Hard facts and scepticism will see us through …

On the 8 February I took part in this webinar – it seems I’m not the only one concerned about the mountain of misinformation being spread around the world. You can view the webinar here at Youtube. Any comments or feedback on the webinar are most welcome.

As I write this the UK is 4 weeks into the 3rd period of “lockdown” since the COVID-19 virus crisis started in early 2020. Over that period, restrictions have been relaxed and increased in a number of different regimes, but throughout it has been the number one topic in the news. Initially, a daily press briefing was held on the crisis, normally at 5pm. Whilst the frequency of these briefings has diminished they are still happening regularly – at least once a week. The briefing normally starts with a statement from a member of the government, often accompanied by one or two appropriate experts providing a statement on current government-led interventions followed by questions from the general public and the press. This is probably the TV show I have watched more than any other over the past 11 months. It does not contain special effects, incredible singing or emoting, or impressive lighting, but the critical situation we find ourselves in makes it far more dramatic viewing than Eastenders or The Voice.

I primarily write this blog to promote critical thinking: the application of a scientific way of thinking and debating to help us make better decisions. An important part of this is to debunk “baloney”: a polite catch-all term for the type of misinformation, nonsense and rumour that can infiltrate our thinking and, at worse, influence important decisions. My last Blog entry described how opportunists and mischief makers use whatever is topical to generate more of this baloney and the COVID-19 pandemic has been no exception. In the article I also provided techniques and provided links to assist with fact checking.

As the year has gone on, the conspiracy theorists have developed their narratives culminating in the dramatic events surrounding the aftermath of the US election in November. QAnon – a loose conglomeration of people who share stories online about how rich and powerful individuals such as Bill Gates, George Soros and Hillary Clinton are baby-eating monsters secretly manipulating us all to fulfil their secret evil plans – although exactly what these secret evil plans are is a matter of some debate amongst QAnon devotees. There did, however, seem to be consensus that rigging the US election to ensure Donald Trump’s defeat was common aim of this evil cabal. During the news footage of the invasion of the Capitol Building we saw QAnon t-shirts and badges amongst these uninvited visitors. At this point these conspiracy theorists went mainstream, but something also seemed to break. Patience was exhausted, and even hard-line Trump supporters like Mike Pence stopped tolerating this kind of nonsense. The big social media providers kicked Trump off their platforms and internet infrastructure providers and naming authorities withdrew services and support for the most extreme of these conspiracy sites. There are risks with this approach, and free speech activists have already sounded potential alarms about loss of liberty and driving extremism underground, but internet companies taking more responsibility for the content that helps drive their revenues is surely a positive trend.

For me, despite 2020 being the most dreary year I can remember, events like this gave me some reasons for optimism. These started for me with the aforementioned UK Government press briefings. This is because, despite the bad news being delivered, there is a big emphasis on facts at these briefings. Numbers are published daily, and questioned with reasonable vigour by the free press in attendance. The politicians tend to defer to the experts stood next to them who are extremely careful at identifying any opinion or speculation as such, and focus on what is known rather than what might happen. We can be pretty confident a fact stated here is a fact. Indeed, when Boris Johnson announced “we can turn the tide within 12 weeks” in mid-March the uncomfortable silence followed by caveats coming from the medical professionals stood next to him contrasted strongly with his ebullient confidence. His statement was not a fact, but instead a rather inaccurate prediction: standard issue for a pre-pandemic Boris. As Philip Tetlock highlights in his 2005 book “Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?” the main difference between experts and the rest is that experts are much better at understanding the probability associated with a prediction. Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance knew Johnson was being rash when he made his 12 week prediction – and it showed. It’s notable that whilst Boris has continued to try and maintain a positive demeanour, he has steadfastly avoided making similar predictions since. This is a positive step. Boris has, on occasion, not been afraid to pass on misinformation to further his own political ends – moderating this behaviour is progress. I hope this marks a trend of politicians trying to apply the lessons of critical thinking.

These press briefings tend to be sceptical but not hostile. During the Q&A the press ask questions of detail – often prompted by independent research. The journalists don’t just accept the answers, they prompt, check and verify. It is not about criticizing the government or the health service, but prompting the questions and actions to improve the current situation. On the whole there is little apparent bias in the dialogue. These journalists, politicians and experts have many areas of disagreement but their focus is on the job at hand. How do we save as many lives as possible? How do we get through this? What are the trade-offs? This is a really high stress situation, and we have already sacrificed a great deal in terms of freedom and lifestyle, but the tone is generally calm despite clear differences of opinion. If you want to know how to have an argument you could do worse than study these briefings. Many of the journalists and politicians involved have changed their approach: partisan name calling and referencing of stereotypes has fallen away. Unfortunately, running a decent press briefing does not mandate good outcomes – especially in such dire circumstances. A combination of bad luck (the new variant), poor execution of policy (track and trace and the initial testing strategy) and poor policy itself (over-optimistic interpretation of numbers/reluctance to put restrictions in place early enough) has generated an extremely serious situation in the UK. Nevertheless, I found the press briefings encouraging compared to what I had witnessed in recent election/referendum campaigns.

This is not all. The international effort to develop vaccines in such short timescales has been extremely inspiring and has demonstrated the value of science; science which depends upon critical thinking. Rumour and conspiracy theory will not get us out of this situation – a fact acknowledged by the vast numbers flocking to get their vaccine. Whilst I worry about the possible adverse consequences of censorship, I also applaud the new “zero-tolerance” approach to those that blatantly spread lies and misinformation. When reasonable people tolerate this type of wicked mischief then extremely bad things can happen. The recognition that truth and freedom require protection from self-interested bad actors, and is just as applicable in the online world as in other spheres, is welcome, and I hope more and more of us will find the courage and motivation to continue to educate ourselves and act accordingly. For this pandemic to be, eventually, over we need to hold to this course. Hard facts and scepticism will see us through …

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