On Trying To Be Less Wrong

By George Monbiot. Published on, 28th June 2011

My job is to tell people what they don’t want to hear. That is not what I set out to do. I wanted only to cover the subjects I thought were interesting and important. But wherever I turned, I met a brick wall of denial.

Denial is everywhere. I have come to believe that it’s an intrinsic component of our humanity, an essential survival strategy. Unlike other species, we know that we will die. This knowledge could destroy us, were we unable to blot it out. But, unlike other species, we also know how not to know. We employ this unique ability to suppress our knowledge not just of mortality, but of everything we find uncomfortable, until our survival strategy becomes a threat to our survival.

Whenever I have tried to bring an awkward issue to public attention, it has been greeted with a cacophony of voices insisting that there is nothing to worry about. The volume of denial bears no relationship – except perhaps a positive one – to the strength of the evidence.

Denial is exacerbated by the nature of the media. I believe that the first purpose of journalism is to hold power to account. But it is used, overwhelmingly, to support power against those who challenge it. Most media organisations are owned by very wealthy people or corporations. They appoint editors in their own image, and the people who work for them are acutely aware of where their interests lie. One of the privileges of wealth is that you can employ other people to engage in denial on your behalf. Ideas and information which conflict with the interests of the proprietorial class, or upset their assumptions, are either energetically denounced or comprehensively ignored by their employees.

Just as journalists seldom hold power to account, there are few means by which the power of journalists is held to account. The internet, paradoxically, has in one respect made journalism less accountable, as it exacerbates the tendency of like-minded people to clump together, and to shout down or shut out the voices which challenge them. Journalists – especially commentators – attract loyal followers, who defend them from criticism. They quickly learn what their followers want to hear. They can change their opinions only at the cost of alienating their fans. Even if their claims are repeatedly exposed as false, they must stick to the script. Nothing destroys good journalism more effectively than being treated as a hero.

It is not just power that journalists should challenge: they should also challenge themselves. Before making any claim, we should ask ourselves whether the evidence supports our beliefs. When we discover that we have got something wrong, we must be prepared to say so. Being able to abandon pride and admit that we are wrong is the only hope we have of acquiring wisdom. That is another way of saying that it’s the only hope we have of creating a better world.

The evidence is not fixed. The facts change as new findings are made, and as societies, technologies and power relations change. Identities are not fixed either. People can be victims at one moment, oppressors at another. There is no virtue in sustaining a set of beliefs, regardless of the evidence. There is no virtue in either following other people unquestioningly or in cultivating a loyal and unquestioning band of followers.

While you can be definitively wrong, you cannot be definitely right. The best anyone can do is constantly to review the evidence and to keep improving and updating their knowledge. Journalism which attempts this is worth reading. Journalism which does not is a waste of time.

Just as importantly, journalists should show how they reach their conclusions, by providing sources for the facts they cite. Trust no one, but trust least those who cannot provide references. A charlatan, in any field, is someone who will not show you his records.

So, in reading the articles on this site, don’t expect to agree – or to disagree – with all of them. I no longer agree with all of them myself. You will find consistencies but also stark contradictions between some of the things I believed a few years ago, and some of the things I believe today.

I have tried to navigate and understand a world that is extraordinarily complex. The useful skill I possess is an ability to read and process a lot of information quickly: on average, I read around 600 pages of source material for every column I write. But this is nowhere near enough. The world’s complexity, and the impossibility of mastering any subject, let alone of achieving a comprehensive overview, means that we will always be wrong in some respects.

A complex system cannot produce simple or consistent answers. A system created by human beings – or by any conceivable entity – cannot produce perfect answers. Every choice we make involves pay-offs and compromises. This is a lesson I have learnt slowly and reluctantly.

But while my opinions about particular issues have changed and become more complex, my underlying principles have not. These are that we should stand up for the victims, whoever they might be, and against the aggressors, whoever they might be. We should defend the poor against the rich, the powerless against the powerful, the defenceless against the armed. We should defend the biosphere that gives us life: both because it is wonderful and because those of us who possess agency (who are alive today and have money) have no right to deprive others (who are not yet born or who are poor) of their means of survival. We must treat other people as we would wish to be treated ourselves.

None of these aims can be passively achieved. All involve confrontation. Among other forms of conflict, they require confrontation with denial – our own and other people’s – and with the falsehoods of those who possess power. This is where I have a role. The articles on this site are my stumbling attempts to confront power with research, and to tell the stories you would prefer not to hear.