“Fact” Checking Moves to Australia

Pants on FireThere’s a great scene toward the end of The Matrix where Agent Smith is talking to Morpheus. He says that humans are like a virus. This is actually a shockingly stupid argument. The truth is that all creatures bread to the point where they exhaust all resources and then either die out or move onto green pastures. It is only other species that causes there to be any balance in the environment. But I think the virus analogy is pretty good when it is applied to American journalism.

The Australians are currently suffering from America creep. The country has three new “fact checking” services. Bronwen Clune reports all in, Are Fact-Checking Sites a Symptom of the Media Not Doing Its Job? One of them will be very familiar to most Americans: Politifact Australia! They haven’t only exported their ridiculous Truth-O-Meter with its infantile “pant on fire” rating. They’ve also exported their peculiar definition of of the word “fact.” Clune writes something that should be familiar to readers of this blog:

Just how convoluted this seemingly simple judgment can be is best illustrated over controversy around a statement made by Greens senator Scott Ludlam that “currently, Australia is 71st per capita in the world in terms of refugees hosted.” The original ruling read nothing short of “what the senator says is right, but we rate it as ‘mostly false.'”

Hooray! America’s greasy sense of fact wins another victory!

The other two fact checking services are home-grown. One is a kind of academic affair where a statement is graded by one person. Then that person’s analysis is graded by someone else. And what do you know? Sometimes the two disagree. There is a third service that has not yet started but already conservatives are complaining that its editor has a leftist bias. I think that tells you all you need to know about the whole “fact checking” endeavor: it will never work as long as people can’t differentiate between fact and truth. In the Politifact example above, it was found that the statement was correct, but that Ludlam had used it to imply something that wasn’t true.

Clune’s point is that this really ought to be what journalists are always doing. Of course, they aren’t. But the fact checking services are not going to fix this problem. This is because they claim to objective, when they aren’t. Their effort is a worthy one—but it is worthy for journalists, not specialists who claim they are providing “just the fact.” And that gets a “pants on fire” from me.


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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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