(Also published at timhayward.wordpress)
Official stories, according to the official story about them, are (nearly) always true. The ‘nearly’ gets mentioned just because, on rare occasions, an official story is acknowledged to have been wrong, as, for instance, with Iraq’s falsely alleged weapons of mass destruction in 2003. But that’s considered an exception to the rule, and to extrapolate from it to a more pervasive mistrust is to be foolish, ill-informed or even a dupe of hostile propaganda. In fact, diagnosing what is wrong with sceptics about official stories, and proposing ways of curing or otherwise dealing with them, are now becoming a growth industry in the media and academia. So we hear a lot about how dissenting from official narratives is to fall victim to ‘conspiracy theory’ or ‘disinformation’; and dissenters may be diagnosed as needing re-education or even psychological help. As for the dissent itself, this is increasingly subject to censure and censorship.
However, a major question is left unaddressed: What is it that’s supposed to make official stories so credible?
The assumption is that official stories are produced by people with relevant expert knowledge, so disputing them is a product of ignorance; and since experts have credentials, experience and the backing of competent institutions, rejecting their expertise is unwise or even delusional. Also assumed is that official stories are generally produced and disseminated in good faith.
But are those assumptions generally warranted? In probing their grounds we are brought to question whether the official meta-story, as we may call it, overstates reasons for automatically accepting official stories and underestimates the competence that members of the public can bring to independent inquiries.
Why Believe Official Stories?
No serious thinker would suggest that an official story should be believed just because it comes from officials. Indeed, use of the very expression ‘official story’, in practice, tends to imply that there is also some alternative story that does not have the backing of officials but might be more credible. We know, too, that many societies from various times and places have maintained order by invoking all manner of mythological stories, ideological stories, and blatantly discriminatory stories. Sometimes this has meant denying, suppressing or persecuting as heretics people engaged in rigorous intellectual questioning of officialdom.
A more plausible reason for believing official stories has been set out by the philosopher Neil Levy (2007). He points out that we all know most of the things we know in life because we have learned them from others: our direct personal experience of the world is extremely limited compared to the expanse of our general knowledge and the intricacies of our more specialist understandings. We rely on the testimony and good faith of others in almost everything we do, so just to live a normal life in society we trust a wide range of institutions and social arrangements. To doubt their general dependability would contradict the tacit assumptions that get us through life and would render inexplicable how even a tolerably well-ordered society could ever be possible.
The force of that consideration is strong, but not absolute – and how strong also depends on what kinds of communication we are referring to as official stories. It is strongest if one uses the term to refer to all public communications that emanate from an official source. In actual usage, however, that is not how the term ‘official story’ is normally understood. We don’t regard it as an ‘official story’ that to get a passport you need to submit an authenticated photograph of yourself; we don’t regard it as an ‘official story’ that in UK cars are to be driven on the left; and nor do we these days regard it as an ‘official story’ that smoking is bad for our health. By far the greater part of public pronouncements, like these, are simply taken to state how matters stand. When the distinctive term ‘official story’ occurs, it is typically in contexts where a public pronouncement has met with scepticism. So, for example, whereas we seldom nowadays hear the rationale for mandating wearing seatbelts in cars referred to as an ‘official story’, because there is no longer serious dissent, recent claims that the rationale for mandating mRNA injections against SARS-Cov2 was substantially comparable to that for seatbelts encountered resistance: the ‘official story’ about the benefits and safety of the mRNA injections has been subject to criticism from some sections of medical and scientific communities.
Of course, the mere fact of scepticism in some quarters does not mean that a given official story is necessarily mistaken, but it does highlight how an official story is not just an uncontroversial statement of how matters stand. It leads thoughtful people to look more closely at the nature of authority claimed for an official story.
Are There Experts in Expertise?
