If you have not read Part 1 of this article, just click here – Saturday Science Session: Facts_Why they matter and how to check them – Part 1
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:
- The quality of the source
- Verifiable information
- 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 article).
When it comes to something like politics, things become somewhat more fuzzy. This is 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 organisations 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.
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).
This 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 and funding. They also include steps they take to minimise 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 organisations 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 organisations, 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 behaviour, 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.”