What do we know for sure?

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Peter Whiting.

Fake news. Jeso Carneiro. flickr cc.

You would be forgiven for expecting that the heading of this article refers to the emergence of ‘fake news’ into our lives, primarily through the impact of social media. Certainly, a quick look at recent events leaves us wondering what we know for sure. Sophie Mirabella, in her defamation case against a newspaper, is asserting its claims against her were fake news. Eddie McGuire has vowed to sue Facebook over claims made against him.

At the international level, we cannot break through the plethora of claims made about who was responsible for the poisoning of the Russians, Sergei and Yulia Skripal. Nor can we ascertain with any certainty whether the alleged gas attack on Douma on 7 April even occurred, let alone, if it did, who perpetrated such an attack.

Yet our inability to know for sure is not just limited to so-called fake news. Bruce Duncan provides a factual reporting of recent Vatican statements about the need to decommission all nuclear armaments, a call seemingly long overdue, when you read the reviews of Daniel Ellsburg’s recent book, reported by Andrew Glikson. One reviewer, Scott Ludlum, assures us that “No matter how bad you think the global nuclear weapons complex is, it is worse than you know”.

A second article by Bruce Duncan cites the dismayed responses to the announcement by the Australian Government of its policy objective of becoming a major arms provider, and gives pause for thought as to why the announcement has not generated serious political challenge in the parliament.

Similar concerns have been made about our two current Royal Commissions, one into the Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, and the other into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation, and Financial Services Industry. John Menadue tells us in his article on the banking Royal Commission, “But it is all much worse than we thought.” Certainly, even at this early stage, the revelations of greed and incompetence are confronting, leaving the Government scrambling to explain its initial refusal to convene the Commission.

On the local energy supply front, we are faced with Federal and State support for the Adani coal mine in Queensland. This official support has emboldened Clive Palmer to seek federal environmental approval for a huge greenfield coal mine next door to the Adani mine. All this, while ANU academics Andrew Blakers and Matthew Stocks advise us that photovoltaic and wind power “are on track entirely to supplant fossil fuels worldwide within two decades, with the timeframe depending mostly on politics”.

These instances of confusion stem essentially from two causes. The fake news experience, as its name suggests, arises either from a failure properly to collect the data required for a factual report, or from an intentional muddying of the waters by false reporting.  The “it’s worse than you know” experience arises from vested interests withholding information for gain, whether for reputation, financial reward, or holding on to power.

So, what can we do so that we know for sure? There’s no easy answer to this challenge.

Undoubtedly, the first requirement must be to develop our own critical faculties, and endeavour to be as well informed as possible in the matters of interest to us. Equally important is to search out reliable sources of information, eschewing social media as a reliable source.

More critically than both of these, however, is the need to operate from a value system which gives structure and meaning to critical assessment. At Social Policy Connections, we draw on the rich resources of the Christian social traditions to help assess events and work out for ourselves what we can be sure about.


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