The authority claimed for official stories derives, as Levy explains, from the fact of being produced by ‘people socially acknowledged as the relevant experts on a topic’ (Levy 2022). Relevance here is understood in terms of knowledge and experience relating to the salient subject matter. However, certain people might officially be appointed as relevant experts, on other bases, such as known affinities with the organisation’s mission. So it is possible for designated experts to support an official story while a number of other people with materially relevant knowledge and experience take a quite different view.
Even among designated expert advisers, however, achieving an authoritative consensus on the kind of matter that official stories relate to is not straightforward. This is for reasons similar to those involved in giving policy advice (see e.g. Grundmann 2017). Insofar as an official story appeals to a scientific basis, it should be borne in mind that findings of science – a process of open, collaborative and progressive inquiry – have a provisional status, with all scientific statements being in principle corrigible. This means that a scientific adviser’s confidence can never be completely unconstrained or unhedged. Zeynep Panuk (2021) refers to a ‘paradox of scientific advice’ that arises from the difficulties of basing decisions on scientific knowledge that is almost always uncertain and subject to disagreement. Panuk cites experience of how overconfident scientists in advisory committees may suppress dissent so as to present a consensus view, only to find that its implementation had unfortunate or even disastrous consequences. Recent experiences of overconfident pronouncements on ‘The Science’ during the Covid pandemic have furnished further examples (Miller 2022; Nelson 2022).
The kind of controversy for which an ‘official story’ comes into play will not normally reduce to some specialist detail of basic science, or even a collection of these, but will concern a situation involving many factors – including those pertaining to social organisation, human action and decision-making. Such situations are similar to those where policy advice is sought from scientific experts (SAPEA 2019 Ch. 2; Martin et al 2020). Official stories are seldom if ever straightforward statements of scientific opinion on a single well-defined scientific research question: they typically relate to situations where many interacting variables may not all be clearly disaggregable. There is in principle no necessary reason why an independent and unofficial grouping of investigators with materially relevant expertise might not be as well-suited to an inquiry as an official grouping. In fact, challenges to official stories can sometimes draw on impressive constellations of expertise.
If the official meta-story may overestimate the dependability of designated expert advice, it may also underestimate the investigative competence of ordinary citizens. For challenges to official stories can be mustered not just by isolated individuals, caricatured as ‘doing their own research’ while ‘reading things on the internet,’ but by well-informed collaborative groups. These can be better able to track truths than independent individuals: ‘the superiority of the group over the individual does not require that one member has the right answer prior to deliberation: group deliberation may enable the aggregation of the genuine insights of several members and the rejection of the false hypotheses of some of the same individuals.’ (Levy 2019: 316)
Furthermore, if it is the case that ‘[g]roups of individuals who are strangers to one another are better at tracking truths than groups of individuals who have a shared history’ (Levy 2019: 318) then this is an advantage of groups comprising people who come together in cyberspace from all walks of life and may have little or no biographical information about those they connect with. Citizens doing their own research sometimes start their own Wikis, or form groups on Reddit, or informally deliberate via Twitter or Telegram. Sometimes they create investigative collectives offline.
It was from participating in chatrooms, for instance, that the now much-feted organisation Bellingcat originated: its founder, Eliot Higgins, a gamer-turned-investigative-citizen, would review copious amounts of war footage from his sofa in Leicester and discuss his observations in chatrooms. The work of his investigative collaborative has come to be ‘commended in the global media and by global agencies such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.’ (Nguyen and Scifo 2018: 377) Impressed by the methods of ‘open source intelligence’ (D’Alessandra and Sutherland 2021), curators of official stories in the West – particularly those relating to geopolitical issues involving Russia – have bestowed accolades on Bellingcat, along with generous funding and encouragement.
So, there is precedent for treating citizens’ investigations as authoritative. Other groups of citizen investigators, that do not receive any funding, have mounted significant challenges to some of the West’s own official stories. Thus, directly countering Bellingcat, on occasion, is the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media which has earned the confidence of whistleblowers rather than officials (OPCW 2020).
