A disclosure right up front, namely that I’m a member of the UCT Covid -19 Vaccine Mandate Panel, which is currently seeking comment on the draft vaccine mandate policy that we have drafted. (And, it’s no doubt also relevant that I’m a member of UCT’s Council, which will have to approve the final conditions of any mandate the panel proposes.)
This is an original manuscript of an article published by Taylor & Francis in Communicatio on November 8, 2021, available online here: Challenges to Science Communication in a Post-Truth World.
Communicating scientific research to a lay audience – or, for that matter, communicating any contestable or potentially controversial ideas in areas such as politics or policy – would be a significantly easier task if the audience agreed on what the relevant facts are, and also on the extent to which the facts are even relevant (rather than facts being regarded as of secondary importance to political or pragmatic interests).
The first issue (“what are the facts?”) is an empirical matter, and one which reasonable people can disagree on in situations of uncertainty or incomplete knowledge. The second issue is of more concern when communicating complex or possibly controversial ideas, particularly in light of the increased polarisation of opinion in public discourse, alongside an increasingly widespread mistrust of mainstream media and “authorities” in general.
Descendants of the founders of The South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) have recently criticised the Institute for straying from their founding principles. While the SAIRR disagrees with Dr Heather Brookes’ (the granddaughter of the founder, Edgar Brookes) assessment, those who read the comments to the first piece would also note that her sentiment is shared by a previous member of their national executive, Prof. Hugh Corder, who resigned in the mid-90s thanks to perceiving this same value-drift occurring even then.
Earlier this month, News24 asked me to contribute to a piece on whether vaccine mandates were ethically defensible. Here are some more fleshed-out answers to their questions. David Benatar’s (a colleague at the University of Cape Town) Business Day column on the same topic is worth reading, if the paywall isn’t an impediment for you.
There are many things I won’t mention here. If you choose to assume what my views on those things are, go ahead, but if you choose to do so, please realise that you’re simply rolling the dice.
One of those things is speculation regarding the motivations of those who are laying much of KwaZulu Natal and parts of Gauteng to waste in the days following the imprisonment of President Jacob Zuma.
Helen Zille’s new book, #StayWoke: Go Broke aims to tell us why “South Africa won’t survive America’s Culture Wars”. I read it out of some strange sense of obligation, and perhaps intending to write a review. A short version of the comments below is the one-line review that first came to mind: the book doesn’t say enough to merit any attention.
A friend recently asked me to review Jean-Francois Marmion’s book, The Psychology of Stupidity, for her radio show Book Choice (that’s the podcast link – my bit starts at 39m50s, and it is also embedded below).
As it happened, I was reading the book in any case, so happily agreed to provide the requested 3 minutes of audio commentary. For those who prefer reading to listening, the (fuller) text is posted after the audio.
While this isn’t as egregious a case as the News24 “news” (rather than opinion, or whatever) article on lockdown protests in Muizenberg was, the problems with Daily Maverick‘s piece on a new court challenge regarding right-to-die legislation extend beyond the clickbait headline, and merit brief comment. (As a disclaimer, I contributed columns to Daily Maverick between 2009 and 2013.)
Nobody will be surprised to read that journalism leans toward sensationalism in terms of topics chosen for coverage, how topics are covered, and (especially) the headlines chosen to represent that coverage, seeing as the headline is what makes people click through to (maybe) read the story.
Cyril Ramaphosa (South Africa’s President) reinstated a ban on the sale of alcohol at both restaurants and retail outlets on December 28 2020, and that ban is still in place today, with an end-date to be determined by the whims of the National Coronavirus Command Council.