A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villany, has no manner of authority
with us.

David Hume

I begin with a short quiz. No conferring, no cheating, and no discussion until the results are in please.

  • You have a persistent pain in your stomach. For advice and/or treatment, do you go to:
    1. Your local hairdresser;
    2. Your doctor;
    3. The supermarket.
  • Your computer is malfunctioning. Do you take it to be repaired/analysed to:
    1. The butcher shop;
    2. A computer techie;
    3. A performance of Swan Lake in your local ballet hall.

Last one. Relax.

  • You have a serious medical issue to resolve. There are three local doctors. Do you go to:
    1. Dr John, aged 106, last seen naked in a supermarket with a duck on his head asking for a haircut;
    2. Dr Who, aged 96, famous for bleeding his clients and applying leeches to malfunctioning body parts ;
    3. Dr Zhivago, aged 46, famous for her accurate diagnoses and bedside manner.

Recently, in the wake of the recent Michael Moore film, Planet of the Humans, I have had several arguments with friends on the topic of whether I should watch it before offering an opinion on it. I won’t watch it because I have read so many articles by environmental journalists, such as George Monbiot, and statements from scientific and environmental organisations shocked at the blatant inaccuracies contained in the film, especially regarding solar and wind power. And I refuse to increase the viewing figures (and subsequent wealth) of a populist film-maker who can only be doing great harm to the urgent requirements of climate action.

I did, however, watch the first 20 minutes of a live discussion he had with one of the founders of Extinction Rebellion, where he compared himself to historical campaigners for free speech, including James Baldwin, and PEN, the international  writers’ organisation founded in 1922, whose founding charter reads

MEMBERS OF PEN pledge themselves to do their utmost to dispel race, class, and national hatreds and to champion the ideal of one humanity living in peace in the world. And since freedom implies voluntary restraint, members also pledge themselves to oppose such evils of a free press as mendacious publication, deliberate falsehood, and distortion of facts for political and personal ends. – from PEN’s Founding Charter, New York City, 1922’ .(Wikipedia).

Freedom of speech for many today seems to be invoked in response to critics of their hate speech, or lies. The idea that Michael Moore has a problem with freedom of speech is perverse, given the huge inaccuracies contained within his film. It seems rather that he believes nobody should have the freedom to criticise his work. Rather than discuss the problems faced by writers and journalists in getting published or heard in countries such as Myanmar, Russia, China and elsewhere, or the scientists desperate to have us focus on the immediate urgency of climate and environmental action, it is this cacophony of hate-speech and uninformed opinion that dominates the social media platforms that must be protected.

The difficult quiz questions at the start of this article connect to a second, even more important, issue. Namely, information and its sources and credibility.

The Scottish philosopher David Hume’s account, entitled ‘Of Miracles’, of why we should not believe in miracles has been critiqued and supported and attacked in philosophical circles. My belief is that most critics miss the point. This essay is really about information; what we should believe, and what we should reject, or at least retain high levels of scepticism about. If a stranger tells me about an unlikely event, say, the raining of cats and dogs in Connemara, I am very unlikely to believe them. If a friend who I have known never to lie or invent fanciful stories tells me the same thing, I would have my interest piqued, even while retaining a certain scepticism. If the cats and dogs landed on my head, I suppose I would have to believe it, or I would check myself into a clinic for psychiatric assessment.

To apply these principles to a particular instance; we may observe, that there is no species of reasoning more common, more useful, and even necessary to human life, than that which is derived from the testimony of men, and the reports of eye-witnesses and spectators. This species of reasoning, perhaps, one may deny to be founded on the relation of cause and effect. I shall not dispute about a word. It will be sufficient to observe, that our assurance in any argument of this kind is derived from no other principle than our observation of the veracity of human testimony, and of the usual conformity of facts to the reports of witnesses.

David Hume

I am having constant arguments with friends about the quality of information we are getting about important matters, such as climate change. Most of them frequent the social media platforms. I don’t. For one friend, a journalist, Michael Moore’s opinion carries the same weight as that of George Monbiot, another journalist, writer, environmental activist and very influential figure in the world of environmentalism, who writes for The Guardian and other publications. And even the scientists, who are unanimous in their assessments of the current crisis, are just more voices, no more, or less, valid than that of Michael Moore, or Tommy Robinson, or the cat next door.

I don’t know if this problem will ever be fixed. I do know that schools and other educational bodies need to up their game in these matters, and teach more on the nature of information and evidential reasoning. We also have to challenge with evidence the populist views of those who follow the herd, the views of their WhatsApp group, or Facebook ‘friends’.

For more on this, I recommend:

What’s wrong with WhatsApp by Willian Davies in the Guardian

I talk to many friends and acquaintances about the climate crisis. I fear the majority don’t see it as a crisis, and only when the cats and dogs land on their heads, will they do so. Many live in a delusional world of self-importance, where everyone’s opinion carries equal weight. It is a world of endless ‘debates.’ It’s not the fossil fuel industry to blame. It’s capitalism, or population, or the existence of humanity, or pretty much anything except the glaring fact of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. Perhaps the refusal to accept the necessary sacrifices and curbs on their car driving, meat eating and plane flying are the reason. Or perhaps it’s the quality of information. Or both.

That’s enough for now. I’m hungry, so I’m going to the dentist to watch a film.

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