Facts: Why they matter and how to check them

We seem to be living in the golden age of misinformation, and while cognitive biases and motivated reasoning have always existed, they seem to have reached epidemic levels in recent years, with attacks on the very nature of facts coming from the highest offices in the land (the phrases “alternative facts” and “fake news” come to mind). Many people seem to be living in an alternative reality where everything that agrees with them is true, and anything that disagrees with them is biased, fake news or “just an opinion.” Indeed, I have frequently encountered an open disdain for facts and those who check them. For many people, fact checking seems to boil down to, “if it came from a source I like, then it is true, and if it came from a source I don’t like, then it is false,” but that is an extremely faulty and dangerous dichotomy. So, it feels like high time that we have a basic discussion about facts and how to evaluate them.

fact checking fake news

Now, at this point, it may seem like I am picking on the America’s conservative right, and there is an extent to which that is true as they currently embody this problem in a truly extraordinary fashion, but let me be 100% clear that this is not a conservative problem. Liberals do it to. Everyone does it. We are all prone to cognitive traps and biases, myself included. The key is to be aware of those traps and take active steps to correct them. Scepticism is a skill that has to be practiced and often requires training. It takes work to fact check claims before accepting or rejecting them, but with practice, it becomes habitual, and it’s a habit everyone should get into.

My point is that if while reading this you find yourself thinking, “yes, this other group/person really needs to read this” pause for a second and consider whether you are yourself falling into cognitive traps and biases, because this post applies to everyone, regardless of political affiliation. In other words, it applies to you too.

Note: Although I am going to talk broadly about facts (not just scientific facts) including some political facts and news sources, this is not a political post. Facts are not political. They can certainly be used to make political arguments, but the facts themselves are inherently apolitical, and if it seems like facts have a particular political bias, that is reflective of faults in the political position, not the facts themselves.

Facts vs opinions

This may seem extremely elementary and pedestrian, but recently, I have had numerous conversations with grown adults who seem truly baffled by the distinction between a fact and an opinion. So, let’s go through this. A fact is an objective statement of reality. It can be independently verified and does not change based on individual views, beliefs, and preferences. An opinion is a subjective perception of reality that does change based on individual views, beliefs, and preferences.

As an example, if I say, “a water molecule is made of one atom of oxygen and two atoms of hydrogen,” then I have stated a fact. It is an objective statement of reality that does not change based on individual beliefs or views. In contrast, if I say, “swimming is fun” I have stated an opinion. It is a subjective perception that others may not share.

For these basic examples, everyone seems to understand the concepts just fine, yet when it comes to political topics and “controversial” science topics, suddenly people seem to completely forget this distinction and act as though their personal disagreement means that something isn’t a fact. This is clearly faulty. As the old saying goes, “you are entitled to your own opinions, but not your own facts.”

The number of times that I have seen this play out in recent months is truly astounding. Over and over again I have been having a conversation with someone, shown them verifiable facts that are confirmed by numerous sources, only to have them say, “that’s just your opinion.”

Let me give you an example. In a recent discussion with a family-member, they made the claim that “Biden has never condemned violent rioting and looting.” I responded by showing him statements like this one, which Biden made way back in July, “I’ve said from the outset of the recent protests that there is no place for violence or the destruction of property.” My relative’s response was, “well you’re entitled to your opinion.”

Do you see the problem here? Whether or not Biden has issued statements against violent protests is a matter of fact, not opinion. It is a fact that he has done so, and that fact is not political. It is an objective, independently verifiable statement of reality. You can watch the videos and read the transcripts for yourself. Whether or not you like Biden and agree with Biden has no bearing on the fact that he has made these statements. Now, whether you think Biden’s statements are appropriate and how you feel about his position on violence is certainly a matter of opinion. What you do with the fact that that Biden has condemned violence is political and is up to your subjective perceptions and beliefs, but whether or not he has made statements condemning violence is a simple matter of fact.

