The fashion for fact checking

The fashion for fact checking

I’m preachin’ dis sermon to show

It ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa

ain’t nessa, ain’t nessa

Ain’t necessarily so!    (Ira Gershwin, 1935)

“Fact” and “Truth” are abstract ideals that you can seek, but never be certain to have achieved. To claim a  piece of evidence as “fact”, or a conclusion as “truth”, is to assert infallibility and to proclaim all potential doubters as deniers, contrarians or heretics.  The use of these words thus indicates a personal agenda: to persuade, to convince a doubter, to win an argument.

you have an opinion, they have some disputable evidence but I – I am telling you THE FACTS: I am giving you THE TRUTH

The current proliferation of “fact” checkers on Social Media platforms, web sites such as politifact.com and factcheck.org, or on “our” ABC, assume a god-like knowledge and ex-cathedra authority that never acknowledges, or is apparently even aware of, their own potential biases.  The Australian ABC even offers a weekly “fact” check TV program called Media Watch.

Google, Facebook, the ABC, the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), The Conversation along with many other media organisations worldwide, are members of the International Fact Checking Network. IFCN is a division of a South Florida Journalism school called the Poynter Institute. As well as the IFCN, the Poynton Institute also operates the politifact.com and mediawise.com web sites. In Australia, politifact.com is in partnership with the left wing Fairfax media group to provide fact-checking services.

These “fact” checkers mainly concern themselves with politics but also pronounce on hotly-debated areas of science and technology such as climate change, energy policy and (unsurprisingly, given the current crisis), epidemiology (see Footnote 2).

truth o meter

The Truth-O-Meter: a graphic used by the Poynter Institute to illustrate their opinion.

To take an example from just one area, the website factcheck.org has produced numerous posts over the past few years pronouncing on issues of Climate Change. Almost invariably these posts stamp the mainstream alarmist position with the label - FACT.  In many of these cases, the factcheck authors quote the “97%-of-scientists agree”[1] meme as the killer argument to support their position. However, no references are ever given, no analysis of the methodology of the surveys that produced this figure and no indication that the 97% number is hotly disputed by well credentialed scientists and is qualified even by the authors of the surveys from which it is drawn. The 97% factoid is simply a convenient prop, accepted as a truth by factcheck without discussion, and used to support their already established opinion.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

Who are these self-appointed Custodians of Truth?  Perhaps a panel of retired Judges experienced in impartial judgement and the sifting of conflicting evidence? Perhaps a range of scientists with appropriate knowledge of a subject and a lifetime of applying the Scientific Method? Perhaps a broad spectrum of randomly selected citizens impaneled to select between competing claims on the basis of life experience and common sense?  Perhaps a military style adversarial blue team v red team approach? No, none of the above, but “journalists and media experts”. And not just any journalists out there in the real-world, filing copy for a living, but salaried academics teaching journalism in university media schools.

..gatekeepers of MSM opinion..

Can we expect objectivity from this source? Not according to Emeritus Professor Ted Glasser, current Head of the Department of Communications, Stanford University and for nineteen years head of their School of Journalism. In a recent interview with The Stanford Daily, Glasser is quoted:

“Reporters must embrace the role of social activists and it is hard to do that under the constraints of objectivity”

 This self assessment of the proper role of a journalist is not confined to America. On March 31, 2021, Tito Ambyo, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at RMIT (Australia’s most prestigious school of journalism, and “fact checking” provider for Australia’s ABC network) tweeted:

“Good journalism IS activism. All the rest is sideshow” (quoted in The Australian, 03 May 2021)

If this is what is taught at Stanford and RMIT, then, at the very least, one would have to be cautious of any “fact” check carried out by the activists from these institutions, or indeed from any media school similarly affected by this corruption of the traditional journalistic ethos of objective, evidence-based reporting (“the sideshow”).

Guardians of Truth (cropped)

Wannabe Guardians of Fact and Custodians of Truth: participants at the International Fact Checking Network Summit, Cape Town 2019.

