9. The difficulty of truth

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, I’ve grappled with a daily battle to find out what’s true.

It’s been a series of recurring battles, and I’ve lost on a lot more days than I’ve won.

“What is true?” is one of the biggest questions to ask, and one of the most difficult to answer.

In the past we had at least two things that diluted truth and threatened truth: propaganda and gossip.

Propaganda was usually national, international, occasionally global. Propaganda was American leaflets raining down on North Vietnam, or the way the British Government controlled media access in the Falklands.

Gossip was much more localised, chins wagging at street corners, the come here till I tell yas and the did you hear the latests.

Propaganda and gossip still remain a factor, but when we add into the mix social media platforms — with the perfect storm of the availability of powerful technology to almost everyone over the age of 12, and the very human hunger for stories to explain the reality in which we live — the capacity to distort the information we receive is taken to a whole new level. (The  Facebook ads bought by Russian agents and targeted at American people is just the tip of a million icebergs.)

This makes the present moment especially difficult, and the virus is only a small part of the whole.

Who can we believe?



Business leaders?

Religious orders?

All have seen their trust decline significantly over the past 12 months.

A comprehensive report by Edelman (yes, a global PR firm), the Trust Barometer, described the current state of affairs:

With a growing Trust gap and trust declines worldwide, people are looking for leadership and solutions as they reject talking heads who they deem not credible. In fact, none of the societal leaders we track—government leaders, CEOs, journalists and even religious leaders—are trusted to do what is right, with drops in trust scores for all.

Without a trusted leadership source to look to, people don’t know where or who to get reliable information.

Science and scientists enjoyed a spell of almost complete trust in the early stages of the pandemic, but even that has been eroded, and quickly.

With hundreds of thousands of scientific studies published every year on every topic imaginable, it is generally possible to find a study to back up your point of view, regardless of what your point of view is. (And that is ignoring some of the pre-pandemic scandals among scientific journals and peer review…)

So, the big unanswerable question remains, what is true?

A skeptical mind seems to be a good thing to have. The truth seems to be generally a messy and complicated thing, so it is good to question.

The problem is that questioning itself has been frowned upon by the culture, especially over the past 12 months.

It seems that there is no availability of a safe middle ground where debate and discussion and questioning can take place.

WB Yeats in his poem “The Second Coming” wrote the line:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold

And that’s the thing. There is no centre. There are only the extremes — you are either towing the line unquestioningly, or you are a crackpot conspiracy theorist.

The truth is probably to be found somewhere in the middle. Questioning, with compassion and integrity.

Compassion and integrity seem to be rare and getting rarer, but they, above almost all other things, are worth fighting for.

And the truth, whatever it might be, is worth fighting for above everything else.

The best I can say is, when something is true, we feel it. We have a sixth sense for truth, somewhere deep in the tendrils of our nervous system.  And we know something is false long before we can articulate why.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days.