What happens when facts don't matter

28 Jul 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 28 Jul 2022

Pic :Unsplash

The phrase “alternative facts” first got an airing on 22 January 2017.

It was used by US presidential advisor Kellyanne Conway justifying the White House’s press secretary Sean Spicer’s false statement that Donald Trump had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration”. She used it to explain why Spicer would “utter a provable falsehood".

At the time it provoked shock, amusement and a sharp up-turn in US sales for George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984.

Meanwhile in the UK the political classes were smugly proclaiming that Trump was deranged and deluded and that sort of behaviour could not happen here.

But it had. The process was already well underway by which people, often with neither expertise nor evidence, felt able to challenge experts whose solutions to problems did not suit them.

In June of the previous year Cabinet Minister Michael Gove had said during an interview about Britain leaving the EU “I think the people in this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

An era had opened whereby inconvenient facts were open to challenge and experts, however independent, could be derided for pursuing a political agenda.

In this post-fact world anything goes and those who shout the loudest are most likely to get a hearing.

And inadequate self-regulation by social media outlets mean that for most of lay people working out which statements have a factual basis and which are false is itself too complex and difficult a task to undertake. There’s not enough time.

It became more sinister, and considerably more dangerous during the pandemic.

Weird conspiracy theories became widespread and were used to justify not being vaccinated and those who complied with government regulations were dubbed “sheeple”. Experts were by now were not only being questioned, but routinely demonised in online exchanges.

Of course in America disputes over the verisimilitude of false facts reached an ugly, violent and deadly climax with the invasion of the US Capitol in January 2021.

It would appear that a new generation of insurrectionists had been spawned. 

That same month the 2021 American Perspectives Survey found that white Christian evangelical Republicans were most likely to support both political violence and the Q-Anon conspiracy, which claims that Democratic politicians and Hollywood elites are paedophiles who (aided by mask mandates that hinder identification) traffic children and harvest their blood.

The animosity is by no means one-sided. In America both Republicans and Democrats express similarly high levels of dehumanising thought: 2021 surveys show 39 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of Republicans saw the other side as “downright evil,” and 16 percent of Democrats and 20 percent of Republicans said that their opponents were “like animals.” Such feelings can point to psychological readiness for violence. 

No wonder analysts are speculating about the danger of the USA plunging into a second civil war.   2020 polling found that 11 percent of Democrats and 12 percent of Republicans agreed that it was at least “a little” justified to kill opposing political leaders to advance their own political goals. And with the American left and the right increasingly armed, viewing the other side as evil or subhuman, and believing political violence to be justified, the possibility grows of tit-for-tat street warfare.

It would be quite wrong to conclude that increasing political tension and accompanying violence in America will be replicated here. But the warning signs are there: an increasing tendency to regard facts as contestable opinions in political debate, allied with the increasing tendency fuelled by social media to demonise those with different points of view.

In Britain we have also suffered from having a Prime Minister for whom facts are optional and to be disregarded if they don’t support the narrative he’s trying to uphold and a party in power who indulged and tolerated that approach so long as it believed it was a vote-winner.

The outcome has been political rows where the facts are ignored if they fail to support a political position.

We’ve had a great example of this in the past week in the row that erupted over the six-hour delays people trying to reach France were experiencing at Dover and Folkestone.

Last weekend was the first after English schools broke up for the holidays and there was a predictable dash for the continent. Dover had to cope with up tom 12,400 cars per day that weekend compared with 2,400 the year before. The port installed three extra passport checking booths in June. It also converted an old French police checkpoint for freight checks to avoid lorry queues.

Yet on the Friday morning only six booths were operational with French authorities citing a technical issue in the tunnel for delaying the arrival of staff.

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss blamed the ensuing mess on the French and swathes of the British media joined her.  It chimed in with a narrative often used by the Brexiteers, that France in particular is determined to ensure that the UK’s exit from Europe is as painful as possible.

As a consequence three factors all of which were much more significant did not get the coverage they deserved. The first is the most obvious of all, and was the primary reason for delays, Brexit. On the UK’s insistence the weekend’s 142,000 passengers at the port had to have their passports stamped, taking the average time each passenger had to spend at passport control from 48 seconds to 90 seconds.

Secondly the government rejected the port of Dover’s request for a £33m chunk of a Brexit infrastructure fund in 2020 to, among other things, double the capacity for French passport checks. And the transport industry has been warning since 2017 that a hard Brexit would lead to gridlock on Kent roads without upgrades.

The result has been that far from casting light on a problem which cause inconvenience to hundreds of thousands of people and discussing how that might be resolved, the media wrangle has led to pundits repeating ill-informed and frequently evidence-free propositions based on their pre-existing views on Brexit.

This is what happens in a post fact society where facts and figures are disregarded if they don’t reinforce an argument and experts are viewed with contempt.



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