On 2 January 2017, I half-heard on Radio 4, ‘The New World. Nothing but the Truth’, presented by Jo Fidgen of the BBC World Service and produced by Gemma Newby. It lasts 45 minutes and is available on BBC iPlayer Radio for 1 year, at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b086nzlg, so if you don’t listen to it after reading this, I want a note from a grown-up to explain why.
“Are we really living in a post-truth world?” or is ‘post-truth’ a new label for liberal angst, due to loss of control? It even asked us to consider whether Michael Gove was misrepresented by the media (He was. I’ve seen the transcript.) Sadly, there are a lot of experts in the program, so perhaps you shouldn’t take it as seriously as I want you to. Listen for yourself, in case I can’t be trusted.
It finds that people are not rational in their analysis of facts that challenge their beliefs. They believe The Wrong Thing even harder.
‘Truthiness’ was coined by Stephen Colbert to refer to “what we feel to be true.” Another parody of right-wing politicians, Donald Trump said, “Fact is not always the same as Truth”, though 70% of what he says has been shown not to be true by fact-checkers. People are looking for “a deeper level of truth, their identities”. Trump’s facts are rhetorical tools, not actual information to be taken seriously. He is only President Elect of the USA.
We wear our beliefs as a badge of membership of our group. “We determine the truth by the people and sources we trust. That’s how we know truth.” When faced by ‘an alleged fact’, we decide how we feel about it then look for evidence of how right we are. Educated people are not immune. Numerate people were shown to be better at assessing data but to lose their intellectual advantage when faced with facts related to their political beliefs.
At the end, the programme presented a 10 minute Drill:
- Ask the opinion of someone you disagree with and don’t interrupt
- Don’t assume they are stupid
- Resist forwarding to all you echo chamber buddies that article that proves how right you are
[ I would add “unless it contains new information, but not without fact checking first” ]
- Bear in mind that just because you like the story, doesn’t mean it’s true
What first caught my attention in the programme on first listen was use of the word ‘truthiness’ which the programme has in common with the functional programming language Clojure. Falsiness is ‘nil’ or ‘false’. Truthiness is everything else.
If we imagine ‘nil’ as being a bit like the Scottish legal verdict ‘Unproven’, we should demand higher standards than “You can’t prove I’m lying, yet.” from our politicians.
We need to demand truth, not either value of falsiness.
In hospital statistics, ‘Deaths = 0’ is different to ‘Death data was not measured’. We expect politicians to attempt to try to lead interviewers away from the second option with weasel-words like, “there is no evidence of deaths” and we expect journalists to destroy them whenever they do. Accepting falsiness gives us corrupt politicians and journalists. No politician stands in front of a bus promising £350M per week to spend on the NHS when they known it is not true should have any further input to UK politics. No newspaper calling people who point this out “Remoaners”, to silence them, has any interest in their readers knowing the truth. Resignations are long overdue and it’s almost too late for them to be honourable.