Dr Alex Douglas and Dr Katherine Hawley - Philosophy

Dr Alex Douglas, Lecturer in Philosophy, and Dr Katherine Hawley, Professor of Philosophy, both at the University of St Andrews, write about their experience of submitting written evidence to the Commons Digital, Media, Culture and Sport Select Committee.

"In March 2017, we submitted written evidence to the Commons Digital Culture, Media and Sport Committee’s inquiry into ‘fake news’. We are colleagues in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews, and neither of us had engaged with Parliament before. But when Katherine read news reports about the inquiry, she was curious to know more, since her research concerns trust and distrust. She found a helpful item on Parliament’s website outlining the core questions of the inquiry, and mentioned it to Alex.

We were both struck by the philosophical depth of questions such as ‘Where does biased but legitimate commentary shade into propaganda and lies?’ and ‘What responsibilities do search engines and social media platforms have, particularly those which are accessible to young people?’  We talked around the issues, and decided to make a submission based on a blog post Alex had previously published at Medium. The topic was the way in which distinctions between facts, beliefs, and opinions, and between facts and values, are often poorly explained in public discussion and teaching materials for ‘critical thinking’. 

Parliament’s website has useful advice on how to format written submissions, and it took us a few hours to write and polish about 800 words, plus the time taken for Alex to write his original blog. We explained the relevance of the distinctions to the inquiry’s remit, we gave examples of widely-available but poor explanations of the distinctions, and we explained what, in our view, would be better explanations. We are not educationalists, and we didn’t recommend practical steps towards instituting these changes.

Beyond a formal acknowledgement, we didn’t get a response to our submission, so don’t know what the committee made of it. But all the evidence has been published, so we’ve got our ideas into the public record.  It was rewarding to talk through the issues, and to work out how best to present them in a non-technical way. And we both think it’s important to contribute what we can, whether or not it makes a big impact. We’d definitely participate again if the opportunity were to arise.

A few things made it easier for us. Working together really helped, as did realising that it doesn’t matter if several experts submit overlapping evidence: you can’t get ‘scooped’, and you don’t have to be the most important person in your field. For philosophers, it’s useful to remember that Parliament needs ideas, concepts and distinctions, as well as empirical data.  ‘Submitting evidence’ may sound daunting, but ‘suggesting ideas’ is our bread and butter."