Lucy Mangan

“When did facts go out of fashion?” Lucy Mangan wants the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth

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Lucy Mangan
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I went to the doctor the other day, about a thing. I told him my symptoms and he said, “So, what do you think it is?”

“No!” I wanted to cry. “I am not that kind of patient! I am old school! You tell me stuff! I am happy to feel the full weight of your greater knowledge, your years of study, palpating of live tissues and dissection of dead ones, your ongoing training bearing down on my problem and seeking to solve it. Don’t ask me to diagnose myself. I’m not even fully conversant with my new microwave’s settings yet.”

When did we start distrusting experts to such a degree that even doctors now have to pretend we stand in equal authority to them? Because that’s what’s happening.

We’re all guilty, I suspect, of ringing the friend you know is going to give you the answer you want (“Do it/him!” “Don’t do it/him!” “Take the job!” “Stay where you are!” “Ignore her!” “Kill all her pets!”) instead of an objective source (or therapist). And at some point we’ve all searched the internet for opinions that match our own or evidence to back up a hunch, happily skimming over all those bits that annoyingly do not. I like to search for articles that tell me running will knacker my knees and that red wine and dark chocolate will make me live – lithe and unwrinkled – forever instead. Or ones which reassure me that the one expensive thing I want to buy is better than lots of cheaper things. Unless I’m in a different mood, in which case I look up why buying whatever you fancy is better than endlessly deferring your gratification, unless I’m in an angelic mood in which case I look up why minimalism is good for the soul, unless… Well, you get, I’m sure, the picture.

And that’s fine in normal, day to day life. Uninformed opinions on handbag purchases and sandwich options are just the ticket. You will end up with a nice sandwich and a nice handbag to put it in.

But it’s all gone so much further than that. Real knowledge has somehow become suspect. Now, we have lots of people absolutely refusing to recognise any kind of expert; a tide of anti-intellectualism that reached its high-water mark recently with the woman on Newsnight, who dismissed the governor of the Bank of England’s thoughts on the possible economic effects of Brexit because he doesn’t “know what it’s like to go round Sainsbury’s shopping”.

People seem to be affronted by other people knowing more than them. All knowledge has somehow become elitist. As if people who have accumulated facts and knowledge through a life’s work in a certain area have done it just to shame those of us who haven’t.

So we slide into the madness that states one person’s shopping, or googling, or synthesising of his/her friends’ anecdotes is as valuable as another person’s genuine expertise, which comprises careful thinking, gathering of evidence and long-cultivated ability to weigh and evaluate.

This is madness. It means we end up, as one commentator put it after Brexit, in a ‘post-fact democracy’, where whoever shouts loudest or has the most catchy rhetoric wins. And when you uncouple influence from facts and informed debate, you clear the way for charismatic bigots to have their untrammelled say and way. This never leads anywhere good. Although of course, I’m not an expert.

Photography: Ellis Parrinder, iStock