In Praise of Facts
It’s hard to get the story straight. In today’s age of social media where everyone has a voice, it can be difficult to distinguish between accurate, reliable sources and inaccurate or unreliable ones. How do you know when a source is reputable and when it’s questionable? Here are just a few hints on how to tell the difference.
- Is this fact or opinion? A fact is a statement that can be proven, whereas an opinion is generally a person’s judgement and can’t be proven. While this sounds obvious, it’s surprisingly easy to mix up the two. Opinions are often presented as facts in a way that can be quite misleading. If I tell you that Mario’s Pizzeria has the best pizza in town, I’m giving you my opinion, but if I tell you that the local newspaper named Mario’s as having the best pizza in town, I’m giving you a fact that you could check by reading the paper.
- Is it biased? When someone tells you what you “should” believe, chances are high that there could be a bias. If I tell you that Mario’s has the best pizza in town, I’m revealing my bias in a big way. Essentially I’m telling you that you should share my opinion. A non-biased way to say that would be, “Mario’s is my personal favorite pizza.” When I word it that way, I’m telling you what I believe, but I’m not trying to make you agree with me.
- Does the age of the article matter? Yes! Unless you are specifically looking at historical facts, age absolutely matters. Researchers relying on scientific articles published in journals often use rigorous standards for what articles they use. Often they set a limit of no older than five years, or in some cases three years. That’s because our knowledge and experiences change. In my search for the best pizza in town, I want to know the most recent reviews of who has the best pizza today, not which restaurant was voted as having the best pizza five years ago.
- Is this a first-hand account? If an article is not written as a first-hand account, check to see if they include links to their sources. If they don’t, it may not be reliable. If they do, you may be able to trace a second hand account to its original source. News outlets do this often when one cites another which came from a third, which may be the original source. There is a big difference between saying “I’ve heard Mario’s has good pizza” and “I can tell you from my own experience that Mario’s has pizza that I like.” This is why news reporters often interview witnesses of events. Those accounts will matter more than hearsay. In general it’s going to be a more reliable source if it’s written from someone who experienced the event themselves instead of second or third-hand accounts.
- Does the author have expertise? My thoughts about the best pizza in town are going to be less reliable than the perspective of a pizza expert. When a person has specific education, training, and real-world experience on a subject, they are more likely to be a reliable source. True expert testimony improves credibility significantly.
When all else fails, there are fact checking websites that have done the work for you. Taking a critical look at where we get our information can be a valuable way to keep ourselves in check. Before you believe what you read or hear, try asking the questions outlined here to confirm the authenticity. Now that we’ve debunked my statement about Mario’s having the best pizza (it failed all but one test), consider what other statements would benefit from debunking.