Facts v. interpretations and fake news: do we need to be more sceptical - Veterinary Practice
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Facts v. interpretations and fake news: do we need to be more sceptical

THE MERCURY COLUMN in which a guest columnist takes the temperature of the profession – and the world around

WHAT A STRANGE WORLD WE LIVE IN. As children, we were all brought up to believe that honesty was an essential building block in formulating character and every one of us had it drilled into us that being honest, trustworthy and reliable were key attributes for growing up in the real world. Who would choose to spend time with anyone dishonest, untrustworthy or unreliable? Yet, in the past few months, we’ve seen the phenomena of the Scottish referendum, Brexit and the US elections all conducted with vigour on a platform of misinformation and disinformation against a backdrop of fake news, concealed facts and outright denial of words spoken, even though many of them had been captured on film. Not only have we seen it up-close and in all its dubious detail, but we’ve all, more or less cheerfully, gone along with it. It seems that deniability is now not just acceptable but almost a requisite for future success on the public stage, but while that seems reprehensible to most of us, aren’t we all equally culpable in accepting this parlous state of affairs? My question, and it applies just as much to me as it does to anyone else, is: “why aren’t we more sceptical?” Even the act of thinking about this is frustrating; in the UK, we have a form of democracy which is held up as a model to those developing nations which aspire to such freedoms, but within the system are there too many limitations and obstacles for any of us to feel that we really have a voice? It would be easy to construct a “poor me” version that laments the real lack of choice, the requirements of an electoral system designed 300 years ago for a very different nation, the incendiary nature of media coverage, the inability to verify claims and the toxic nature of much of the discussion, but whose fault is that really? Are we not able to voice our disapproval of an action, a system or an outcome? Do we really have to tolerate a system of representation that falls short of ideal? The answer is clear and can be seen in the rise of populism around the world. The fact that nations as diverse as Malaysia, Spain, Turkey, France, Scotland and the US all show rumbling dissent at the same time can perhaps be attributed to the power of the media and the instantaneous nature of digital news dissemination, but the fact remains that real people, all around the world, are showing dissent against “big” government and want to have a greater say in their own future. If those who govern cannot fix the problems despite making outlandish claims that they can and will do just that, this simply panders to those who vote with their hearts rather than with their heads – as can be seen in the three political decisions instanced above. As this year unfolds, we can perhaps expect some of those decisions to unravel as reality begins to bite. Of course, here in the UK – where we believe we were the cradle of modern democracy – we have immense freedoms, not the least being the freedom to think and say what we like and it’s not really so long ago that people were deported to the other side of the world for daring to do so. We should treasure these freedoms.

Protective cocoon

Treason and blasphemy used to be the two actions considered more reprehensible than murder, but basking in the protective cocoon of our collective civic liberty we’ve come to see even a fairly robust challenge to either of these as being some sort of human right. After all, if the media and politicians can get away with saying whatever they like, why shouldn’t we? Almost 30 years ago Piers Morgan, while being interviewed on TV when he was editor of The Sun, explained that it was his job to sell newspapers and not to report the news. Maybe if the two coincided that would be a happy accident and, while I applauded his courage and honesty in that interview, I realised then that reporting the news is more of an art form than an accurate rendition of facts. It would be easy to say that nothing has changed over the decades but in fact, a subtle and insidious change has taken place with the media interpreting the data before issuing their interpretation as fact. Married to political expediency, the bias of informed interpretation leads to a significant difference between the reporting of a common incident by the BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Pravda to mention just a few. However, the one commonality is internet reporting which is available to everyone around the world, unless they are unfortunate enough to live in a state where internet access is controlled. Edward Abbey wrote that “freedom begins between the ears”, but surely that must be predicated on having reliable sources of information on which to base any considered opinion which informs that freedom. Within the veterinary profession, we have enormous freedoms allied to the shackles of professional responsibility. If a dog’s cruciate ligament is damaged, we cannot pretend that it is arthritis just because that answer suits us better. Yet we have the enormous freedom of being able to recommend and steer the course of treatment that we prefer for
this and myriad other conditions. Our clients and their insurers, where that is applicable, operate on a level of trust that is simply no longer apparent in most other areas of life and this is a privilege that determines our collective responsibility. Yet just a glance at the veterinary press will tell us that there is trouble brewing in the relationship between first and second opinion practices and the insurers. Without doubt, there will be more of this in the months to come unless a confrontation can be headed off at the pass.

A vital component of pet ownership

Pet insurers’ penetration of the market over the last 30 years or so has not reached the dizzy heights some of us might have anticipated at a time when pet insurance was a “no-brainer” of an idea, but for those of us who have used and benefited from it, it’s a vital component in pet ownership and in the ability for a veterinary practice to be able to do what is needed for many animals in distress. Before this problem enters the realms of politics and the politicians’ unique attitude to such issues, we need to take a measured look at the relationship between referrals and the insurer. If we do not, this issue will enter the realm of news coverage which would, I fear, cause irreparable damage to all concerned. As Napoleon Bonaparte wrote, “Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.”

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