Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Telling the truth in an age of lies

NOT how a Diplodocus walked
The USA presidential election, like the Brexit referundum, has seen lying enter mainstream politics as just another tool. It doesn't seem to be considered reprehensible, it doesn't seem that truth is particularly valued over lies, or that lies need to be apologised for or even explained away as mistakes. The value of truth and accuracy has never been lower. We are in the age of post-truth politics. The people, Michael Gove told us, have had enough of experts. For a man once charged with overseeing education, that's a damning indictment of the current intellectual climate.

Truth is a slippery thing, but that's no excuse for ignoring it or waving it off with a cheery smile or shrug of the shoulders rather than trying to identify and grasp it. I currently spend my days reading academic articles on paleontology and on neuroscience because I want the books I write to be as accurate as possible. It matters whether dinosaurs swallowed gastroliths (they didn't) and how the plaques that cause Alzheimer's are formed (by the build-up of amyloid proteins between synapses). It would be easier - and possibly more entertaining - to perpetuate the myth of dinosaurs swallowing stones to help break up their food. It would give us a nice lift-the-flap look inside a dinosaur's stomach. Just as it would be nice if voting for Brexit produced a massive influx of money for the NHS or if there really was no one with greater respect for women than Donald Trump. But just because these things would be nice doesn't mean they are true, and doesn't mean we should deceive people into thinking they are true, or that we shouldn't care whether they are true or not.

Thankfully, truth is still valued in books, especially fin books or children. Children have to trust us - the adults who have control of the flow of information - as they have no way of verifying facts for themselves. But how much is that trust eroded in a world where truth has no civic value? What is that trust worth? Is it, in fact, turned into a form of gullibility? The quest for accuracy, which used to be taken for granted, has slipped down the agenda and down the value-scale. Now, if something is stated on the web or in the media enough times, it's considered true, or at least true enough, or at least not worth examining. If I tell people I research books for children using academic journals, they are surprised. Some think it's overkill, others think it's noble but amusing. It's neither - it's just how the job should be done. Children deserve the trust they place in us - authors, teachers, parents - to be respected and rewarded with truth.

Giordano Bruno: 'Truth does not change because it is, or is not,
believed by a majority of the people.'
Science, unlike belief, makes progress through acknowledging its mistakes and overturning theories and paradigms that are not supported by new evidence. So yes, the truth shifts. Once you would be laughed at (at best) for believing the Earth goes round the Sun or that diseases can be caused by living things too small to see. Seeing this progression towards truth along a path littered with errors validates not only truth itself but the endeavour to discover truth. It spurs young people on to be curious, and bravely curious, because getting it wrong doesn't matter. Getting it wrong, indeed, is often a necessary step towards getting it right. But to do any of that, you have to value truth and be able to discern it. Current political and civic life does not set a good example to young people. They see adults lying to each other, accepting and acting on those lies without asking for or looking for evidence, or - if Gove is to be believed - even wanting to see any evidence. How will we raise the next generation of scientists, critical thinkers, philosophers, lawyers or even vloggers if they don't see any value in truth? ('Put this rat poison on your face; it makes you skin whiter...' Yes, but.)

And finally... there is not empirical truth in all areas. There is no single right way to govern a nation (as far as we know) and no objective answer to whether, say, abortion is wrong. As a society, we arrive at the answers we will accept through debate and discussion, through examining evidence and hearing and assessing different views. The skill of listening and assessing is one our children will not learn, as they have no model for it (and even the National Curriculum does not value it). If we demonise experts - and how well did that path serve China and Cambodia? - and our political 'debates' consist only of shouting the same thing louder and louder and launching personal attacks, how will our children learn to value learning, or to discuss, debate and negotiate? When the response to an opinion you disagree with is to blank it or to meet it with a personal attack, or trolling, there is no space in which discussion can take place.  When did it become OK to assume people are acting out of malice rather then ignorance if we disagree with their views or actions? If we don't treat other views with respect and dignity, and treat those who hold them with courtesy, we make it impossible to keep an open mind and then it's impossible to change anyone's mind (even our own). If I think someone is stupid and malicious I won't want to agree with them as that would obviously align me with the stupid and malicious, too. If someone thinks I'm stupid and malicious, I won't be inclined to listen to them or even try to talk to them. This, surely, is not what we want our children to see and think?

I will continue to write 'true' books - non-fiction, books that are not made up, books that are carefully researched and try to present a balanced view where there is doubt and the truth where doubt is minimal. And as it is non-fiction November, please try to reflect on the value of showing children not just the truth, but the value of truth. Before it's too late.

Anne Rooney


Penny Dolan said...

The right post for today of all days. Thanks, Anne.

Lynne Benton said...

Well said, Anne! Many thanks.

Nicola Morgan said...

Indeed. Well said.

It's also a world where, even if some people despise "experts", we can suddenly all be experts (which is perhaps why some others undervalue real experts because it looks so easy to become one) and indeed, we too often think we are. People too often skim-read things (or read things that have been skim-written by other skim-readers) and swallow them down in little gobbets, thinking that's enough and, as you say, believing them to be true and the whole truth. It's as though we don't have time to delve for truth so we accept what we read and what fits our existing beliefs because anything else is just too much.

Stroppy Author said...

A very good point, Nicola. This is really not helped by organisations that should know better selling introductory courses with titles like 'Masterclass' (The Guardian) and 'Expert in a Day' (New Scientist). Really, the 'expertise' that can be acquired in a day is NOT expertise - except in a very limited specialised area where the participants are already experts and want to home in on a detailed aspect. Perhaps it began with the devaluation of the term 'consultant', used for shop assistant, person who sells dodgy insurance products, and so on.