If Truth Is Complex, Why Is Fact-Checking So Simplistic?

Larry Sanger

For the last several years, powerful media and government organizations have been sounding the alarm with increasing urgency about what they are pleased to call “disinformation.” Defined in various ways, the main thing about disinformation is that it is somehow obviously, provably false, and this falsehood matters—if society continues to believe “disinformation,” bad things will happen. So it has to be stamped out forcefully. Hence the rise of the “fact-checkers,” a whole industry of them, deputized by major media outlets, Big Tech corporations, and governments to declare what is officially true. Those who call these inquisitorial truth squads into question are themselves branded as biased, ignorant, or purveyors of disinformation. You just don’t disagree with the experts and The Science, if you want to be part of the mainstream conversation.

I’m in a fairly unique position to comment on this trend. I’m a Ph.D. philosopher actually trained in epistemology, and I am co-founder (or “ex-founder”) of Wikipedia and other reference and education projects, which are used to articulate and check facts. I was also the first and most vigorous proponent of Wikipedia’s neutrality policy, and I have long been philosophically opposed to relativism, i.e., the view that the truth essentially depends on your (or your culture’s) point of view.

In plain terms: the objective truth is out there. For real. In my well-considered opinion, the objective truth is simply too important not to be left up to us to decide individually. If our supposed betters are permitted to propagandize us with what they arrogantly declare are the unassailable facts, we will quickly slide into authoritarianism. Or rather, heavy-handed, manipulative Establishment dogmatism is a symptom of authoritarianism that is already here and growing daily.

I actually think there can be such a thing as reasonable, reliable fact-checking. Let’s compare it to the often bogus versions we are presented with today. Sometimes the facts are, on some questions, practically beyond reasonable dispute—namely, when the facts are relatively simple, on anyone’s view, and the means of ascertaining them are also well agreed. Big media companies sometimes hire people to do this sort of relatively straightforward fact-checking; I once spent over two hours on the phone with a fact-checker from The New Yorker for a story written by Stacy Schiff. But public fact-checkers, the ones that are used to “debunk false narratives,” frequently comment on quite complex questions. And there are some earmarks of reasonable, rational, non-manipulative fact-checking of complex questions.

For one thing, especially in inherently complex topics such as geopolitics, economics, and cutting-edge science, there are rarely simple yes/no answers. This is not because the truth is relative—quite the contrary. It is because the objective truth, the mind-independent truth, is almost always messy and complex, and requires considerable background information and careful verbiage to lay out with any accuracy. Reality emphatically does not have “a bias,” as when people say, “Reality has a liberal bias.” To say so is merely to point out your own ideological blinkers smugly. Good journalists and “fact-checkers” shine the light of reason on reality in its full splendor; they show it by turns to be confounding, stunning, pedestrian, stranger the fiction, rigorously rule-following, random and unpredictable, admirable, heartwarming, bloody and cruel, and dismayingly politically incorrect. Any sufficiently large chunk of reality never fits simplistic journalistic narratives.

If you dogmatically insist on the results of quick, simplistic, and one-sided “fact-checks,” you are showing you do not care about objective truth. Objective truth and the process of demonstrating it are rarely quick and simplistic. A fact-check—or for that matter, any encyclopedia article or textbook—is irresponsible if it offers up one definite “true” or “false” bottom-line answer for a complex question, even if it proceeds to defend its point of view, if it does not acknowledge the complexity of the question. Good fact-checkers instead break inherently multi-part questions into their components, acknowledging matters of opinion, ruling definitively where there is broad agreement on narrow questions, and when there is inadequate evidence on a question, then leaving it, yes, entirely open. It is a travesty that so many fact-checkers (and journalists, encyclopedists, and educators) so rarely say “we don’t know” or “it is up to you to decide.”

Another earmark of responsible fact-checking is openness to radically divergent points of view during the process of information-gathering. You cannot shut yourself off from sources because you think they are “biased.” Anyone who is not self-consciously following the (difficult) canons of neutrality is bound to be biased, and generally speaking, there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a point of view when building a case in science, research, law, policymaking, and punditry, and many other disciplines.

In fact, if you want to see what happens to the neutrality of a reference work when certain sources are eliminated for their supposed bias, look no further than Wikipedia. Amazingly, sources of staunch conservative opinion and reporting are all verboten. The vast majority of permitted sources are progressive or radical, and what few centrist and center-right sources are permitted represent the “loyal opposition” that rarely strays far outside the Establishment’s Overton window. As a result, Wikipedia’s articles are so badly biased that, on topics relevant to the Culture War, it is no great exaggeration to call them “propaganda.”

Here then is one more earmark of good fact-checking: neutrality. If I can tell your party alignment, position on a controversial issue, or approval or disapproval of a politician, how on earth can you expect me to take you seriously as a fair arbiter of truth? I cannot. Public fact-checkers often pretend to play the role of impartial judge of truth. Yet just as often it is easy to infer the writer’s bias from the title and first paragraph; even if fact-checkers conceal their bias that far, it typically comes out farther down.

I am not saying there is something wrong with a fact-checker asserting one side is right and the other is wrong when it comes to a relatively simple factual question, if indeed the facts are clear and well-documented. That can be OK. What I am saying is that, frequently, it is glaringly obvious how the article could be improved in point of even-handedness. Many mainstream media fact-checks of statements by Republicans, for example, make only the thinnest, briefest explanation of what motivated a statement put under the microscope. They then proceed to strike down a straw-man version that bears only a passing resemblance to the original statement in context.

The irony is that the sort of people who claim to be so concerned “disinformation” routinely follow a simplistic and unobjective approach to fact-checking. Yet they point to the results of such fact-checks as unassailable evidence of objective truth.

And this is surprising, isn’t it? Twenty or thirty years ago, when I was teaching philosophy, I remember complaining about students who were steeped in the relativism of the dominant culture. I constantly had to fight against this notion that it’s all just a matter of opinion (so why should we bother studying philosophy at all?). Yet now, with the Establishment deciding they need to get a firmer grip on public opinion, all that relativism seems to have disappeared like a morning fog under the hot midday sun.

Don’t get me wrong; I still hate relativism, and in fact, the current shoddy methods of fact-checking show that these supposedly sober journalists still do embrace relativism—but, being close to power, now they say that the truth is whatever The Man says it is. And then they merely lie that this is the objective truth.

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