Monday, October 25, 2010

Is Fact Checking a Lost Art?

Fact checking may becoming another "lost" art. I find that many of my friends or relatives who send me stuff have no idea how to fact check, or have never heard of or wikipedia.

Back in the sixties, the media was biased, of course, but few people really needed to dabble in the art of fact checking. In those days, the vast majority of what you heard was at least factually true. And what was untrue was quite easy to pick out. But that has changed with the advent of the internet and Fox News.

Most people do not have the time to fact check. Especially hard working conservatives I guess, because in my opinion, most of the fact checking that needs to be done is on pro-conservative statements. For some reason, my liberal friends already know how to fact check. I guess that either (A) they have lots of time because they're on welfare (B) most of the lying is done by conservatives

Let's start with Snopes, an excellent website where thousands of circular emails and politically motivated statements are investigated. The most truly hard core conservatives call it a leftist website, and refuse to check it out (along with Wikipedia, and all of published peer reviewed science.) The moderate conservatives usually need me to inform them that it something like Snopes exists, and send them instructions on how to use it.

If all this crap was not repeated endlessly on TV and in the papers, I wouldn't have to be fact checking almost every single thing people tell me, and every email sent to me. And I wouldn't have to email my friends back to tell them how to fact check their emails in the future before they decide to forward them to me.

Here is an example I received last week. I got a seemingly apolitical circular email about the bedbug infestation. But in it was the offhanded comment about how all these bedbugs are coming in new clothing imported from China. At the top of the forwarded email was a comment from someone down the line about how they had "tried to use Snopes but the website wasn't working, but this information seems so common sense that I thought I'd pass it on anyway."

Well, true enough, most of this email was common sense. But in it there was a little dig at Chinese bedding and clothing manufacturers, which Snopes considered to be without real basis. Snopes also pointed out that not all bedbugs come from China, nor do most come in new clothing, which was not mentioned at all in the email. For example, it is easy to bring bedbugs home from trips abroad in or on your suitcase.

So how hard is it to check this email, or anything else, using Snopes? It's really so easy, I cannot figure out what the problem is. Go to Google and type in Snopes Bedbugs, (in this case) and you're at this page in a nanosecond. It even has the entire circular email including the reference to China embedded in the page. Sometimes I need to copy and paste some text from the email into Google first. This type of skill is becoming indispensable to teachers, for example, who need to Google almost every surprisingly good essay that is handed in, to see if it was copied wholesale off the internet.

Sometimes it works for me just to inform people of how to use Snopes. They sometimes just stop sending me stuff, either because everything they look up proves false, or because they take me off the email list for having the temerity to fact check the email they forwarded.

But the hoax emails keep coming and keep getting smarter. Recently I got another email, from a friend I had already instructed in fact-checking. He admitted he did not fact check it himself "because it says right there in the circular email that it was already fact checked by Snopes and its genuine!" Of course I fact checked it anyway, with Snopes, and found out that it was partly debunked in Snopes (and they also debunked the false statement that it was fact checked by Snopes.)

What can you do when the press is regularly spewing fact free propaganda? Do you fact check every word or do you break down and just accept it as being plausible? The purveyors of propaganda are always one step ahead of the average person. Am I some kind of *****n genius just because I seem to be the only one who would ever think to check Snopes anyway, even though email clearly states that it has already been checked by Snopes? Clearly, there is a reason that these Nigerian email scams work.

To see the original email, see Snopes "Big Virus Coming" email near the bottom of this page about postcard viruses.

Picture: The Chicago Tribune, owned by conservative Colonel Robert McCormick, published the wrong winner in the 1948 US presidential election. By coincidence, the same Colonel McCormick who is the founder of my home town of Baie Comeau. This misprint probably resulted in a lot of overtime at the local paper mill.

1 comment:

  1. I can just picture the standard reaction: 'Gasp! And I better warn my friends and relatives about this' ... and then promptly reaching for the 'Forward' button.

    From my viewpoint, these chain emails (as well as many blogs, 'political opinion' shows, &c.) are simply the latest incarnation of the 'rumour mills' that have been with us throughout human history.

    As far as those chain emails, common sense would suggest that, if things were as dire as the email makes them out to be, there would have been mention of it in the mainstream media.

    Or that, by the time you get the email warning you about that dreaded new computer virus, the 'news' is weeks old and that, without a viable virus checker running on your computer, there's a good chance you would likely already be infected (which is why most sensible people rely on virus checkers, rather than chain emails).

    Considerable scientific data indicates that, to a surprising degree, people believe what they want to believe.

    Which yields an interesting generalization: If much of this alarmist propaganda is right-leaning, in conflict with what most reasonable people believe is (or may be) true, there may well be much more of an incentive on the part of centrists and leftist readers to check the verity.

    Where the fears and prejudices of those on the right are being confirmed, there is, naturally, less motivation to debunk the rumour.

    As I clear those chain emails from my inbasket, I'm reminded of the lyrics of the Buffalo Springfield song, 'For What It's Worth' ...

    Paranoia strikes deep
    Into your life it will creep
    It starts when you're always afraid ...

    (As far as the 1948 presidential election: that was one of the greatest examples of hubris in American political history. The Republicans were so confident that they would sweep the election (based on polls early in the campaign) that Dewey's campaign was completely lacklustre. One editorial writer summarized Dewey's position as, 'Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead.' Meanwhile Truman worked his butt off, whistle-stopping, and produced the greatest upset in American political history.)