Friday, 27 October 2017

We are what we read, what we watch, what we listen to

It's hard to eat a portion of humble pie, but I will begin. The other day I was writing about what policies the state should use to change people's (bad) habits - bans and fines, or subtle suggestions. I mentioned that the Polish government was planning to ban the building of detached houses - and was rightly questioned on this in the comments.

I could not remember where I'd read or heard this story - but I know had. Online? On Twitter? Warsaw AM? I recall discussing it at work... I meet many people at work, and cannot remember with whom I'd discussed it. Usually in a tone of outrage that yet again, hard-fought liberties are being chipped away. But chapter and verse... Lazily I wrote the story down as if it were fact, without checking... but I didn't get away with it unchallenged.

Google 'dom' and 'wolnostojący' and 'projekt ustawy', and all you'll get is thousands of results being ads for detached houses and building plans.

So without having a source to draw on, I should not have included that paragraph. I'll leave it up until a new post replaces this one, and then take down the offending paragraph and all references to it.

But this is symptomatic of what's going on in the world - Poland, UK, US - most places. With the rise of social media and 'fake news', political forces of all hues are doing their best to shape the agenda. Whether it's spinning a government proposal to amend building regulations as an assault on freedom or suggesting that British universities are run by a bunch of howling leftie Remainers.

Yesterday, on the train down to Kraków the elderly chap sitting next to me said he got all his foreign news from TV Trwam. He went on to say that the Jews were making the Palestinians stupid by fluoridating their water ("Żydzi walają fluor do wody Palestynczykom aby ich ugłupić"). Alarm bells go off inside of my liberal head. Tin-foil hat territory. I am minded of the dialogue in Dr Strangelove:
Gen. Ripper: Have you ever heard of a thing called fluoridation? Fluoridation of water?
Gp. Capt. Mandrake: Ah, yes, I have heard of that, Jack. Yes.
Gen. Ripper: Well do you know what it is?
Gp. Capt. Mandrake: No. No, I don't know what it is. No.
Gen Ripper: Do you realize that fluoridation is the most monstrously conceived and dangerous communist plot we have ever had to face?
[You will remember that General Jack D. Ripper is a 'paranoid ultra-nationalist' convinced that his 'precious bodily fluids' were being polluted by foreign substances...]

At this stage I whip out my mobile phone to prove the fellow wrong. What I discovered (thanks to Wikipedia, Fluoridation by country) intrigued me.

Indeed, Israel had banned the fluoridation of water in 2014, after introducing it in 2002. But in the south of the country, "it is unnecessary to add fluoride because it is found naturally in the water," according to Israel's national water company. So Palestine will be receiving fluoridated water..."Aha! That's what the national water company would say!" counters the conspiracy theorist's mind.

So how to explain that after the 2015 elections, the Israeli government reintroduced fluoridation of water across the entire country?

In any case, the fluoride toxicity is well researched. So what my interlocutor must have heard on TV Trwam was tendentious in the extreme. What worried me further was the fact he was still teaching at two Polish universities, and that he had not fact-checked this assertion 'na Googlach'.

But then I hadn't checked about the Polish government's purported change of planning regulations.

Lesson learned.

We have, over the decades, got used to trusting our most frequently used media sources. This may be changing. This week's New Scientist has an article about how technology is reshaping notions of trust. Fake news is nothing new - just its speed and reach has become greatly magnified by IT.

On the other hand, technology gives us, as it gave me on the train yesterday, the chance to quickly verify a story from trusted sources - as long as you know what to search for.

We should all - whatever our political viewpoints - strive not for neutrality, but for evidence-based arguments in our debates, whether online or in person.

This time four years ago:
Extraordinarily warm autumn

This time five years ago:
On behalf of the work-shy community

This time six years ago:
Classic truck cavalcade

This time seven years ago
Suburban back-roads clogged with commuters

This time eight years ago:
Autumn gold, Łazienkowski Park

This time nine years ago:
Quintessential autumnal Jeziorki

This time ten years ago:
Google Earth updates its map of Jeziorki

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