This is not the kind of article I normally write. But I feel that right now there are some things which need to be said. We live in a dangerously divided world. If we question authority, we are labelled ‘conspiracy theorists’ by the very people we had hoped might support us. People who claim to value social justice, equality and that old chestnut called ‘truth.’
What does ‘truth’ even mean?
The tagline of the hit 90s show ‘The X Files,’ was ‘The Truth Is Out There.’ I would venture the majority of people believe in a universal and objective truth, outside of our own prejudices, political bias and subjective opinions. Some philosophers argue there may be no objective truth, just as theoretical physicists argue that the fundamental laws of physics may break down at the centre of a black hole. I leave this to the philosophers and theoretical physicists. For the purposes of this life, just as I accept there is gravity and for that reason don’t throw myself off of buildings, I also accept there is truth, regardless of my own beliefs, prejudices and perceptions.
So how do we establish truth?
We live in a complicated world replete with conflicting information. Truth should be supported by facts: material, empirical evidence; evidence which can prove the truth beyond all reasonable doubt or which can be demonstrated by experiment.
Where do we get most of our ‘facts?’ Media outlets, social media, conversations, hearsay. The era of independent investigative journalism is all but dead. And why? One word: money. In our global society, we have replaced the quest for universal truth with the quest for universal wealth. As Bob Dylan once said, ‘Money doesn’t talk, it swears.’ All media outlets have an agenda, and their primary agenda is to make money, regardless of the position they claim to take (Left, Right or ‘Independent.’) More on this later.
Trump made many attacks on mainstream media, branding it ‘fake news,’ and in so doing established his own brand of ‘Trumpian truth’ in perhaps one of the most damaging attacks on objective truth so far this century. For Trump supporters, mainstream media was all ‘fake news,’ which pushed those opposed to Trump into the uncomfortable position of apologists for mainstream media. Anyone with the audacity to question reports in mainstream media that may have a questionable agenda, would be immediately placed in the Trumpian camp of crackpot conspiracy theorists. The only winners in such a divided scenario are those in authority. The main casualty is objective truth.
During my undergraduate study, I became interested in the idea of historical reputation, even though I was a literature student. The reason? The ‘facts,’ such as they were, were to be found in historical literature. Imperfect though it was, historical literature represented a primary source of information which could be used to research the reputation of a particular historical personage.
Historians have two main information sources: primary and secondary. These may be compared to direct and circumstantial evidence in a criminal case. Primary sources are texts, artefacts and other objects which belong to the period being studied (direct evidence). Secondary sources are texts and other artefacts relating to the period but created after the fact (more like hearsay and circumstantial evidence, less reliable, more subject to misinterpretation.)
The thesis of my BA dissertation was ‘How Unready was Æthelred II?’ If you know any British history, you may have heard of ‘Æthelred the Unready.’ He was the unfortunate Anglo-Saxon king who paid ransom to the Vikings, and later paid the inevitable price. Unfortunate, or ill-advised? The literal meaning of Old English unræd is ‘ill-advised.’ This thesis had me examining contemporary texts (the various manuscripts of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, mainly) to see how Æthelred might have been ill-advised. I studied these texts in depth before making my conclusions and comparing them to secondary sources written by non-contemporary historians. My conclusion was that Æthelred deserved his reputation, as he was ill-advised both by his own advisors, and by his own counsel. Pay a ransom, and those demanding it will inevitably return for more.
My BA dissertation is of course a secondary document, itself open to debate, interpretation and criticism. My conclusion regarding Æthelred is not so important as the methods I used to arrive at this conclusion. I researched the available contemporary evidence and the known facts about the Viking invasions following his payment of ransom. The facts stand, the Vikings came, they took, and they conquered, regardless of my or anyone else’s opinion.
Separating fact from myth
After my work on Æthelred, I developed a kind of obsession with separating historical fiction from fact. I went on to study the prehistoric origins of the Minos myth for my MA Dissertation. I wanted to carry on to PhD study and investigate the hotly-debated (at least in narrow academic circles) topic of when exactly the Mycenaeans took over the administration of Crete from the Minoans. This last is important, because it came to light that even in academic circles, questioning authority is often a thorny issue. Of course, there was no funding available for this kind of research, placing my PhD ambitions on hold (at least for the time being!)
