investigating the nature of fact in the digital age

Posts Tagged ‘fact-checking’

Fact fight: Aly vs Price

In Facts and opinion, Misinformation on August 23, 2015 at 4:39 pm
Waleed Aly on the set of The Project.

Waleed Aly on the set of The Project.

WALEED Aly’s clash with Steve Price over the Adani mine on The Project this week got pulses racing among armchair devotees of the #idosohatethosenastyshockjocks and #iluvsorstraya hashtags everywhere. 

Depending on the cut of your ideological jib, Price was either the right-wing shock jock deservedly “shut down” by Aly or the righteous upholder of all things Team Australia who stuck it to the lefties.

As television, it was enthralling because it was real. There was genuine contempt in Aly’s eyes during the exchange, fury in Price’s. It was death stares at 10 paces — or via satellite, actually, Price was being beamed in on the night, possibly from another planet. He usually sits a couple of chairs down from Aly. Who knows what might have happened if they’d been in spitting distance of each other. Dry cleaning bills, possibly. 

The mood of the discussion was already dark as they talked about the government’s proposal to strengthen legislation to prevent green groups from “sabotaging” (the government’s word) major mining projects by challenging them in the courts. 

Price was in favour of the mine going ahead at just about any cost; Aly wanted to dissect the argument that favours additional legislative curbs. But it was when Aly insisted on correcting Price’s version of how many jobs Adani would create that the mood turned toxic.  Read the rest of this entry »

Why people persist in believing untrue things

In Facts and opinion, Interesting research, Misinformation on May 26, 2014 at 2:19 pm

YOUR POLITICAL orientation determines where you fall on important social issues, right? And it’s the strength of your partisanship that determines how easily you “correct” mis-held opinions when presented with corrective information … isn’t it? We used to think that. It turns out that facts are mostly useless in combatting misinformation and misperceptions. It’s not your political beliefs that make you more or less likely to believe/dismiss facts that don’t fit your world view – it’s your sense of self worth. So suggests current psychological research by the likes of Brendan Nyhan and Stephen Lewandowsky – with huge implications for the efforts and effectiveness of fact-checkers and the news media in general. Maria Konnikova distilled what’s known in this post for The New Yorker.

When 1+1=1: Journalism and the trouble with “facts”

In Uncategorized on September 6, 2013 at 9:28 pm

By Gordon Farrer, RMIT University

A posse of fact-checkers has been riding the boundary of the federal election. Not happy with the standard of honesty in political discourse, the ABC, this website and, a localised version of a US format, staffed mostly by ex-Fairfax journalists, set up operations to check facts in statements made by politicians and others during the campaign.

Isn’t fact-checking what journalists are meant to do already?

Of course it is. And they do. Facts are the building blocks of good reportage, the substance upon which a true and full record of history is built. They are gathered, checked and double-checked before being published in print, on television and radio, and online. At least, that’s the theory.

Journalism has changed. The conversation with the media audience has changed. The competition to be first with news means there is less time to check and confirm every line of a public figure’s statements. The multitude of new avenues for politicians to deliver their unfiltered message to its audience by going around the traditional gatekeepers of the media have changed the nature of information and of the political conversation.

Politicians know this and take advantage of these changes. Facts are spun, taken out of context, cherry-picked or cunningly applied to create a false impression. The fact-checkers’ challenge is how to strip away the noise, lay bare how facts are distorted and to expose the deceit built into the rhetoric of politics.

People think they know a fact when they see one. People should think again.

The truth is that “facts” can be tricky, elusive things.

The theory is facts are gathered, checked and double-checked before being published, but that’s not always put into practice. Image from

Here are three facts most would accept on face value:


Clive Palmer is overweight

The unemployment rate is 5.7%.

The equation 1+1= 2 is self-evident; simple observation and experience tell us it is true. But some cheeky mathematicians take delight in proving that 1+1=1 is also true.

They conjure this surprise result by using a numerical sleight-of-hand known as a “mathematical fallacy”. This is, essentially, a well-camouflaged false step, and if you don’t spot the false step or know how to go through the mathematical working to pinpoint where it was introduced, you might be tempted or feel compelled to accept that 1+1=1.

A mathematical fallacy can be created on purpose, as a party trick to impress or challenge fellow numbers geeks at mathematics soirees. A mathematical fallacy can also be accidental, a simple, subtle miscalculation buried in the working that leads to an incorrect result. If not discovered, such mistakes could have potentially fatal consequences – for example, if the error is made by a designer of nuts and bolts used in bridges or space shuttles.

So, it is possible to believe that 1+1=1 is a fact if you don’t think to look for an error, don’t know how to look for an error, or if you don’t know there’s an error to be found. Everyone will know it is wrong, but only a few have the skills to know how to prove it is wrong.

Hold that thought.

Mining magnate Clive Palmer is a larger-than-life character whose physique matches his personality. Even a casual observer can see that he is overweight. But we don’t have to trust the observation of casual observers to know that the statement “Clive Palmer is overweight” is a fact because medical science gives us a definitional tool for the classification of body weight: the body mass index.

The BMI correlates height and weight to arrive at a number. A person is considered to be underweight, overweight or to have a healthy body weight depending on where that number sits on a spectrum.

Technically, St Kilda captain Nick Riewoldt is overweight. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

It’s safe to say that Clive Palmer’s BMI would categorise his weight as
above the ideal for his height. He would sit in the overweight or (according to my dietitian) the obese section of the spectrum.

But consider this: at 193 centimetres and 96 kilograms, Nick Riewoldt –
captain of St Kilda AFL club, superb athlete and fine specimen of a human
being – has a BMI of 25, categorising him as overweight. “Nick Riewoldt is overweight” is as much a fact as “Clive Palmer is overweight” is a fact. Crazy, I know.

