Post-truth and our duty of care

Looking back

Well, my last post to this blog was a week before the famous, or infamous, referendum in June 2016. And my analysis then, although accurate in part (especially about the role of pathos or emotions in the vote) put too much weight upon the role of ethos – the standing and credibility of the speakers. I suppose that the tactic of discrediting “experts” as a group would have eroded the impact of this particular, and normally most important, lever of persuasion.

My June post was a reflection on the paucity of facts to support the referendum decision. Since then, “post-fact” and “post-truth” have become frequently used expressions, any acceptance of which we all should, I believe, find truly alarming.

A duty of care

Every one of us, but especially the Prime Minister and other members of the Government and of Parliament, has a duty of care to the nation and its citizens. This means that we and they should not, by act or omission, do anything which could reasonably be foreseen would cause injury to a neighbour. To exercise this duty demands that we do our homework by searching for facts, forecasts, likely outcomes and balances of probability. This is the essence of “evidence-based policy” much vaunted by some, if not all, politicians and their advisors.

Implication

This creates something of a conundrum. In a rapidly changing world and political environment, whatever the best predictions might have been some months ago, it is very possible that the assumptions then deployed might now not hold good and a current policy based upon them might now reasonably be foreseen to be damaging to the nation. And if the Government makes such a discovery, it has a Duty of Care to change course; at the very least to tell the truth to Parliament and the electorate.

The binary world

But, this word truth is a problem in our world which, urged on by some disingenuous politicians and commentators, increasingly adopts a polarised, binary view. Factions are labelled left or right, pro or anti, East or West, there are believers and non-believers, something is either right or wrong, good or bad. And we had to vote to leave or remain! I guess for some things a clear and binary distinction is useful, but I worry a lot about its simplistic over-use.

Theory of Mean

I was (figuratively) thumbing through some materials on my PC when I came across an extract from a book I had read on Ethics. The extract concerned Aristotle’s Theory of Mean. The basic tenet of this is that virtue does not lie at an extreme but sits at a point between two extremes – the mean. The most quoted example takes the concept of “courage”. If asked what the opposite of “courage” is, most people would probably say “cowardice” and vice versa. Actually, the opposite of “cowardice” would be best represented as “recklessness”. “Courage” lies in between those two extremes.

The search for truth

It strikes me that the Theory of Mean has something to offer our concept of truth. Fact and truth are not synonymous. Facts can (and should where they are available) inform an opinion or proposition. What one holds to be a truth is often a distillation of many facts, opinions and propositions. So, perhaps we can use the Theory of Mean as a template or guiding principle, and search for truth within and amongst the cloud of possibilities, rather than assume it is to be found at an extremity, on one side of a binary argument.

 

 

 

 

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EU referendum rhetoric unpicked

Facts, statistics and lies

Much has been said about wanting the facts about the EU leave or stay referendum. But we have a problem here – there really are none of any substance.  The few that may be regarded as facts relevant to the referendum – for instance what it costs the UK to be a member of the EU – have been used in a way which can only be described as disingenuous.  Essentially, all we have is speculation about risks and, occasionally, probability.

So perhaps we should unwind a little and see what is going on in this murky world of political rhetoric.

Rhetoric

Rhetoric is a much maligned word. It is the art and craft of persuasion, generally applied to the spoken word. Good deliberative rhetoric involves expressing opinions or assertions (which are necessarily arguable), and then proving their validity with evidence. One of the best political proponent of this during my lifetime has been Paddy Ashdown.

Sophistry is deceitful rhetoric where lies and invention are used instead. Any observer of the EU referendum campaign(s) might well conclude that it is this that makes up a large part of the messaging. Jonathan Freedland’s article in the Guardian 14 May 2016 provides good coverage of the lies and distortions that have been used in the US in the presidential candidate race and over here in the UK on the EU referendum.

The three levers of persuasion

But back to the problem – there are precious few facts. It is worth thinking about the three classical levers of persuasion: logos (the argument, rationale); pathos (the sentiment, emotions); ethos (the bearing or standing of the speaker).

Logos

Logos is tricky in this case because of the absence of reliable facts and figures. Other forms of evidence might include logic, deduction, analogy, example, anecdote, quotation, testimony. One cannot win a rational argument by making an assertion and then pretending to prove the point with another even bigger assertion. I say “cannot win” but clearly, the undiscerning and the reckless may well be won over in this way. One of the most powerful forms of evidence is 3rd party (i.e. independent) and witness testimony. In other words, and as an example, we should want to know what the Governor of the Bank of England and the President of the Unites States thinks. To suggest that we should only be allowed to hear from the core mud-slinging combatants in the leave and stay campaigns is to deprive us of the evidence we need to hear and assess.

Pathos

So, on to pathos. A commentator on Radio 4 on 15 May observed – with some concern – that the decision to vote to stay or leave is being taken at an emotional level. But this is not unusual. As Cicero put it – “For people make many more judgements under the influence of hate or affection or partiality or anger or grief or joy or hope or fear or delusion or some other emotion, than on the basis of the truth or an objective rule…”. It is of course the emotions that both campaigns are attempting to excite – the main one being fear – but in a heady mix of chauvinism and misanthropy and a worrying disregard for the truth.

Ethos

So how can we make a balanced and thoughtful decision? Let us turn to the final lever of persuasion – ethos – the lever which Aristotle identified as the “most important” in oratory. What it implies is that we are more likely to accept the opinions and arguments of those who we believe are credible, that have authority and a reputation for integrity. In the absence of a clear logos and wishing to avoid making such a monumental decision purely based upon pathos it is I believe the credibility of the people involved in the two opposing campaigns that has the greatest significance. I would include also the ethos of those others outside the campaign teams who choose to make comment on the merits or otherwise of a Brexit.

Of course, when it comes to the vote, I suspect the majority will be swayed by emotion rather than anything else. But given the paucity of facts, I would suggest that the credibility of the speakers will be, and arguably should be, a prime ingredient.

A reflection

I remember talking to an elderly Peer – a cross-bencher in the House of Lords some years ago. We were having lunch in the Palace of Westminster dining room at a time when a number of votes were taking place. At the appropriate times he would excuse himself, go to cast his vote, and return after a few minutes. I asked him how he made his decisions on what appeared to be quite complex matters. He said “I don’t. I just watch who goes which way, and follow the ones I trust – or mistrust the least.”

I suspect that may be what this referendum will ultimately be about. But what a shocking way to make such a momentous decision.