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Some years ago, while waiting for the next author to speak at a Florida book fair, the women seated beside me asked, “Where are you from?” “West Virginia,” I replied. She stared at me and replied, “Then, we have nothing to talk about.” She, like millions of people with no connection to West Virginia, have accepted the false belief that all who live here are ignorant, lazy or worse.

Acceptance of false beliefs, defined as misconceptions resulting from incorrect reasoning, can be attributed to ignorance, prejudice, emotions, relationships, mental health issues and today, social media. Advocating false beliefs, especially those that touch emotional and personal issues, will not make them true, but they can be vehicles for profit, control and power. People seeking power know that and have used it to their advantage for ages.

False beliefs become dangerous when accepted without evaluation or understanding. In 1998, Andrew Wakefield, a British physician published an article in a well-respected medical journal claiming that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine caused autism.

Numerous valid studies on the MMR vaccine eventually proved Wakefield’s results, motivated by financial gain, were dishonest. Although Wakefield’s medical license was revoked and the journal retracted his article, anti-vaccine false beliefs escalated and continue to reverberate worldwide.

Today, two major false beliefs negatively affecting our nation are that COVID-19 isn’t a serious problem and that Donald Trump won the election. They are highlighted here with email comments from a local resident who often disagrees with my columns.

Apologies for invalid publicity to exhausted front-line medical personnel, those who have lost loved ones or been affected by COVID-19. One email notes, “A top global pathologist says that this coronavirus is the greatest hoax ever perpetuated.” Another email touts that the level of illness now seen nationwide is no different from other years.

The reality is that COVID-19 patients are jamming our nation’s hospitals, which face shortages of staff, personal protective equipment and beds while make-shift morgues are needed.

Another worrisome false belief negatively affecting our nation is Trump’s claim that Joe Biden was not legitimately elected president. This disputes reality.

All 50 states’ secretary of state’s offices and Republican Christopher Krebs, director of cyber security, appointed by Trump (fired by Trump immediately after publicly supporting election accuracy) testified to election security. Biden received about 6 million more votes than Trump and the exact number of electoral votes as did Trump four years ago, which Trump then claimed was a “landslide.” Trump’s constant advocacy of this false belief may relate to his anxiety and anger over loss of power and control, but his ongoing extreme denial of reality is particularly worrisome, especially to those in the mental health field.

People seeking to affect others’ behaviors know that if you say something negative about West Virginia, vaccines, COVID-19, election results or any other subject often enough, regardless of the truth, some people will believe it. Accepting, advocating or repeating a false belief does not make it true, which is vital to remember as America struggles with COVID-19 and prepares for President-elect Biden’s inauguration.

Diane W. Mufson is a retired psychologist and regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page. Her email is dwmufson

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