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Truth Decay

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Regular readers of my blog will know that I am unable to resist a good pun. My title therefore does not refer to the inevitable consequence of dentist closures during lockdown, but rather to a phrase used by former US President Barack Obama in an interview[1] that I watched a few days ago on the subject of misinformation and fake news. Thirty years ago, we tended to trust the BBC or ITN as impartial broadcasters that sought to present the news objectively. However, the Internet has ushered in a very different era of communication. Some would say that the multiplication of sources of information has ‘democratised’ news, yet we have also seen the growing influence of heavily partisan broadcasters with apparently little interest in objectivity. At their worst, such channels contribute through their fake news to the dangerous spread of misinformation that is fomenting division and confusion in our society. Of particular concern at present is the anti-vax movement: misinformation is being peddled both by Russian sources, referring to the Oxford research as the ‘monkey vaccine’ and by right-wing American conspiracy theorists claiming that a vaccine will implant computer chips into our bodies. As ludicrous as such claims seem to us, surveys suggest that enough Britons and Americans have been persuaded by them to refuse vaccination. The consequence would be to prevent the prospect of herd immunity thereby putting at risk the promise of a post-Covid world.

What is truth? Perhaps the first moral message that parents teach their children is to ‘tell the truth’. Truth has been valued since human beings began to create societies and all world religions claim to be the route to an ultimate truth. Buddhism refers to the Four Noble Truths, and in the Qur’an we find the words “whenever you give your word, say the truth[2]. Hinduism and Christianity equally consider the axis of truth and righteousness as the foundation of our moral code. We believe that there is a right way of doing things: it is right to respect property; it is right, in the words of the ‘golden rule’, that we treat others as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

“What is truth?” may be the most notorious unanswered question in history. In the Bible (St John’s Gospel) there is the following exchange between Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who is to judge whether Jesus is to be crucified for blasphemy.

‘Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asked him, “What is truth?” ‘[3]

Jesus does not respond … and whole books have been written by theologians and philosophers about what Pilate meant in asking the question.  It is certainly a tough one to answer. Is Pilate suggesting that truth is only a matter of perspective; a relativist view that might be shared by the opposing television networks in the USA? Truth can be elusive. Winston Churchill famously joked that “History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it[4]”, and the idea that ‘History is written by the victors’ appears to be found in virtually every language and culture.

Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I would like to think that truth is an absolute concept and I would say also that much of our academic education is concerned with the pursuit of truth. History teachers would say that the quest for truth is one of the jobs of the History student as he evaluates the reliability of different sources or the relative merits of different historians’ accounts. Surely Science is also a search for truth? Scientists have for centuries made observations and have developed theories that gradually bring us closer to the truth about the world in which we live. And of course, mathematicians will always argue that there is ambiguity in Biology, Chemistry and Physics, and the only genuine truth exists in the beauty of Pure Mathematics: in algebra and calculus.

Importantly, truth is not what we feel. Although it is important to acknowledge our subjective feelings, we must also accept their limitations, and be prepared to take the time to seek truth. Fake news is so persuasive because human beings prefer to make quick judgements on what they see and hear rather than carefully analyse its accuracy[5]. Research has shown[6] that fake news actually circulates more rapidly than genuine stories, and therefore we have to take great care in what we ‘like’ and ‘retweet’. Educated people have a responsibility to analyse and verify what they read and hear. It is fundamentally dishonest to repeat an unsubstantiated opinion saying “I heard somebody say that …”. In the past, this would have only taken place verbally as gossip and its audience would have been tiny, yet in our modern world a small lie or exaggeration can be quickly amplified via the Internet into a scandal for personal gain.

So please, let us debate facts, let us put our trust in experts, and let us accept that different media are not all equal. I have always considered that the carefully-curated BBC does an excellent job (not least as I have experienced the inferior quality of public broadcasting while living abroad). Prior to the General Election a year ago, there was criticism that the BBC had been both anti-Conservative and anti-Jeremy Corbyn: surely a powerful sign of its neutrality and objectivity! I really hope that we will not move to the situation that exists in the United States where each political party has its own media outlets that create an echo chamber for one-sided debates and prevent an understanding of others’ perspectives. It is in such an environment that untruths and conspiracy theories prove so seductive, particularly when amplified by public figures. The human race has excelled in continuously increasing its understanding of the world in which we live; I genuinely fear that we will regress if retrenched ignorance is allowed to replace the consensus of knowledge that we have built up over centuries.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-us-2020-54910344

[2] Al-An’aam 6:152

[3] Gospel according to St John, ch.18 vv.37-38

[4] Speech in the House of Commons, 23 Jan 1948

[5] See Kahneman, D 2012, ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’

[6] Vosoughi, S, Roy D, Aral, S 2018, ‘The Spread of True and False News Online’ in Science, vol. 359, pp.1146-1151

Duncan Byrne
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