Uncertainty? Let’s have more

Talking to a group of undergraduates about conducting a research project, I asked them where they went for trusted information. They dutifully gave the expected answer: go to the peer-reviewed academic journals.

But what if you want to understand what’s going on now rather than however many years ago the peer-reviewed research was done? Social media, they said. Peer groups and friends, face to face or online, were their main source of information and the ones whose opinions were trusted.

Nothing surprising there. But friendship and community, which are the foundations of trust online and face to face, easily create echo chambers where dissent or disagreement are not tolerated, or even voiced. Closed communities build fences and only a few truths are permitted inside.

A school playground can be such a closed community. Consider this interview by Madeleine Leonard with a group of boys in Belfast in the early 2000s:

Boy 1: And they’re (Catholics) dead slinky. They start riots just so they can get the cameras out.

Boy 2: Aye, they love the cameras. It gets people to feel sorry for them but it’s them that starts things. 

Boy 3: I know. They even build their schools in Protestant areas just for badness.

Interviewer: Maybe the areas were mixed when the school was first built?

Boy 3: No. I don’t think that’s right. Even if it is, they should all move now.

Adults should know better, if only because they’re usually exposed to a greater variety of people from different walks of life and with different outlooks. Well, you’d hope so. But when narcissism is increasingly a route to power, perhaps not.

Distrust of difference isn’t new. But it’s resurgent, and truthfulness is its first casualty, sacrificed in the name of partisan ‘truth’. The Trump administration’s blitzkrieg on truthfulness may be the most shocking example, but playing fast and loose with truth isn’t confined to Trump and his circle. It’s as insidious in so-called liberal circles, as the salutary case of Phil Shiner illustrates.

The everyday, ordinary assaults on truthfulness matter just as much. They happen in the dissemination of absurd concepts such as ‘discriminatory trees’ in Sheffield. Or whenever a PR-trained official counters a question with a set of facts that don’t address the question asked.

These assaults happen when humble council officials rewrite reports to align with government policies, and in churches and clubs and political groups and workplaces that privilege exclusive readings of reality and give platforms to the individuals who espouse them while marginalising others.

We shouldn’t be surprised by this, because it’s a battle we face every day. Imagining that we don’t need to keep fighting it is the problem. Failing to ask uncomfortable questions, and failing to listen, is what allows football clubs to shelter child abusers, companies to provide havens for fraudsters and apparently reasonable politicians to cosy up to tyrants.

There’s nothing nefarious or conspiratorial about this everyday undermining of honesty. It’s just dull, bog-standard greed, self-advancement, self-protection and worming away from accountability. Everyone is vulnerable to it.

That’s why one of the first rules of research is reflexivity, the requirement to be self-aware and self-critical. It’s a quality that’s in short supply in a world where the simple, uncritiqued message is king and social media is its pageboy.

It means you always have to live with the possibility of being wrong. But in this time of turmoil and uncertainty when frustrated people put their trust in bigots and bullies, we desperately need the doubt and uncertainty that stops us becoming fools. Let’s have more of it.

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