We seem to be living in the golden age of misinformation.
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”.
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.
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 as well. 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.”
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 wilfully 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.
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. However 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. This is 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), matter.
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.
[Next week – Part 2 of this article where I will look at how to “fact check].