…abuse your position of authority to present a personal opinion or fantasy theory as a statement of fact.

Take the following statements from an an article published on BBC News today, with the inflammatory headline Edward Snowden ‘may have been working with Russia’

“US intelligence leaker Edward Snowden may have collaborated with Russia”, the chairman of the US House Intelligence Committee has alleged…

[Rep Mike Rogers] offered no firm evidence to back his theory, and the FBI is said to remain sure Mr Snowden acted alone

Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Californian Democrat who heads the Senate intelligence committee, told the same programme Mr Snowden “may well have” had help from Russia, but “we don’t know at this stage.”

So no evidence whatsoever, just an accusation. But when we are constantly bombarded with information, headlines can be sticky, sowing a seed that grows. And before you know it, people believe Snowden was working for Russia all along… ‘Can’t remember where I saw it, read it somewhere…’  People in positions of power and authority have a responsibility to keep their personal opinions out of debates of such a sensitive nature. Because there is a tendency for people to believe the ‘experts’ and not question their assumptions. It’s what we’ve been conditioned to do over the past few centuries of carefully and brutally controlled hierarchies.

In an unrelated article published in the Guardian yesterday, another whistle-blower has challenged authority. A student in the first term of a post-graduate course in psychology questioned a graph based on the mathematical equation that can determine whether or not you will ‘flourish’ or ‘languish’ in life.

The student delved into the underlying research and discovered a quite important flaw in the mathematics:

“When you look at the equation, it doesn’t contain any data. It’s completely self-referential.”

This equation had been published following peer review and subsequently cited more than 350 times in other academic journals. And it is wrong. Bit like that dodgy equation used to calculate risk in certain financial systems that turned out to be somewhat flawed a few years ago… So why had nobody questioned it sooner? Here’s the student’s response as to why he decided to challenge the experts:

If you want to be a whistleblower you have to be prepared to lose your job. I’m able to do what I’m doing here because I’m nobody. I don’t have to keep any academics happy.

The great wonder of the Internet is that it democratises access to information. We no longer have to trust what the experts and politicians say. But it makes life a lot easier if we can. Nobody wants to have to question every public statement that is made which is why people in positions of responsibility should think twice before blurting out their latest unproven (or worse, unprovable) theory.

And the media should stick with publishing interviews with experts who give more reasoned responses when asked about sensitive or inflammatory subjects. The Times published an interview with ex-CIA agent Valerie Plame, who was outed in 2003 by people demonstrating the point of this post (the story was made into the film ‘Fair Game’. She was an internal whistle-blower questioning the intelligence about WMDs used to justify the Iraq war). Towards the end of the article, two questions were asked:

Q: Was it right for Bradley Manning to be imprisoned?

A: …What I would say is this. How he was treated whilst being held was an abomination. He was not afforded some basic rights we should give those awaiting trial. I’m not defending what he did but I know that we are a better country than that and how we treated him hurts me as a citizen

Q: Was Edward Snowden wise to leave the United States when he did?

A: I’m hesitant to answer that because we don’t really know what he attempted to do… What scant evidence has been proffered up about what harm he has done is just that. Scant.

It is clear that in the US we need stronger protection for whistle-blowers across the board. We need to have much more effective systems in place where people can go and be heard and believe something will be done. If people have seen something that is morally or ethically questionable or illegal… there are structures in place but they are clearly not adequate.

Now that is a healthier debate to be had.


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