sure, any way you look at it, the vaccine still works a whole lot better than “no vaccine,” even against omicron, but Team Mainstream has been, truth be told, (and I hate this word, but it fits here) gaslighting the other three teams by insisting that the vaccines were intended all along to prevent hospitalizations and deaths, not stop you from getting sick.
No, it needs to be said: That’s not quite true; that’s not what was said at first—so then the other three non-Mainstream teams are even more suspicious of Team Mainstream’s “vaccines are amazing” piece of the elephant, because Team Mainstream is rewriting history and lying to their faces.
Meanwhile, Robert Malone gets on Rogan again, because what he has to say is considered a hot topic again. He spouts off a lot of innuendo. He makes a lot of coy statements like “I can’t really say that, but…” He overstates his expertise again, and he makes vague claims without solid evidence. That podcast was quite effective in consolidating opinion among Team Freedom, Team Contrarian, and Team Conspiracy against the vaccine.
(Personally, since he describes himself as being more interested in “products” than in “research,” I’m waiting for Malone to promote a “really amazing vaccine” one of these days—but that’ll be a whole ’nother post.)
The stage is set, then, for the conversation I had last night, when various people were sharing this headline from Alberta, Canada. Note they posted a photo of the headline and not a link to the actual article:
So here’s the thing. Multiple things can be true. Different pieces of this elephant are still part of the elephant:
1. This is concerning news for everyone, not just “antivaxxers” or the vaccine hesitant or the people who say it’s not a vaccine at all. Everyone should be concerned when the vaccines, which are supposed to protect us, protect us less than we hoped. The bar has moved from “If you get vaxxed you probably won’t get covid” to “If you get vaxxed you might get covid but probably won’t end up in the hospital” to now, this headline, making it sound like the hospital is full of vaccinated people.
2. If you’re someone who favors the vaccine, it doesn’t help to pooh-pooh that concern, minimize it, or claim (or imply) that the people with concerns are dummies or wackos. You can still prefer the vaccine, but at the very least you need to read and consider the article first, and decide what you think in light of new information. Treating people like dummies or wackos when you disagree with them is not going to get everyone into the fold of consensus. It also means you are holding your little piece of the elephant and arrogantly refusing to see that it doesn’t tell the whole story.
3. If you’re someone who is opposed to the vaccine, it doesn’t help to read the headline and make a snap decision about what it means. Headline writers are not the same people who write news article, and headlines are often wrong or misleading. If you read the article itself, with the actual numbers, you discover that the word “outpace” is actually misleading and untrue. To hold on to your assumptions without reading the details means that you, too, are holding your little piece of the elephant and arrogantly refusing to see that it doesn’t tell the whole story.
All of us, no matter what our stance on the vaccine, pro or con, need to humbly consider all the information and decide what we think overall. It adds a new piece of the elephant to our big-picture view.
So What Does the Article Say and What Does It Mean?
The article is linked above so you can read it yourself, but briefly, it says:
About 90% of people in Alberta are vaccinated with at least one shot. (These days, many people consider that “partially vaccinated,” but for purposes of this analysis, let’s consider “partly vaccinated” the same as “fully vaccinated” and give the most pessimistic view possible of the vaccines’ effectiveness.)
217 unvaccinated and 282 vaccinated Albertans are in the hospital with covid.
More vaccinated people than unvaccinated people are in the hospital! Wow, that’s scary. This translates to
24 unvaccinated people per 100,000 unvaxxed people are in an Alberta hospital.
8 vaccinated people per 100,000 vaxxed people are in an Alberta hospital.
Why do the numbers flip-flop like that? Why does the article say that most of the people in the hospitals are vaccinated (true) but that the rates of vaccinated people in the hospital are much lower (also true)?
It’s because there are way more vaccinated people than unvaccinated people. Look at this extremely crude and slightly ungrammatical graphic:
You can see that when the great majority are vaccinated, a low rate of being hospitalized can also mean that more people in the hospital are vaxxed than unvaxxed. Even so, you can see that the chances for an unvaxxed person in the graphic being hospitalized are 10 percent, and the chances for a vaxxed person being hospitalized are 2.3 percent. Which odds do you prefer? Back to the article:
The article also says Alberta had 46 unvaccinated ICU patients with COVID-19 and 18 vaccinated patients in the ICU.
This translates to
About 5 unvaccinated people per 100,000 unvaxxed people are in the ICU.
About 0.7 vaccinated people per 100,000 vaxxed people are in the ICU. (The article switches it up and says 0.4 people who received two doses are in the ICU, but I’m keeping apples-to-apples and including people who had one dose.)
There’s no flip-flop there. The ICU numbers are bad news for unvaccinated people. So to sum up:
If you’re vaccinated in Alberta, you have about 1/3 the chance of ending up in the hospital compared to an unvaccinated person.
If you’re vaccinated in Alberta, you have about 1/7 the chance of ending up in the ICU compared to an unvaccinated person.
It’s more complicated than the headline, right?
It’s true that “more vaccinated people are in the hospital” and that’s bad. It means the vaccine is less effective than we all hoped for. This is not the “95% effective” vaccine we were all told about in late 2020.
It’s also true that you have a much lower chance of being hospitalized and an even lower chance of being in the ICU if you’re vaccinated than if you’re not.
As a doctor interviewed for the article says, "[The vaccines] are not perfect, but unfortunately we don't have the option of perfect."
I’m still in the camp of “yes, the vaccine is a good idea.” And it’s possible that some of you, even if we agree on all the basic facts in the article, don’t agree with my conclusion. But agreeing on the basic facts is absolutely necessary if we’re going to have meaningful discussions and make sense of this.
What Do You Think?
How do you interpret this news article? What do you think about crowdsourcing information and trying to put together some elephants? What topics would you like to see treated this way?