When The Truth Becomes Boring

“The People of this country.. have had enough of experts”

The stunning words of Conservative MP and poster boy of the Vote Leave campaign Michael Gove when pressed on why organizations and governments were bashing his promises of a prosperous Post-Brexit Britain. His comment, while dramatic was certainly not surprising. The entire mantra of the Leave Campaign was not about facts or data but about us, about you, the “decent” “hardworking” “ordinary” people taking back control from the big boy fat cats who have trodden and left you in the dirt.

The anger at the ruling class, once whipped into frenzy by Boris and Co was directed with pinpoint precision at the E.U “Turkey is joining the EU”, “£350M to Brussels every week”. These questionable soundbites gave vent for anger, flooded the discourse and resonated with people in a way explaining the benefits of Free Movement of Goods, EU subsidies and net benefit of migration never could. It was the first piece of concrete evidence that ‘just trust your gut’ politics has made it mainstream in the UK.

Historically, since the era of the enlightenment, we as humans have developed and relied upon safeguards to provide reference point by which we can somewhat objectively agree on what is true and accurate. These include schools, science, legal systems, the media etc.
And while not perfect or always correct, this truth-producing infrastructure provides solid ground from which public discourse and debate can flow from.

Yet, there is substantial evidence to suggest – exemplified by both the U.S general election & Brexit – that we are shifting to a kind of politics in which feelings and emotions trump facts and truth.

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel-prizewinning psychologist and author of a bestselling book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”, says we have a natural tendency to steer clear of facts that would force our brains to work harder. People will not want to investigate questionable sweeping statements or assertions if it requires lengthy contemplation and concentration to comprehend a complex issue.

Tyranny of the Anecdote

This poses a potentially deadly threat to societal cohesion. How can we solve society’s problems if we have no common truth-providing infrastructure from which to agree on?
For example, dealing with the problems of delays and overcrowding in the NHS. There has been debate over whether immigration or a severe lack of government funding is the primary reason for its misgivings. How do we know what the root cause of the problem is? Do we look at a report by the National Care Commission or listen to a story from our grandmother that she couldn’t get a GP appointment living in an area of high immigration?

There is growing number of pundits and politicians telling us to choose the latter. This is what American comedian, Stephen Colbert describes as believing things that “feel right” or things that “should be true”.

Donald Trump is the epitome of this, notoriously describing Climate Change as a hoax created by the Chinese. And it’s impossible to rebut this ridiculous argument when his followers either don’t care about the facts or believe in a conspiracy that the science is manufactured to serve the elites.

The Economist notes:

‘“A lot of people are saying…” is one of Donald Trump’s favourite phrases and questioning the provenance, rather than accuracy, of anything that goes against him (“They would say that, wouldn’t they?”). And when the distance between what feels true and what the facts say grows too great, it can always be bridged with a handy conspiracy theory.’

And social media has become the bread to the conspiracy butter. While having many upsides and benefits, it has enabled people of like-mindedness to filter out news and media which does not align with their personal and political beliefs. One can follow news that never challenges but only reinforces their ideas about the world and tailors a narrative of events to suit its audience. Thus, once established the online community can be far more potent and important to people than their geographical one.

The priority of democratic nations therefore, must be in developing our institutions to cope and be trusted by all in the Internet age. Having a well informed public is unequivocally a common good and the issue must be treated with the sincerity it deserves.

Until now, politics, media and truth producing infrastructure have had to adapt to the structures of Facebook, Twitter and other online platforms. Often being tangled in a malaise of memes and cat videos. Perhaps having a separation between the “social” and the “news” media would be an appropriate place to start?

13 thoughts on “When The Truth Becomes Boring

  1. I think you got to the root of the problem at the end. The institutions are not to be trusted. They represent their own interests and ignore the interests of their constituents. In the U.S. that started with the partisan passing of Obamacare. In Europe, that appears to be the immigration crisis. The government and the partisans ignore any and all opposition by denigrating their opponents as racist or ignorant. It turned out, atleast for Obamacare, that the racist ignorants were correct. You can show me statistics all day. As Gruber demonstrated, politicians are willing to lie about the stats to get what they wanted. That’s where the dividing line is. Government has no integrity and the people understand that it cannot be trusted. This is a failure of government, not the people.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. “Perhaps having a separation between the “social” and the “news” media would be an appropriate place to start?”

    I definitely think that we have a framework in existence now that fits: Separation of Church and State is a major tenet of American governmental infrastructure. Social media is our new church…

    i.e. a rule of beliefs versus a rule of law…

    All that being said… I would also call for a return to journalistic integrity. Even CNN, the last vestige of ‘unbiased’ media (or as close as you can get) now has journalists that tell the news and then begin the next phrase with “I think…..”

    Maybe I am old-fashioned… but you are there to give me the facts. Not your ‘thoughts’ on the issue. The fact that a news organization feels like that they have to pander to the ‘fads’ in order to garner more views for their advertisers is disheartening to say the least.

