Should universities care about the truth?

by Tim Hayward edited by O Society July 10, 2019

Isn’t the answer obvious? Universities are about attaining, preserving, and disseminating knowledge—which only is knowledge insofar as it is true. Caring about the truth is what universities—through their members—do.

The question as intended, however, concerns claims of fact appealed to as grounds for governments to go to war or to engage in other kinds of hostilities such as sanctions, blockades, coups, and military interventions.

Such claims are not typically the fruits of academic research. Instead, they are made by politicians or pundits, and amplified by the media, on the basis of such intelligence reports as are made available. But sometimes they are wrong: babies were not thrown out of incubators in Kuwait; Saddam Hussein did not have WMD; Gaddafi did not give Viagra to his soldiers; it is far from certain Assad used chemical weapons as alleged by the West.

So the question is whether universities have any particular business truth-checking such claims. The answer is not obvious.

Why universities need to address the question

On the one hand, it might be argued that journalists are the ones who investigate current affairs, and if academics have a role in longer-range historical record keeping, the nature of their research differs from journalistic investigations in prioritising depth of understanding over timeliness of information. If advanced research needs doing more immediately, that is the job of intelligence services rather than universities. Academics are under constraints—logistical, occupational and ethical—that do not apply to professional intelligence gatherers.

On the other hand, received understandings of an epistemic division of labour between hacks, spooks and eggheads are today being called into question by practical developments. Journalists increasingly rely for their reports on press agencies and certain NGOs. Intelligence agencies appear increasingly prepared to defer to—or at least instrumentalise—‘citizen inquirers’ who generate ‘open source intelligence’. Meanwhile, at the interface of journalism and intelligence, generating policy-relevant research outputs, stand think tanks. These informational hybrids blur traditional distinctions and—through a variety of arrangements—draw into the epistemic blender also the universities. Think tanks have funds to attract academically trained researchers and also to sponsor activities undertaken within universities. If these think tanks engage in ‘fact-checking’, they can leverage the reputation of associated universities to imply impartial academic support for activities that may not in fact have earned it.

Regardless, then, of whether universities ideally should be engaged in the fact-checking business, they may anyway be drawn into it. It is therefore as well to be aware of both the opportunities and the risks. To this end, I shall contrast two quite different ways in which universities could become involved in the assessment of contemporary public knowledge claims in controversial areas of international relations and foreign policy. One, I argue, would be better avoided while the other could be worth adapting and adopting.

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Two research collectives with very different approaches

Bellingcat

Bellingcat is a fact-checking organisation with which several universities have an association. It was founded in 2013 by the ‘citizen investigator’ Eliot Higgins. Formerly blogging as “Brown Moses,” he was followed and promoted by journalists like Brian Whitaker who gave prominence to Higgins’s skills in analysing Open Source Intelligence (OSINT). These apparently enabled Higgins to determine facts about controversial event, such as the downing of the MH17 airliner over Ukraine, that eluded the combined efforts of Western security services.

Bellingcat’s reports are extensively quoted by state and corporate media outlets in the West, and the organisation has been nominated for a variety of awards. Meanwhile, Bellingcat has been cultivating university connections in several countries. Higgins himself was, for a time, a research fellow at King’s College London, and is currently a visiting research fellow at University of California Berkeley. Bellingcat avails of the service of several academics and has engaged in projects with a firm called Forensic Architecture which is ‘based at the University of London‘.

Bellingcat has received accolades and funding, with Higgins being much lauded in the press. It seems likely, if this upward trajectory continues, that universities may increasingly perceive benefits in associating with this well-supported organisation.

The research model of the Bellingcat collective—which is essentially that of a Think Tank—involves the use of investigators who are independent of the constraints of university academics in terms of methods, rigour, or peer review; the investigators are, however, more constrained than university academics in terms of academic freedom. Think tanks are generally funded for a purpose other than the open-ended and disinterested pursuit of knowledge. Quite typically, they are paid to provide knowledge that serves—even if not always exclusively or directly—the ends of their funders. In the case of Bellingcat, whose work tends mainly to focus on critical issues of Western foreign policy, the interests at play are powerful and clear. Higgins and his organisation are strongly supported by NATO and Western governments. That investment appears to get a good return given how Bellingcat investigations so consistently seem to prove its sponsors right whenever they make decisions that are challenged as to their factual premises.

