How a culture of unsubstantiated opinion has poisoned our public life

7 May 2019

 

Walking home from work a few weeks back, a conversation on talk radio station LBC caused me to stop in the street and text an incredibly long rant to some of my politically-minded friends. The debate, chaired by a presenter who will remain nameless, centred on drug use - certainly an important topic. But one line in particular caused consternation within me. The presenter, before going to an advert break, said something along the lines of “phone in and let us know if you think drug use has gone up and why it has?”

 

On the face of it, that might sound like a perfectly standard topic of discussion, and a discussion well worth having. But when you stop to think about it, the question being asked isn’t why drug use might have gone up. The presenter was instead asking people what they thought the facts were, and encouraging them to discuss their analysis of those made up facts. At no point while I was listening were drug statistics mentioned or quoted. This was not a debate about people’s opinions of a potential drug crisis, but instead about people’s guesses about whether there is actually a drug crisis.

 

This reminded me of an incident that occurred across the pond, in the United States, during the last Presidential election. During an interview with CNN at the Republican National Convention, former Speaker of the House of Representatives and Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich stated that crime had risen under President Obama. The presenter chimed in and pointed out that all of the statistics indicated that crime had in fact dropped during Obama’s presidency.  In response, Gingrich decided to encapsulate everything that is wrong with modern political discussion when he blithely said “The Average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think crime is down, does not think they are safer… as a political candidate, I'll go with how people feel and I'll let you go with the theoreticians.”

 

The term “post-truth world” has been thrown around gleefully in recent years like a hot potato and there has been much talk about how the rise of fake news and new media, such as social media platforms, is poisoning political discussion with the trivialisation of politics and the rise of online echo chambers. This blame has often been assigned to them by newspapers and other bastions of old media. This is an easy answer and a cop-out, to blame the new kid on the block for the rise of this problem. And yet both examples I have cited so far occurred in old media - on radio and television respectively. 

 

In fact, we have all contributed to the systemic wearing down of facts and evidence, and the creation of a culture - across the world - which values opinions as much as demonstrable, undeniable, scientific facts. Fact and truth have been under siege by us all for far too long, and this culture where opinions count above all else has facilitated the rise of populist movements backed up by rhetoric, lies and and very little fact. We have come to the point where most of us are willing to accept as a norm that opinions matter as much as evidence, that everyone’s point of view is equally valuable and valid, and that it doesn’t particularly matter whether you have proof for a claim or not.

 

Case in point is the debate around climate change and the fact that news organisations are afflicted by a form of bias known as bothsideism, where both sides of an argument are portrayed as being equally reasonable.  Media platforms continue to book two guests to discuss the issue - one with the vast weight of scientific evidence behind them, and the other with crackpot conspiracy theories. The infamous example that I’m sure you’ve guessed I’m alluding to is the interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme where former Vice President Al Gore - who had recently brought out his second film on climate change - presented much evidence for the damage we are doing to the world, and was then followed by climate change denier Lord Lawson who was asked no particularly challenging questions. The BBC has had to apologise for the exchange. What that event is indicative of is the way that, routinely, every view is presented as respectable and fair, even when the overwhelming weight of evidence is on one side of the debate.

 

If you listen to James O’Briain’s show - also on LBC - you can see the effect of this outside of the Westminster bubble or the Washington DC beltway and how this treatment of fact has poisoned the way we all think about politics. James O’Briain is a highly polarising and controversial figure for his unabashed liberal and remainer views, but I admire him greatly for the way he takes on callers who spout empty platitudes about whatever topic is being discussed. It’s what he has become most famous for, and his recent book, How To Be Right in a World Gone Wrong, focuses on that style of presenting and arguing. Callers regularly phone in and attempt to repeat the same old arguments about in relation to Brexit, or President Trump, or on whatever the topic might be, and you can hear for yourself the destructive impact of this culture of opinions on political debate. 

 

Those with no facts and no evidence - repeating lines they’ve read in a tabloid - continue to assert that they are right even when presented with overwhelming evidence because “I’m entitled to hold my own opinion.” And it is that line which sums up the entire issue succinctly - intelligent and good people are perfectly convinced that their opinions matter more than fact. And every time that those of us who still believe in truth and evidence do not challenge an opinion like that or allow people to think they can propagate any view, however factually incorrect or made up, we are enabling this to go on, and we open the door for much more unsavoury opinions - conspiracy theories - to breed. We all have a right to free speech, and it’s right that people be allowed to hold and share opinions without government censorship, but that puts the responsibility on us all to use our free speech to promote reason and truth, and every time we are too afraid to we are failing our society.

 

Michael Gove was at least half correct when he said during the EU referendum campaign that “I think the people of this country have had enough of experts.” In truth, the whole world has stopped considering the importance of expertise. Politicians, particularly those of Trumpian or Gove-ian hue, and news organisations of all stripes - not just social media - have contributed to a situation where uninformed opinions with no proof behind them now matter as much as what the Governor of the Bank of England or a Government report might say. And this is dangerous for democracy, as the events of recent years across the world have shown.

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