Although it may seem as if truth is ever harder to find, we live at a time when the majority of the (UK) population has easily-searchable, near-instant access to by far the most comprehensive store of knowledge that ever existed. And whereas once all news came through a very few channels, today eyewitnesses can post video to the world within seconds. The flipside of this is that we are exposed to dizzying amounts of stuff.
A lot of this stuff, or information, is not actually informative. Some of it is outright propaganda:
All of us grow up believing most of what we are told. This has some survival advantages but of course adults have to be a bit smarter than that. However, adult scepticism, particularly about official or “mainstream” sources, is easily exploited. If we believe one source is biased or downright manipulative then it’s easy, and perhaps comforting, to accept a near opposite version of events wherever it comes from. This is entirely unsatisfactory too, because the world isn’t that neat, baddies aren’t only opposed by goodies, the world isn’t two-dimensional, and even when there is a side who is morally justified (or “in the right”) we are not guaranteed accurate, let alone honest, reporting in support of it.
It’s far too simplistic to dismiss every word of, say, BBC journalists, as a lie. To then swallow an alternative version whole is to retreat into an infantile view of the world.
So we must not only be vigilant but find nuanced ways to evaluate the stories we are exposed to, and even more so if we are initially inclined to believe them, because- as the scientist Richard Feynman said- the easiest person to fool is yourself.
Luckily there are methods developed by humans to help find which stories are truthful and which are not. They aren’t perfect but if we follow them we will have a lot better idea of what is really going on than if we don’t. They require a bit of effort but that’s the price of admission to an informed discussion. Anyone is welcome to ignore them, and they will find plenty of other people who will agree with the fake news they have no way of avoiding, but generally such voices are not influential outside of their circle. Although there is always a risk of populism and/or ideology overriding rigour. Later in the series we will examine the circumstances surrounding some of the more notable historical examples, such as the persistent Conservative narrative of the “undeserving poor”, drugs policy in most countries, and the ideologically driven pseudoscience that took hold under the Nazis (Aryanism) and Stalin (Lysenkoism).
In Part Two we will look at the first method we can use to help avoid repeating similar historical mistakes. Evaluating sources.