Sunday, 9 December 2018
With the odd exception – the likelihood that we will continue to orbit the sun, that gravity won’t suddenly switch off... and that nobody will be able to explain Labour’s actual position on Brexit any time soon – we live in a world of uncertain ‘facts’. To a greater or lesser degree we rely on forecasts; the weather, the exchange rate and the possibility of trains arriving on at least the same day as stated on the timetable. But nobody, literally nobody, knows the future, that mysterious realm that lies beyond tonight’s dreams.
And part of that difficulty has to lie in the actual fact that many of the things we know are not necessarily, actually facts. We have unreliable memories, we view events through lenses tinted with bias and time has a habit of rendering even the once crystal clear vague and blurry. We accept without question things told us by an apparently higher authority. As children it is our parents’ fictions we trust, as adults it appears to be that of self-appointed experts... with whom we happen to already agree.
Listening to Any Questions on Radio 4 yesterday and particularly its follow-up show Any Answers I was struck by how many directly contradictory opinions were posed as absolute facts. Callers to the show were adamant in their forthright views and each believed their own version of that truth. Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that observers will give wholly different versions of simple events; wine experts cannot tell white from red in blind tastings; and priming can elicit predictable, but wrong, responses time and time again.
We are not creatures of logic, but of faith; one reason, perhaps, that religion can still sway so many people to act against their own interests. Bizarrely, it is the most highly educated who appear to exhibit the greatest propensity to adopt unverified pseudo-facts as long as it feeds whatever narrative they have signed themselves up to: Climate change, immigration, Brexit. It’s as if their time in education, coupled with the company they keep absolves them from any responsibility to question what they believe. If they were joining a new Moonies we would be launching interventions to free them from the cult.
If you think I am being too glib, ask yourselves what ‘facts’ you truly know. Pick a subject, any subject, preferably one you believe you know a lot about and try to dispassionately pick apart your understanding. Can you explain friction, light, sight, sound, digestion, ambulation, or any of the many things you experience every day without a conscious thought? Take a ‘fact’ and ask yourself; how do I know this to be true? How was this established? What credentials support this nugget of apparently inviolable truth?
Be honest. Did you find the truth or did you just accept a truth? As a generally useful rule, the more leaps of faith it takes to support an assertion the less likely it is to be true; the more layers of secrecy needed to maintain a supposed plot, the more likely it is to be a lie. The truth is usually mundane and simple, but we are wired to reject simple. The fabricated, convoluted, conspiratorial machinations of mystery fiction are just, well, more engaging than the dry pages of a textbook. (And not all textbooks are necessarily free of untruths.)
Well, what do you believe?
Assume that everything you know is questionable, that everything you believe is because somebody influenced you to believe it and that those people were influenced before them. Do not mistake eminence for authority, nor qualifications for competence. Consider how people ascended the greasy pole to power before automatically accepting what they say as gospel; ask yourself what they have to gain by influencing you and most of all, in the words of David Byrne “... ask yourself, well, how did I get here?