Working Group on Syria (WGSPM)

An approach which contrasts with Bellingcat’s is exemplified in the work of the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM). This research collective is steered by academics contributing in their spare time and consulting widely with experts and specialists from a variety of professions and locations around the world, all of whom contribute on a voluntary basis. The goal of all concerned is to expose dishonesty and to correct harmful distortions in public discourse about momentous matters of international relations and foreign policy.

As a founder member of the WGSPM, I do not pretend impartiality in presenting the contrast with Bellingcat. I share the group’s commitments. We are committed to the principle of impartial inquiry and to its corollary, which is a readiness to challenge those who contravene the principle. We find ourselves opposed to Bellingcat insofar as it does not share those commitments. We are fortunate in having university jobs or other employment to live from, as well as some free time to devote to investigations of our own choosing. We do not depend on any external funding for the group’s activities.

Unlike Bellingcat, WGSPM is not exalted in the media. On the contrary, when not ignored it is actively denigrated. Nonetheless, among sections of the public that, through the intelligent use of social media, pay independent and critical attention to current affairs, the group does have a strong reputation and growing support.

WGSPM’s reputation is such that it has earned the trust of whistleblowers. This means it may have a potential role in heading off harmful decisions based on precipitate evaluations of controversial events—like those which recently led to the allied bombing of Damascus or the mass expulsion of Russian diplomats.

In the rest of this essay I shall argue that, as and when universities are drawn into the business of fact checking, they should be very wary of the Bellingcat model of fact checking. Sponsoring it could prove to have significant reputational costs. Universities could reap more fitting and lasting benefits by taking a different approach, one more in line with the inherent purpose of the university as a social institution, which respects the fundamental principles of free academic inquiry in the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. This is what WGSPM are engaged in working out. Doubtless our approach needs much refinement and adaptation. But it is rooted in research methods that are well established as principles for the conduct of science and scholarship. So while there are new sources of information to work with in the digital era, there are tried and tested principles of academic practice that can still be applied to them.

Some reasons to favour WGSPM’s approach over Bellingcat’s can be illustrated by reference to a recent case in which the two have drawn opposed conclusions.

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The case of Douma chemical incident

On 7 April 2018, reports came from Douma, Syria, of an alleged chemical attack. Initial suggestions were that a nerve agent could have been involved. On that basis, Western governments asserted a justification for taking punitive action against Syria. On 14 April, the military forces of France, US and UK fired 103 missiles striking targets around Damascus and Homs.

It subsequently transpired that no nerve agent had been found at the scene of the alleged attack. In fact, Eliot Higgins himself had never endorsed the claim, asasserted by Scott Lucas, that there was any evidence of one. Instead Higgins advanced the view that would come to prevail, namely, that chemical weapons had been used, but the chemical was chlorine. This appeared to be supported by video recordings of apparent victims in a Douma clinic. Alleged material proof of the allegations centred on two canisters of chlorine, one of which was found on a balcony of an apartment block in which an estimated 35 people lay dead.

In the following months, however, reasons accumulated for suspecting that one of the main pieces of evidence for the alleged attack—photos and video of the clinic scene showing children being hosed down and given oxygen masks—had been staged. By early 2019, even a BBC producer, Riam Dalati, was prepared to go on record saying he could prove this “without a doubt”.

The fact of the deaths in the vicinity of one of the chlorine cylinders, however, remained to be explained. A question had to be considered: if the clinic scene had been staged, and the ‘victims’ portrayed there had not in fact been subjected to a chlorine attack, had such an attack even taken place?

According to Bellingcat, and in line with governments and media of NATO countries, the deaths were due to chlorine delivered by Syrian helicopters. Critics argued that this hypothesis seemed implausible on several grounds and should be tested against an alternative—namely, that the deaths had been at the hands of opposition forces on the ground and used as a ‘false flag’ to provoke Western intervention on their behalf. According to Higgins, however, that alternative hypothesis should be dismissed as a crazy conspiracy theory, promoted by “useful idiots” who were effectively apologists for Assad.

