Sunday, 7 August 2016

Barriers to knowledge

On the whole I don't feel especially well-informed. Oh, I have a head stuffed full of general knowledge, with a breadth to it that would astound anyone of a hundred years ago. But that's not saying much. We are all amazingly well-informed compared to folk alive before mass-communication came along.

Everyone today - not just me - has easy opportunities to look into almost any kind of subject. It's there on the Internet, and it's all so much more available and accessible than when information was published only in books and pamphlets, and anything not so published remained hidden and secret. Only in the Internet Age - from 1990 onwards, say - has it been possible to delve into embarrassing or 'taboo subjects' that people don't like to talk about, or the authorities don't want to discuss. Armed with a minimum know-how where using computers or phones are concerned, you can look into it all. In theory, anyway. In reality it's not so straightforward.

First off, you have to be curious to discover things. A surprising number of people seem not to be. I mean that they have got into a mental rut. They are comfortable. They know what they need to, and feel no need to find out more. I hope they are a dwindling population. I still harbour hopes that universal higher education has given young persons a thirst for knowledge. That the 'ignorant but proud of it' brigade will die out. Fingers crossed on that.

Second, you need an open mind. If you have been brainwashed by some pernicious creed, or just the strong current prejudices and beliefs of your local society, then you will feel totally satisfied with what you think you know, and blind to alternative knowledge. That's a feature of all societies, even 'enlightened' ones. It's worth keeping in mind that the objective scientific knowledge of today is not necessarily the last word, the final conclusive answer: there will always be something else to know.

Third, you need basic knowledge to build on. Unschooled populations can't access complex or advanced ideas, and that's one reason they can be held down and oppressed by whoever is in power. There has to be a foundation of some sort. That's why I believe in a broad school curriculum, and an adult culture that encourages follow-up enquiry and self-education in later life.

Fourth, one needs judgement and discrimination. Without those, it will be hard to distinguish between lies and truth, claims based on mere opinions and claims based on solid facts, and to decide what matters and what doesn't.

Fifth, one needs bravery. I think a lot of people are afraid to enquire in case they don't like what they find out. Certainly, there are a lot of unpalatable facts to know. Who has the most nuclear warheads is an obvious one. But statistics on deaths from disease and hunger are also hard to take. Many people shy away from knowing. It's too disturbing. Horrible truths make cowards of most of us. Well, would you really want to find out, by deep searching on the Internet, that a rogue meteor was going to strike the planet in six years' time? Wouldn't you regard this kind of knowledge too awful to handle - justifying a head-in-the-sand reticence to enquire into it? I really don't think that many would want prior information about an impending disaster like that - which is why bravery is needed in one's search for knowledge.

Bravery is also needed if one's researches stray into Forbidden Territory. There is this fear that certain search-words will be picked up by the Security Authorities, with dire repercussions. I am glad they are alert to people looking at terrorist websites, but my goodness, it's inhibiting! Certainly, a barrier to finding out what terrorists (and many other groups who cause trouble) really have to say about themselves and their cause. Personally, I don't want to risk it. I'm not brave enough. I don't want to go on some list of 'persons to keep an eye on', just because I was curious to know for myself. But it's not good to stifle enquiry.    

Do those in power have the same hangups about knowing that ordinary mortals have? I wonder how many new Prime Ministers or Presidents are prepared to be shocked, disillusioned and terrified by the briefings they get on assuming office? They have to be told what is really going on, so that they can walk that tightrope. I imagine that some of it is frightful stuff, all about secret treaties and obligations, the real state of the country's readiness for war or counter-terror or civil unrest, and who is plotting what around the world - or in their own backyard. I have always been struck how national leaders age in office. I saw it in Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister, although worry about his go-to-war decision might also have been preying on his mind. And US Presidents certainly suffer. It must be all that secret knowledge of how things really are, and the dirty deals needed, and the blatant lies required. For the public must not know. Only an inner circle can have full knowledge.

In the UK, secrecy has long been a feature of how we operate. There is a distressing lack of openness. Telling only part of the story, the bare minimum, and being parsimonious with the full truth, is ingrained in the national culture. Security for security's sake. Right across the board. The Internet hasn't changed this. I don't think anything can.

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Lucy Melford