Hold that thought, too.

According to the government department responsible for measuring unemployment, the current jobless rate is 5.7%. The statisticians in
the Australian Bureau of Statistics are experts, independent of political
influence, so we have good reason to trust that they know how to measure
unemployment in Australia. The 5.7 figure should be one we can accept as

But what is being measured? There is considerable debate about the value of unemployment figures. According to a recent column in the Fairfax press the rate does not include roughly 100,000 people who have been moved from the unemployed queues into training schemes. It also does not include those who have given up looking for work, those who work for a family business, or those who do just one hour of paid work each week. Include these categories and you get an unemployment rate of 6.2%.

These three examples help us understand that no fact is an island. Facts are constructed and constrained by social, historical, cultural, scientific and economic factors and cannot exist or be understood outside the context and connections created by those factors. Change the context or the connections and you change the fact.

Fact-checking operations know this and so parse context and connecting factors to arrive at their shades-of-truth rulings, with the tested fact sitting on a spectrum from True through to False via a range of incremental stages (for example PolitiFact’s ratings Half True/False, Partly True/False and Mostly True/False).

Epistemicism is the sub-branch of philosophy that deals with the question of vagueness and inexactness, that border area in which something is going from being one thing to being another. It considers such questions as: At what point does a thin thing become a not-thin thing? Is there a tangible, identifiable definitional line that separates these states?

Image from

If there is, we might ask, is there also a line between non-physical states such as “fact” and “not-a-fact” (or between “fact” and “not the fact supposedly being presented”)? That is, is there a “truth mass index” we can turn to for help, a version of the BMI that can be applied to fact?

And if there isn’t an easily defined line between “fact” and “non-fact”, on what basis do the fact-checkers think they can make judgements about factual accuracy?

The fact-checkers operate in this zone of vagueness and, in practice, they do an effective job. As experienced journalists they know how to examine and expose the rhetorical equivalents of mathematical fallacies. They can identify how definitions and assumptions around, say, unemployment figures have been warped or constructed to achieve a desired result.

Of course, there is argument about the nuances of fact-checkers’ rulings; in the real world that is where subjectivity enters proceedings, and there is no hard and fast way to calculate the impact of personal preference or opinion.

But even without a truth mass index, the checkers could rule that Nick Riewoldt is as healthy a specimen of a human being as you will find. They could also rule that Clive Palmer should stop eating hamburgers.

Because sometimes facts speak for themselves.

Gordon Farrer was a Fairfax journalist for 13 years.
Fairfax also holds a stake in his current employer, Metro Media Publishing.

The Conversation

This article was originally published at The Conversation.
Read the original article.

A piece I wrote for The Conversation

The Diplomat’s Cocktail Party

In Journalism practice, Previously published on August 19, 2013 at 9:29 am

In Marius Foley’s Globalized Communication and Culture course (Comm 1107) last semester at RMIT we were given an exercise called The Diplomat’s Cocktail Party in which we had to tell two fellow students about an incident – preferably true – that would reveal something about ourselves. The story we chose was to be relevant to our interest in media and communications.

I recalled a stoush I had with the 911 conspiracy movement after writing a damning TV review for The Age of a program called In Plane Site (see here).

For days after the review was published I was bombarded by conspiracy theorists from around the world, including Dave vonKleist, the producer of the program I had bagged.

The emails were abusive and generally unreasoned. I was described, among many things, as corrupt, ignorant, spawn of The Devil, a resident of the Dark Side and on the pay of the CIA and all the others involved in the global media conspiracy to deceive the world about the “truth” behind September 11.

When Dave vonKleist emailed me himself I decided to engage him and his arguments. In a series of long emails we debated the issue. I tried to get him to stand back and understand that conspiracies are not based on rational, evidence-based thinking. He countered with an avalanche of unconnected “facts” that he believed proved the involvement of the US government and existence of a subsequent cover-up.

(Some of this debate – regrettably not all of it – was post on the website of Dave vonKleist’s radio program, “The Power Hour”:

The article and my contact details had been posted on conspiracy sites around the world and readers were encouraged to contact me. My debate with vonKleist was also posted on skeptic websites whose aim was to debunk conspiracy theories and the irrational thinking that fuels them.

I was struck by how quickly news spread to the producer of the program (Dave vonKleist responded with his long email within 36 hours) and how quickly conspiracy sites from around the world picked up the issue and launched into their assault. I was also impressed that those on the other side of the debate had rallied, using the same technology, to join battle.

My “debate” with Dave vonKleist and the virulence of the response to my review sparked a continuing interest in how people form beliefs and why they find it so difficult to change those beliefs, even in the face of directly contradictory evidence. I also found the ability of the internet to rapidly spread misinformation and to connect likeminded people, whom I regarded as delusional, as a bit of a worry (if impressive).

I’m still intrigued by these issues.

Additional stuff:

> Part of the jousting with Dave vonKleist:

> A follow-up column about conspiracy theories:

> The original article:


Thesis mud map: the rise of fact-checking as a response to changes in media aucretrus

In Academic reflection, Mind map, Thesis progress on June 11, 2013 at 3:28 pm

So this is what’s in my head. Rather than keep it there and try to wrangle its growing tendrils I thought I’d put the whole mess on paper, hoping I can deal with it more easily in physical form. It’s version 1, so please forgive gaps, omissions, double-ups, rough edges. It’s yet to be shaped and properly polished. But it gives an idea of the early scope of my research.

To see detail, double-click the image then enlarge.