Aside from the benefits of collaboration, the reality of serious dissent in the digital sphere is that it can involve myriad critical individuals with significant independent claims to epistemic authority in their professional fields and who exhibit judicious awareness of both their own limitations and the value of others’ insights. For instance, challenging various official narratives are whistleblowers who include scientists, diplomats, intelligence officers, and various state or corporate employees. Challenges come too from professionals with relevant specialist expertise across fields like medicine, architecture, engineering, pharmaceuticals, and a gamut of others. Also worth highlighting are those journalists with previous careers in mainstream media organisations who found they could only maintain their professional integrity by becoming independent. When a group of people independently deliberating together can include, for instance, a former head of a nation’s armed services, a UN weapons inspector, a senior diplomat, an intelligence officer, a world leading International Relations expert and a seasoned war correspondent, the insights they generate regarding situations relevant to foreign policy may well be no less sound than those informing the official story. Indeed, in virtue of their freedom from institutional constraints, they may be more reliably informative for the public than the official story.
If serious challenges to official stories have become more prevalent in recent years, as they arguably have, this is likely due in good part to the sheer extent to which mainstream media have excluded the voices of experts who, maintaining their professional integrity and independence in the face of sometimes considerable hostility, have continued to articulate their challenges to official stories. Attentive members of the public notice this – just as they notice when the force of the state is brought to bear on those who bring to light its lies and malfeasance, and not only in high profile cases like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Katharine Gun or Julian Assange.
Part of the official meta-story currently is that the internet and social media are being flooded by targeted disinformation that is misleading and confusing people. However, from another perspective one might see that thanks to digital communications citizens can become aware of arguments developed by other experts which are suppressed by protectors of an ‘official story’. An example would be the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration (GBD) (2020), advocating an approach to dealing with the Covid situation characterized as ‘focused protection’ instead of the officially promoted lockdown approach. Lay persons may not be able to adjudicate first hand between recommendations from the GBD and the John Snow Memorandum (2020), which defended lockdown, but they can understand enough to know that the latter does not command an unproblematic consensus such as would be rational simply to defer to. Members of the public can assess the trustworthiness of expertise and official stories without a high level of technical knowledge, as science studies scholars have shown (Yearley 2005; Hess 2012).
People understand that if a view is suppressed rather than openly addressed and rebutted the reason might be that it cannot be rebutted. If an attentive public observes that dissent is simply treated as inadmissible, and especially if those formulating it are subject to smearing or censorship, then there is a corresponding diminution of public trust in the orthodox view.
Tension At The Heart of An Official Story
If the claim that the authority of an official story derives from an expert consensus can be questionable, something more certain is that an official story is asserted with the kind of authority that comes with power. People may defer to an official story not because they necessarily find it credible but out of a prudent concern to avoid the costs of dissidence. Those with power can also incentivise wider media of communication to stick to the narrative. This difference between epistemically earned authority and politically declared authority is a tension at the heart of official stories. Understanding it helps explain why we find a good many journalistic and scholarly studies of the supposed pathologies of dissident citizens and rather little reflection on the real nature of the authority of official stories.
Today we find a welter of studies of online ‘disinformation’ that trace webs of connection across cyberspace seeking to link influential dissenting accounts on social media with bots and trolls associated with malign actors. These communications are said to be engaged in strategically. That is, their aim is to persuade the public to accept a pre-established story rather than to allow people to determine, through open deliberations, what the most credible story is.
Yet this is exactly what the promulgators of official stories themselves do. Regardless of whether the content of a given official story is reliable or not, the form of an official story – in virtue of fulfilling its official function – is that of a strategic communication. Its communication, as official, is presented as a matter not for deliberation but for public acceptance. It is not submitted to public scrutiny with an implicit invitation for critical feedback. It is not up for discussion. It is communicated not to advance debate but to settle it.
This is the inherent tension in an official story: its assertion of epistemic authority depends on an implicit claim that it can be backed by processes of deliberative reasoning, but the pronouncement of an official story as a settled opinion curtails any such process.