Bellingcat never did fully explain why the alternative hypothesis should be rejected or why it had a lesser likelihood of indicating the true explanation of events. Instead, they redoubled efforts to bolster the credibility of the official hypothesis.

Bellingcat was joined in this endeavour by an organisation called Forensic Architecture (FA), which also helped to produce a report for the New York Timespurporting to show how the cylinders were evidence of a war crime committed by the Syrian government. FA is ‘based at the University of London’. Its Director isProfessor Eyal Weizman, who heads a sizeable team of researchers. For the New York Times article, FA reconstructed selected evidence of the alleged chemical attack in ‘augmented reality‘. Its presentation accorded with the official narrative of what had happened. In fact, it appears to have been designed to illustrate that narrative rather than provide independent investigation of the facts upon which it was based.

Experts would be able discuss this matter in detail and at length, but I shall focus on just one point where FA’s ‘augmented reality’ involves a redaction of reality.

Douma balcony canister in Forensic Architecture's augmented reality

The cylinder whose discharge of chlorine is said to have killed more than 40 people was found on a balcony, sitting above a hole in reinforced concrete. The concrete had been smashed through and the reinforced steel bars had been snapped and splayed out below. How a cylinder that had supposedly smashed through the concrete and rebars and yet be found above the hole—and in remarkably good condition—is something of a mystery. In fact, it took nearly a year for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to explain how it could have been possible. But when the OPCW did at last publish its final report on 1 March 2019, it ruled out alternative explanations. It dismissed the possibility that the hole could have been made in precedence by an explosive shell or mortar. For it reported (on p.58) that there were no signs of the fragmentation damage on surrounding walls that would have indicated such an explosive contact. We’ll come back to this.

In the meantime, investigations carried out by WGSPM members, and published as Briefing Notes (here and here), led to consistently sceptical conclusions about the official narrative. Much of the research referred to in them is complex, but a simple element of the inquiry is to ask why OPCW had ruled out an alternative explanation to the one Forensic Architecture had illustrated. WGSPM found that when the competing explanations are compared, the alternative appears very much more likely.

This led WGSPM—and they were not alone in this, as other critical observers reached a similar view—to conclude that OPCW had fudged the final report. The group did not believe that professional investigators of the calibre used by OPCW could come up with such a manifestly flawed report.

Then came a bombshell—and not only figuratively

On 9 May 2019, the WGSPM received a copy of a document that had not been included or even mentioned in the OPCW final report. This was an assessment provided by the engineering sub-team of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission into the Douma attack. It documented a study of the two chlorine cylinders and the scenes in which they were located. The existence of this study solved a puzzle that WGSPM had already noted, which concerned OPCW’s inexplicable decision to commission some unidentified engineers six months after the event to do a study off-site. The leaked document revealed a study done at the site during the original OPCW inspection.

This assessment had been entirely suppressed in the OPCW final report: not only was it excluded, but no trace was found of this key assessment being considered and then rejected. (Subsequent attempts by OPCW to explain away this egregious omission simply made a bad situation appear even worse, as WGSPM have documented.)

The simple fact is, the engineers’ assessment essentially refuted the conclusion of the official report. Here was startling and compelling evidence that the OPCW report had been falsified.

I said the engineers’ bombshell was not only figurative. One key element of the evidence assessed were the signs of an actual bombshell at the balcony site. There are indications that the hole in the concrete was made not by a falling canister but by an explosive shell or mortar. The OPCW report had dismissed this possibility, referring to an absence of fragmentation damage. Yet the simple fact is, as the photo below (right) shows, such damage is plainly visible.

Augmented Reality vs Reality Unadorned

The engineers’ assessment notes the pattern of fragmentation damage on the balcony wall that the OPCW official report has not properly accounted for. This is not the only discrepancy revealed with the publication of the assessment, but it serves to illustrate how evidence was cherry-picked and distorted in the official report. The crucial point is that the engineers concluded that the cylinders had more likely been placed manually than dropped from the air, as the OPCW had claimed.

