Check Yourself… And Your Facts

13 Nov, 2013

It’s okay to be a little boring, if you can back yourself up.

I know we history students may seem somewhat tedious. But you know what? We tell the truth. Historical argument is based in verifiable fact. Unfortunately, facts seem to be at an all-time low in our media and discourse. Attention seekers and contrarians are killing the art of telling the truth. As boring as reality may be, the lying must stop. It’s time for us to pay a lot more attention to the information we share with the world.

Like historians, journalists and news sources used to be careful with the facts. They aren’t any more. Media outlets and social media are plagued by incorrect or poor quality information. And thanks to cheap communication, misleading large groups of people has become laughably easy. It’s not a joke. The World Economic Forum lists “digital wildfires” of misinformation on the Internet and social media as one of the major global risks of 2013. This widespread misinformation can destabilize markets and cause mass panic. It’s infecting every corner of the Web, and it must be banished from our communication.

Just check the comment sections on your favourite website for an example. To be more “interactive” and “social”, many major news sources now allow comments. It’s a mockery of factual debate. By and large these un-moderated comment sections give soapboxes to the lunatic fringes. Like a CBC commenter blaming GMO advocates for playing “Russian roulette with the health of all life,” most of these comments don’t have any proof. And they don’t need it to ruin the experience. It’s a shame that otherwise reliable news websites are polluted with such inaccurate trash.

But classical journalism is also injured by lazy standards and Internet lies. In the past, it was as important for news writers as for historians to have a story “on good authority.” Now verification of sources comes secondary to having the first scoop. CNN falsely reported that Hurricane Sandy flooded the New York Stock Exchange when Twitter users alleged such. News sources also incorrectly reported on the Boston Bombing suspects, and reputable journalists claimed innocent Sunil Tripathi was a perpetrator when his name came up in a Reddit thread. (Making a sad story worse, the college student was found dead days later.) “Breaking news” can’t be recent speculation; it needs to be fact.

When sources have more time the story doesn’t get better. Feature and opinion writing could be as diligently checked as your average McGill history paper, given the time to print. But it’s often not. Fact checking is neglected or maliciously ignored. Take Suzanne Somers’ tirade against Obamacare posted in the Wall Street Journal. It used quotations by Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill as evidence – quotations that don’t actually exist. Somers also cited one of her sources by the wrong name. It’s hard to believe a publication as well connected as the Wall Street Journal would make such mistakes, but for lesser sources this happens seemingly every day.

Academics are not immune to crippling lapses in checking, either. According to the Economist, poor peer review is a major problem with modern science. This issue was made notoriously clear when Thomas Herndon refuted the Reinhart-Rogoff report on austerity and public debt, noting the omission of contrary data. A PhD student, Herndon picked out errors in the paper that would have been noted had the publication’s editors done their job. Academics should do a better job of preventing their peers from cutting corners. A critical mistake in a revolutionary paper is a shade more grave than a Twitter post.

This system of errors – this world where facts are no longer checked – will only hurt us. Because no one verified their facts, the family of wrongly accused Sunil Tripathi had their tragedy brought in front of the world. A categorically flawed paper on austerity became a cornerstone of economic policy. And sources like Suzanne Somers and the Wall Street Journal torpedoed their credibility – when they got caught. All of this was preventable damage, had the authors used due diligence in checking their facts – just as historians do.

Let’s bring back double-checking. The facts should always be there. History is strident about making claims with a degree of certainty, and abandoning them if there isn’t. Every source is cited when used. Emphasis is too often placed on making a provocative argument, seeking attention at the expense of everything else. But facts are important. The truth is important. Even if it may not be as scintillating.

Historians eat each other alive when the facts aren’t respected. Michael Bellesiles’ Arming America was a Bancroft Prize-winning examination of gun culture in the early United States. When academics found he had incorrectly used data and made false claims, his prize was revoked, his publisher pulled the book, and his career was left destroyed. When the stakes are that high, it encourages people to get it right the first time. Is that too much to expect?

It wouldn’t be a bad thing if people thought a little more like historians. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if people always made sure what they said is true. There’s no advantage to relying on media that leaves the population misinformed. And that need for verifying facts includes social media and commentary as well. The BBC has kept comment sections off its news stories, and it reflects a professionalism that is in dire need elsewhere.

Like historians, the BBC and a select few news sources continue to stand committed to the truth. For a supposed Information Age, the truth is far too limited a commodity. We’re here to be informed, not just entertained.

Cite it.

 

 The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.

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