What this means in practice has been illustrated, for instance, in the situation arising with the UK Government’s Covid response, which professedly aimed to ‘Follow The Science’ (Stevens 2020). This notion can only ever be ‘a misleading oversimplification’ of what it means to base policy on science (Abbasi 2020), and when UK government ministers claimed to be ‘guided by the science’, what they meant in practice was being guided by their scientists: ‘Ministers formed strong relationships with key scientific advisors, relied on evidence from their Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), and ignored or excluded many other sources.’ (Cairney 2021) Thus a policy of public communications was decided on the basis of a selective interpretation of scientific findings. But more than this, instead of caution in the face of uncertainty, a policy of robustly promoting a particular view involved the use of psychological operations of a kind more normally associated with a war effort than with public health advice (Sidley 2021, 2022).
Unfortunately, as that example also showed, the defence of an official story against criticism can include counter-measures taken to smear and discredit dissenters. This is never an edifying approach, but is especially troubling when it involves discrediting serious critics who have their own credible claim to epistemic authority. This was illustrated in the case of the eminent scientists who signed the Great Barrington Declaration. They were widely vilified not only in the media but even by other academics, for pointing to certain established principles of epidemiology – including those developed over the two preceding decades of pandemic preparedness planning – that were being set aside and overridden by policy-makers on the basis of modellers’ projections in favour of a ‘zero-covid’ strategy (Ioannidis 2022). This vilification involved not only overt smearing but also something more insidious, namely, the pre-emptive dismissal of their views – notwithstanding their impeccable academic pedigree – as too far ‘beyond the pale’ to warrant serious consideration (HART 2022).
This situation showed that the other institutions of civil society, including the media and academia, which the official meta-story claims provide critical scrutiny, can in fact simply amplify official strategic communications. Thus the organisations that Levy recommends we rely on as guarantors of the authors of official stories can in reality see it as their responsibility to promote and defend the official story rather than question it. Public perceptions that this is the case are accompanied by a deficit of trust in the media and institutions more generally.
The official meta-story blames ‘conspiracy theorists’ and other critical questioners for this lack of trust. But perhaps that gets things the wrong way round.
Trust is something that has to be won, and, if betrayed, it can be lost. As the public’s trust in official stories diminishes, the official meta-story looks to blame this on ‘conspiracy theorists’ and other ‘disruptive influences’. Perhaps a more credible story about official stories would include serious reflection on how they might be made more transparently trustworthy.
Meanwhile, it is reasonable to suggest that each serious challenge to an official story should be assessed on its merits. This does not mean being swayed by extravagant contrarian hypotheses, since these should be treated with even more caution, and, when appropriate, summarily rejected. It does mean being duly aware of how the presumption in favour of official stories is necessarily defeasible. That is the case not just because any story may prove to be mistaken, even in all good faith, but also because we know that any organisation with politically-conferred authority is liable at times to come under political pressures that may, in certain circumstances, override scruples of honesty.
Abbasi, Kamran. 2020. ‘Covid-19: politicisation, “corruption,” and suppression of science’. BMJ; 371:m4425, 13 November: doi:10.1136/bmj.m4425
Cairney, Paul. 2021. ‘The UK Government’s COVID-19 Policy: What Does “Guided by the Science” Mean in Practice?’ Frontiers in Political Science 3*.* 15 March.https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpos.2021.624068 DOI: 10.3389/fpos.2021.624068
D’Alessandra, Federica and Kirsty Sutherland. 2021. ‘The Promise and Challenges of New Actors and New Technologies in International Justice’. Journal of International Criminal Justice, 19(1): 9–34. https://doi.org/10.1093/jicj/mqab034
Great Barrington Declaration. 2020. https://gbdeclaration.org/
Grundmann, Reiner. 2017. ‘The Problem of Expertise in Knowledge Societies’. Minerva 55, 25–48 (2017). https://doi-org.ezproxy.is.ed.ac.uk/10.1007/s11024-016-9308-7
HART [Health Advisory and Recovery Team]. 2022. ‘The crushing of dissent throughout the covid era’, 8 October: https://www.hartgroup.org/the-crushing-of-dissent-throughout-the-covid-era/
Hess, David J. 2012. Science Studies: An Advanced Introduction. New York: NYU Press.
