Fake news has become such an obsession that accusing people of lying has become as common as saying “Hi! How are you?” and I’m as guilty as anyone. I do it, I know it’s unhelpful, but I can’t stop myself. But at least I know it’s pointless, whereas most people doing it don’t realise it’s pointless, and they go on doing it, even though they’re plain wrong, and I’m right.
Take the hysteria about the Brexit message on the bus about leaving Europe and having 300 million quid extra to spend a week on the National Health Service. What was wrong with it? We give x billion to Brussels per year. Divide by 52 and you have the amount we can spend on the NHS per week instead, if we want to. How can that possibly be a lie? (Of course, it’s true that Brussels gives some of it back, but only if we spend it on what they tell us to, like subsidising some bloke with five organic goats starving on a hillside in Wales or giving a bung to social scientists to investigate attitudes to climate change.) And even if the figure was 200 million and not 300, what’s the point of fussing about it? It’s like – How much will the high speed train cost? or What’s a Banksy painting worth? Arithmetical accuracy is not the point. You can’t be lying when you’re speculating.
Now compare this obsession with accuracy with the discourse around climate change. Anyone can be misinformed, or mistaken in their judgement as to what might happen in the future. But take any journalist or scientist “informed on the matter” as they say, and ask them about the official enquiries into Climategate, or the state of small island nations, or the temperature trend in the Antarctic, and you know they’re going to lie. Not misstate, or exaggerate, or express a doubtful opinion, but tell monster porkies. It’s very frustrating, and I often feel how pointless it is asserting over and over again what a bunch of scallywags they are. Pointing out for the millionth time that Lewandowsky or Roger Harrabin have stated something that’s not true is not a sensible way for an intelligent person to spend their time.
I’ve been reading “The Great Terror,” Robert Conquest’s account of Stalin’s purges, and I realise it doesn’t have to be like that. Say what you like about Stalin, but he was a great stickler for the truth. Not the truth as you or I would understand it, but the truth as in: “Did you sign this confession admitting that you plotted to blow up factories and murder the Central Committee under the orders of the traitor Trotsky?” “Yes I did.”
Sometimes things would go badly wrong during the trial when a mistruth was found to have slipped into the testimony, as when the guilty person admitted to having met the Trotskyist spy in a café in Berlin that no longer existed. Then all hell would break loose, and half the NKVD would be confessing to having screwed up on purpose in order to destroy the integrity of Soviet justice in the eyes of the world. But they really did confess, no doubt about it. It’s in the trial records. No kidding.
Lying, and accusing others of lying, is a very middle class thing. It’s inherent in the hypocrisy and pretence typical of middle class society. If you’re at the bottom of the heap you may have to cheat and steal to survive, but you don’t have to lie about it, unless you’re caught. And those at the top of the heap don’t make statements that have a truth value at all; they issue edicts or commands or make ritualised utterances emphasising their power and authority. Spend half an hour watching Bloomberg or any business news TV and ask yourself: “Is it true what he’s saying?” and you’ll see the question has no sense. This is why the working class “gets” Trump and the middle class is so enraged by him. Trump goes: “Climate change is a Chinese hoax” or words to that effect (and the effect is what counts) and the working class chap goes: “Yeah, I get where he’s coming from,” while the CNN journalist goes bananas.
If you’re working in a factory making widgets for company A, no-one cares what you think about your widgets or anything else. But if you’re working in the office selling the widgets, you’ve got to pretend to believe that your widgets are better than Company B’s as if your life depended on it, until Company B offers you a better salary to believe the opposite.
And it’s not just with respect to rivals in a competitive society that one has to lie, but also with respect to the toiling classes who do the dirty work. The snake oil salesman has to justify his higher salary and status with respect to the poor blighter who has to squeeze the oil out of the snake in the first place. Central to our society are the millions of marketing men, advertisers, journalists, experts in public relations and a host of other specialisations doing what is essentially the job formerly performed by the market trader or the town crier. (Think of the modern sense of the word “trader.”) And they all went to the same schools and have the same IQs as the academics and members of the serious professions who enjoy the respect they lack. And they have the same education and IQ as the people who run things, and for whom they work, and who earn ten or a hundred times more than they do. That adds up to an awful lot of people in the system who are objectively successful and well-off, but who know deep down that they are impotent slaves and useless parasites of a system run by people no more capable or intelligent than they are. No man is a hero to his valet, or to his marketing consultant. In feudal times such middle manager types might be tempted to revolt, go Cathar or Lutheran, take a vow of poverty, or seek some such Higher Truth to justify the lie they know they’re living. Other will-o’-the wisps tempt modern man.
And it’s not just a salesman thing. The same devil-may-care disregard for objective truth is to be found throughout the professions which constitute the upper middle class. In some cases the lying is inherent to the job, as in case of the defence lawyer, the estate agent, or the newspaper editorialist. But it’s there as an unconscious substructure underpinning the work of the most honest and conscientious members of society. At the root of the useful and highly complex activity of the doctor, the judge or the artist is the shared unconscious and false belief that everyone who takes the right pill will get better, that the innocent will be let off and the baddies punished, and that putting a painting on the wall will somehow enrich your inner life.