The particular discrepancy serves also to raise concerns about the method used by Forensic Architecture. That firm, ‘based at the University of London’, which claims to be engaging in forensic investigation, appears not to have noticed a conspicuous fact that just a glance at a BBC News item would have sufficed to make them aware of. Such a basic lack of rudimentary diligence in their ‘forensic’ research occasions serious doubts about the sense in which they are really investigating at all rather than simply illustrating the official story that those behind the OPCW’s falsification wanted the world to believe.

Reflections on the case

What this brief case study shows is that in order to establish facts, even in a relatively short space of time, it is possible to use proper methods of science and scholarship, applied in a spirit of open and disinterested inquiry. This is simply to do what universities are normally supposed to do but with a particularly sharp focus, a well-defined purpose in the public interest, and an appropriate sense of urgency. This is what WGSPM did.

The group’s methods can be contrasted with those of Bellingcat. To be sure, it is to be noted to the apparent credit of Bellingcat that they, too, were duly cautious about media reports of a nerve agent; instead, they almost immediately identified the exact evidence that would come to be at the centre of the OPCW inquiry. This shows how quickly they can muster information of a type produced by military intelligence. Their subsequent imperviousness to correction of their swiftly formed views, however, tends to tell against the integrity of their research methods. WGSPM, by contrast, was more cautious than Bellingcat about forming an early view, but the group continued to learn and develop its account as more evidence came to light and different sorts of analysis could be performed on it. At no point was any element of the account set above the possibility of revision or rejection. As in all genuine research, findings were regarded as conditional and provisional, even as they came to appear increasingly well founded. The result was that the group was able to piece together a view of events which, while contrary to that given in the OPCW final report, came to be vindicated by the revelation of the suppressed assessment by OPCW’s own engineers.

It would be unwise to generalise too confidently from this one case, but it does point up avoidable failures on the part of those who stuck to an early-formed opinion even in the face of overwhelming evidence against it. It also exposes a kind of engagement for impact that would do no credit at all to any university associated with it. For in response to the revelation of the suppressed engineers’ assessment, Eliot Higgins and Bellingcat – along with Whitaker and some others—did all they could to minimise or deny significance of the leaked report. Forensic Architecture, for their part, and as far as I know, have remained silent.

It is on this point, rather than its particular failure in a given case, that I think Forensic Architecture is vulnerable to criticism. Given the high profile of its modelling exercise, and the plaudits it was prepared to accept, why has it made no statement at all about how and why it went wrong? In the event that WGSPM’s assessment of likelihoods had proven mistaken, we would have sought to correct for the error. This is normal in the academic world: if a hypothesis is refuted, and a good alternative is proposed, these are matters that get studied. They do not get hushed up. There are corrections, not embarrassed silence.

Even if we are prepared to be forgiving of people shrinking in embarrassment, I believe that a sterner judgement is appropriate in the case of those who repeatedly do the same thing and never appear prepared to correct or improve their practice. The sad fact is that Forensic Architecture has been repeatedly involved in what is literally the fabrication of evidence for some years now. Iwrote with concern about this myself already more than two years ago.

One might still hope that Forensic Architecture’s director—a university professor, whose firm is ‘based at’ his university—will respond to this revelation in a manner that befits his university position. For if one major university allows its reputation to be ‘leveraged’ like this, that university risks discrediting not only itself but also the collective of universities that recognize it as one of their number.

On the matter of reputation and trustworthiness, the case of the Douma chemical incident carries a message that could scarcely be clearer. It is not simply that the work of WGSPM was shown to be sound. A fact of especial significance is that the decisive evidence in this case was delivered to the WGSPM as evidently trusted participants in the collective pursuit of truth. The OPCW engineers’ report was entrusted to our group to make public.

Given the potential risks run by whistleblowers in this sort of situation, it is hard to think of a more sincere and compelling testimony to the group. We in turn salute the integrity and courage of those who blow the whistle.

Why might universities fail to do what they should?

The fact that those people closest to the truth about the OPCW investigation at Douma chose to collaborate with WGSPM speaks for itself. The one constant challenge we face is the fact that the entire corporate media and a great many politicians are prepared to speak for organisations like Bellingcat. So, however receptive ordinary well meaning people of good heart and honest intent may be to revelations of truth, they may find themselves with scant opportunity to learn it.

