Don't let the facts get in the way of a good prejudice

Opinionitis is breaking out all over. But Keats offers a remedy

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SO DID John Prescott do it? Do what? Well, if you have to ask that you're on the wrong page. This is Comment, not News. And facts are, after all, nothing more than a preparation for opinion. So did John Prescott do it?

Me, I'm, predisposed to think he didn't. After all, he seems a decent kind of bloke. So if you can offer me any facts which speak to that predisposition, I'm open to them. Otherwise not.

What we need, said Dickens's utilitarian petit-capitalist, Mr Gradgrind, is facts, facts, facts. That was his opinion, at any rate. I'm not so sure he was right. Has the Deputy Prime Minister been mired in the corruption being investigated by the police in the local council at Hull? Or is it just a vendetta against him launched by disaffected members of Old Labour?

The thing is, that's not the really interesting issue. After all, corruption and vendetta are minority pastimes. But coming to an opinion is something we all do on a daily, if not an hourly, basis - and then we happily repeat what suits us without bothering to check the basis of the assumption. Nothing new in that, you might say. Most newspapers are built on reinforcing a worldview and conveniently rejecting those bits of reality which do not neatly fit.

Sometimes, of course, blind faith is a good thing. What parent could reject the dying wish of a son about to be hanged. "Clear my name," said James Hanratty on the eve of his execution. Whatever the doubts DNA evidence has thrown up this week it would be an odd father who did not persist in the 36-year campaign to protest his son's innocence. But the rest of us can now safely slide Hanratty into our portfolios of political prejudices where we please.

Opinionitis requires that we take a stance on a fair number of things in today's news alone. Intensive farming: does the heavy use of nitrates provide cheap food for everyone (farm lobby) or risk poisoning the nation with its residues (consumer watchdog)? Is the notion that passive smoking is bad for you disproved (tobacco industry) or a piece of manipulative propaganda (health lobby)? Is the beef-on-the-bone ban a sensible precaution (Min of Ag) or an intrusion into personal liberty (butchers and caterers)?

Facts do not help here. Indeed the more we read the more confused we become. Stories of disgusting abattoirs - or of young women dying horrible deaths - from the BSE inquiry load the anecdotal cards against beef in a way that boring old risk analysis never can. Being told that there is only one v-CJD death for every 25 million beefsteaks eaten does not somehow have the same emotional pull.

In the face of all this I am trying hard not to take a view. This is counter-cultural these days. To some extent it always was. When the Scottish empiricist David Hume went to visit Voltaire and Co in France he returned shocked by their atheism. A philosopher could be, indeed in professional terms had to be, an agnostic, he insisted; to be an atheist is as much a faith statement as to believe in God, in epistemological terms, that is.

But let us not get caught up in such certainty when mild scepticism is an option. Keats had the right idea when he advocated Negative Capability - the condition "when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact or reason". But then, of course, you must feel free to disagree.

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