An open mind

Fake news is a mantra that is heard on a regular basis. It has only recently come into common usage. The tools and use of social media have been instrumental in the production of fake news and its widespread reach, despite the irony that these same digital tools make it easier to check whether the information promulgated is actually supported by evidence or otherwise. It is a sad reflection on society that easy access to information has created bigger audiences for false information rather than more robust assessment of the information served up. So much so, that the BBC employs a Specialist Disinformation Reporter!

The only way to counter fake news is to avoid taking things at face value, to seek out alternative sources and to have a questioning attitude. Of course, this takes effort. It is easier, and eminently satisfying, to believe something that may correspond to our own thoughts and prejudices. Once we take that step, we are committed and immediately become less open to any alternative narrative or even correction. Luckily, we have any number of people willing to curate information for us. A lot of these do have the intention to present a balanced view, but subjectivity is difficult to eradicate and what is included and what is omitted will shift the balance point.

I recently read an article on Havana syndrome – the mysterious affliction suffered by US diplomatic and military personnel in several countries – and planned to write about it in this column. However, when I sought out other information on Havana syndrome on the internet, I realised that my conclusions were not as clear cut as I had believed. There is still some uncertainty regarding the cause of the syndrome from the evidence presented. Some believe it is caused by microwaves, while others, not convinced by the evidence that this is the case, believe that it is an example of a mass psychogenic condition: a spread of symptoms throughout a group of people without a physical cause. In the article I had read, one of the people proposing the psychogenic explanation complained that none of the victims, officials and doctors connected to the Pentagon will ever consider the possibility that it might be psychogenic. It is this outright refusal to consider an alternative point of view that piqued my interest.

Suzanne Simard has recently published a book, titled: Finding the Mother Tree. It is a description of her work in establishing that trees form a community, using underground fungi to share information as well as nutrients. The salient point here being that she has spent decades trying to get her ideas heard and accepted by the forestry establishment, who would not accept anything that was contrary to their established way of doing things. The reactions to her ideas ranged from indifference to outright hostility, very similar to the reception of the psychogenic proposition for the Havana syndrome.


When talking with members of my family about this, I was told about Temple Grandin. Temple is autistic and thinks in photographically specific images. She has successfully used her ability to recall detail as a designer of humane livestock facilities. Animals are sensitive to visual distractions that she could see but most people do not notice. Again, her ideas were not accepted initially. 

There is an inherent tendency to be defensive when faced with new ideas that challenge our current and established beliefs. We would much rather hear about reinforcement of our positions, hence the popularity of the echo chamber of the internet and social media. I believe that most people will be able to think of occasions when they have spoken up or raised an issue, only to find that they have not been listened to or, worse still, just ignored. Sometimes this can be at an insignificant level, but just as likely can be on more weighty matters. No matter the message, it is frustrating when people do not take time to consider your contribution. I am not advocating that we have to accept every idea and proposal, but it is incumbent on us to at least conduct a fair assessment and, if we do reject it, to feedback an explanation of the reasons why. This is applicable to many areas of non-destructive testing, as well as elsewhere. 


I would recommend that you seek out further information on Suzanne Simard and Temple Grandin; both have fascinating and perception-widening stories to tell. If you do find you are not being listened to, it may be 
beneficial to remind yourself of the words of Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” 

Please note that the views expressed in this column are the author’s own personal ramblings for the purpose of encouraging discussion within NDT News. They do not represent the views of Jacobs or 

Letters can be mailed to The Editor, NDT News, Midsummer House, Riverside Way, Bedford Road, Northampton NN1 5NX, UK. Fax: +44 (0)1604 438301; Email: or email Bernard McGrath direct at 

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