Established information sources like Google or Wikipedia sometimes answer a search about an intriguing claim you’re investigating by assuring you from the get-go that it has been discredited or debunked. They seem keen you should know this before they even explain what the claim actually is. I’ve learned to be suspicious.
Relatedly, I’ve found, the entire purpose of certain “independent” organisations calling themselves “fact checkers” seems to be to dispose of views that challenge or dissent from a given narrative promoted by the corporate media. These defensive communicators are savvy enough to know you can’t fool all the people all the time but, being part of a near monopoly of information, they have an advantage of numbers. Dissenters can get isolated and marginalised as “conspiracy theorists”. Challenges to authorized versions of events are portrayed as all the crazier when they diametrically oppose “what we all know”.
“We all know”, for instance, that Bashar Al-Assad is an evil dictator murdering his people, so when people die in an apparent chemical attack, “we all know” he was responsible; sure, the definitive prove might not be there “yet”, but we are promised we’ll have it in due course. Meanwhile, the sight of some dead children – no matter if they might have been killed and filmed by war criminals opposed to the Syrian government – is enough evidence for warmongers in Washington to license the unleashing of a bit of armed “democracy”, US-style.
Complicit in this process are those who undertake to discredit dissenting voices. Their support is needed because regarding such red-line-crossing incidents as those involving chemicals in Syria – as in 2013 and in April 2017 – controversy remains about who was responsible. Certainly, it is not beyond reasonable doubt that Assad was responsible. Too many indications suggest the possibility of an opposed conclusion.
The quality of debunking, in fact, is sometimes shoddy. I first got drawn into publicly debating information about Syria for that reason. Having seen the famous clip of Eva Bartlett confronting the mainstream media narrative at the UN, I was intrigued to learn that Channel 4 had debunked her claims. The Channel 4 piece was extraordinarily misleading, however, since it did not in fact attempt to refute any of Eva’s major claims about no western journalists being on the ground in Aleppo and about all information coming from compromised sources. She was demonstrably correct on those points. Her substantive version of events on the ground was also then vindicated with the liberation of Aleppo.
Misdirection, however, appears to be standard practice for those debunkers who present themselves as impartial arbiters of evidence but in fact cherrypick and obfuscate it. One modus operandi is to pick up on some technical detail of an event that can be cast as a scientific inquiry. Very long and convoluted reasoning is then deployed to “prove” that this scientific evidence is actually sufficient, for those capable of understanding it, to prove the authorized account. Dissenters are then dismissed by showing that they cannot grasp the science. If they say that the scientific question is not sufficient to settle the matter about who is responsible, they get carefully coralled back to questions that the debunker has prepared a position on. Those who persist in asking independently reasonable questions are liable to get ignored. As are those who engage knowledgeably about the science. One way or another, dissent is largely managed away.
So who is to debunk the debunkers? The rest of us have less information about events than will a well-supported debunker. It is quite possible that the more prominent organisations, particularly those that appear to have no need to engage in any fundraising activities, will be suitably briefed about what “is known” in relevantly authoritative circles.
Nonetheless, all of us are capable of using basic logic and evaluating the credibility of competing witness statements. That is why jury systems can deliver verdicts that as a society we are prepared to rely upon. Whereas a jury in a trial gets to hear evidence on two sides, however, the current situation involves a virtual monopoly of information on the part of the authorized version. The case for the other side remains to be made.
To answer my question: those who have skills or knowledge to challenge the authorized version have an obligation of responsible citizenship, in the public interest, to do so. This applies across the social world, but includes a part I know quite well, namely, the academic. Universities and research institutes are full of people with the knowledge and experience to ask probing questions and develop credible alternative explanatory hypotheses. The particular obligation of academics is all the more pointed, I would suggest, since among the debunkers themselves may be some who hold university positions.
There is a line here that I believe we – as academics, and also as part of a wider society – have to hold. It is a line already worryingly breached by the dramatic burgeoning in the neo-liberal era of Think Tanks with barely a veneer of objectivity or impartiality. Within universities, I believe, the disinterested pursuit of knowledge should be regarded as a sacrosanct goal. It has already been put somewhat at risk by governmental pressures on academics to have ‘impact’, and it has always been somewhat blurred in practice, especially in research fields closely alligned with industry interests. I would also acknowledge that those of us who work in social sciences will have certain political leanings that can affect our research priorities. But the academic world as a whole ought to be pluralist and open enough for manifestations of bias to be exposed and adjusted for.
So we depend on proper academic procedures that ensure we all maintain suitably rigorous standards of practice in the conduct of research and dissemination of its findings.
Practitioners from other fields that enter academia with different expertises and experiences can greatly enrich it. This is certainly true in the case of journalists and citizen investigators. There are special affinities here, because we are all engaged in the same kind of enterprise – researching what is going on in the world. The main difference is that a priority for journalists is to do so in timely fashion, whereas the priority for academics is to do so with great accuracy. In an ideal world, we could collaborate to generate knowledge of the world that is invariably both timely and accurate. In the real world, our collaboration may not yield perfection but it can strive for an optimally timely and reliable knowledge.
But I end with a word of caution. It is theoretically possible that people with academic positions could also have conflicts of interest. I believe it is the collective responsibility of members of universities to ensure that none of our number should act in ways that so contravene basic academic standards as to undermine the very purpose of the university as a public institution. Of course, universities have disciplinary mechanisms for ensuring they are not brought into disrepute. All of us as academics have a professional and personal responsibility, I think, to ensure that the operative criteria of good reputation match those of the fundamental purposes of a university as a social institution. In the age of social media, with truth claims of all sorts being contested as never before, the public role of the university is something to be duly reflective about.
 I have written about the lack of evidence regarding the April 2017 incident here. In subsequent debate on the subject with George Monbiot here, and further here, numerous people have also added interesting additional points in the comments sections.
 Readers will notice that I am not naming names here. My ultimate purpose is not to name and shame any person or organisation but to get the measure of a hat that nobody will want to admit fits them!