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.”