My objections the groups operating under the umbrella of the IFCN is not with their stated aims (which are noble) or their conclusions (many of which I might agree with) but in their use of the words “fact” and “truth” in order to award themselves the mantle of authority and infallibility.  The use of these words implies a value judgement and indicates that their primary aim is to persuade, rather than merely inform. If the groups were called, and operated, as “evidence checkers” they arguably would have a useful role to play, provided they presented all the evidence, in a fair and balanced manner, with acknowledgement of all areas of uncertainty. Evidence is not the same as fact, although the two ideas are often conflated. “Alternative evidence” is the basis of much legal argument and is the proper subject of scientific discourse. “Alternative fact” is an oxymoron.

“alternative evidence”… is the proper subject of much scientific discourse: “alternative fact” is an oxymoron.

The aim of an evidence checker should be to present information for readers to form their own judgement. This is not easy with the soi-disant fact checkers, where some of the information presented comes pre-labelled as “fact” and “truth”, and some as “false”, or even “pants on fire”(2).

..strive to inform, not persuade..

Ideals for communicating evidence are set out in a November 2020 article in Nature, entitled: Five rules for evidence communication; strive to inform, not persuade. Read here (3).

Here are relevant extracts from the paper:

1. Inform not persuade

“Conventional communication techniques might work when the aim is to change people’s beliefs or behaviors. But should that always be our aim?”

2. Offer balance, not false balance

“We can’t inform people fully if we don’t convey the balance  of relevant  information.”

“As soon as we are perceived to be ignoring or underplaying something our audience considers important, our motivations – and hence our trustworthiness – will be questioned.”

3. Disclose uncertainties

“Part  of telling the story is talking about what we don’t know.”

4. State evidence quality

“Audiences also judge the credibility of information based on the quality of the underlying evidence more than its clarity, the usual criteria for a communications department.”

5. Inoculate against misinformation

“Many will worry that following these key principals – especially exposing complexities, uncertainties or unwelcome possibilities – will let “merchants of doubt” or bad actors warp their message. But there are other ways to guard against this.”

To the “five rules” set out above, I would add an important sixth:

6. Never call your evidence “fact”, or your conclusions “truth”.

 *******

 [1]   The oft-quoted statement that an overwhelming majority of scientists believe that present-day climate change is predominantly  caused by humans first appeared in a 2004 note in Science by Naomi Oreskes (at that time, she made the figure 75%).  The 97% figure first appeared in a 2011 paper by Peter Doran and co-authors in Eos Magazine.  In 2013, a new player entered the fray: John Cook and many co-authors claimed to have reproduced Doran’s 97% meme (Environment Research Letters 2013 paper ). Numerous devastating critiques have been published which comprehensively debunk this incestuous copy-cat research. You can read two of them here. and here.

It is my opinion that the 97% figure was – probably unconsciously (I do not accuse them of dishonesty) an input to, rather than an output of, the survey designs of Oreskes, Doran and Cook. These researchers were well aware that, had they come up with a figure of 100%, nobody would have believed them. If they had only reached, say, 93%, then they would not have met the accepted criteria of 95% for a statistical significance (p=0.05: the infamous “wee pee”).  97% was therefore “just right” – a Goldilocks number. With their finding that only 3% of climate scientists disagreed with the alarmist position, the outlier could then be regarded as that handful of crackpots who inevitably get included in even the best of sample designs. Easily dismissed. Mere statistical noise. If, however, the number of believers in human caused climate change  were around 70% (which I believe would be nearer the mark), then the 30% of scientists outside the lager could not be so easily dismissed, and their arguments would have to be taken more seriously.

(2) Pants on fire is American rhyming slang: meaning “liar”. From the playground  taunt : “liar, liar, pants on fire!”

In early 2020, when an eminent epidemiologist pointed out that there was some evidence that COVID-19 might be man made, the anonymous Politifact journalists – as self-appointed experts in everything -  labelled him with their  “pants on fire” judgement. In May, 2021 they quietly withdrew the smear and acknowledged that he might have a point.

(3) Michael Blastland, Alexandra L. J. Freeman, Sander van der Linden, Theresa M. Martea & David Spiegelhalter: Nature November 2020 (587), 362-364 https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-03189  https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03189-1

 

 

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