Don't Believe The Hype Around Fake News

17/03/2017 13:54
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I haven't blogged for a while so I'm going to make up for that by starting this new post with a biggish quotation. Don't worry, it's a good one. In Don DeLillo's 1985 book, White Noise, the central character Jake Gladney is driving his 14-year-old son Heinrich to school. They start talking about the weather. It goes like this:

"It's going to rain tonight" [says Heinrich].

"It's raining now", I said.

"The radio said tonight."

"Look at the windshield", I said. "Is that rain or isn't it?"

"I'm only telling you what they said."

"Just because it's on the radio doesn't mean we have to suspend belief in the evidence of our senses."

"Our senses? Our senses are wrong a lot more often than they're right. This has been proved in a laboratory. Don't you know about all those theorems that say nothing is what it seems? There's no past, present or future outside our own mind. The so-called laws of motion are a big hoax. Even sound can trick the mind. Just because you don't hear a sound doesn't mean it's not out there. Dogs can hear it. Other animals. And I'm sure there are sounds even dogs can't hear. But they exist in the air, in waves. Maybe they never stop. High, high, high-pitched. Coming from somewhere."

"Is it raining", I said, "or isn't it?"

"I wouldn't want to have to say."

"What if someone held a gun to your head?"

"Who, you?"

"Someone. A man in a trenchcoat and smoky glasses. He holds a gun to hour head. 'Is it raining or isn't it? All you have to do is tell the truth and I'll put away my gun and take the next flight out if here'."

"What truth does he want? Does he want the truth of someone travelling at almost the speed of light in another galaxy? Does he want the truth of someone in orbit around a neutron star? Maybe if their people could see us through a telescope we might look like we were two feet two inches tall and it might be raining yesterday instead of today."

"He's holding the gun to your head. He wants your truth."

"What good is my truth? My truth means nothing. What if this guy with the gun comes from a planet in a whole different solar system? What we call rain he calls soap. What we call apples he calls rain. So what am I supposed to tell him?"

"His name is Frank J Smaller and he comes from St Louis."

"He wants to know if it's raining now, at this very minute?"

"Here and now. That's right."

"Is there such a thing as now? 'Now' comes and goes as soon as you say it. How can I say it's raining now if your so-called 'now' becomes 'then' as soon as I say it?"

"You said there was no past, present or future."

"Only in our verbs. That's the only place we find it."

"Rain is a noun. Is there rain here, in this precise locality, at whatever time within the next two minutes that you choose to respond to the question?"

"If you want to talk about this precise locality while you're in a vehicle that's obviously moving, then I think that's the trouble with this discussion."

"Just give me an answer, okay, Heinrich."

"The best I could do is make a guess."

"Either it's raining or it isn't", I said.

"Exactly. That my whole point. You'd be guessing. Six of one, half a dozen of the other."

"But you see it's raining."

"You see the sun moving across the sky. But is the sun moving across the sky or is the earth moving?"

"I don't accept the analogy."

"You're so sure that's rain? How do you know it's not sulphuric acid from factories across the river? How do you know it's not fallout from a war in China? You want an answer here and now? Can you prove, here and now, that this stuff is rain? How do I know that what you call rain is really rain? What is rain, anyway?"

"It's the stuff that falls from the sky and gets you what is called wet."

"I'm not wet. Are you wet?"

"All right", I said. "Very good."

"No, seriously, are you wet?"

"First-rate", I told him. "A victory for uncertainty, randomness and chaos. Science's finest hour."

"Be sarcastic."

"The sophists and hairsplitters enjoy their finest hour."

"Go ahead, be sarcastic, I don't care."

Pretty funny, eh? Heinrich's hair-splitting obstreperousness is one of the book's many comic devices. He comes close to outwitting his father, a university professor, on several occasions.

This is a Socratic dialogue being satirised, right? DeLillo's book's a comedy, albeit a serious one, and we know very well that rain is a scientifically-proven meteorological phenomenon. The evidence of our senses (faulty but still significant) chime with well-established facts in situations like the Gadneys rain-on-the-windshield one. In short: Jake is perfectly right to insist on the fact that it's raining.

