In our modern, connected, social society, the need for fact checking has become more and more important. The ability to do fact checking has become easier and easier. Yet the tendency to actually DO fact checking is almost non-existent.
Twitter, facebook, comments on blogs and forums allows people to be righteously indignant, without having a clue if what they are being righteously indignant about is even real. Just in the last two days, I’ve seen horrendous outrage at a mayor flashing gang signs with a felon. Fine, he was convicted. Now he’s turned his life around and is working with an organization called Neighborhoods Organizing for Change.
Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris seem to be common targets by a variety of people who don’t like them and take whatever they say out of context. Some stories that really aren’t stories are picked up by a famous person with a million twitter followers, minutes later it’s God’s Truth to everyone on the internet.
But this dearth of fact checking can have real world consequences. For example, a senator Tom Coburn (R-OK… shocking right?) has this idea that some scientific research is wasteful. He talks about scientific projects that waste money.
For example, Dr. Terrie Williams (UC Santa Cruz) who got $856,000 (presumably from the National Science Foundation) to “train mountain lions to walk on a treadmill”.
Of course, actually reading about the work, contacting the Principle Investigators, or learning about what they were actually doing was much too difficult in our everything available on the internet society. So Coburn has massively misrepresented the work of Dr. Williams and a large team of scientists and engineers.
In reality, they built and tested a high-tech collar for large carnivores. Those pinnacles of the food-chain that are desperately important to a functioning ecosystem (as the wolves in Yellowstone have proven). Conservation efforts will be helped by tracking the animals and monitoring the energy use.
But none of that matters to the people (including national talk show hosts) who described the work with a variety of unsavory adjectives.
Likewise this extends into the realm of what, under normal circumstances, would be criminal behavior. Spreading rumors of sexual harassment, rape, and other similar charges without any evidence at all has real world consequences.
Yet people continue to throw claims of criminal activities around as if it were the same as calling someone a ‘jerk’.
I will never have a massively popular blog. I’m not interested in shocking headlines (“I wasted a whole day on this stupid activity.”) or drama or clickbait or cutting edge news. I’m interested in real stories about real things. [Not to mention that I have a job that prevents a lot of blogging right now.]
We live in a truly amazing time. We can find out almost anything that is known to humanity with a few keyboard taps. Yet, we, as a society, stubbornly refuse to do that learning. Sure, there are many individuals and websites devoted to debunking myths, lies, and other foolishness. But, as the old saying goes, “A lie can go around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
And this has never been more true in our modern, Facebook, Google+, anything for clicks and ratings, era.
We should strive, not for clicks, ratings, and fame, but for truth, evidence, and reality. Not being famous or having a bajillion followers on twitter is actually OK. That’s the most fleeting thing on the planet. I’m not interested in having 15 minutes of fame and then being kicked aside for the next Miley Cirus dance move.
We should promote fact checking. But we have to promote the use of critical thinking, using good sources, and a lot of skills and knowledge that just aren’t common. Even worse, there’s a lot (A LOT) of people out there who think that they are experts in lots of subjects.
And these people are even more dangerous. Because other people trust them… without question. Even when they have no clue what they are talking about.
I would like the people who read this to share it. Not to make me famous or anything. But because it’s important.
Fact checking is simple. Reading and understanding is somewhat harder, but it becomes easier with practice. And we need to learn how to do it.