    I would then vote also remove advertisements from the news. If you want ‘opinions’ and ‘conjecture’, then go to social media, or the grocery check out lane.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I’ve noticed a trend, independent news sources are booming right now. Many will follow a person of similar beliefs on social media/ periscope/ blog or whatever and get news from them. Possible future of news reporting? Maybe, since individuals are more honest than a news company that needs to fit between the boundaries of what they’re “allowed” to report.
        Until, individuals realize people are illogical and can be manipulated by anything that sounds true. People in positions of power tend to abuse it. What’s the answer? I say take the facts and words that individuals themselves say and form your own opinion, not just what a news source or journalist tells you to believe. Why is thinking for yourself such a foreign concept?

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think that the world is changing so fast – we are going through a communication revolution – therefore will we need politicians earning lots of money and rattling off a lot of self-interesting spiel. Why isn’t the way the world is run – changing to keep up? One only has to look at the videos on You Tube and get texts to know what is going on the world – we don’t need to be told lies. We used to be told that we needed special people to communicate through to reach God. So why will we need to go through politicians to communicate to those running the world?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Question: When you go to the doctor, do you trust them to give you the proper diagnosis? When you go to a tax professional, do you trust them to do your taxes properly? etc… (as a personal note, I go by the rule, “Trust, but verify”, but I digress…)

      I disagree that we can get ‘news’ from YouTube or the Internet. Videos can be altered, edited… and they are not professionals. They have not been taught how to remove (or avoid, or even limit) bias from their stories… (avoiding bias IS A LEARNED SKILL)

      We gave journalists that job… a cornerstone of democracy is an informed public. In order to put social media in context, we need to return to FACTUAL reporting as a counterbalance.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. I know your way is the sensible way, but I equate ‘unbiased’ with ‘indifference’. I prefer to watch or read a biased pro-report and then a biased anti-report – then we can see both sides of an argument and come to reason – like in a court case.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. One last statement Southampton… court cases may seem biased, however, to confer a penalty, find someone guilty, it requires facts supported with cold, hard, indifferent, evidence. And for a jury to convict… the rules are even more stringent.

    While I will admit the court systems aren’t perfect (don’t get me started on family court)… the criminal courts, and even civil courts are pretty cut and dry. Justice is blind… to bias, to opinion, to prejudice (at least ideally). So, making the public judge, jury, and executioner… is a dangerous direction to take.


  5. A thought provoking post…thankyou, but are you saying we need to regulate the internet!?
    You mention the media, but pick out social media. Best pick first on print media, whose skewed view of UK politics is what turned so many people to social media in the first place. Print media (and the BBC) has been seen by many generations as a prime source of accurate news. As anyone who is paying attention will know, these sources cannot now be trusted. My sons, daughters look to online news sources now, as I do too, much of the time.
    But essentially, the problem is not the media – print, broadcast or social. The problem is the motives of the people who write the news/stories that they publish. Or perhaps moreso the motives of the people who employ them…Murdoch, Barclay Bros, Lord Rothermere etc.
    Fortunately, newspaper sales are declining as habits change and people learn to mistrust the print media. Online people will naturally migrate toward sites that reinforce their views (and prejudices), and sites that they believe in …based on experience and well reserached and presented arguments, filled with well sourced facts eg Prof Robertson’s stuff on Newsnet.scot

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree to a large extent. The Idea that media operates to inform the public isn’t the reality, it is a profit driven industry. What I’m worried about is the trend where a lot of people don’t care anymore what is factually true. The likes of Trump etc will liberally lie and not even care that its a lie. And neither will his supporters. Take Climate change for example – he says its a Chinese hoax and he will rip up the Paris agreement. How do you convince people its real, if they don’t care what the facts, science or data says? You can’t solve the problem unless people are on board.

      That’s why you need a mainstream media that reports objective facts and can be trusted by all as independent. Otherwise we will have chaos, paranoya and no societal cohesion


  6. Your comment “we have a natural tendency to steer clear of facts that would force our brains to work harder” resonates. In addition, when something goes wrong it is always because of someone else. We feel safe in following the horde, thinking “it must be right”. In my view, mankind needs to learn to think small. And think for themselves. And take responsibility. Why blame the media? Or politicians? They are people just like the rest of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. That’s a great post, Conor. I use the BBC website *a lot* for my news but I’m getting a little tired of falling for clickbait stories: an apparently interesting, albeit slightly whimsical, headline but with content which quickly reveals itself to have been merely trawled from someone’s Facebook page, or Twitter comment. I expect a bit more from the BBC than to act like a free newspaper, or to allow opinion and comment to become the story. There, definitely less is more.

    I think the problem that you’re posting about is partly a result of an always-on society in which journalists look to analyse and opinionise as a result of a need to fill the schedules, and to fill a need to allow people to filter the ceaseless supply of data via people or institutions they trust. Part of me understands that – but, partly, that’s always happened: I don’t think you can be a good investigative journalist without having, and expressing, opinions, and good reporting always provides some contextualising. The trouble probably is that all journalists have learned their art from the same few senior case studies; and that not all journalists are capable of being John Simpson…

    Liked by 1 person

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