The Internet is awash in urban legends and outright lies. It’s also the best fact-checking tool in history, if you know how and where to look. (More)

Clueless, Part III – Finding Clues (Non-Cynical Saturday)

This week Morning Feature looked at cluelessness and its causes. Thursday we considered common ignorance. Yesterday we examined political ignorance. Today we conclude with how to open our own and others’ eyes.

Banning Religious Broadcasting

A friend invited me to visit his church during my first year of law school. My former church was less a religious body than a conservative political action group. They asked me to leave when I disputed their claim that protecting LGBTs in the county’s civil rights ordinance would force them to hire a gay pastor. The county ordinance specifically exempted churches.

Not to worry, my friend said. His church didn’t talk about politics. I said okay.

Good morning … please give a warm welcome … and before we start, did you know there’s a bill in Congress to ban religious broadcasting? I have a flyer right here. Please write to your congressman and senators….

I’d heard the story before. Many times. It began circulating in the mid-1970s, after the FCC rejected a petition to limit religious groups’ use of channels reserved for educational programming. The FCC rejected the petition on First Amendment grounds, and that should have been that. But  the FCC has received over 30 million pieces of mail in the decades since, demanding they stop their plan to ban religious broadcasts. House and Senate members get letters as well, as the story sometimes morphs into a bill proposed in Congress.

“Has anyone verified this?” I asked. “It sounds like a hoax that’s been making the rounds for years. It would take only a few minutes to check out at a law library.”

Healthy Skepticism

Skepticism has acquired a bad reputation over the years. For many, it’s become synonymous with cynicism: disbelieve everything. But cynicism is, as Brooks Jackson and Katherine Hall Jamieson wrote in unSpun, “another form of gullibility.” It’s just as irrational to disbelieve everything as it is to believe everything.

Skeptics look for evidence, and rigorous skeptics look for a particular kind of evidence. Philosopher Karl Popper called that evidence “risky predictions,” and proposed seven guidelines for examining a theory:

  1. It is easy to obtain confirmations, or verifications, for nearly every theory — if we look for confirmations.
  2. Confirmations should count only if they are the result of risky predictions; that is to say, if, unenlightened by the theory in question, we should have expected an event which was incompatible with the theory — an event which would have refuted the theory.
  3. Every “good” scientific theory is a prohibition: it forbids certain things to happen. The more a theory forbids, the better it is.
  4. A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as people often think) but a vice.
  5. Every genuine test of a theory is an attempt to falsify it, or to refute it. Testability is falsifiability; but there are degrees of testability: some theories are more testable, more exposed to refutation, than others; they take, as it were, greater risks.
  6. Confirming evidence should not count except when it is the result of a genuine test of the theory; and this means that it can be presented as a serious but unsuccessful attempt to falsify the theory. (I now speak in such cases of “corroborating evidence.”)
  7. Some genuinely testable theories, when found to be false, are still upheld by their admirers — for example by introducing ad hoc some auxiliary assumption, or by reinterpreting the theory ad hoc in such a way that it escapes refutation. Such a procedure is always possible, but it rescues the theory from refutation only at the price of destroying, or at least lowering, its scientific status.

In the case of the bill to ban religious broadcasting, my “risky prediction” was that any such bill could be found in a search at a law library. If a thorough search finds no such bill, then the flyer is a hoax. That’s a bit complicated, because the provision might be in an amendment to some other bill. But with computer search tools, it’s not difficult to do.

The Best Fact-Checking Tool Ever

As Jackson and Jamieson write in unSpun, the Internet is the best fact-checking tool in history … if you know how and where to look. The Annenberg Public Policy Center run, and that is one good fact-checking reference. You may not always agree with them, but they are transparent and list their sources for every story. That transparency is essential in online fact-checking. If there’s no source for a claim, be very wary.

But merely giving a source is not enough. I often find circular sourcing: A cites B, B cites C, and C cites a previous article by A. That is especially common in blogs and opinion columns, but you may find it in news stories as well. While circular sourcing proves A, B, and C agree, it doesn’t prove their claim is true.

Instead, Jackson and Jamieson suggest you look for reputable sources: official government statistics and transcripts, peer-reviewed academic journals, and media outlets with reputations for solid reporting. Remember that even reputable sources make mistakes, especially when a story is first unfolding. Don’t disbelieve breaking news stories outright, but mentally insert the words “so far as we know” after every fact claim. The story will probably change as more information emerges.

Jackson and Jamieson also say to be wary of blog sites, and I agree. At BPI we tell our writers to check their facts – especially the ones they think they already know – and cite their sources. While our writers can’t cite sources for personal anecdotes, remember those are anecdotes and “the plural of anecdote is not data.” Oh, and don’t be so sure Roger Brinner said that.

How Can You Know?

Jackson and Jamieson offer these rules for testing facts:

  1. You Can’t Be Completely Certain – The universe is messy and surprising, so be skeptical if someone claims complete certainty.
  2. You Can Be Certain Enough – What are the consequences of believing or disbelieving this claim, if you’re wrong? If the consequences are trivial, you don’t need much evidence. If the consequences are severe, be more skeptical.
  3. Look For General Agreement Among Experts – That doesn’t guarantee they’re right, but it’s more likely.
  4. Check Primary Sources – Be wary of second-party summaries, headlines, quotes, and video snips. Look for the original material.
  5. Know What Counts – When you see statistics, check out what they counted and how they counted. When you see polls, find the original polling site and read the questions that were asked.
  6. Know Who’s Talking – When you see studies or reports, check out the researchers or groups involved. Go to their website and find out who they are, and who funds them. “Non-partisan” does not mean “has no political agenda.”
  7. Seeing Shouldn’t Necessarily Be Believing – We all misinterpret what we see at times, and memory is very fallible.
  8. Cross-check Everything That Matters – This ties into #2 above. The more severe the consequences of being wrong, the less you should rely on a single source, even if that source is reputable.
  9. Be Skeptical, Not Cynical – Appeals to cynicism are common, and often come as claims of Secret Knowledge: “Don’t believe what They say. I have the real truth.” If you can’t verify it with other sources, be wary.

I’ll add a tenth rule: “I Don’t Know” Is Not Failure – There’s an old law school joke:

Q: What’s the difference between a first-year law student and an experienced attorney?

A: Ask a legal question, and the law student will answer “I don’t know.” The attorney will answer “I need to research that.”

In fact, they’re both giving the same answer. And often that’s the best answer we can give.


Happy Saturday!