Evidence is overrated. Who needs it. And what purpose does it serve? Imagine if it were something you had to buy like bottled water. And before you dismiss this outrightly, twenty years ago the idea that anyone could sell a ubiquitous commodity such as water would have elicited belly-ache laughter.
In recent years “evidence as overrated” is being legitimised. Climate change, Skripal, Khashoggi. We may have imperceptibly slipped into an Age of Distrust, a disregard for evidence, experts, etc. with more than a nudge from the highest echelons of society and world leaders.
Could the worry be this belief is moulding young minds wrestling with notions of verifiable truth, and for those journeying through academia. Within academia, would-be-journalists may question why there is the need to verify the sources of their stories. “My story is true”, a student said. “How did you come by it, and how do you know?” was my answer. This view accelerated with the explosion of blogging. Now that everyone has a voice, and an opinion, and seeks to crowbar their way into your psyche by recycling what they heard with no recourse to how they knew what they know?
Tech has created a faustian pact, effectively returning us to the pre-17th century, where story embellishment was the norm, otherwise igniting thoughts such as German historian Fritz Fischer’s Griff Nach der Weltmacht.(Germany’s Aims in the First World War in 1967). When published in 1961 it would state that it was the German government’s expansionary policies that took them into war. Previous historians had buried this truth. Germans, Fischer pointed out, had been misled for years.
In five years time truth will be settled by algorithms, an amalgam of your big data that will yield a probability truth quotient. You’ll enter a convenience store as follows.
Can I buy five units of truth please? I don’t have a lot of money today!
Sure, will that be premium with visuals or standard text only?
Super delux please with the projected hologram.
Next time you’re stopped by the police, questioned by a machine-language coded jury, App or lecturer, you’ll pull out your cell. Yep, 87% truth with evidence it says here. You are Will Smith. Powerful bots have diluted your truth percentage.
I trained as a scientist, graduating as an Applied Chemist. Acquiring cold evidence was learned; it became part of a scientist’s DNA as discussed on Richard Dawkin’s “Trust Me, I’m a Scientist” on BBC Radio 4. It seemed natural when I made the move to journalism why this was helpful, if not necessary yet increasingly today it may seem excessive or surplus to requirement for bloggers and next gen journos.
A while ago, I provided a thought experiment in a lecture where doubt about evidential narratives had surfaced. What, I asked, if I returned to the lecture room with a stranger and told you this was your new lecturer. How would you know?
There was a pause. Does he have a staff pass? Does he appear to know his subject? What’s his record? And when googled what does it reveal about the lecturer, were some of the options proffered. All these build up a matrix of evidence. There is no one fixed standard of proof but a collection and it’s fluid. Presence on the Net is becoming an arbiter.
We may have imperceptibly slipped into the Age of Distrust with more than a nudge from the highest echelons of society and world leaders, but the challenge is this disregard for supportive evidence to verify truth is at the forefront of lectures in digital competencies.
The weariness over trust, truth and evidence is nothing new. It’s philosophers central argument over millennia. But today, in this tech gloop if you can make it, retweet, remix for a dopamine hit and a few more followers, proof of ownership is a moot point in this, the sharing society. And with the stakes seemingly high — what about outright lying?
A friend told me his story, when he questioned the work of a student’s final project she resisted any attempt to suggest she wasn’t the owner. A viva with the student was scheduled. She cancelled. She needed to find fuel for her electricity generator at home. She lived abroad. The viva eventually held via skype, she passed, but something wasn’t quite right. He relented concerned she would claim she was being picked on. Six months later the lecturer received an email from a company who claim to have built her work with evidence of her code. She wasn’t overseas either for the viva, but five miles away.
“That’s your opinion”, a student cut through me when I provided feedback to an assignment. Divorced from my role as a broker of knowledge, did she have a point? Did she understand the distinction between opinion and fact-based. Opinion, after all, is what we utter without necessarily any support of facts or evidence.
Facts then should do it. Verifiable evidence. Logic that is clear, unambiguous and builds a cogent course to resolution. The recipient expects it. but it may not be enough. When we join a course we put faith in the lecturer and their presumed expertise. It’s taken for granted. It’s like anticipating sitting down on a chair. You make the assumption the chair should hold you. Should we make the assumption that at face value your University has provided you a deserving lecturer?
