From fake news to fake truths

Lies aren’t the only problem. The facts can also be made to tell false stories.

Patrick West

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Topics Politics

The UK government has announced new initiatives to counter the spread of false information, especially online. This is because, in the words of a spokesperson for the prime minister, ‘we are living in an era of fake news and competing narratives’.

‘Fake news’ and ‘the post-truth society’ have been voguish buzzwords for some time now. Commentators and the media became obsessed with these exciting terms last year, as they invariably are with novelty words that seem to augur a new, bewildering and amazing era. Every generation likes to think that they are living in special times, and we are no different. Yet there is nothing remotely new about ‘fake news’. Lies are as old as truths. The boy who cried wolf was spreading fake news.

Our fashionable and tedious fixation with ‘fake news’ detracts from a more entrenched, subtle and equally ancient form of falsehood, that of the ‘fake truth’. This is when real facts are moulded into a false narrative to create an entirely misleading ‘truth’ – an act known as ‘paltering’.

A case in point is a report in the Sun this week about the fact that people with the name Mohammed are likely to be charged more for car insurance than people ‘with traditionally English names’ like John. Although the Sun didn’t state it, you can scent the conclusion most readers would have drawn. Its report let someone else spell it out: ‘One victim of the scandal – Mohammed Butt – raged: “It’s racism, pure and simple. They cannot say Mohammeds are worse drivers than Johns”.’

What the Sun also didn’t put in black and white is that people called John are likely to be older than people called Mohammed (do you know anyone under 30 called John?). People called Mohammed are also more likely to live in cities, where car insurance is even higher – especially in London.

Insurance companies aren’t mugs, and, like bookies, they are simply honest in their estimations. Car insurers have traditionally charged more for the young and male because young males cause more accidents. While the Sun report and its wording was factually correct, its ultimate impression was distorting.

This story is not alone. Elsewhere it was reported this week that ‘one in eight Swedish women will be raped in their lifetimes’. Never mind the dubious use of the future tense in this headline, when it comes to stories about rape in Sweden, beware ‘fake truths’. Sweden already has the second highest incidence of rape in the world – another actual fact – but this is because it has one of the broadest definitions of rape and most meticulous method of investigating it and correlating related statistics. Sweden has consequently one of the lowest conviction rates of rape in Europe – another fact thrown about with much alarm by people such as Naomi Klein – but this isn’t something we should be unduly concerned about. It’s a reflection, paradoxically, of just how seriously Sweden takes the crime of rape.

Here’s another statistic: Canada and Australia have the highest rate of kidnapping in the world, higher than even Colombia or Mexico. That’s because Canada and Australia include disputes in parental custody cases in their kidnapping statistics. And for other ‘fake truths’ based on real facts, dear reader, I recommend putting into your search engine: ‘left-handers die younger 1991 study’; ‘Shelter charity definition of homeless’; ‘supermarket sale prices at Christmas’; ‘Irish GDP increase foreign companies relocating’; and ‘graphs y-axis doesn’t start at zero’.

In short, here’s a rule: facts don’t always translate into truths. And that’s a fact.


Pinching doctors from overseas is nothing to be proud of

Junior doctors should be forced to pay some of their training costs to the NHS if they work abroad soon after becoming qualified, a leading healthcare leader, Niall Dickson, said this week. He told the Sunday Telegraph that ‘it would be reasonable to ask every graduate to give a certain number of years’ service back to the NHS in return for the contribution society has made’. It currently costs the taxpayer £220,000 to train each doctor, many of whom opt subsequently to move to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, which all recruit from the UK.

This is an eminently sensible idea from Mr Dickson, and I would urge all countries to do likewise. Much noise is made about how reliant the NHS is on staff from abroad. Many people even boast about it, as if Britain poaching staff from much poorer countries, who have invested in training their own doctors and nurses, is something to be proud of.

I doubt the taxpayers of Romania or Uganda would thank us for nicking their talent. Our reliance on foreign-trained doctors and nurses is actually disgraceful. It’s our national shame.


Give parents a proxy vote for their unborn children

Parents should be given a vote for every child that they could have in order to pressure politicians to focus on child health, says Neena Modi, an academic, columnist and president of the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health.

Miranda Kalashnikov, honorary president of the Dagenham and Redbridge College of Psycho-Paediatrics, joined in, saying that issues such as obesity were not being addressed, and that votes for the yet to be conceived were the only answer.

‘If we don’t get this right right now – and it’s already happening right now – we will be reaping the terrible whirlwind of consequences down the line’, Kalashnikov said in a radio interview.

To overcome the fact that children who don’t yet exist make up ‘at least 99.9 per cent recurring of the UK’s population’, parents should be given a proxy vote, Kalashnikov said. ‘And why not? Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent recurring of this democracy is being denied its democratic rights. It’s all very well for people like Neena Modi of the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health to bang on about parents being given a proxy vote for their children who happen to “be”. This is typical, outdated, medieval “aliveist” thinking that belongs to the 19th century, along with racism and sexism. We have to think of the future.’

‘You can’t stop progress’, Kalashnikov added. ‘We have given votes to women and now there’s talk of potentially giving it to kids, so why not the non-existent community? Only an old fart stuck in the past could possibly object.’

Asked whether she would also extend the franchise to ghosts, fairies and centaurs, Kalashnikov dismissed such a suggestion as ‘ridiculous’.

Patrick West is a spiked columnist. His latest book, Get Over Yourself: Nietzsche For Our Times, is published by Societas.

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Topics Politics