With most of the world’s information only a click away, one would have assumed that ours would be the most enlightened generation in human history. We may have lost the rote-learning skills and depth of knowledge of our grandparents, but we know where to find the facts and can do so in an instant.
For all that, many of us have developed the habit of reading multiple accounts of any given news item, because so often reports are filtered through an ideological lens. There was, for instance, Omar Jimenez’s coverage of protests in Kenosha for CNN, described as “mostly peaceful” in the chyron running under the report in spite of the clearly visible backdrop of burning cars and buildings. Similarly, the BBC was roundly mocked for its description of “largely peaceful” protests in London, in which 27 police officers were injured.
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Instinctively, it feels as though these reporters must be peddling these untruths knowingly, perhaps out of a misguided sense of paternalistic responsibility to prevent further discord. But even more troubling is the possibility that they have bought into their own fictions. If one accepts the postmodernist belief that our experiences are solely constructed through the language with which they are expressed, then to describe an event as “largely peaceful” makes it so.
Such blunders are only the more egregious examples of the kind of white lies and misrepresentations we find on an almost daily basis in the national press. Occasionally there is a backlash, such as when the BBC modified the quotation of a rape victim so that her attacker was not misgendered. But on the whole this routine twisting of the truth goes unnoticed. We have grown accustomed to reporters telling us what to think about a story, rather than simply relaying the key facts and leaving us to judge for ourselves.
Even reputable academic journals are willing to jettison inconvenient truths if they better suit their desired reality. When the New England Journal of Medicine argued that “sex designations on birth certificates offer no clinical utility”, few of us were surprised. The Journal of the Royal Society of Chemistry has even produced new guidelines to “minimise the risk of publishing inappropriate or otherwise offensive content”. If the truth hurts, it ought to be avoided.
When journalists, academics and politicians advance a worldview in direct opposition to observable reality, they risk creating what Jürgen Habermas once described as a “legitimation crisis”, by which trust in figures of authority is irreparably depleted. This seems particularly germane given reports this week that the head of the World Health Organisation privately believes that Covid-19 leaked from a laboratory in Wuhan. It wasn’t that long ago that the scientific consensus dismissed this as little more than a racist conspiracy theory.
Throughout the pandemic we saw experts silenced or marginalised if they offered views that deviated from the accepted narrative. YouTube videos that posited the lab-leak theory were removed. An UnHerd interview featuring Professor Karol Sikora was taken offline after he suggested that the virus was likely to “burn out” and that levels of public immunity had been underestimated. Wasn’t this former advisor to the WHO entitled to an opinion?
Meanwhile, experts who peddle “accepted” narratives remain free to indulge in blatant untruths that we are expected to take on trust. In June 2020, more than 1,200 medical practitioners signed a letter arguing that existing restrictions put in place to curb the spread of coronavirus ought not to apply to Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The epidemiologist Jennifer Nuzzo wrote: “We should always evaluate the risks and benefits of efforts to control the virus. In this moment the public health risks of not protesting to demand an end to systemic racism greatly exceed the harms of the virus.” Are we to believe that the virus would take some time off so long as the protesters’ cause was just?
That figures of authority are so often caught in lies has brought about an erosion of confidence in our institutions. I barely scraped a GCSE in Biology, but when esteemed scientific journals are publishing authors who maintain that “sex is a spectrum”, it gives the false impression that my understanding of the subject is superior to theirs. Experts appear to have forgotten that the legitimacy of their claims is grounded in evidence and research, not by waving around a doctoral certificate.
Perhaps this is why we are now so familiar with the spectacle of academics humiliating themselves on social media. As Helen Pluckrose once pointed out to me: “It’s a worry when you can’t tell whether the person yelling at you is a 12-year-old whose parents need to take their Twitter account away, or a Professor of Sociology.” While we may laugh at the truculent behaviour of authority figures degrading themselves — this, after all, is the basis of traditional farce — there is a sinister aspect to all of this. When experts are so patently captured by an ideology, they surrender their capacity to think critically. And that’s not good news for any of us.
In some cases, this deviation from the truth is deliberate and tactical. Consider, for instance, the phenomenon that Peter Boghossian describes as “idea laundering”. The process begins with a moral impulse among certain ideologically driven academics. Journals are founded, papers are published, classes are taught, and before long what was once the vaguest intuition is supported by a body of academic literature. Boghossian offers the example of “Fat Studies”, an area of study which seeks to lend credence to the view that: “the clinical concept of obesity (a medical term) is merely a story we tell ourselves about fat (a descriptive term); it’s not true or false – in this particular case, it’s a story that exists within a social power dynamic that unjustly ascribes authority to medical knowledge.”
What begins as a fanciful theory emerges as “knowledge” through this laundering process. It explains why a notion as nebulous as “whiteness” is now so widely and uncritically accepted. Ideas that have little basis in reality emerge from universities as de facto truths, and those brave enough to challenge them are quickly and mercilessly subdued. And while most of us are happy to conform for the sake of an easy life, our trust in those institutions supposedly dedicated to the production of knowledge quickly deteriorates.
Scepticism about expertise is important: no human being is infallible or free from bias, however well-qualified. Yet at the same time, we rely on figures in authority with specialist insight for the practical business of living. When journalists begin to conflate truth and fiction, or when academics substitute wishful thinking for empirical knowledge, we are left unmoored from reality. For the sake of our collective sanity, we need to restate the primacy of the truth.