04 October 2007

The end justifies the lie

The excellent Bel — who's in my top 10 of UK political blogs (the real one, not the spoof) — last week gave us three examples of what I regard as a key feature of mediocracy: deception. (A manifestation of the more general theme of style-over-substance, or appearance-matters-more-than-content.) The worst of the examples cited by her is the recent case of Culture Minister James Purnell, who turned up late for a hospital function but was

photoshopped (by the hospital, and allegedly with his knowledge) into a picture taken earlier, so as to give the impression that he had arrived and posed with the other MPs there ... It would appear that it is no longer important to get the facts right, so long as the bigger ’story’ or narrative, is in place.

It reminded me of a similar phenomenon described by reporter Jenny Kleeman in a Dispatches programme two years ago, in which we were told that "The Labour Party kept files called ‘real people’ — lists of seemingly ordinary individuals who could be called upon at a moment’s notice to endorse Labour in public, or to pose for photoshoots. And if too few ‘real people’ were around, party workers would make up the numbers." *

Bel continues:

There is this whole idea that deliberate inaccuracies do not matter, as long as the objective, or the story, is valid, or for a good cause. I find that troubling. We saw that a few years ago in the case of the Mirror newspaper and the faked torture pictures. When the pictures were discovered to be fake, the defence used by the newspaper was along the lines of, ‘the pictures might have been fake, but the stories of abuse which they were highlighting, were true.’ That is a very dangerous line of reasoning, and one that has crept into social and political discourse.

The same kind of ideological-correctness-matters-more-than-reality approach is at work in the state education system.

... there is a disregard for facts, even in the classroom. A school, especially at elementary level, should be a place free of agenda, full of questioning, and with more than a passing regard for basic facts. That this is not the case is highlighted by news this week that a father has applied to court for an order to stop Al Gore’s climate change movie being shown in the classrooms. Gore’s movie is by no means the last word on climate change, its science has actually been challenged in places by serious scholars of the subject. For the Government to allow it to be shown in schools without giving room for a counter-view is just more evidence of the prevailing disregard for facts.

For Gore to call his film 'An Inconvenient Truth' is doubly tendentious. First, if his 'truth' is indeed true, you could equally well argue that it is a convenient truth for most governments, since it rationalises increases in state intervention. (The US is the exception to the rule here, and probably only because they happen to have a particularly stubborn President, whose faith in experts is not what it 'ought' to be. Not for very much longer, methinks.) Second, the real inconvenience is data which doesn't fit with the preferred belief system of the il-liberal elite, e.g. research which fails to support the so-called consensus view on climate change. There are now plenty of people who argue that such research simply shouldn't get done.

From my experience, I would say that a phenomenon similar to that in schools is at work inside academia. In most institutions it may not yet have reached the point of denying or even falsifying data. But I am pretty certain there is a good deal of bias going on in favour of research which will buttress the ideologically desirable viewpoint, and against research which might undermine it.

The polemicisation of evolutionary biology by people like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris is an example of how belief in the rightness of a particular perspective is beginning to trump genuinely critical enquiry, even in scientific areas. (Though of course the proponents of this quasi-religious approach like to portray themselves as thoroughly 'critical').

* This quote by Kleeman is actually from a follow-up article by her in the Daily Mail of 21 May 2005. Does my claiming it's what she said in the programme count as doctoring? Possibly, but at least you're getting all the facts. Comment