So what’s new?
For years – well, up until today – I cannot look at a carrot without seeing in it some moral significance. It’s hard to shake off learnings that were made under duress and at formative moments in your childhood. I was born immediately post-WW2, which meant that the myth that had been successfully created around carrots being good for your night vision still had currency. It was taught to me. Not to eat carrots was a minor moral dereliction. ‘The nation needs people with good night vision!’.
Whatever the origins of the myth (to camouflage the development of night radar for fighter pilots, to resolve a massive surplus of the vegetable in times of rationing) its purveyor was a government Ministry – not of Agriculture or Health – but of Information. I was, still am, a victim of propaganda. Fake news.
But that is ‘old news’. Britain has experimented with propaganda a great deal (recall the ‘dodgy dossier’):
– albeit usually within parameters of moral and political decency. The ‘Ministry of Information’ (propaganda) was dissolved immediately after WW2 in 1946 (to become the Central Office of Information), and, in any event, its then Director, Brendan Bracken, had resisted attempts to control the media throughout the war. Even so, George Orwell served under Bracken in that Ministry in what became his own formative period for writing 1984 – the apotheosis of ‘fake news’.
More generally, the idea that we have ‘fake’ as opposed to ‘verifiable’ news is far too simplistic – fake, in the sense of ‘manufactured’ news, is ever-present. Governments of all hues have an insatiable taste for selective reporting, insisting on their interpretation of data, suppression of evidence and so on. Plus ca change – . Yet again, Donald Trump easily causes a moral panic by pointing to the obvious with alarm: ‘the government takes taxes out of your earned income!!’, ‘you cannot believe everything politicians and the media say!!’, ‘rain is wet!!’.
But whatever we mean by ‘verifiable’ (non-fake) is, itself, problematic. The famous slogan of the Guardian newspaper, “comment is free…but facts are sacred”, is disingenuous. There is no such thing as a fact without a value or a judgement. ‘The Grand National (horserace) has 42 runners – ‘ is only mentioned to give the punter a sense of ‘a few’ or ‘a lot’; that 10 civilians were killed in Raqqa, or 10 soldiers of ISIS, or 10 American SEALs – each has an entirely discrete moral and political resonance; that 67% of children achieved the set level for Maths testing is meaningless without a judgement regarding the remaining 33%. Note that each of these statistics can be verified and proven – but each is only meaningful with regard to the judgement it provokes. What people argue to be ‘fake’ is the interpretation put on the fact. 10 civilians dead in Raqqa provokes argument about human rights, about what makes for a ‘civilian’, about how and when we count corpses. Trump’s complaints about the numbers reported attending his rallies and inauguration have less to do with absolute, verifiable statistics, and far more to do with the interpretation put on the statistics by a media determined to undermine his claims of mass popularity. It is the claim that the numbers reflect lack of popular support that is fake. And so it was before his stupefying election.
In fact, carrots – rich in Vitamin A – are beneficial for eyesight, say nutrition scientists. This is verifiable. That they assist night vision is a ‘fake’ extrapolation.
I want to give three prominent examples of the confusion between facts and values, between news that is ‘fake’ as opposed to ‘verifiable’ or ‘authentic’. The point in each of them is that what sustains a ‘fake’ argument is the moral force behind it. If you do not accept the austerity argument you are a “deficit denier”; if you question man-made climate change you are a climate change “denier”; if you argue against the measurement of educational quality by test outcome you can be accused of being negligent of student rights and opportunities. The blurring of boundaries between morality and reasoned argument is one source of ‘fake-ness’. Each of the following examples will form the basis of its own blog in a short while, but here I mention them in brief. They are, respectively, ‘economic austerity’, ‘man-induced climate change’, and ‘student test scores’.
Economic austerity: I will not labour this point, but direct you to the book Barry Kushner and I wrote entitled Who Needs the Cuts: Myths of Economic Crisis.
Using only Google and internet searches we generated exhaustive information (which we subsequently had verified by an independent economic think-tank and a prominent economic journalist) revealing no basis for the claim that the UK was in economic crisis as a result of a burgeoning deficit and an overloaded national debt. The continuing programme of economic austerity and fiscal cuts – especially the savagery of cuts to benefits and public sectors – appeared in our data to have no solid foundation, other than as a political choice. The deficit was lower than in periods during the Thatcher regime, and the national debt was at historically low-to-average levels – both were manageable.
