And the truth will set you free

heresy trial

It’s all the fault of my mate Kier who posted a link to a video by the Historian Niall Ferguson. Being a historian Ferguson tends to take a somewhat longer view than most modern pundits for whom a whole decade appears to be an unimaginably long period of time. But Niall Ferguson commented that our current age with the explosion of the internet, most resembled the 1500s with the equally violent explosion in the number of books created by the invention of the printing press. It’s worth a watch


You can see the drift of his argument. The problem is that discussions are happening so much faster now than they did in the 1500s. I can remember in the 1980s being a member of a society with a journal that was published every other month. If you disagreed with the author of an article, you had a couple of weeks to read around the subject, marshal your arguments and prepare your response which you posted off to the editor. This would then appear in the next issue of the magazine. Those who disagreed with you would also get the same amount of time to contemplate and check their facts before responding. Discussions lasting a year or more, with people doing genuine research into the original texts, were not uncommon.

Now with the membership of the same society, the whole discussion can take place in an internet forum in a couple of days. But the quality of research that goes into the answers isn’t what it was. In reality people walk away from the discussion and in six months or so it flares up again as people return with new ideas and evidence. So we’ve seen a change in the nature of our debates. But frankly it doesn’t matter; nobody is ever going to campaign for election or try to change legislation on the strength of the evidence we put forward.

The problem you see in agriculture is that we’re a complicated industry. But just as “We all went to school so we all understand education,” so, “We all eat food so we all understand agriculture.”

In forty years of freelance journalism I’ve seen agriculture change, but more than that I’ve seen the reporting change. One brief phenomenon was when various learned scientific journals started publishing scientific abstracts on CDs. A newspaper could buy a CD, some bright spark could do a quick search using terms that could be linked to a food scare, and before the week was out they’d have got a handful of suitably frightening articles out of it. Obviously they’d never gone to the trouble of reading the full paper! But if you read the full paper you run the risk of ruining the story!

That was another thing I discovered early on as a freelance journalist. People would contact me with ‘stories.’ I’d check them out and looking back I’d estimate that two out of three weren’t actually stories. When you investigated them properly and found out what was happening, there was nothing to see.

So obviously I’d walk away from them, and occasionally an editor would ask me about the story her or his competitors were running. When I explained that it wasn’t a story and didn’t withstand investigation their responses were indicative of the quality of the paper. Some couldn’t see lack of validity as in anyway disqualifying the story. Some understood me completely. Others asked me to write up the non-story in all its gory detail, because it made their competitors look like the charlatans they were.

The problem is that with the web, all those non-stories are being published on websites and online newspapers. Then once published they get shared and reshared and passed on through social media. Facebook is a nightmare for that sort of stuff. Indeed is can actively revive ‘dead’ stories by showing people the stuff they had in their memories, thus the story can come back from the dead to haunt us, two years later and every bit as wrong as it was the first time.

In my time I’ve seen any number of them. The one that could have done serious damage was the 9p FMD vaccine. During 2001 and our FMD outbreak, somebody started a story that there was a vaccine out there which would protect livestock and it only cost 9p a shot. (I think it was 9p but it might have been even cheaper.)

This caused chaos; Tony Blair’s office contacted the Vets running the fight against FMD in Cumbria and asked them if farmers would be willing to use this vaccine. One of the vets phoned me to talk over the consequences. Finally, sick of seeing farmers attacked on internet forums as being unfit to care for animals because they were too mean to use the obvious vaccine, I spent half an hour with friend Google looking for the damned stuff.

Yes, there was a vaccine out there for the price. It was produced in India, it was a live vaccine (which means it would be illegal to use within the EU) and what is more it didn’t offer protection from the strain of FMD we had, it was for a different strain. So it would have been utterly useless.)
Obviously I mentioned it, but did anybody take any notice?
This brings us back to the whole 1500 issue that Niall Ferguson has let us to. People aren’t holding beliefs because they’ve done the research and spend months or even years in discussion. Many are just holding them with religious devotion because ‘they believe’ and that’s the beginning and end of it all.

