Chapter 17 Fake News

Saturday 5th August 2017

News (1905) Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis

News (1905) Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis

At around 1 am I’m woken by a conversation occurring on Kite’s radio. As I gradually stir into consciousness I realise that it is not relevant to us. After a while I get out of bed to talk to Max. I learn we have had a couple of boat friends as Maxime calls the ships around us. I internally reflect that Facebook may well have devalued the concept of friendship so much that now it applies to something that we can perceive in the distance, either physically, or perhaps just electronically. Our friends have consisted of a ferry and a cruise ship, both of which have passed, and ahead, a fishing vessel, that is zig-zagging across our path, possibly trawling.

I head down to get some warm clothes on and get together the things for my watch. These include a cup of tea, a windproof lighter, a satellite internet hotspot, my phone which is useless apart from its ability to play music and access weather information through the hotspot, my iPad that I have been using to write my blogs while at sea and my notebook and pen, in which I make both sailing and blog notes. These I add to the stuff already in the cockpit which include the handheld extension to the ship’s radio, the android tablet with Navionics for backup navigation and, do I spy, chocolate, that Maxime apparently sneaked into the shopping in Brest, even though she was the one that paid. I guess old childhood habits die hard.

There is nothing better than starting a watch with a cup of tea and half, well actually as Max rather guiltily points out, a third of a bar of chocolate. I change course to avoid the trawler ahead of us and download the latest weather. It is looking good for Porto though we would be on a run with 20-25 knots winds with up to 4 meter waves for the final part of the passage. They also could be a patch of low wind in the middle of the bay of Biscay in around 18 hours. There is a squeaking noise coming from somewhere which I track down to the clew outhaul line that pulls the mainsail backwards along the boom. I slacken off the outhaul and the noise stops. The pulley in the boom may need looking at at some point. I have half an hour of dolphins around the boat which lifts my spirits.

We are long past the site of land and there are no ships to see even on the electronic systems. I get to reflecting on the comment from the couple I met in Dartmouth:

Only Asians buy houses in our area and they won’t pay much.

It doesn’t sound like a plausible story to me. Kind of fake news if you like. There is of course a sense in which all news is fake. No representation of what happens can ever be complete. A story is told, whether it is written, spoken or displayed in pictographic or video form, by selecting and editing. That selective telling will focus on what the authors and editors will feel is salient about the situation and, in turn, that saliency is driven by those authors and editors views of the world.

As Kite gently plows silently through the waves in the dead of night, I recall a time when I was off sick from school, probably not entirely legitimately. I remember watching a school’s program on the television. For in those days, before the advent of satellite and cable in the UK, there were just three terrestrial channels, with not much on in the daytime other than programs for schools, the lunchtime news and occasional test programs designed for showrooms to sell newfangled colour televisions. The program I watched showed some footage of the the trenches during the first world war. The first time the footage was shown, it was accompanied by rousing patriotic music and one marvelled at the brave soldiers laying down their lives for their country. The second showing, of exactly the same footage, was accompanied by sad somber music that clearly demonstrated the tragic waste of life that was much of the 1914-18 war. What has always struck me was the same footage could give rise to such radically different interpretations on my part, just by changing the sound track.

As I sit on the doggy step in the middle of the night in the Bay of Biscay, I think that for many, fake news seems to be more than this. Notions of truth, as established through science and mathematics since the days of the enlightenment, indeed from the times of the ancient greeks, are under fire from new forces of irrationality. Since Aristotle developed the notion of class and sub-class and used them to categorise our world, since Euclid extended the logic of Aristotle to develop a set of axioms, the simple rules of geometry, that would enable teachers to torture pupils throughout millennia by making them reason about the congruence and similarity of triangles, since Newton and Leibniz developed the calculus enabling us to reason, not just about space, but also motion, since Darwin shocked the world by claiming that species originated through evolution driven by natural selection, since the big bang was proposed by Lemaître, the power of reason and science has been triumphing against mere irrational stories.

As I trim the sails slightly to counter a slight change in the wind, I reflect though, that I don’t believe in the absolute truth of Mathematics and Science and I haven’t for more than a quarter of a century. For me reason and science are just stories, sophisticated stories, indeed often my favourite stories, but stories nonetheless. I even have proof of this, but as Maxime comes up to take her watch, I realise that thoughts of such proof will have to wait for another night and feeling like a cheeky old Pierre de Fermat, I head down into the cabin to sleep.