The War of Ideas

In our hyper-connected 24 hour media global internet age, it’s sometimes hard to remember back to when we had to read a textbook, visit a library, or talk to ‘an expert’ in order to find anything out.

Things have changed.

We now have instant access to virtually endless amounts of information on almost every conceivable subject – deliverable right to the smart phone in our pocket, no matter where we are, via the touch of a few buttons.

In the space of a decade or so our problem has changed from one of having too little information available to us, to one of having far too much!

This means we are overwhelmed, inundated and bombarded with information – the only response is to spread our attention a little more thinly; scanning, skimming, screening and simply ignoring, many of the messages and inputs we receive.

We can easily feel that because we have so much information available to us, we’re also obliged to have an opinion about just about everything . . . But having spent relatively little time reading, checking and digesting the facts, we risk having only a superficial understanding of an issue, but of course, once we’ve committed to ‘an opinion’ it can be hard for us to change our minds – no matter what new information we subsequently encounter.

Very often we’re faced with ideas or opinions in opposition – wind turbines: good or bad, gay marriage: good or bad, nuclear power: good or bad, more austerity: good or bad ?

It’s as if we’re being encouraged to ignore any subtleties or complexity and simply choose a side and cheer our team on.

And is everything that is presented to us as fact really true ? No, clearly not. Truth is interspersed with lies, mistakes, approximations, previously truth, wishful thinking, urban myth, selective facts, one-sided arguments, emotional blackmail, smears on the messenger and any number of other things. It’s not that things aren’t checkable, it’s just that there’s too much checking to do, and mostly we don’t bother.

This is the ‘post-fact’ battleground of the various wars of ideas being fought out for our support .

Two examples caught my attention over the last few weeks: climate change (again), and the overseas aid budget (also again).

The Guardian published a piece titled Don’t Give Climate Heretics a Chance. It broadly argues that as most climate skeptics are not climate scientists we should be less willing to listen to their views, and goes as far as proposing some kind of ‘certification scheme’ for use of accurate climate facts in articles and reporting.

Much as I share the frustration of the author, Jay Griffiths (an author and English graduate – if that matters to you), with inaccurate and misleading representations of science being presented on an equal basis to peer reviewed articles and research, surely the answer isn’t some kind of ‘ministry of truth kitemark’ on all published opinions ?

The real problem is the absence of a single recognised and accepted authority on climate change science – our information age has democratised truth, we’re all free to choose our own authority, and believe their pronouncements: whether it’s James Delingpole, in the red corner, or  almost all the World’s scientists in the blue.

Until someone develops an online truth filter, we’ll just have to rely on our common sense and judgement.

The other story that caught my eye a few weeks ago was on the front page of the UK newspaper The Express: We Pay For India’s Rocket to Mars. The story, by the journalist Macer Hall, contrasts India’s planned unmaned space mission to Mars, with the UK’s aid contribution, also claiming ‘Anger has been growing since David Cameron pledged to continue increasing the overseas aid budget despite cuts’. Interestingly the article also reports “British aid is not used to fund India’s space programme. Our development aid to India is earmarked for specific purposes like tackling child malnutrition, providing malaria bednets and secondary education for Dalit girls” - which does make the article’s title seem more than a little misleading” ?

I’m a strong supporter of well targeted international aid, and broadly speaking would like the UK to not only maintain it’s overseas aid contribution, but actually increase it. The stories we often see stirring-up resentment and claiming misuse of aid donations are often misleading (as in this case), or even when accurate I would argue the solution is to better target the aid involved, rather than to cut it, an alternate ‘solution’ to the problem of ‘bad aid’ I rarely see offered in certain sections of the press.

If you want to see how divisive these kind of issues and debates have now become, you simply have to scroll down through the comments below each story – wading through the abuse, self-righteousness, hostility and rage of the full-on Troll Warfare ! Online debating doesn’t seem to be constrained by any of the social niceties we observe in the real world.

So what the answer ?

Clearly I’m not saying don’t have opinions . . . but do have a couple of suggestions:

Firstly, we should all be a little more critical and questioning of pretty much everything we read – whether we’re naturally inclined to support or oppose them. The world is a complicated place, and things are rarely back and white, we should delve a little more deeply into what we see and hear, resisting the temptations of polarisation. . . . in other words we should be smart.

Secondly, and just as importantly, we should have the modesty to sometimes profess a little less certainty about our own opinions – accepting we rarely are so expert to have considered all the full facts in detail. We should try to listen respectfully to the opinions of others, and be willing to accept new evidence, if it seems reliable, even if it goes against our previously held views. . . in other words we should be nice.

I believe it is important for those of us seeking to sway opinion and make a positive difference in the world to engage in the ‘war of ideas’ – but we won’t get anywhere by being trolls about it !


Similar articles – Walk Two Moons in Someone Else’s Moccasins, Climate Through the Data SmogDo you Believe in Climate Change

Photo by Cali4Beach, via Flickr

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