SBS, which I watch quite a bit, has a piece on Coronavirus, in lots of languages, too. And one of its claims is that what you will find there are ‘facts, not opinions’. I pondered a bit about that distinction, and went to see if I could distinguish them.
What can legitimately be called a ‘fact’ about the virus? Its classification, I suppose, as a ‘positive-sense, single-stranded RNA genome. The genome size for coronaviruses ranges from 26.4 to 31.7 kilobases. The genome size is one of the largest among RNA viruses. The genome has a 5? methylated cap and a 3? polyadenylated tail.’ (This is from Wikipedia. There is more of the same.)
How is it spread? (I’m going through the SBS fact sheet here.) By close contact with a person while they are infectious or in the 24 hours before symptoms appeared. Yes, I guess so. There are other such ‘facts’.
What are the symptoms? Here SBS defers to the Federal Government’s website, where we get advice. I guess the advice is a fact. You will be tested if … That is a fact, too, I suppose. How is the virus treated? There isn’t (yet) any specific treatment for such viruses, and antibiotics are not effective against viruses. Who is most at risk? Yes, those people are known through close examination of data, and represent the best knowledge so far. Are they facts? Sort of. How can you help prevent the spread of COVID-19? What follows is more advice, based on expert judgment. Facts? I’m not sure. Certainly they are opinions.
Who is obliged to self-isolate? What follows are legal rules, and they are facts. Social distancing? These are also rules, but since States and Territories can modify them, they represent guidelines. Wearing a mask or not: an opinion no doubt based on expert judgment. A fact? Hmm. Travel: legal rules again, and facts. The rest is based on Commonwealth rules, and represents a sort of fact. The Commonwealth Department of Health publishes its own Fact Sheet, frequently updated, and it too is a mixture of facts, rules (which are facts of a kind) and opinions based on what the Department thinks is expert judgment.
How could it be otherwise? We don’t know a lot about COVID-19, and don’t yet have a vaccine for it, though there are trials going on. So what we have to guide us are best seen as ‘guidelines’, supported by laws and one sort of expert judgement, which is constantly being objected to by those who think that their own judgment, expert or otherwise, is better than the Department’s.
To broaden the topic, let me turn to The Conversation, which a couple of weeks ago had an editorial on much the same issue: ‘You can’t trust everything you read’. It proclaimed that its own readers get ‘evidence-based journalism powered by experts’. In opposition are the ‘media outlets that give too much space to vested interests and opinionated blowhards who don’t know what they are talking about’. Well, there’s a choice. I agree with the editor that ‘clean information is as important to democracy as clean water is to health’.
Where do we get this clean information? The editorial says, confidently, that ‘The Conversationhas no ideological or editorial agenda…’ If only that were true. My experience of The Conversation, in one area at least, climate change, was that there was and remains an explicit and clear editorial and ideological agenda — that ‘climate change’ is real and dangerous, and that those who think otherwise are both ‘deniers’ and are to be ignored as well as denounced. I offered an essay, a long time ago, on the problems involved with global warming, when that was the orthodox name, and was told I was not an expert in the area, a judgment that apparently did not apply to others who contributed essays supporting the orthodoxy. Who is really expert in this field?
As for ‘expert judgment’ the site recently provided an essay recently by Distinguished Professor Terry Hughes, who described the coral bleaching he saw on the Great Barrier Reef as ‘an utter tragedy’. Perhaps it was the editor who provided the title.
Now the GBR has been there for a long time, millions of years in one form or another, as seas advanced and subsided. The current view (seeWikipedia) is that the present structure is about 600,00 years old, and again, its shape changes as the seas do. Anthozoans, which make coral, are tough little creatures. Professor Hughes’s feeling of utter tragedy seems to have come from three sequential years’ observing, and of course the belief that climate change and warmer seas are inevitable. Those who took a contrary view in the Comments section were derided as ‘deniers’.
If that is the case with something I know a little about, it does not give me great confidence about issues where I know much less, but am told that this position too is the result of an expert’s long study. One of the possible reasons for both the editorial belief that there is no ideological bias and the appearance of stuff that suggests that there is, could be that the experts and the editors have the same confident belief in their own knowledge and infallibility. My own view, formed as a student, a young researcher, a professor and finally a research administrator and vice-chancellor, is that knowledge advances through argument and disagreement, not through infallibility. If there is consensus there is no science, at least in the long run. The Conversationwould do a lot better if it allowed contrary views, properly backed and properly expressed, to be published, and real argument developed. Then it would look much more like a university-based knowledge source than its present status as an echo-chamber for those of the ‘progressive’ mind-set.
Another possible reason is that all of us, myself included, have become more and more confident in our own views. I was trained to be sceptical, and still am, and am more confident than I used to be that my scepticism is the right way forward. I see plenty of indication that people generally are prepared to trust their own judgment, whatever its basis, than was the case when I was much younger. Then ‘experts’ had real status. Somewhat later television began to host programs showcasing professors and other luminaries who had definable status as experts, and we trusted them. Now there are so many experts in so many areas that, like university graduates, I suppose, their value has been cheapened. Now you feel able simply to disagree with them. You have a degree, after all, or you went through the School of Hard Knocks. Either way, you feel that you can express your own ideas and views. We can see this in the COVID-19 domain, in economic areas generally, not just the economic effect of the virus, in social welfare, and in education.
A third possible reason is that so many of the contested areas are in the public policy domain, where we feel that our position is more important than other people’s, because theirs is self-interested, while ours is what any well-informed person would agree with. For those who need the lead, this is intended sarcasm. I don’t do it much, after university teaching, where students would write down irony as though I actually meant what I had said.
A fourth: too much journalism today is commentary, not investigation. I could go on, but you get the point. Distinguishing between facts and opinions is not easy, and I do not suggest it is. But we all need to do our best to make the effort.