I really mean it. Perhaps that sounds odd in an age where everyone seems to be trying to gain a personal following. I mean, shouldn’t I be trying to build up an audience for this new blog? Should I not be kissing link-butt and drawing in you in? Maybe, but I don’t like the idea of “belief.” And following people – or, indeed, subscribing to their blogs – seems to engender a notion that one believes in them rather like one believes in a religion or political agenda. And that stuff is getting old, baby.
Let me explain: I am, basically, an old punk. My favourite band is probably Dead Kennedys (caution: maybe NSFW / NSFL) and my favourite comedian Bill Hicks (likewise). It is plain weird to me that I have somehow, despite all my best efforts, ended up working in the field I do with the principles I hold dear, but that, as they say, is life. One of my main principles in thinking punkyish is that you burn your idols. You don’t have them. Nobody gets to be right just by virtue of who they are. Our political systems (West, East, everywhere) are based on the idea that we believe what certain of our leaders say with often then very lightest of questioning.
This is a form of idolatry. I want to question everybody, I want to know what they know so I can see whether their conclusions are ones I would come to myself. We all tend to use cognitive shortcuts – instead of examining the raw data or information, we rely on the source – some like The Guardian, some like The Times; some follow the guy with that kind of beard, some with this kind of hat. Are you a Redditor or a 4Channer or a Digg-er? Noam Chomsky or Leo Strauss?
There is a certain necessity in all of this. Few people have the time to examine every fact for themselves; more importantly, few have the intellect. There is no reason why anyone who has not studied economics (academically or in practice) should hold a valid opinion on whether or not we raise interest rates or cut taxes. This is why debates like whether or not the UK should join the Euro are reduced to nationalist issues such as whether or not the Queen’s head would be on a 10 Euro note or whether or not it’s a matter of national sovereignty. The media – and commentators, blogs etc – act as a filter or translation mechanism. If you don’t understand an issue personally, then you use outlets you trust to make those decisions for you.
This is a responsibility which is often abused. Headlines about health that play on fear or offer unrealistic hope by pulling a medicine trial result out of context – cancer is not necessarily cured because a bunch of rats showed some promising results in a single experiment. But media need to sell papers and advertising and bloggers need their status and ego-stroking, so that’s what tends to happen. Andrew Wakefield falsifies results in a tiny trial regarding autism and the MMR vaccine to bolster his shareholding in a company which sells single-shot vaccines. Years later, children suffer from diseases which had all but been eradicated; media and others have used the confirmation of what they “believe” in the media to bolster what they think they “know.” And it’s totally understandable – we just don’t have the time or intellect to read up on everything we need to have an opinion on, be sure of the validity of the source of the information and interpret it accordingly. Which begs the question: do you really need an opinion on every subject?
Believing something and knowing something are two very different things. Scientists are supposedly the benchmark: a good scientist can hypothesise on something for years, treating it almost like a belief, but – unlike, say, religious or political people – when the evidence shows them to be wrong, they change their minds.Science is not a belief system – it’s about being able to observe something and repeat it, in essence it’s only about what can be actually proved to be true. It requires no belief other in one’s own eyes and ears.
In practice, of course, that isn’t often the case. Andrew Wakefield still “believes” he is right (as he is paid quite a lot of money to do so) despite all the evidence proving he is quite wrong. Renegade / sceptical climate scientists make a name for themselves by being available to undermine the 97%+ of climate scientists who agree that the evidence is compelling. The public’s difficulty in sorting the wheat from the proverbial chaff (most of us are lucky to have a physics or chemistry GCSE let alone a career’s worth of learning to be able to decide for ourselves) and so we fall back on belief.
Where the science element fails is often not in the science or scientists, but in those that follow them. I love Ben Goldacre’s work in this respect, but those that follow him tend to use his proclamations as fact when they are often opinion (which he is entitled to) – I suspect relatively few of those that cite him understand his actual scientific work in the slightest. I also adore the work of Adam Curtis as he’s one of the few documentary makers I’ve come across who can stimulate thought and discussion around complex topics, but it’s foolish to take it all at face value and represent as pure fact. This is exactly what religions and political parties do; you may believe that God sent the 10 commandments for his people on Earth but how much more of a religion’s commandments are actually just interpretations by mere mortal men & women? You may believe that tax cuts stimulate the economy because your political party tells you it does and provides you with a single historical example of when this appeared true – but does it also show you examples of all the times when it didn’t?
This is why I love the likes of Wikileaks and (some) hackers. The opening and democratisation of information allows people to see the facts for themselves without the media’s filter process. The downside is that people often do not recognise their own shortcomings in interpreting the information. But that problem is the same with or without the media in the middle of the process. My mother clearly has trouble questioning what The Daily Express tells her – give her the raw data and she’ll still most likely see what she wants. In that respect, I think she’s fairly typical of most of us, whatever publications we choose.
Some credit, then, to Noam Chomsky this week. He’s someone I both love and hate, although most people treat him in exactly the fashion I am trying to address. They either idolise him and repeat every word as gospel or treat him with contempt and ignore everything. But this week he did an interesting volte face. He’s previously hailed Hugo Chavez for his socialist revolution in Venezuela. But he’s also had the guts to say “Actually, you’ve gone a bit wrong there, pal” when it matters. Must be hard to lionise someone one moment and then be critical when required. Try finding newspapers that apologise for their errata with the same amount of column inches they gave over to being wrong in the first place.
Truth is, Google (or Wolfram Alpha or Bing) is my guide. If I want information on a subject I look for it and try and find as commendable a source as my feeble brain can understand. What I don’t do is have a small selection of media outlets on which I rely for information. If I see something in The Independent I may wish to cross-check it with The Guardian, Telegraph or specialist blogs. Just because I see a good post by a blogger does not mean that everything they write is spot-on. This kind of thing is endemic in the kind of people I meet in my work. Malcom Gladwell, Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis, Robert Scoble. All good, intelligent people, but whilst some of their work appeals, some of it is, frankly, utter shit – churned out to sell a book, bolster blog traffic or gain new followers. Once anyone is in the business of providing information, their motives should always be treated as suspicious. That scepticism is healthy – although instantly disbelieving someone because they make a buck is equally stupid.
”]Belief is like a cancer. It grows in a person until they can no longer function effectively. How on Earth can it be that people believed in the Rapture / end of the World? Because they believed in Harold Camping. That’s bad enough, but when he’s proved wrong by a distinct lack of, y’know, earthly destruction, how can people continue to believe him. In fact, people’s beliefs are more likely to be strengthened even when they are “proved” wrong. Seriously, how mad is that?
So forget your idols. David Cameron is not right about everything by virtue of being Prime Minister. Obama is not wrong about everything by virtue of being “leftist”. Your rabbi / imam / priest / prophet is there to be questioned not idolised, your favourite writer / commentator / scientist is just one voice. And yours should be asking “Why? How? When?” or maybe just “WTF?”
So, as I said: do not subscribe to this blog.