What we argue in the book is that our analysis (which reflects those of prominent economic commentators such as Paul Krugman, David Blanchflower and Martin Wolfe) should provide a counter-argument to the austerity advocates to convene a national debate. Our analysis is no less to be contested than the austerity anlaysis. Whether or not we have a signifcant economic deficit, there is surely a democratic deficit, given the absence of argumentation and deliberation. A national debt of 70% of GDP is little, compared to the 250% of the post-war period when we built the NHS and the modern university system – but is a lot compared to other times when the debt reached as low of 30-40%.
What is ‘fake’ is the ‘news’ (energetically put out by the BBC) that austerity is an irrefutable inevitability. What is fake is the claim that there can be no argument with the financial statistics. The statistical ‘facts’ are verifiable – but their interpretation (including my own interpretation) is contestable.
Climate change: The (in)famous ‘hockey-stick’ diagram showing a millenium-long period of stable temperatures (the hockey-stick blade) with a sharp upturn in the 20th century (the handle) is based on verifiable (not fake) data. See here:
Let us look at that just briefly.
The weight of historical analyses of climate had it that there was significant climate warming in the Medieval period (around 1000 a.d.). This was a time when the South of England, for example, was malarial. This period was followed by a mini-ice-age (when, for example, the Thames regularly froze). Look here for a summary:
Now – few argue that there is no climate change. That is an extremist position. What would a static climate mean?? The argument is over extent and whether or not change is induced by human industrial activity (so-called anthropogenic climate change – ACC). The Medieval Warming Period has been a significant obstacle to ACC claims. The <1 degree rise in global temperature over the past 100 years only barely matches those earlier temperatures, when human impact on the environment was minimal. Given the enormous complexities of measuring ‘global’ temperatures (see my later blog) we rely on ‘proxy’ data – data on the side-effects of changing temperatures. We measure data from tree-rings, for example, assuming that a wide ring means rapid annual growth which means a warmer climate.
For the ACC advocates it was essential to even-out the medieval data – to find data from a temperature side-effect that showed no significant warming in the medieval period. Otherwise, there is no hockey-stick blade. Otherwise, today’s temperature rise is unexceptional – not an “anomaly” over the longer period. Discounting other tree-ring data, Michael Mann and associates discovered data from the Bristlecone Pine – a rare North American species, among the longest-living plants on earth. This showed over a couple of millenia pretty steady temperatures – enough to even out the Medieval Warming Period. Based on this proxy data they produced the hockey-stick graph which was immediately adopted by the UN International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The point is that this was, for the genesis of the ACC argument, the only significant data set that supported it. Though the data analysis itself has been challenged, there it stands. Given that there is other tree-ring data that contradicts the Bristlecone Pine, and the possibility of varying interpretations of other data, there is the basis of good debate over how we should manage the environment and how panicked we should be. For example, many point to the retreat of (many, not all) glaciers. Others question why, in any event, we find glaciers as far south as Switzerland at this stage in an interglacial period. Climate science has few ‘facts’ that stand alone from interpretation – much less, facts that can be irrefutably verified. What is fake and what is fact crosses a very blurred line, indeed.
Student test scores and educational quality: This is a more nuanced argument, but no less significant than the other two. The fake news here is that good test scores mean good quality schooling, and its reciprocal – unarguably so.
To the contrary. This is very much argued, and there is a significant community of prominent educational observers who argue that tests can only measure your ability to take a test, and that, in any event, tests of student achievement are, in themselves, culturally, ethnically and economically biased:
Many argue that some of the most undesirable educational arrangements can give rise to high test scores: large class-sizes, drill and discipline, constant repetition, learning that has a short half-life, and so on. Nonetheless, many people are sympathetic to tests and the use of test scores, and are suspicious of any educational arrangement that does not produce good scores.
Again, there is a strong case for democratic debate, for open, rational public argument. The attempt to avoid argument – the simple assertion of that one narrative that good test scores mean good education – is what is ‘fake’.
So – to the crux of the argument. Trump and others are attacking the media for putting out fake news. But this ignores the fact that government is often a more influential source of ‘news’, and that government has a poor history of independent and impartial reporting. Whatever we mean by ‘fake’, we are more likely to find it in government than in the media. This points to a rather particular crisis of democracy: governments have evolved to the point where they have their own interests – i.e. they have interests independent of, and sometimes contrary to, their electorates. In this event, they cannot be impartial, and they must always and ever be forced to defend themselves against the charge of ‘fake’. We cannot achieve this by drawing from news and data that is ‘less fake’ or ‘more real’. We do it by insisting on the public display and defence of counter-arguments.
Indeed, this is the very source of this blog. ‘Single narratives’ are, in and of themselves, fake news – no matter how well verified the data. Their reciprocal – the alternative we except in a democracy – are ‘multiple narratives’.