Back in 2001, of course nobody was interested in the fact that the 9p vaccine was a non-story. Government spin doctors wanted the 9p vaccine because its existence showed that the failure to defeat FMD wasn’t the government’s fault, it was the fault of the ignorant farmers refusing to get with the 21st century. The animal rights activists weren’t interested in the truth, because they were happily using the existence of a cheap vaccine to prove that farmers weren’t fit to have livestock anyway. The worrying thing is that when a single issue lobby group and the office of the Prime Minister accept the same spurious evidence as true, policy can be made on the back of it. Fortunately in this case it seems Ministry Vets put their foot down and stopped something stupid happening.

We have indeed slipped back into the 1500s, because we’ve left the age of reason behind us. We have people who no longer care about the facts, if they’re inconvenient then they are to be ignored. They merely argue from a position of belief and if you don’t believe you’re no longer a proper person, you’re merely a heretic, an animal abuser, tory scum, thicko racist brexiteer.

Apparently now heresy trials are conducted over on Twitter if you can be bothered?
But when you ask yourself whether you can or cannot say something, always remember the words of Voltaire



Actually it strikes me that you might want to just wash your hands of the whole damned lot of them. After all, if it’s not your circus, they’re not your monkeys.

So how about escaping with a good book


As the reviewer said
“Tallis Steelyard makes a living as a poet, which is sufficiently remarkable in itself, but in reality he is a ducker and diver at the more genteel end of society in the imaginary town of Port Naiin in Jim Webster’s richly comic and intriguing fictional world. This is my first encounter with Mr. Steelyard in book form but I doubt that it will be my last. His tales are warmly amusing rather than laugh-out-loud funny but are none the worse for that. Give Tallis a try, you’ll be glad you did.”


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23 thoughts on “And the truth will set you free

  1. Sue Vincent January 5, 2019 at 3:38 pm Reply

    I can’t comment on agriculture, Jim, because I haven’t the knowledge to do so, but sadly this epidemic of knee-jerk reaction seems to be happening across the board, with the informed and considered opinion being rejected all too often in favour of the sensational sound-bite or alarmist assertion.
    We can only hope that, like the 1500s, after the witch hunts and inquisition will come the enlightenment.

    • jwebster2 January 5, 2019 at 4:40 pm Reply

      In theory, if things happen much faster with the internet, we should get to the age of enlightenment sooner than we did last time
      The problem is that the arguments could become more bitter and we could get society much more socially divisive so the ‘battles’ could be more bitter
      Which is why I rely on Tallis Steelyard to keep me sane 🙂

      • Sue Vincent January 5, 2019 at 5:32 pm

        Communication technology is probably the most important advance in the past hundred years or so… but like any good blade, it is double edged and dangerous if mishandled.

      • jwebster2 January 5, 2019 at 5:59 pm

        One issue at the moment is that the communication technology is being used by small groups to shout. So the noise is being made by people who see no reason to listen 😦

      • Sue Vincent January 5, 2019 at 6:21 pm

        That is also unfortunately true. 😦

      • jwebster2 January 5, 2019 at 6:23 pm


  2. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt January 5, 2019 at 4:39 pm Reply

    It’s not just policy that can be made on the back of misinformation, it’s money. Lots of money. Someone benefits – substantially – from the waves of garbage being tossed about, and finds it very convenient to keep the tsunami alive.

    Plus all the idiots.

    • jwebster2 January 5, 2019 at 4:53 pm Reply

      The problem is society creates idiots. Rather than ensuring that everybody has access to a really good education, there is a growing suspicion that actually a lot of people are happy if the really good schools are there for their own children and the rest of the population is educated adequately to provide them with the shop assistants they need 😦
      We could always provide schools to educate everybody well

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt January 5, 2019 at 10:47 pm

        Not all kids will turn out to be nuclear physicists, no matter how hard we try. Fortunately, we don’t need that many of those.

        But the time to get them as good an education as we can is while the kids are in school and under age, and we’re failing dismally on many fronts.

        We’ll always have shop assistants, anyway, and problems, and the rich will always pay for the best for their own kids (and prop them up when they can’t handle it), but it is not a good use of human capital to skimp on education. Too many vested interests.

