This might be the nostalgia of a newly minted 50-year-old, but didn’t we used to employ facts as a way of winning debates or influencing opinion? And didn’t it work sometimes?
We’d say, "Smoking isn’t that bad for you," and be shown the statistics proving that lifetime smokers die 11 years earlier on average, and the commercials with people breathing out of tubes plunged into unnatural throat holes, and we’d say, "OK, it’s terrible, but I’m not quitting!"
And then the same facts would be explained to the daughter, and every day she’d say "It just won’t be the same having the first dance at my wedding with mom’s new husband, international rapping sensation Pitbull, because you died of Marlboro Reditis."
And we quit, many of us.
Between 1965 and 2018 the rate of adult smoking went from 43% to 13%, a triumphant use of well-communicated hard data (and daughterly threats) that improved public health immensely.
But when two new and convincing fact sets surrounding COVID-19 received wide attention this week, it was easy to fear they’d be ignored by the people who need them most, because facts don’t seem to change opinions or behaviors with these folks anymore.
On Wednesday, The New York Times reported there have been about 512,000 deaths more than would normally have occurred in the United States since COVID-19 hit, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That’s 20% above normal, and includes all causes of death, meaning it covers areas where mortality has declined during the pandemic, like car accidents, and areas where it has increased, like drug overdoses.
Then Thursday the federal government expressed the same trend in another way when it announced that the average life expectancy of an American dropped by a full year during the first six months of COVID-19, from 78.8 years to 77.8.
And life expectancy for Black Americans, disproportionately affected by COVID-19, dropped 2.7 years in the same time period.
These are statistics that, when our grandchildren learn of them, will lead to the same hushed queries of "What was it like?" we lobbed at our elders over the Great Depression and World War II.
But on many news and social media sites, many of the comments have been of the Flat-Earth school, along the lines of, "They say that so we’ll wear the masks and bend to government overlords but if everybody is dying how come you see so many people alive, huh, explain that? They don’t tell you that 100 million people die every year of the flu. My brother had COVID-19 and he ate a whole bunch of Flintstones vitamins and drank 64 ounces of buttermilk every day and he’s, well, he’s fat, but alive! Come on sheeple!"
This is not meant as a self-righteous demand that everybody confine themselves to the basement while wearing 11 masks. My adherence to COVID-19 protocols is well-intentioned, but spotty and hypocritical.
But truth exists. Data matters. And if the federal, state and local governments and media ever attempted a massive conspiracy to control us via an invented #Plandemic, it would fall apart immediately when somebody hit "reply all" to an email about Girl Scout cookie sales and sent the whole conspiracy plan to the Smithtown Kickline Dads Facebook listserv.
There is far more truth than conspiracy. Things are mostly as they seem. When the data conflicts with our opinions and beliefs, we should change our opinions and beliefs.
Because if we don’t, Pitbull could be the one walking our daughter down the aisle.
Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board.