It was mentioned earlier how Eliot Higgins was moved into the limelight, and has remained there, thanks in no small measure to a notably positive and supportive reception across the corporate media. It was also mentioned how the former Guardian journalist Brian Whitaker had been pivotal in launching Eliot Higgins to international renown.

It so happened that Whitaker was also the first journalist to pick up on the formation of WGSPM. Even before we had published our first briefing note—having merely produced a blog noting our formation as a group—Whitaker wrote a succession of three articles about us, warning the public of ‘propaganda professors’ who were ‘promoting conspiracy theories’ (24 Feb 2018; 18 March 2018; 19 March 2018). Those initial attempts to pre-empt our work by deploying such a tired trope, however, could do nothing to undermine the actual findings of our briefings, the first of which—on the Skripals’ Novichok poisoning in Salisbury—was meanwhile published. So, within a month, a more forceful attack was launched on us in the press.

Times smear - Apologists for Assad

On the very day of the F-UK-US illegal bombing of Syria in retaliation for the alleged Douma chemical attack, the first edition of The Times of London carried, not the story of the missiles, but a banner headline proclaiming us to be ‘Apologists for Assad’. The verbal assault carried on into the leader comment branding us as ‘useful idiots’ for the Kremlin. A few days later, Huffington Post elaborated on the smears, accusing us of ‘whitewashing war crimes’. Other newspapers reproduced versions of these stories in the course of that week.

The fact is, we were and are apologists for nobody. The Times accused us of ‘denying Assad had used chemical weapons’. We had simply pointed out that the truth about the alleged attacks had yet to be determined. Across social media, we received a strongly supportive response in the face of The Times’s smears, and our public profile was notably raised as a result. The dishonesty of the paper’s coverage was apparent to any intelligent reader. But evidently the point of it was not simply to try and discredit us but to send a wider message. What we had done was contravene an unwritten rule about the limits of critical inquiry that those with power and influence will permit. The point was to make clear to others that the activity we were engaged in might not be propitious to emulate, particularly by anyone aiming to advance in an academic career.

Indeed, I think all the group members can confirm from personal experience that the hostile publicity did have a chilling effect among certain sections of university communities where our work is not known or well understood, or where credence is still given to words published in outlets like The Times.

In fact, such criticism as we get invariably comes from people who evidently rely uncritically on the corporate press and who certainly have never actually studied any of our briefings. So ‘criticism’ is not even really the right word, since what we get by way of negative response is generally some variation on the smear themes announced by our attackers in the corporate media.

As for our actual briefings, to date, none of them has yet been rebutted in a single particular. They stand there to be corrected by anyone who spots an error!

Conclusion

Those with responsibility for the strategic direction of universities have a clear choice in this matter. They can embrace the funding and accolades that come from saying things the Government and other funders want to hear; or they can do what most ordinary people think universities are supposed to do. My argument is that what WGSPM members are doing, in their own spare time, is what universities should be encouraging and supporting as an activity recognized as fulfilling a part of their social purpose.

Even if not all academics have an appetite for this kind of work, and universities may not yet be ready to promote it, they should certainly not bow to external pressures that would have them seek to discourage or even obstruct it.

This general point has particular force with regard to the kind of case discussed in this post, and I want to emphasise it in closing.

A fact still to be properly reckoned with is that, on 7 April 2018, in an apartment in Douma, 35 human beings were found lying dead. To this day, it is not known who killed them or exactly how; they have not been officially identified; their bodies have not been exhumed to determine cause of death.

Investigations into such an atrocious crime should be assisted by anyone able to. To be involved in hindering or diverting such investigations is to be complicit, knowingly or otherwise, in covering up the crime and obstructing justic. This is itself criminal.

It is also, I believe, a moral disgrace. So whatever is the legal position, and whatever stance may be adopted by particular universities, ethical considerations alone should make anyone considering supporting the Bellingcat/Forensic Architecture approach to a matter like this think very hard about what they might thereby become complicit in.

So, to conclude with an answer to the question of this post: Yes, universities should care about truth-checking claims about the world that their researchers and teachers accept as valid information and aim to offer instruction about.

(header image: Diogenes by Jean-Léon Gérôme)

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