Most of my happiest moments in life have involved carbs. But last week they gave me an epiphany, when a news story broke about how crispy roasties and overly-brown chips could give you cancer.
Once upon a time, this would have been enough to stop me eating both for months. But this time, after only momentary panic, I thought – hang on; can this really be true? Can a couple of foodstuffs mankind has been pushing down its collective gullet for as long as there has been fire, wheat and edible tubers really be so wholly carcinogenic as all that? Would... would we not all be very dead by now if so? I read the story in full and discovered, in short, that no, they could not. After a brief flurry of interest, everyone else realised the same thing and the story expired.
I, however, am taking this experience as my touchstone for the next four years, as the post-fact universe starts to swallow our own. When the new US president’s press secretary insisted – as photos of three crying people and a baffled dog were beamed round the world – that Trump’s inauguration was the best attended in history and another spokesperson insisted that the much-rebuked claim was “an alternative fact”, I felt like Ray Liotta in Hannibal – as if reality had taken the top off my skull and was frying my brain one carefully shaved slice at a time.
Of course we’ve heard similar nonsense on this side of the pond too – last summer, Michael Gove glibly announced that people had “had enough of experts”. Well, I haven’t. In fact, I’d like more of them. But it looks like that’s a hopeless dream, so the only thing left is to become our own experts. What does that mean? It means a lot of work, for a start. It means keeping our critical faculties turned on at all times. It means finding out who that guy is who is saying that thing on Facebook that sounds true, but might also be bollocks. Who is he? Who is he affiliated to? Why – and you may want to consider getting this tattooed on the inside of your eyelids – might this bastard be lying to me?
It also means reading news reports and – in a phrase that suddenly looms up from a history GCSE long past and makes sense as never before – evaluating your sources. It means not giving as much weight to an unsigned, contextless paragraph doing the rounds on social media as to a piece from a legitimate news site, even – especially – if the former appeals to you far more than the latter. It means learning to sift fact from opinion from outright fiction. It means watching and learning how narratives are built as a story emerges and observing how various outlets present the same facts. Once you know the tricks and tendencies of each one, you can start to adjust for them and build something closer to the truth in your own mind.
More than anything, it becomes vital not to retreat and seal ourselves up inside our own echo chambers. If you can’t hear the other side, you can neither fight it effectively nor consider whether they might have a point and that your own ideas might occasionally need adjusting.
In essence, we all have a duty now to become old-fashioned journalists, hunting down the real story in a mass of competing versions. Occasional retreats under the duvet to recharge your investigatory batteries are fine. But for the next four years at least – imagine a press card in your hatband at all times. From potatoes to politics, the truth is out there...