Ioannidis, John P. 2022. ‘Citation impact and social media visibility of Great Barrington and John Snow signatories for COVID-19 strategy.’ BMJ Open 2022;12:e052891. doi:10.1136/ bmjopen-2021-052891
John Snow Memorandum. 2020. https://www.johnsnowmemo.com/
Levy, Neil. 2007. ‘Radically Socialized Knowledge and Conspiracy Theories’, Episteme 4(2): 181-192.
Levy, Neil. 2019. ‘Due deference to denialism: explaining ordinary people’s rejection of established scientific findings’. Synthese 196: 313-327.
Levy, Neil. 2022. ‘Do Your Own Research!’ Synthese 200: 356. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11229-022-03793-w
Martin, Graham P., Esmée Hanna, Margaret McCartney and Robert Dingwall. 2020. ‘Science, society, and policy in the face of uncertainty: reflections on the debate around face coverings for the public during COVID-19’. Critical Public Health 30:5: 501-508, DOI: 10.1080/09581596.2020.1797997
Miller, Ian. 2022. Unmasked: The Global Failure of COVID Mask Mandates.
Nelson, Fraser. 2022. ‘The lockdown files: Rishi Sunak on what we weren’t told.’ The Spectator, 27 August: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-lockdown-files-rishi-sunak-on-what-we-werent-told/
Nguyen, An and Salvatore Scifo. 2018. ‘Mapping the Citizen News Landscape: Blurring Boundaries, Promises, Perils, and Beyond.’ In Journalism, edited by Tim P. Vos. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.
OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons]. 2019. ‘Report Of The Fact-Finding Mission Regarding The Incident Of Alleged Use Of Toxic Chemicals As A Weapon In Douma, Syrian Arab Republic, On 7 April 2018.’ OPCW Technical Secretariat S/1731/2019: https://www.opcw.org/sites/default/files/documents/2019/03/s-1731-2019(e).pdf
Panuk, Zeynep (2021) ‘COVID-19 and the Paradox of Scientific Advice.’ Perspectives on Politics 20(2): 562-576. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/S1537592721001201
SAPEA [Science Advice for Policy by European Academies]. 2019. Making sense of science for policy under conditions of complexity and uncertainty. Berlin: SAPEA. https://doi.org/10.26356/MASOS
Sidley, Gary. 2021. ‘A Year of Fear.’ The Critic 23 March: https://thecritic.co.uk/a-year-of-fear/
Sidley, Gary. 2022. ‘Britain’s unethical Covid messaging must never be repeated.’ The Spectator 6 February: https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/britain-s-unethical-covid-messaging-must-never-be-repeated/
Stevens, Alex. 2020. ‘Governments cannot just ‘follow the science’ on COVID-19’. Nature Human Behaviour 4, 560: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-020-0894-x
Yearley, Steven. 2005. Making Sense of Science: Understanding the Social Study of Science. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
 This is the case, for instance, with Jonathan Cook (formerly of The Guardian), Chris Hedges (formerly with the New Yorker), John Pilger (award-winning documentary film maker), and the late Robert Parry who founded the independent outlet Consortium News.
 This is to characterize part of the composition of the Berlin Group 21 that has produced the Statement of Concern relating to whistleblowers from the OPCW. See https://berlingroup21.org/ and associated press release: https://www.einnews.com/pr_news/538579944/leading-international-voices-call-on-opcw-and-its-scientific-advisors-to-allow-all-douma-investigators-to-be-heard