This sort of flawed thinking also pervades science denialism. I frequently encounter people who describe evolution, the safety of vaccines, anthropogenic climate change, etc. as “opinions,” but that is just as flawed as claiming that Biden has never condemned violence. When thousands of studies have all confirmed that something is a fact (as is the case on all of the topics I just mentioned) you don’t get to have an opinion about whether or not that thing is a fact. You can blindly deny the fact (as many do), but it’s still a fact; you are just willfully ignorant of it. If I claim, for example, that water has four hydrogens per oxygen, that doesn’t suddenly make the composition of water an opinion that is subject to debate. Rather, I would simply be living in blind denial of the fact. My personal views do not change the nature of the fact.

Follow these links for my articles (which contain citations to the relevant literature) on evolution, vaccines, and climate change.

Facts matter

Interestingly, this is actually an opinion. I personally believe that facts matter, and that belief is based on my views that human life and well being are worth protecting, the environment is worth protecting, and knowledge is worth pursuing. If you don’t share those views, then you may not value facts (at least not the categories of facts that I’m talking about in this post), but for most people, I think you would agree, at least in concept, that facts matter.

For example, I think that facts on COVID matter, because I value human life and think it is worth protecting. So, when a politician lies and makes claims that are not supported by evidence, I think that matters, because those claims affect people’s behavior, and false or misleading claims cost lives. When a politician lies and says that COVID is going away and we’re rounding the corner when in reality cases are spiking, that matters, because people will behave differently based on whether it is going away or spiking, and that behavior affects who lives and dies. Similarly, if a politician downplays the seriousness of the disease, that matters, because it risks people’s lives. Now, if you don’t share my opinion that human life is valuable, then you likely don’t share my view that facts about COVID matter, but if you agree that human life is worth protecting, then these facts should matter for you as well, and that means that you should want to make sure that your information is correct. You should be willing to fact check and evaluate your views to make sure that you are not supporting a position that endangers lives.

The same is true for things like climate change. The evidence very clearly shows that we are the primary cause of climate change and heat waves, storm intensity, and droughts are all increasing and costing lives. I think those facts matter, because they affect lives. People will live or die based on whether we accept those facts and take appropriate action. Now, again, if you don’t value human life, then you probably don’t value those facts, but if you value human life, then surely it is worth laying aside your biases and looking closely at the evidence. Surely it is worth fact checking and verifying information before you believe or reject it.

Similarly, in politics, I think facts matter. I think the veracity of a politician’s statements and reported actions matter, because that affects people’s lives. It is critical that we actually test the veracity of claims, because things like whether or not Biden has condemned violence (he did), whether or not Trump instituted a zero-tolerance policy that caused thousands of families that would not otherwise have been separated to be separated (he did), whether or not Trump told a predominantly white crowd that they have good genes and he believes in racehorse theory (he did), etc. affect people’s lives. People are impacted by the things politicians do and say. Therefore, I think that we have a duty to carefully test information before accepting or denying it. We owe it to ourselves and the other members of our society to make sure that our political views are based on facts.

How to fact check

Details of this topic vary by discipline, but I’m going to provide some general concepts that are universal, as well as some details for a few specific subject areas.

Let me start by asking this as a question. What do you do when you encounter a claim? Let’s say you are on Facebook and you see a post making a political claim, how do you test whether it is factual? Be honest here, because being honest about your methods is the first step towards improving them. Do you use a simple dichotomy like, “it came from CNN, therefore it is false” or, on the other end of the spectrum, “Trump said it; therefore, it is false?” If you go further than that, how do you go about doing it? Do you search for sources that confirm your views, or do you look for a broad range of sources? When you find those sources, what do you do with the information inside them? Do you blindly accept it based on the source, or do you dig deeper and look at where the original information come from?

Hopefully this line of inquiry has started to reveal my point. Many people don’t fact check at all, or if they do, they don’t do it correctly. Many view fact checking as an exercise to find sources that agree with them, but this is actually the opposite of how it should work.

