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Who’s afraid of Big Fake News: How the expert lost her voice

By Daniel den Hollander

Information is all around us. Social media platforms keep us informed of the latest developments. You would assume that this continuous access to the latest knowledge would make us smarter and more informed. Unfortunately, it has also created an explosion of fake news, conspiracy theories, and misinformation, often based on prejudice.

It can be tricky, sometimes, to tell the difference between valid information and fake information, especially when the people we trust to give us valid information do not. One doctor tells us we must wear facemasks, the other says it isn’t necessary. And this uncertainty within expertise, and our discomfort with differences in opinion, allows for conspiracy theories to gain airtime. After watching a loved one get irritated with a Facebook fake-newser and having a lockdown creative burst, I was inspired to write a “Kipling” short story on How the Expert lost her Voice.

In a time long ago, somewhere in the 1970s, a young French philosopher, by the name of Jean-François Lyotard, was frantically preparing for a meeting he did not really want to attend: the meeting of the budgetary board of his university. He went through his points scribbled down on a coffee stained page on how to make science sexy enough so that the board would finance it. This board, known by the acronym BScc (nicknamed the bureaucratic society of control consumption) had only since the 1960s been in control of the allocation of funds for research at his university. And he was desperate to convince these new financial masters of the relevance of his philosophical work.

Then — suddenly — he was struck by a thought, a critical reflective…

How ironic is this? That what he would be allowed to research was not motivated by curiosity, or the need to make sense of the world, or to further knowledge. No, his new scientific discovery had to be financially sustainable for it to see the light of day. This idea took flight, after many revisions, and many late nights, probably to French jazz and Camembert delights, and he completed a grand theory on “The Post Modern Condition”.

Within it he described how scientific knowledge was decided by money not validity; by popularity not legitimacy. He predicted that in the future the main struggle would be how to legitimate knowledge. That truth came with a fee. He could see that soon there would be a flood of information (he was a Nostradamus on the internet sensation). And that soon we wouldn’t be worried about the 1984 problem of censoring, but rather the increase of Big Fake News.

How would we know what was true and what wasn’t? Who would have thought discernment of knowledge would be our main problem in 2020. Oh the irony he envisioned… 20/20 vision?

The BScc came in a new form when – suddenly – medicine became a mechanized storm. The family doctor who came on a horse and drank a cup of coffee when doing the collateral discourse, became a prop in a museum to help us remember of the old days, when clinicians made decisions not driven by haste. Today, the doctor is expected to make a ten minute deduction. A successful diagnosis is of course certain, if we can mechanise years of clinical experience into clever acronyms and problem tree decisions. We needed a new way of making expertise efficient, and a clever epidemiologist called Cochrane envisioned how.

From the works of Fisher, an agricultural statistician, we learnt how to rank methodologies on the basis of repetition. This worked like a charm with wheat hormone inplants, and soon efficacy was enhanced, and smartly streamlined, leading to Evidence Based Practise. This revolution in applied science created an important alliance: to give expert practise to those who relied on the state for the fate of their long term survival. Good care for all could finally be reliable.

Unfortunately, no doctor treats masses…

The age old mistake of a good idea, is when you make everything in life adhere to it. Enter the threat of no funding from the BScc – if you don’t comply with their methodology. That kind of control on scientific knowledge got large numbers of the public concerned. Soon a mistrust existed on mechanised healthcare. Anti-vexers and “alternative” healing all gained popularity when people believed that the “pharmaceutical companies are in control” conspiracy. And at the core of this problem lies validity. So the main questions remain: Who do we trust? (A: The main consensus? Or the expert’s advice when we are in a crisis?)

You can’t make a soup from a prepaid packet, it needs time to be carefully extracted. And so it is with knowledge if it is to be scientific. It also takes time for an idea to become specific. Should I wear face masks? Should I socially isolate? Can the World Health Organisation (WHO) be trusted? Is this not just one big Chinese checkmate? I remember being taught that science’s greatest trick, was to make me aware of my biases, to teach me to think.

So what do we do in this time of need? The lure to be acknowledged comes at a fee. If you want to be an expert in psychological skill, make a television series like Dr Phil. Become popular and sell your expertise at a fee. In the courtroom you can become a hired gun and offer expert opinion. But, by ‘selling out’ you have a new problem to overcome, especially when within certain employment contracts your critical voice can cause you to lose your income.

Our advocacy is limited by clever legislation, like chain of command and job performance dictation. Not by an expert within our field. No. By a politician who is elected on popular yield. And the lie that great minds think alike. No. Great minds do not think alike. That is what we count on — just ask Galileo, Darwin, Plato, or Fanon.

So, the destiny of our curving of the pandemic soar, is not what happens on a hospital floor. But whether we can convince a politician to accept our expert opinion that has been prepped. By selling our expertise at a fee, we have become ourselves a commodity. And like a used condom, when we’ve served our purpose, we can be thrown out, not popular enough for service anymore…

Daniel den Hollander is a clinical psychologist who is not only confined to the therapy room.  He currently works for Promentis Healthcare: Paarl, chairs the Psychology Professionals in Public Service (PiPS) division of PsySSA, and is the co-founder of the LEVER approach. This is an edited version of his podcast.