Wednesday, 6 July 2016

The Post-Factual World

A couple of days ago, a long time Twitter friend, and previous guest blogger, @KarenKTS11 tweeted a post, on the logic, or lack thereof, which some people seem to possess, and how facts seem to matter little nowadays. It was such a well written piece, I asked Karen if I could share it here. It doesn't really need any comment from me, as it pretty much sums up everything to a tee. And so, I'll leave you in the capable hands of Karen..


One of the biggest issues I think Brexit has revealed is that people no longer accept facts. For instance, whilst discussing the referendum with people online, a number brought up the possible admission of Turkey to the EU. I pointed out that the UK have a veto over new members, in other words even if all the other countries voted to admit Turkey, we would still have the power to reject them. They couldn't join without our consent. This is a fact that is a matter of public record and easy to check, but people simply refused to believe it. This is part of a worrying larger pattern of ignoring facts, which encompasses amongst other things creationism, climate change denial, anti-vaxxers and even genuine flat-earthers.

I think perhaps we have become too tolerant, we no longer stringently defend facts as we should. Part of this is demonstrated by broadcasters who have decided that 'balance' means always showing two sides to the story. When the story in question is politics then clearly that approach is justified. However not all statements require someone to dispute them. If something is a fact, that should be stated. If opposite opinions are shown, they should not be given equal weight, it should be made crystal clear that that opinion is only a reflection of 5% of scientists, for instance.

This post-factualism also ties in to the apparent dislike and distrust of experts. When did expert become a dirty word? As I have tweeted in the past, if I need a brain operation I want it to be conducted by a neurosurgeon, not someone with a St John's Ambulance certificate. If my car needs mending I would rather a mechanic fix it than a tailor. If there's a European football tournament, rather than choose 11 men from the local park I would rather.....oh okay, scrub that last example. ;-)

The reason we call people experts is because they know what they're talking about, they've had training and experience. Of course some experts have an agenda, no one is denying that. If someone employed by a tobacco company suddenly declares cigarettes are not bad for your health, then I doubt whether people would give that much credence. Whereas the medical profession as a body, for example, spend their time taking care of patients and have no reason to lie about the deleterious effects of smoking. Besides which we have to trust some people, some time. Not everything in the world is a conspiracy. I am not suggesting we accept things blindly, but if the vast majority of experts agree on something, then the chances are they are right. Someone said to me this week that "we don't have to take expert's advice." Well of course that is true, but if your mechanic tells you your car is dangerous and you choose to ignore them and it blows up, killing your nearest and dearest, that is hardly the experts fault.

Anti-vaxxers are a prime example of the refusal to accept facts. Now even though I fully support vaccination, I don't think it is unreasonable for people to perhaps have concerns about one vaccine or another for some reason. Some people are simply naturally very cautious or very anxious and an initial scare story continues to resonate with them, even after it is entirely and completely disproven. What is unreasonable however is to completely deny the validity of the concept of vaccination. Vaccination works. That is a fact. For example Polio and smallpox have been eradicated in the western world (and worldwide in the case of smallpox) by the use of vaccines. In the early 1950s there were approximately 35,000 cases of polio each year in the US. (In 1952 there were 58,000) In 1957 there were 2,500 and by 1965 only 61 cases. What happened between 1952 and 1957 to reduce those numbers so rapidly? In 1955 the polio vaccine was introduced. There are mountains of evidence over a period of 220 years that demonstrate that vaccination works. It is simply not reasonable to choose to disbelieve it. Some people have taken to the anti-vax lobby so strongly that it has become almost a religion. If this kind of thing goes unchecked we are going to end up back in the dark ages of superstition and rumour replacing actual scientific knowledge.

I think a large part of the reason people distrust facts nowadays is because we are so accustomed to our politicians and newspapers blatantly lying to us. We no longer know who we can trust. We have become so used to lies being presented as facts and facts being presented as lies, that we no longer have the ability to recognise a fact. More than that, we seem to doubt the very existence of facts. We don't understand that not every piece of information is up for negotiation. We fail entirely to grasp the nature of facts.

My thanks to Karen, who you can follow on Twitter @KarenKTS11 (and I recommend you do., she's positively lovely!). You can also read Karen's first guest post HERE.