To fact check properly, there are several things you should look for:

  1. The quality of the source
  2. Verifiable information
  3. Agreement among sources

Let’s start with the quality of the source. For science, this usually means peer-reviewed studies. That is where scientific information is published, and it should be your primary source. Failing that, well-respected secondary sources (e.g., NASA, CDC, etc.) are a good option. A youtube video or random blog on the internet is simply not a good source and should not be trusted without verification (see #2; and yes, that includes this blog).

When it comes to something like politics, things become somewhat more fuzzy, especially because Trump has spent the past four years insisting (without evidence) that essentially any source that says anything negative about him is “fake news.” This has resulted in large swaths of the country blindly believing that nearly all major news outlets are “biased left-wing media” and a handful of highly conservative outlets (e.g., Fox and OANN) are the only sources of truth. This view is childish and immature. There are objective ways to evaluate whether or not a source is biased (more on that in a minute) and none of them include “it said something negative about Trump” as a diagnostic criteria. You can (and should) actually verify the information in sources, look at whether they gave the whole context, look at the wording they used and whether they presented information fairly, etc. The problem is that so many people have this mindset that saying something bad about Trump automatically makes it biased or, conversely people on the left frequently write off any source that ever says anything good about him. Again, that’s not how facts work, and it’s certainly not how fact-checking should work.

Fortunately, several non-partisan organizations have already done the heavy lifting for you. Several groups have put together media-bias trackers to document which sources are factual or inflammatory and which sources are neutral or biased. Ad Fonte’s media Bias Chart, Media Bias/Fact Check, and All Sides are three prominent examples. Similarly, there are many excellent fact-checking websites to assist you. Here are some useful examples: PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, Washington Post’s fact checker, and, of course, Snopes.

I can already hear the outrage, derision, and mockery, but hear me out before you lambast me for thinking that those “biased, liberal” sources are useful. First, if your response was ridicule, my question is, why? Can you give me actual evidence that these sources are biased, funded by Soros, etc. or, are you simply assuming they are biased because they frequently say things you don’t like? I’m betting it is the latter. You see, many people live in what I have previously termed a “circle of ignorance,” where they have decided which sources are good and bad based on their biases, and the ones they’ve decided are good constantly re-affirm their biases (that’s why they were selected), which leads to further confirmation that those are the only good sources. Any source that contradicts those sources is then assumed to be biased. This is a very dangerous situation because it inherently gives you a biased view of the world, not a factual one. So, again, what objective reason do you have for thinking these fact checkers are biased?

The second point I want to make shifts gears into my next principle for fact checking: verification. You shouldn’t blindly believe something because it was in one of the fact checkers I listed or in one of the news outlets that is rated as trustworthy and non-partisan. Rather, you should look at the evidence they presented. Good sources will give their evidence and explain their reasoning. For the sites I’ve listed, they, at the very least provide information on their methodologies, funding, and steps they take to minimize biases, and, in most cases, you can actually see a detailed breakdown of why a source was rated the way it was or why a claim was rated as true or false. You don’t have to blindly take their word for it. Rather, you can and must verify.

Don’t just scoff at a Snopes article, actually read it. Actually look at the evidence it presents. Don’t just dismiss the claim that a source is biased (or conversely that it is non-partisan). Actually look at the reasons it was scored that way. Look at the evidence being presented.

This applies far more generally than just using the fact checkers. For any news article or video, look at where they got their information from. Is their source a speech that you can watch for yourself? a recorded interview? an official government document? or a single totally anonymous report? How solid is the information that they are giving? Don’t just assume that the source is “fake news,” actually look at the evidence.

In the conversation with my relative that I mentioned previously, I shared several sources with him (both media sources and fact checkers) and he immediately decried them all as fake news and refused to look at them (he also mocked me for being gullible enough to use them). Had he actually opened them, he would have found videos and transcripts of Biden’s speeches. He didn’t have to blindly trust the sources. He could (and should) have looked at their evidence, then done a bit of searching to see if it was verifiable.