The further back in history one goes, the more difficult it becomes to establish ‘facts.’ We may have a host of primary source material (such as that unearthed by Sir Arthur Evans in the palace of Knossos) but then the issue of agenda comes into play. Objectivity is a difficult thing for humans to achieve. The discoverer wants to be the authoritative voice, and when evidence arises to dispute his or her theories, he or she will often conveniently ignore it, or even try to debunk it. Such is the case with Evans and his aficionados at Knossos, where there is ample evidence that Mycenaean Greeks took over the palace two centuries earlier than the history books may tell you. The history books, we must remember, are secondary sources.
I’m not going to go into the Knossos controversy here, as it really isn’t important to the point I am trying to make. It is similar to the issue of Einstein’s theories being largely ignored by the scientific establishment until they were proven to be true. At which point, cue an about-face by the scientific community, who all line up in support of Einstein. Bear in mind that these are scientists, whose ostensible function is to test theories using evidence. Ideas of power and reputation should not come into it. These are scientists. But they are also human.
Where is all this leading?
‘All this,’ I am now able to state, is leading to Wuhan. Wuhan, home of the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Wuhan, epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak. Wuhan, where we were told by the scientific community, there was no link between the coronavirus outbreak and the lab. Virus outbreak happens close to Virology Institute = circumstantial evidence. I would say, strong circumstantial evidence which merits investigation. A bit like a cluster of people developing unusual cancers close to a nuclear power plant. It is at least worth considering there might be a connection, and investigating the possible link.
What actually happened in the case of Covid-19 is that a group of prominent scientists (at least one of whom, it now transpires, had links to the virology institute) debunked this theory. Trump took up the banner of the lab leak theory, which in the court of public opinion transformed it into a crazy conspiracy theory. Another power play in Trump’s war on objective truth.
It now transpires that a group of independent researchers, apparently with no agenda other than a belief that humanity deserves to know the truth about the origins of the virus, have begun to turn up evidence which looks more and more like a smoking gun pointing towards the WIV. Newsweek broke the story earlier this week. And how do most media outlets respond? Mutedly. Take this from the BBC as an example. The journalist actually states ‘Mr Trump and Mr Pompeo didn’t help the situation, however, as they were coy about the grounds for their suspicion.’ I think anyone with half a brain could have reasonable grounds for suspicion in this case. I realise this rules Trump and Pompeo out, but the rest of the world had every right to question whether the WIV might have been involved in the outbreak. Reputable media outlets such as the BBC are of course in no great hurry to admit they might have been wrong.
I certainly don’t lay claim to the truth regarding the origins of the coronavirus outbreak. I do believe whatever its origins, the truth is that we, as a species, are in grave danger. We are still reeling from the shock of the disease, but we should be planning for the greater shock of the disaster to follow if we do not address the ecological emergency we are facing right here and now.
In David Attenborough’s most recent documentary, ‘Breaking Boundaries,’ the scientists consulted believe the next 10 years will be crucial to deciding the fate of human on this planet. I don’t know if this is true. I don’t have all the evidence. What I see are more and more extreme weather events. I see glaciers and polar ice melting. I see algal blooms in the seas outside my home. I see forest fires. I see no reason to doubt that we are in trouble. 10 years is the time it will take for my eldest son to become an adult. We cannot leave this problem to the next generation to solve. Now is not the time to play ‘divide and conquer.’ Now is the time to be united in our quest for truth.
We managed to repair the hole in the ozone layer. How? By means of a global and concerted effort to obliterate CFC use. It was all over the media when I was a child. Is the climate and biodiversity crisis all over the news today? Wouldn’t that be helpful? To raise awareness and to join together to find a solution? Why is this not happening? Why are we so divided as a human race? Why must we be branded conspiracy theorists if we dare to question authority? There is only one answer that I can see:
Money doesn’t talk, it swears.