Fact Finding

factsHow can we determine what is true?

In Dogmatism, I asked: How can we guard against dogmatism, the expression of strong opinions as if they were facts?

In response, Don MacLaren commented:

In a democracy a free and vigilant press should be the tool that keeps the government/politicians in check/prevents them from relying on dogma to further their agenda(s). On a personal level, in a debate enter with an open mind and realize you may learn something from someone who disagrees with you, but insist on documented evidence whenever your counterpart makes an assertion you have an issue with (and ensure that your own assertions are backed up with solid evidence).

Tom Ferguson replied:

As for my own dogmatism, that might arise when the ego slips into a state of wanting to be right, getting uptight when out argued, when some clever person out thinks me, catches me in careless or sloppy thinking, when ego resists owning up to this.

Another respondent also recommended keeping an open mind in trying to distinguish between what we know and do not know, and pointed out that some “facts” are more reliable than others.

Those responses led me to wonder: How we can determine what is a “fact.”

Google sometimes reports facts at the top of their results on health-related searches and is trying to develop a way to rank more search results by their factual accuracy.

In the meantime, we must rely on other methods.

In “What the Fact-Checkers Get Wrong,” the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) warns against relying uncritically on “fact-checking” websites, such as Politifact, the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Factcheck.org, the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” blog, and The Associated Press. The CJR analysis concluded:

Fact-checking, as practiced, is in part an effort to shape the public political discourse; the fact-checkers have set their sights on identifying not only which statements are true, but which are legitimate. The argument about the legitimacy of that language is ultimately political, not journalistic, in nature. By insisting otherwise, and acting as if journalistic methods can resolve the argument, the fact-checkers weaken the morally freighted language that’s designed to give their work power—language that all journalists who are able to report their way to authority on a particular subject need to employ when it is justified…. In fact, many “fact-checking” pieces actually contain counterarguments—many of which are solid, some shoddy or tendentious, but few of which really fit in a “fact-check” frame.

The CJR piece evaluates many specific examples, but perhaps the clearest example of a questionable conclusion was the rejection of Sarah Palin’s claim in her memoir that she was beckoned by purpose, rather than driven by ambition. Who can read her mind?

So it seems that we must be careful when we use the fact checkers.

Lifehacker offers some useful guidance in “How to Determine If A Controversial Statement Is Scientifically True.

To discover the truth of any statement, they recommend:

  • Develop a healthy dose of skepticism.
  • Learn to avoid “confirmation bias,” which involves finding an answer you already believe. Employ  critical thinking to evaluate without bias. Be aware that confirmation bias exists, shake yourself of your natural tendency to draw a conclusion before you’ve researched a topic, and be open to information that falls on either side of a statement. Don’t just demand someone else present studies that support their assertion—go looking for them yourself. Keep an open mind, seek evidence to the contrary for every opinion (especially ones you believe), and don’t treat your research like a crusade.
  • Search Google, Snopes, Wikipedia, and other popular web sites. Try some Google-fu that includes the word “skeptic” or “hoax” or “bogus” or “rumor” or “urban legend” with your search term.
  • Search public journals and contact advocates
  • Visit your local library and consult librarians and reference materials.
  • Approach the question honestly and openly. Read up on opinions for and against. Watch out for anecdotal evidence.

All facts are not a matter of opinion. Some information is true.

One way to test the veracity of your beliefs is to engage in dialog with others who disagree, really try to understand them, summarize your understanding of their position, and then ask, “Am I correct?” Then really reflect on that other perspective and explore whether the difference of opinion is rooted in a different moral judgment.

What do you think? Do you have other suggestions for how to distinguish facts from opinions?

“In Search of the Present”

PazFrom the Nobel Prize for Literature Lecture by Octavio Paz, December 8, 1990

…In any case, the collapse of Utopian schemes has left a great void, not in the countries where this ideology has proved to have failed but in those where many embraced it with enthusiasm and hope. For the first time in history mankind lives in a sort of spiritual wilderness and not, as before, in the shadow of those religious and political systems that consoled us at the same time as they oppressed us. Although all societies are historical, each one has lived under the guidance and inspiration of a set of metahistorical beliefs and ideas. Ours is the first age that is ready to live without a metahistorical doctrine; whether they be religious or philosophical, moral or aesthetic, our absolutes are not collective but private. It is a dangerous experience. It is also impossible to know whether the tensions and conflicts unleashed in this privatization of ideas, practices and beliefs that belonged traditionally to the public domain will not end up by destroying the social fabric. Men could then become possessed once more by ancient religious fury or by fanatical nationalism. It would be terrible if the fall of the abstract idol of ideology were to foreshadow the resurrection of the buried passions of tribes, sects and churches. The signs, unfortunately, are disturbing….