Despite Heinrich's best efforts, DeLillo's "is it/isn't it raining" episode is (or should be) an example of common sense and scientific evidence aligning. We could say the same about another weather-related development - climate change. There's a huge body of scientific evidence that the earth is warming up. Colossal human developments around the world in the last few hundred years (smokestack industries, vehicle emissions, intensively-farmed animal emissions) are the logical cause. This is our "sense check" here, not - as climate sceptics sometimes say - looking out of the window, seeing that it's snowing and proclaiming climate change "a myth".

Which leads me (in a roundabout way) to "post-truth", our supposed new ultra-sceptical paradigm.

Michael Gove saying that people in Britain "have had enough of experts", Donald Trump describing as "fake news" a dossier alleging he paid for sex workers during a trip to Russia, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway saying false White House claims over the presidential inauguration crowd were "alternative facts" - in one way another, these are all part of the so-called post-truth universe.

So what's going on? What does it even mean to talk about something being "post-truth"? Is it that, as Gove seems to suggest, self-appointed "experts" keep getting things wrong so we should disregard their counsel and ... well, just trust our own gut feelings? This seems to be his point. And with Conway, is she saying that "facts" aren't fixed and unassailable? That there can be other sets of facts - ones equally (or even more) true than the ones our political opponents refer to? Seems so. Meanwhile, Trump is more direct: the story about him being blackmail-able by Russian intelligence because of alleged sex acts is "fake". It's "phoney stuff". In fact, it's "fake news" - untrue allegations being reported by news organisations (CNN and BuzzFeed) who themselves, in Trump's formulation, are tainted by their reporting of the allegations. Hence, in Trump's withering attack, CNN is itself "fake news".

Heady stuff. Except, what's really new here? Politicians trying to rubbish those who disagree with them? Come on! It's standard stuff. The only novelty is the "fake news" phrase itself and the rather pathetic way that some people have latched onto it, trying to bat away any and all criticism. Donald Trump's swingeing attacks on the "mainstream press" are one thing (not without their sinister side), but we're also getting the likes of Bashar al-Assad saying it's "fake news" when Amnesty exposes the unspeakable horrors taking place in one of his military prisons.

Fake news - don't believe the hype. What's really fake here? Simply crying "fake news" whenever challenged is the least convincing response imaginable. Politicking aside, issues like whether there's rampant torture and secret execution in Assad's Saydnaya prison come down to evidence, not who can shout "fake" the loudest. Same with the size of the crowd at
Trump's inauguration. Same with Trump's alleged sexual behaviour.

In the end, there's nothing new in people accused of human rights abuses and other misbehaviour trying to rubbish the accusation or the accuser. It's centuries-old behaviour. It remains to be seen whether Mr Trump paid women to urinate in front of him in a Moscow hotel bedroom, but there's little doubt that Assad's prisoners are being routinely tortured and killed. Assad is like DeLillo's Heinrich, trying to deny the obvious. It might play well in the pro-Damascus/Moscow press, but - longer term - President Assad isn't going to be able to evade justice by paper-thin ruses like these.

To be sure, there are very real issues around misinformation campaigns and their amplification by social media platforms like Facebook. But to talk about a "post-truth" age is ridiculous. The minor hysteria over all this reminds me of the hype around Francis Fukuyama's famous End Of History essay from 1989. Suddenly, with the end of the Cold War a "traditional" history of clashing political systems was supposed to have come to a halt. Unsurprisingly, it was nonsense.

And neither are we in any way now post-truth. Instead, we're simply seeing a lot of political contestation (plus ça change) with people arguing about what's true and what isn't.

In DeLillo's White Noise the narrator Gladney spends a lot of time with his academic colleague, Murray Jay Siskind, a cynical New Yorker with a penchant for constant theorising. Gladney, half-appalled, sums up his colleague's acidic take on the world: "Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security."

Except they don't! Unless you're a dictator with something to hide ...