In reality our face value positioning is under threat. ‘Trust me, I’m a ‘….’” is on the wane. Perhaps rightly so in an era where Linkedin gives you the opportunity to state whomever you’d like to be. You’re a CEO !!$£% Could it be that abundance creates the conditions for greater scrutiny? How do you know that last retweet is actually true, as we’re being assailed with info after info. That scene in Saving Private Ryan comes to mind as Tom Hanks’ character whispers into Matt Damon’s ears. “Earn this. Earn it”. I may offer facts, even draw references from books, but in effect I still need to earn your trust. Dialogue ensues.
I encountered a riposte at the start of my career a decade and some ago. “Oh no!” said an old hand, “Don’t you spend any time framing yourself?” He then proceeded to demonstrate with his class for 15 minutes stating what he had done and continues to do. Impressive yes, but you could see the students’ eyes roll in boredom at the monologue. Too much perhaps?
But the framing was purposeful. At presentations, in spite of the speakers biog, I try to provide evidence of who I am and what qualifies me to be in a position where I’m singing for my supper. By referencing the work of others scholars who’ve carried my work, particularly exemplars, provides one way to building trustworthiness.
The camera doesn’t lie was one way of collecting evidence, but that may soon be under strain. Take this photo. South Africa, circa 1994. A day before South Africa’s historic elections when black people could vote for the first time. The ending of legal racism — apartheid. There I am. In a few years time how might you know it’s me? Persuasion of another kind is required as we contemplate how soon a photo may not be the clincher. There are ways to verify the original source, such as Tin Eye, but what happens when Tin Eye is duped?
The possibility exist that my charge simply may still refuse to view my feedback as valuable. It’s still an opinion. The argument become circular. Its logic has no value. Pathos, as described by Aristotle then becomes an approach— the art of providing a persuasive argument, using emotional cues to build a link to trust. In the photo, a bomb has exploded in downtown Johannesburg. It shakes our house a mile and a half away. At the scene, there is a sense of fear that another may be detonated. I’m concerned. The country is on edge. Will the election go ahead? I ring my editor at the BBC World Service to broadcast a live 2-way ( more evidence).
There’s a dystopian Truman Show reality to the student’s distrust of expertise being offered. What if any transaction, exchange you dealt with was first met with “I don’t trust you”. The BBC’s former Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman took the view, “Why is that lying bastard lying to me?” to frame his interviews. That may have sounded extreme back in the 90s, but what about today with the prevailing politics and social tensions?
Aristotle identified a third strand to rhetoric, bringing people on side beyond pathos and logos, the “you”. Ethos. Can you be believed? There’s an innate quality, a set of values that give the person credibility, expose reliability, integrity, emotional and ethical intelligence. It’s perceptive and evidentiary. All this combined with pathos and logos works as well for the student as it does her lecturer, and in effect any third parties.
The lessons learned our lifestyle ones. If you’re not reliable, show little emotional intelligence to solving problems, have short shrift for integrity, fail to be persuasive in articulating facts tempered with a narrative that has what David Bordwell calls “feelingful” qualities, you reduce your trust worthiness.
Fortunately, such abject dismissals by students are rare. In this new journalism, trust without evidence may be a given. We’ve seen this surface in the red and blue lines of broadcasting in Trump’s America. No amount of evidence moves anyone’s dial. It’s simply that the parties across the aisle do not want to engage.
Yet it needs urgent attention, more than ever, as crevices widen to chasms in our human geography, understanding and tolerance. Humility seems in short supply and our value systems fail to understand differences as unique and as strengths. This, then becomes cultural biases, rather than just structural. It may be that evidence is not a pre-requisite from whence you’re from. Yet it has a universal standing. More evidence of what you’ve done will never harm you. The lack of sows doubt. Why take the risk? And with machine language learning making strides into values and perceptions, if we don’t get this as right as possible now, what’s the chances that programming will. Remember Microsoft’s Chat box Tay?