- The ‘Professor of Everythingology’ model of the commentator is bad for democracy
Twitter is often exhausting. Perhaps there was once a time when the number of opinions you heard on a subject was countable. Maybe you had an extremely opinionated colleague at work. It could be that a family gathering meant that you were exposed to the fiery views of some uncle or idiot cousin. But now! Now I get several thousand half-cooked (and several dozen deeply cooked) opinions on every subject under the sun. Hot takes on everything from macroeconomic policy, national security operations, and Greek citizenship law can come streaming forth from the same source: some nerd with a BSc in Information Technology from a university I’d struggle to locate on a map.
This sneering condescension might be unfair given our media outlets seem to encourage exactly this kind of behaviour. Communications specialists, editors of student newspapers, and former speech writers from the bowels of the public service have sprouted in the daylight, a fertile ground for unforgiving opinions on literally everything.
And such it was with Bernard Keane’s ’10 truths the Left can never admit’, dishing out stone cold facts on a wide range of topics including the benefits of capitalism, asylum seeker policy, s 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, and education funding. What a magnificent mind to be an expert in such a diverse spread of complex policy areas.
Except, of course, he isn’t. I have a professional background in two of the areas he dished out ‘truths’ and he got them wrong. I’m also right wing. So it seems passing strange that declarations disbelieved by some conservatives on account of their factual inaccuracy should be in this list of ten truths the Australian left refuses to accept.
It would be tedious to go through the two I know he got wrong because that’s not really the point. The point, instead, is to reflect on the quality of commentary that Australians receive to inform their democratic decision making.
It’s a recurring idea in contemporary political discourse that we need to worry about ‘facts’. There aren’t enough facts; too many opinions. If we had newspapers full of more facts, democracy would be more gooderer. Climate change debate? Needed more data. Wind farms? More science needed. Austerity budgets? Data needed more (with added spruiking by Dr Karl).
But it’s the opposite. We are flooded with a lot of very low quality opinions and that informs the way we understand and adopt the information we receive. Some research showed that climate change skeptics were more likely to know the details of climate change science than people who agreed (correctly) that climate change was occurring. The argument put was that skeptics put more energy into maintaining their false belief than people who were all like ‘Meh, I don’t need to understand the science in order to believe the vast preponderance of scientific opinion that climate change is real.’ More data was sterile in an ecosystem that could integrate it constructively.
Commentators of the ‘Professor of Everythingology’ type miscast their role in this debate. You watch them as they offer concrete-thick opinions on every topic, built on information cobbled together from newspaper clips that was probably only half understood at best by the journos in the first instance. Good opinion writing, on the other hand, is about being as non-expert as the rest of us, being as uncertain and unsure as the rest of us, and presenting a way to draw on the material of experts. They digest the material for us so that we can engage in discussions and debates.
Bernard Keane was in no position to discern truth from falsehood because he simply doesn’t know. I’m one of the few people in Australia who read his novel Surveillance (endorsed on the cover by an internally infamous sex pest). I can’t imagine why a person who failed so spectacularly to write decent fiction would then think they can lecture others about truths they must accept.
Is a theme emerging? Corkscrewed by Rowan Dean was another horrific attempt at writing a novel, and Rowan Dean’s opinions are complete trash. Does the act of writing fiction reveal something about a person’s ability to write about their opinions? This could be a good entry hurdle to becoming a commentator: before we listen to a person’s opinions, they have to produce a novel that doesn’t suck. It would also help with the flood of opinions on Twitter. Who’d have time to bash out all those bad opinions while they’re struggling to put together a novel that isn’t terrible?
When a politician utters some policy position, we need commentators to work with the idea from different perspectives. We don’t need a ‘definitive’ perspective. We don’t even really need an ‘expert’ perspective. What we want is a class of writers who can present something which challenges us, which shapes our own views, and which helps us to present our views to others. We don’t get that from Professors of Everythingology, those who present themselves as an expert on every topic and who deny that there can be a range of sensible opinions on subjects. The dominant model is bad for democracy.