This is not a judgement on bourgeois society, but just a statement of how the world has to be to work at any level more complex than slavery. Capitalism has evolved out of feudalism – just like that – and the actors involved are no more conscious of the process than the fish which spent a few million years patiently evolving legs. (Though the process is much more rapid, thankfully.)
Of course, society couldn’t work at all if everyone lied all the time about everything (as Epimenides the Cretan noted) and several professions have been specifically created to stop things getting out of hand, starting with the King’s Fool, who was allowed to speak truth to power because he was a fool. It’s noteworthy that Andrew Montford, Paul Homewood and ManicBeanCounter are all accountants (and no fools), and Steve McIntyre applied his formidable statistical talents to correcting a tendency to over-exuberant optimism in the mining industry. Even the humble market researcher frequently gets the opportunity to puncture the pomposity of his betters – people like marketing managers, advertising copywriters and graphic designers.
The thing that stops the whole system from breaking down is not some abstract moral principle of honesty, but the fact that people don’t (usually) all tell the same lie at the same time. Which is what makes the case of climate change so bewildering.
I try to imagine the first generation of climate scientists back in the seventies in their lab coats, gathered anxiously round some monster IBM machine juddering and humming as it spouts out a pile of neatly concertina’d bumf. “Eureka! they cry triumphantly; “We have the answer! Climate Sensitivity between 1.5 and 4°C for a doubling of CO2. Let’s tell the world.” “Four degrees! That’s jolly hot,” says one. “But that’s a pessimistic estimate,” says another, “I think it’s probably nearer one and a half.” “I’ll go for three degrees, says a third, because it’s in the middle, and I’ve got one of their LPs at home.” And so they argue the toss, as people do…
But apparently it didn’t happen like that. Straight away 97% of them got the right answer and they haven’t deviated an inch since, despite the blandishments of the fossil fuel industry. Headstrong, resolute, determined, like the figures on a superhero movie poster, but with little beards and paunches. So weird. Why does anyone believe them?
I’m equally bewildered by theIpsos MORI Veracity Index. Every year for the past thirty years they’ve been asking the public who, of the following professions, would you trust to tell the truth. The levels of trust are fairly stable over time, but vary hugely between professions, with politicians and journalists scoring lowest, with about 15-20% of the population trusting them. Among the top scoring professions, trusted by 80% or more, were doctors, scientists, and – bizarrely – hairdressers.
I mean, why? I trust the hairdresser to cut my hair and not my throat – but to tell the truth? That’s the last thing I want or expect him to do. (That was in 2018. Last year hairdressers were eliminated from the list. Too honest for their own good.)
Given that doctors and scientists are the most trusted, one might suppose that respondents are taking their desires for reality. After all, one wants to be able to trust the guy who diagnoses your illness or designs the atomic power station next door. But to get the diagnosis right, not necessarily to tell the truth about it. And why are scientists trusted more than engineers? And some findings make no sense at all, like the fact that TV newsreaders are trusted by more than twice as many people as are journalists. Who do they think writes the stuff they read on the teleprompter if not journalists?
The only explanation for the rankings I can find is in the age of the professions, and I mean age measured in centuries. Doctors and hairdressers have been around for millennia, (indeed, they were once the same profession) and so have scientists, if you mean people footling about with magic potions and speculating on the movements of the heavenly bodies. (Talking of which, why isn’t the oldest profession on the list?) While journalists and politicians are a recent invention going back only a couple of centuries, and estate agents only crawled out of the primeval swamp yesterday, relatively speaking.
If you take a sociological view of humanity (as opposed to the psychological view more attuned to Anglo-Saxon individualism) then it makes sense to imagine ideas having a longterm life of their own, traversing the centuries and resisting change in strange and unpredictable ways. Take Old Moore’s Almanack, published every year since 1697, and famous for its doomy day by day predictions of the weather and other noteworthy events for the coming year (it predicted 9/11 apparently, or maybe it just got the weather right on the day.) My dad, an engineer who won an award for something secret he invented for the Ministry of Defence, bought it every year, as no doubt his father and grandfather had done. He must have felt somewhat sceptical and even let down at the advent of the TV weatherman, who could only forecast two or three days ahead. No doubt others of his generation felt the same. “We beat the Germans, invented radar and the jet engine, and we can’t even get the weather right for next Thursday.”
Such a sense of loss might call for strong measures to bring some certainty back into the world. My dad certainly never heard of James Hansen, but he no doubt had a rational faith in things on the horizon then, like computers, satellites, and international co-operation via the United Nations. And lo, the IPCC was born.
A diehard sceptic like Professor Lindzen may say “there’s no such thing as an average global temperature,” and one understands what he means; but a social scientist, especially a Marxist one, like the late and much lamented moderator at WattsUpWithThat, Robert E. Phelan would say, with more accuracy, “The average global temperature is a social construct, like public opinion. It’s there whether you like it or not, because people say it is.”
In fact you could probably measure it just as well without using thermometers, by conducting a giant daily global opinion poll. “Hello, what’s the weather like where you are, measured on a seven point scale? Sweltering, gorgeous, balmy, so-so, parky, perishing, or freezing your bollocks off?”
Give the job to Ipsos/MORI and tell them to make sure the respondents are all five feet off the ground, not standing in sunlight and sheltered from wind chill, and you’ll get data Gavin Schmidt would be proud of.