14 February 2017

Truth, Facts, and Fact-Checking

I have been thinking a lot about truth and facts lately. Mostly in regards to the current POTUS and the way things are shared on social media. But it’s actually something I’ve been thinking and talking and writing about for at least 10 years. Because I find the differences between truth and fact fascinating.

I believe that something can be true without being strictly factual. Mostly, this applies to novels and other works of fiction. I can learn truths by reading Everything is Illuminated or watching Star Trek, even though nothing in the storyline happened in actuality.

Facts seem much more straightforward. Facts are things that are real. Verifiable. Observable. Concrete. I say they seem straightforward because people often dispute things that are facts. The real challenge I have found recently is the sources. In many cases people cannot experience something firsthand in order to verify it for themselves. And even when eyewitnesses are present at an event, the facts can get jumbled in memory. The real issue is finding credible sources.

I am not expert at this myself, though the past year or so has been quite the learning curve. I have repeatedly pointed out “fake news” to people on social media. “Fake news” in this context being anything from blatantly and provably false to a misleading or untrustworthy source. Sources prove their trustworthiness mostly though time. If a news agency misleads the audience, or gathers and interprets data in a faulty way, the credibility falls. It falls further when they refuse to acknowledge these things or if they continue to do so. Other poor “facts” include those that aren’t independently checked but at least one (preferably more) other sources. If a piece of information can only be found in one single place, it is more than likely not an actual fact. This is what irks me about many conservatives/Christians* arguing about scientific facts. The scientific method is a rigorous way to gain information. But even doing a rigorous experiment once is not enough to claim the result as a fact. The findings must be peer reviewed and replicated successfully. The word “theory” in science doesn’t mean untested or unproven; it means that it can still be subject to testing and refining, but can be used as a method for predicting and explaining scientific phenomena.

I think that the reason people don’t trust science (or math/statistics for that matter) is that the lay person cannot understand the nuances. The real problem then, is trusting the professionals that present the information. For instance, I am not a physicist and I do not have the means to observe and test relativity, so I have to trust that the physicists who are reporting their findings are reporting facts. Now, I don’t have to take each one at his/her word, I can go back to the basis laid out earlier: was this result replicated independently? Has it been reviewed by other people and tested for accuracy?

My point is, scientists find new things regularly. Scientists disagree about findings and some are proven wrong. The scientific community as a whole is not purposefully lying to the general populace. (For example: climate change and evolutionary biology. But that’s not the point of this right now.)

Through a couple of recent arguments I’ve had with people about sources, I have found that it is nearly impossible to come to an agreement if a people do not agree about credible sources. For whatever reason, some people have a proclivity toward conspiracy theories.

Now, I am willing to entertain many fanciful ideas. I am willing to read articles and reports about things that are outside of the mainstream media and outside of my normal ideology. I am even willing to agree on the premise of many of these theories. But I cannot accept them as fact unless I can verify them with sources I find to be credible. This becomes really hard when the conspiracy is about the media in general.

On most issues of this sort, I am willing to remain civil and friendly. To me, these are thought experiments that don’t really affect my day to day life. I am not much of an arguer. I do not have to persuade people to believe what I believe. I’ll often bow out of an impassioned argument because I simply don’t care as much as the other. I’ll admit I am a bit incensed to do so, as it often makes the other party feel that they’ve ‘won.’ But that doesn’t really affect me for long. My sanity is more important than proving I’m right.

I recently watched Denial, a film about a trial in the UK involving historians and the Holocaust. It was a good film. My takeaway was that regardless of the verdict, regardless of how many sources or witnesses or other proof one provides, people often still hang onto their opinion and cannot be forced to adopt another. It’s best to just let it go.

So that’s what I strive to do. I may engage initially. I may take part in debate. But I will not drag an issue to death. I will not waste my time or energy on what is likely a lost cause. I will not let someone else’s opinion ruin my day (mostly.) I will generally remain friends with people I disagree with, though it’s wise to avoid those areas of disagreement.


There are exceptions. There are some things that do affect my every day life. Or that tie in very closely to my morals. There are some things that I will not let go. Or that I will not remain friendly over. Most of them relate to human rights. I cannot stand the dehumanizing of any person for any reason. I have argued with people about refugees, about people on public assistance, about LGBTQ+ people, about racism, about feminism. This, in my opinion, is where truth comes in. (Or is it Truth with a capital T?) In these instances, for me truth is about integrity. The issues are moral. Not to say that my opinions about how to treat people are not backed up with facts, but it is more than facts. Even if public assistance really does incentivise people to use it more (it doesn’t), even if helping refugees does let some terrorists into the country (ridiculously rare), I still believe that helping people is the greater worth. I don’t believe in “us and them.” I don’t believe that American children are more important than Syrian ones. I don’t believe that only those who can contribute to society should be able to benefit from it.

Basically, I am generally easy-going if we don’t agree. Except when I’m not. People are worth more than opinions.

* I know I seem to bring up Christians a lot in this blog. It’s simply because that is what I know and I have a hard time reconciling my past beliefs with what I know now. I have nothing against followers of Christ, I simply do not believe in blindly following what some random religious or faux religious leader says.

I can provide sources for anything I’ve mentioned here, if needed. 

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