Narratives as useful interpretations
In a world of 280 character tweets, these emails contain virtually infinite information — but people have limited time and resources to extract meaning from them. In situations like these, our prior beliefs can function as a shortcut. And we are inclined to see what we already believe is there.
Someone who enters this conversation believing experts were doing their best with the information they had at the time is going to miss contradictory emails. But someone who believes that experts have been imposing intrusive policies based on what they knew to be incomplete information is going to see these emails as a confirmation of the fallibility (or even deceitfulness) of the nation’s experts.
Given the sheer amount of information, news outlets also have to make a choice of which emails they highlight. This selection affects what kind of story emerges in the reporting.
For example, in CNN’s coverage of the new emails, the authors focus on Dr. Fauci’s willingness to respond to strangers in distress despite his packed schedule:
He was fielding dozens of emails every day, from team members, former colleagues, old friends, reporters, producers, celebrities — and regular Americans desperate for advice or looking to leave a note of “thanks.”
The correspondence offers a rare glimpse into Fauci’s frantic schedule and polite, to-the-point demeanor during the time he emerged as a rare source of frank honesty within the Trump administration’s Covid-19 task force.
But they also reveal the weight that came with the role.
In Fox News’ coverage, Bill Hemmer highlights an email where Dr. Peter Daszak, who he describes as “a key figure linked to the Wuhan lab,” thanks Dr. Fauci for downplaying the theory of a lab leak.
Hemmer brings on State Department investigator David Asher to comment on the email. As a picture of Chinese President Xi Jinping slides across the screen, Asher notes that these scientists could be “prompted by somebody else to dismiss it.
Facts, interpretations, and falsehoods
When we lament the existence of misinformation, disinformation, or fake news, we are often conflating facts, interpretations, and falsehoods.
In the context of Dr. Fauci’s emails, the explicit text of the emails is fact. But if you state that Fauci emailed someone “I am actually an alien in disguise,” that is false (we checked).
Where the waters get murky is when we discuss what the facts mean. People may interpret other scientists questioning the origin of the virus to Dr. Fauci as proof he was covering up a legitimate theory. Others might see Dr. Fauci’s interactions with such people as a man of science doing his due diligence. Both of these are interpretations.
To be clear: A fact is a cold piece of information. A falsehood is a contrary representation of a fact. An interpretation is the deduction of meaning.
In this way, “misinformation” or “disinformation” can often be more usefully thought of as interpretive disagreements.
Nothing more obvious than information that confirms our beliefs
These emails aren’t changing anyone’s mind. When working with such a massive volume of information, media outlets, commentators, and individuals are forced to pick and choose what they highlight.
Although Dr. Fauci does not explicitly confess to being an alien in any of the emails, given enough emails, an extraterrestrial-obsessed individual could probably find enough room for interpretation to make the case that Dr. Fauci really is an alien. This is not intentional deception, but the reality of dealing with such a high quantity of information. Because if we wanted to tell the whole truth, we’d have to start every story with the big bang.
With practice, it may become easier to moderate our priors, but there is no such thing as conveying information without placing it within a certain narrative. But narratives are not our enemy; they compress a massive amount of information into a package that is easy to understand. Not only are narratives not bad, they are absolutely necessary.
Often our interpretations are in conflict. Different sides look into an endless pit of information and come up with contrasting narratives. But by becoming more aware of these processes, perhaps we can move a little closer to the truth, together. At the very least, maybe we can mediate our mutual antagonism.
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