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Anatomy of a Fact: A Note on Uncertainty

Deciphering what counts as true in our post-truth era.

In our age of disinformation, it is perhaps unsurprising, though notable, that journalism's go-to epigraph in defense of universal truth—"Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts"—is frequently misattributed. Widely cited as originating with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who deployed the phrase against a New York senatorial election opponent in 1994, a variant of the saying can be found attributed to financier Bernard Baruch in 1946, and to Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger in the 1970s. It would seem admirers of the quote have failed to live up to its second clause.

This misattribution—no doubt an error—is not indicative of widespread journalistic malpractice or, worse, deep-state subterfuge. But it does demonstrate an important point that has been lost in our post-truth era: Not all factual inaccuracies originate in bad faith. Honest misinformation has always permeated what we hold as truthful, finding refuge in books and articles that go un-fact-checked. Often this is harmless. Occasionally, however, the errors move upstream to more pernicious pseudoscience: a small-sample, hedged scientific study, say, can become the basis for an ill-advised health trend.

The current environment—in which "fake news" is no longer only deployed as a descriptor of satirical late-night television—is markedly different from the past in that bad-faith actors have weaponized good-faith errors as proof of total unreliability. A single error, in the minds of many, is proof that bias has inexorably folded into "fact." As a result, social consensus has eroded. With the integrity of all reporting questioned, the size of photographed crowds is now up for debate, and politicos can concoct stories about made-up massacres that "didn't get covered."

If there's solace to be found in the pervasive doubt of factuality, it's that, somewhat ironically, such doubt has historically been the greatest catalyst of the pursuit of truth. From ancient Greece up until the mid-17th century, Aristotelian metaphysics dictated that facts resided only in universals, were things never able to be directly observed—and for this reason, were things only philosophers, as deep thinkers, had access to. In the 17th century, Francis Bacon's natural philosophy introduced a new concept of fact, in which the fact was the product of observation, which was available to anyone, according to historian Mary Poovey. And yet, those who cast doubt upon the testimony of observation—practitioners of skepticism, a word later appropriated to describe deniers of science—were instrumental in advancing the scientific method and fact-finding. René Descartes doubted the existence of things whose being was taken as fact, like the external world, until all that absolutely withstood scrutiny was that he was doubting. Later, David Hume argued for the impossibility of certainty in the persistence of phenomena whose basis for belief relied on past observation. The canonical example of his "problem of induction" concerns the impossibility of reaching certainty in the "fact" that the sun will rise tomorrow: Even though it has risen every day in the past, we can never observe evidence that what happens in the past will also happen in the future.

Notably, these methods of doubt, no matter the accuracy of their conclusions, drove the Enlightenment and rational scrutiny of what had previously been considered dogma.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

How can contemporary doubt, largely issued in bad faith (and not by philosophers), similarly be directed to serve and further the pursuit of truth?

One way is by inspiring a deeper understanding of the sources of new doubt, which in turn can serve to re-popularize the fact. As our society has become more technocratic and more reliant on complex algorithmic models to explain to us what isn't readily observed, facts have taken on a mystical, undemocratic nature. Experts have replaced Aristotle's philosopher-kings as those who have exclusive access to truths no one else can independently derive. To know where facts come from today is nearly impossible. Whereas in the past simpler scientific discoveries could be independently proven—anyone could verify gravity existed, say, by dropping his own hat or glove—today too much expertise is involved: I, and likely you, cannot reproduce the Congressional Budget Office's analysis to determine the deficit-cost of a tax plan.

In order to make facts more accessible, and, by extension, more easily believed, it must become journalism's duty to help explain these complex methods of deriving fact—to lay out how science is conducted, what inputs models consider, how different sample sizes are to be weighted. Before people can even form the opinions the platitude dictates they are entitled to, they must understand the facts central to forming those opinions. In reducing the esoteric to the understandable, journalists can help restore social consensus on what constitutes truth itself.

This is what our fact-checking at Pacific Standard resolves to do. Beyond simply making sure we correctly identify the speakers of quotes, we'll make sure that the assumptions our articles make are interrogated and well-explained. We'll make sure that, even if every sentence about a new research paper is true, our conclusions will consider the evidence of other research papers on a similar topic; that even if a scientific discovery comes from a reputable source, the sample size employed in deriving that discovery admits of repeatability. And, in a recurring segment, "Anatomy of a Fact," we will spell out some of the decisions that went into negotiating competing evidence, determining which sources were best, and deciding whose testimony to trust. In short, we will employ a radical and transparent doubt.

In a video that surfaced as 2016 election results trickled in, then-President Barack Obama attempted to preemptively comfort those who would become uncertain in just a few hours. "No matter what happens," he said, "the sun will rise in the morning." Even Obama could not predict just how pervasive the uncertainty would be, but looking at the history of philosophy, he could have foretold that this affirmation might not assuage doubts. Nearly 300 years of thinkers, tucked into library nooks not at Trump University but at research colleges across the globe, had studied Hume and knew we had reason to doubt even that.

As (post-)fact-checkers, we won't ever totally erase uncertainty, a near philosophical constant. But at Pacific Standard, we'll use that doubt to our advantage to ensure that there's no uncertainty in our processes and that faith in our reporting remains fully justified.

A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine.

Anatomy of a Fact is a recurring series exposing how the Pacific Standard research and fact-checking process works.