The same sort of thing is true in science. If a site makes a claim about science, it needs to provide citations to peer-reviewed studies to back it up. Thus, although you should not blindly trust a blog like mine, I try very hard to provide good sources to back up my claims, and my posts on scientific topics generally include lengthy literature cited sections at the end so that you can verify what I am claiming. Sites like mine (and fact checkers) are conduits to information. You should use them to help you find good information, not as endpoints. That is the correct way to use them.

Finally, (point 3) see whether multiple reputable sources are saying the same thing. If multiple fact checkers, news outlets, etc. have all reported the same thing, you have good reason to think that it is likely true. In contrast, if many reputable sources are presenting contrary evidence or the information is only in a handful of fringe sources, you should be wary.

Here again, people often misunderstand fact checking as simply looking for something that agrees with you. I once had someone derisively respond to a link to a fact checking site with the retort, “well whose fact checking the fact checkers?” and someone else sarcastically told me, “I can’t wait until we have fact checkers for fact checkers, then we’ll REALLY know what is going on.” These statements misunderstand the process. If one fact checker errs, odds are that the others will catch it and call them out, which is why you should both use multiple sources and verify their information. For the most part though, you will find that these organizations are very thorough and, as a result, generally agree with each other because, again, facts are objective, whereas opinions are subjective. Similarly, if you compare the various media bias organizations, you will find general agreement in most cases despite their different approaches, staff, funders etc. Again, it is possible to objectively assess biases by looking at the language being used, how factual the information is, etc.

To be clear, agreement among sources is not an absolute guarantee of veracity, and it certainly can be abused by doing things like looking for agreement only among sources on one extreme of the political spectrum. So, I don’t recommend using this strategy in isolation (and to use it properly you need neutral sources). Rather, all three of my points need to be used in conjunction. You should make sure you are using good, neutral sources (not just a few biased sources), you should see whether there is agreement among sources, and very importantly, you should verify the information. Don’t just look at what a source said, look at why it said it. What facts did they base that claim on. Can you verify them?

A similar situation is true in science. It is always possible to cherry-pick a handful of outlier studies on any topic. That is why you should always look at the entire body of literature, rather than latching onto the first studies that agree with you (more details here).

At this point, it may seem that I have generated an endless chain of verification, where to verify a claim in a source, you have to track it to another source, then verify the claims in that source using another source, etc. Sometimes this happens. Often, however, fewer steps are required because you quickly get to the original source (e.g., a speech, legal document, etc.). To be clear, however, fact checking is work. It takes effort to force yourself to check all claims before believing or rejecting them. It takes time to verify information and check a diverse range of sources, but it is worth it. To use my relative as an example one last time, they proudly proclaimed to me that they got almost all of their news from OANN and didn’t care what fact checkers said. This is not a position to be proud of and it is, in fact, very dangerous. I really like the Socratic method, so let me ask this as a question. If you have a similar mindset and get all your information from a handful of sources on either side of the political spectrum, blindly believing them without doing any verification, then how would you ever know if they deceived you? How would you ever know that they have lied to you if you don’t verify their information? This sort of behavior, on either side of the political spectrum, inherently gives you a very narrow and biased view of the world, and that is dangerous for all the reasons I’ve discussed. Facts matter and they are worth checking.

In closing, I want to briefly bring up the topic of acknowledging your own ignorance. None of us know everything, and all of us can be misled. Therefore, if we are going to have a rational, evidence-based view of the world, it is critical that we are open to new information. To be clear, being open-minded does not mean believing something without evidence. Quite the opposite. Evidence must be a requirement, but we should always accept the possibility that we might be wrong and use good evidence to find out if we are wrong. We should humbly acknowledge our own limits and try to overcome them by seeking out good information and testing ideas before believing or dismissing them. We should be receptive to facts we were previously ignorant of, rather than blindly dismissing them as “fake news.”

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