      • jwebster2 January 6, 2019 at 7:44 am

        The most dangerous vested interest is the one that wants people uneducated so they can rely on their vote. That group transcends left and right 😦

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt January 6, 2019 at 4:22 pm

        They shall have to answer for that, as lack of education destroys whatever potential that human had. Hard, dirty, dangerous jobs – like gold mining in Africa or coal mining in the States – leave little energy for bettering oneself. And then are largely destroyed by automation. Not good.

      • jwebster2 January 6, 2019 at 4:39 pm

        it’s funny, in the UK the trade unions, composed of men who were doing hard dirty jobs, set up libraries and institutes. They built reading rooms and similar. They even had places where people could go and get further education
        Some of them still exist in what were the coal mining areas of Wales. They were areas where people believed in education, believed in learning and combined dangerous jobs with a love of books
        Somewhere there are lessons to be learned in the history of mining and Methodism and what drove these people to improve themselves
        I’ve browsed the shelves of miners lending libraries in Wales. These men were reading books I’ve heard of but never dared tackle!

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt January 6, 2019 at 7:39 pm

        They wanted their kids to have better than they had, and of course to improve their own lives. I’ll have to research whether that was done in the States, but many a town has a public library that came from Andrew Carnegie because he got a conscience as he got older. Good use of his megabucks.

      • jwebster2 January 6, 2019 at 9:57 pm

        This was very much in the working class industrial areas and the money tended to be raised by local subscription rather than through a single benefactor.
        We did have some, they tended to be Quakers and they would build entire communities.

      • Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt January 7, 2019 at 3:17 am

        God bless the Quakers.

        And the people who started subscription libraries (Benjamin Franklin did that, too).

  3. M T McGuire January 5, 2019 at 5:24 pm Reply

    I think it’s also about how we gather information. Until recently, things could be proved a lot more easily but a lot of video evidence can be manufactured now so as well as our times being like the 1500s in the explosion of literature, we are beginning to revert to the Tudor, and possibly Medieval way of looking at beliefs. Bombarded with misinformation, people feel there is on reliable way to fact check anything and just opt for a belief that suits them. It’s bollocks but there it is.

    Added to this, we have the far right gaining a lot of ground and it is in their interest to bring down any remotely impartial news outlets left, hence their endless persecution of the BBC – which, since it offends the far left in equal measure, must actually be doing a good job.

    Then there’s the simplification of everything … it’s like the English speaking world is looking at America, picking out all the bad bits and going, ‘let’s do it like that.’

    Ho hum.



  4. M T McGuire January 5, 2019 at 5:25 pm Reply

    Sorry, also meant to say, I think some of the polarisation is down to the fact that people are fed up with the rate of change. They’re getting frustrated and pissed off because being reasonable isn’t working, so they’re starting to drift to the extreme, the over simplified etc.

    • jwebster2 January 5, 2019 at 6:04 pm Reply

      I’m left wondering whether right and left are not losing utility as meaningful political terms? The old tribal politics that I remember from my youth has faded. I know long term Labour and long term Conservative voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for ‘their ‘ party at the moment. It’s not just leadership issues, it’s that they feel that the parties no longer have anything to do with them. This may fit in with your first comments
      We’re starting to see issues like Brexit which are tearing both main parties apart. It’s not an issue of left or right. I suspect we may be seeing a complete shift in our politics, it probably should have happened back in the 60s but the politicians played on the tribalism to keep their jobs. Now the tribes have disappeared

      • Widdershins January 6, 2019 at 12:37 am

        if the ‘far right’ go far enough, and the ‘far left’ go further enough, they meet up on the other side, thinking and believing exactly the same thing. That’s the problem with extremism, of any sort.

      • jwebster2 January 6, 2019 at 7:45 am

        I’ve always thought of political allegiance as a circle rather than a straight line so I entirely agree with you.

  5. patriciaruthsusan January 6, 2019 at 10:35 am Reply

    Reblogged this on Musings on Life & Experience and commented:
    An interesting comparison of the effect of printing and the internet on the public. Also, an amusing book of stores told by Tallis Steelyard and penned by Jim Webster with an excellent review by a reader.

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