Working for Purdue Extension, you can probably guess that facts and research-based information are very important to me. I pride myself in giving people information they can use to enhance their lives. I hope most of the people I have worked with have developed a sense of trust in both the information I provide, and in me, as a source of accurate information.
The past few years, I have become more uncomfortable with the way the world is heading. For me, it started with a general feeling that trust in some institutions and science that I value is slowly eroding. It has been enhanced by the rise of social media, and how quickly people can spread news, both real and concocted, across a wide platform of people, sometimes whipping up a frenzy for no good reason, sowing doubt and discourse that can last years and tear at the fabric of community.
People’s attention spans have shortened too. TV and radio news have had to adjust to that, keeping stories shorter, and perhaps more sensationalized than they really need to be to keep our attention. Fewer people are reading the newspapers, which traditionally were the source of more detailed coverage than the broadcast media could afford. People often have no patience to hear the whole story; they want to hear it in tiny soundbites that may not be compatible with detailed information they need to make a truly informed decision. In short, news has become entertainment for some, and much less detailed.
The rise of social media has not helped matter much either. People can post almost anything online and someone will believe it. While there is good information on social media and the internet, there is a lot of garbage too. That is why I often refer to the internet as “the bathroom wall of the world.” Anyone can write anything there, true or not.
Nothing made this point clearer to me than the days leading up to the spraying of mosquitos locally, an effort to slow the spread of eastern equine encephalitis (EEE), a disease that kills 33 percent of the people it infects, and nearly every horse.
The internet and social media became filled with scary stories of predicted death of pollinators, bats, birds, wildlife and even people. Passed from person to person through likes and feeds, rumors became truths, and truths became lies. The scientific community, which creates and posts the background information on the pesticide, does itself no favor by writing in language that could frighten anyone without a Ph.D. science background.
Helping people sort out the facts after they are emotionally charged up is not an easy task, but that is often my job when such issues arise.
The facts of the matter were that the product could be toxic to domesticated bees under certain circumstances, but steps could be taken to mitigate the situation. The product, applied in the manner and dose it was, was going to do minimal damage to pollinators, fish, birds, bats and wildlife. Frost, rumored to be the save-all that would negate the need for the spray, would need to be a hard freeze, 28 degrees Fahrenheit, not a 32 degrees light frost. We normally do not experience such a hard freeze until late October or early November, giving us weeks more potential for people and animals to get sick.
To calm down one client, I even calculated the amount of the pesticide it would take to kill an 8-pound chicken, and learned the chicken was would need nearly an acre’s worth of the product to cause harm.
In the days since, I have enjoyed my property, which is in one of two areas that were sprayed. I have seen Monarch butterflies flittering about the milkweed. I have seen bats doing their acrobatics in the evening. There have been deer, squirrels, frogs, turtles and raccoons around my pond, and the fish look pretty happy too. And all that, with fewer mosquitos to pester me and my family.
It is important to remember, the EEE virus is still out there. Estimates are 90 percent of the mosquitos were killed during the treatment. The remaining 10 percent can still be carriers of EEE. Wearing long sleeves, long pants, and products containing DEET is still a necessity this fall, especially in the neighborhoods in and near where the spraying occurred.
As for the days leading up to the treatment, I hope that people take some measure of how easily false information was spread and how the truth can be corrupted or lost when things get so emotional.
Jeff Burbrink is extension educator, Purdue Extension Elkhart County. He can be reached at 574-533-0554 or email@example.com.