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fellws forumFrom the Fellows Forum by Paul Vittles 15/04/2017

We have moved into a world where few people read history or study history like they used to, including checking references, triangulation, going back to original source material, corroborating evidence, etc. It’s just a quick Google, quick ‘facts’, move on.

But the ‘God of Google’ is often wrong, just like the ‘Wisdom of Wikipedia’ is often factually incorrect. When people find out that, in 1996, I led the team to decide what to do with the site of 25 Cromwell Street in Gloucester, they often say to me “_Oh yes, they turned it into a memorial garden_”. No they didn’t. That’s just what it says now on articles that show up prominently on a Google search. The problem is that was early media speculation with a massive amount of prurient interest, before the real hard work got going behind the scenes listening to all the victims’ relatives and the local community to bring that tragic chapter to some semblance of ‘closure’.

We have fake news, fake Facebook accounts:

http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/wireStory/facebook-targets-30000-fake-france-accounts-election-46793944

…and, some would say, fake politicians with fake spin doctors, with their alternative facts.

Never before in human history have we had to deal with having so much information at our fingertips, so much apparent ease of finding out ‘the truth’ and yet so much manipulation and distortion to stop us finding the real story. Technology is part of the solution but it’s also part of the problem. Getting to the real facts. the real story, the truth as we traditionally define it, is not a high tech activity, it’s high touch.

We have evolved as a society and an education system to not just rote learning of ‘facts’, so that’s a step forward. However in countries like Australia, ‘the facts’ have always been a grey area anyway with different interpretations of history:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_wars

[ps yes, I’m conscious of the irony of quoting Wikipedia but this particular entry does seem to be well-informed, objective and dispassionate on a subject that fuels great passions and polarisation – almost guaranteeing a response to challenge what I’ve just said!]

However, we have new challenges, especially with world leaders – from Bashar-al-Assad to Kim Jong-un to Vladimir Putin to Trump to Sepp Blatter – constantly questioning the free media and all of the evidence we have so freely available as unreliable or ‘fake’.

The RSA started taking the right direction with the Opening Minds curriculum, e.g. helping children and young people (and all of us) to learn how to better manage information, resources, and relationships to be able to make more sense of the modern world we live in:

http://www.rsaopeningminds.org.uk

Btw, what has happened with Opening Minds? The website doesn’t seem to have been updated for a long time. It has said “_200 schools_” for the past couple of years. Maybe the action has switched elsewhere?

We need to go much, much further in teaching, training, mentoring, coaching and facilitating to help children, young people, and the population at large to be able to properly research history, check facts, corroborate evidence, challenge established or emerging interpretations of history, develop critical thinking skills, challenge cynicism but encourage healthy scepticism around online evidence sources via Google and Wikipedia, help those with reliable source material to tell their stories and communicate the facts, and broaden the base of knowledge to be able to have more informed discussions with more considered conclusions.

Despite the scale, breadth and rate of technological change, history does keep repeating itself, and so we do need to study the past, learn from the past, thereby helping to better understand our present and anticipate the future.

I’ve posted at length elsewhere about Brexit, so I won’t repeat that here now (maybe I’ll paste it in here at some point). I’ve tried to have reasoned discussions around Trump, Bannon, Spicer, Conway, etc but people tend to get into their bunkers and only let in the data that supports their worldview.

So much rubbish is spouted by elected politicians and their advisers these days that I find the most interesting ‘moments of truth’ to study are the few, begrudging occasions when they actually apologise – like Conway over fabricated stories around terrorist incidents, or Spicer over the ‘Hitler’ comment. It’s nice to know that even the Chief Spinners, Manipulators & Fabricators still have some boundaries.

As I’ve been writing about this, it has made me think more deeply about how important it is to our civilisation to have apologies – proper, unconditional, heartfelt apologies – as part of the process of knowing what ‘the facts’ are, what history teaches us, and in order to move forward together to a better future. I feel another post coming on!

For more visit http://fellowsforum.thersa.org

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