You only have to turn on the television to notice the merging of opinion, fact and news into ‘debates’ of equal value. I can’t claim this as an original thought. I first heard the comment on a podcast I was listening to. I can’t remember which one or the person who said it but I do remember he was well qualified to make the statement and how well the observation resonated with me.
The unwillingness to distinguish between opinion, fact and fantasy allows for “Trumpisms”, those I-can-say-anything statements that are rarely critically interrogated (on air at least) in Australian political conversation. Granted they may not always be as obviously outrageous as those made by Trump himself but nonetheless nonsense when unpacked. Today it seems anyone can say anything and it is treated as informed. Politicians make outrageous unsubstantiated and false claims and talk in false binaries. In my opinion, interviewers have a lot to answer for when they let these slide. How often are experts included on topics that they may have spent many years researching? When they are it is often just enough to make sure the “balance box” is ticked. Even worse is when the most outrageous commentary is given equal footing in the name of ‘balance’ (a concept now constructed to mean something entirely different) while other voices are condemned. Politicians don’t tend to pay attention to research unless it is the kind that supports their ideological position. These days we are lucky if cabinet members actually read the reports on the committees they lead. Sound and well executed research often throws up findings that counter ideological positions. Sure it can be uncomfortable but it should be encouraged not ignored.
Concern about the country’s future and the well-being of all people in our society calls for the interrogation of public commentary and the separation of fact and fantasy. When it comes to policy, a critical position should cause us to ask if claims can actually be substantiated, who are these people presented as ‘experts’, who funds them, does their organisation have an ideological position and value base, do we know what that value base is and how much credibility (in this particular policy area) should we attribute to them. Historical examples and simple observations of how things work elsewhere easily eliminate many claims before we even turn to research. We need to demand that opinion be called opinion and insist that research independently conducted be presented to support claims made. I for one would like to see a ‘talk show’ with a panel of researchers discussing a topic they know about and only then seek responses from politicians. Would you watch it? I know I would. Perhaps then the quality of our ‘debates’ and policies would improve and the differences between opinion and knowledge would be much clearer.
Written By Patricia Fronek