Friday 12 September 2014

How to be right about everything all the time

My reputed "privileged epistemological faculties" are not all they seem. I have no direct antenna into the cosmos that makes me an oracle on all things. But I do have something most people do not. Universal scepticism. Not only am I sceptical of the left, I am hugely sceptical of the right too. But it doesn't end there. There is a certain knack to it.

All media is cyclical, but if you look at a story arc and view it as a product lifecycle and you view everything as though somebody were trying to sell you something, the same questions come to mind as if you were actually buying a product. A bit like buying a new outfit. Does it look right? Does it fit? Does it clash? And will it last?

In a 24 hour news cycle many rush in to be the first to comment, the first to express their outrage and the first to diagnose. There is no need to rush, and there is no need for a flap. Just wait for the white noise of media to saturate then start from the position that all of them are wrong. Then measure your own views by the same standards and assume oneself is wrong as well.

The things that inform our initial reactions are based on a hierarchy of preconceptions derived from previous experience. When certain things confirm those preconceptions we add it to the pile. But things so very often change. The further we get from events, the more is added to our understanding, thus what we initially thought was the case no longer applies.

In five, fifty or a hundred years the Iraq occupation will be viewed very differently as more of the consequences and outcomes are realised. The value based judgements will change as it is contrasted with the Syrian civil war, and much of what we think we know will have moved on. Similarly various tweaks to energy policy just recently mean that the lights aren't going out and we won't have rolling blackouts. But memes live on as certainties and are repeated by a media that has neither the time or the resource to challenge those certainties.

Being aware of this dynamic is absolutely critical to forming an opinion. Very often we leap to conclusions and make snap judgements, when in each case, a careful and constant reappraisal of our prejudices and preconceptions is necessary.

It is for this reason I very often refrain from making concrete judgements and instead prefer to just point out the inconsistencies, contradictions and fallacies. Current affairs do not spring up out of nothing, and most of history is repeated like the first season of The Simpsons. Nothing we are seeing in Central Africa, or any of these modern tribal uprisings is anything new. The dynamics change a little with the introduction of modern weapons, communications and social media, but if you look at the very essence of each new story, cut through the hyperventilation and panic and view in the historical context, very little seems worth getting worked up about.

Beheadings aren't new, nor are tribal uprisings nor is council corruption or police incompetence. It's easy to stitch together a narrative from disparate facts and assumptions, and it's easy to sound plausible if you know what you're doing. But narratives are problematic. We see military and technical analysts with very little understanding of the political - and vice versa. They view eachother with similar disbelief and confusion, each adding weight to their own specialisms with little regard to how much they do not know.

In between historical blips like ISIS, much of what we see is quite mundane, but presented in the light of an existential threat by a media that thrives maximising scare potential. It is consumed more as entertainment than news and much of it is pure titillation.

It is designed for the maximum reaction. Everything is clickbait, everything is meticulously engineered to get your attention and provoke a reaction, and the more doomed we look, the more traction it has. It is for this reason I believe nothing, trust nothing, and am certain of nothing.

Pivotal events are happening all over the place without the attention of the media. While the world's media was fixated on a few thousand people taking refuge up a mountain, absolutely nothing was said of a major offensive to retake Tikrit, and there was a complete media blackout for over a week. Their perception of news is not in line with my own view of what is important - and I trust mine more than theirs knowing the deficiencies of the media as intimately as I do.

Following the media means following their agenda. Not having a television I often don't know what the daily scare is, thus I am drawn deeper into my own channel of investigation, often find things of greater consequence to worry about.

For sure, fisking Polly Toynbee, Diane Abbot, Richard Littlejohn, Owen Jones, Con Coughlin and the other brain-deads is an entertaining way of whiling away the day, but why should we give a damn what any of these people say or think? They do not speak for anybody but themselves and to follow their agenda is to be the dog that chases every passing car. Sure, a lot of people read The Guardian and Telegraph and watch Newsnight, but tens of millions of people don't, and I am happy to have joined their ranks.

Their influence is only sustained by people drawing attention to them. Outside of the media bubble, who has actually heard of any of these people or even cares? What they say is not important, very little of what they say is right and every moment spent barking at passing cars is a missed opportunity to be doing something more productive.

The only hard and fast conclusion is that all of them are talking crap most of the time, even the people with whom we agree, and so long as you remain acutely aware of that then you have the mental architecture to sit back and take a cold, dispassionate look at what we actually know for a fact. When you apply the necessary scepticism to what we think we know, then it usually turns out that even the best of us actually know very little, much though it may seem otherwise.

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