Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Live Fact Checking, Variations of Facts, Values, and Lies

The New York Times plans to blog live fact checking during tonight's presidential debate.

Here and Now had a segment on retired college professor ,Vicki Meyer, of Sarasota, Florida, who's collected 215,000 signatures with a petition, asking for live fact checking at the debate. flew Meyer to Washington, D.C., to present her petitions to the Commission on Presidential Debates, but Meyer said they wouldn’t meet with her. She couldn’t even get them to accept the box of petitions.
The plan was to give the fact-checking results to the moderator during commercial breaks and let them do what with them what they chose and to have the results flash on the screen.

The online Oxford Dictionary offers this definition of fact:
"a thing that is known or proved to be true:"
But in more formal debate we have
  • factual premises (that theoretically can be prove true or false, i.e. the cost of the U.S. military in Afghanistan for a year, whether Obama was born in Hawaii) and  
  • value premises (beliefs about what is good or bad, such as "the death penalty should be abolished" or "the health benefits of no smoking laws outweigh the loss of personal freedom they cause").
Things go downhill from there.

I raise this because fact checkers will probably have some difficulty proving things on the fly.  So let's look at some of the intricacies:
  1. Obvious facts that can be proven true or false easily.  This includes things like a candidate's birthplace, whether a candidate said his favorite food was enchiladas in New Mexico and cheese in Wisconsin.  But how fast can these things be found, and what triggers a fact checker to have a doubt that needs checking?
  2. The hard to prove facts which rely on interpretation.  
    1. How much did the US spend on the war in Afghanistan in 2011?  Which numbers do you count?  Just the military budget?  Just for that year?  What about costs of equipment that would have been purchased even if it wasn't used in Iraq?  Or soldiers who spent six months in Iraq and the rest of the time elsewhere?   Is this only about dollars or is it also about the impact on the mental health of soldiers and their families?  About health care to treat problems of Afghanistan vets for the rest of their lives?  Of damage done to Afghan infrastructure?  Or lives lost in Pakistani?  Or the environmental damage of bombing or all the fuel used in the war?  
    2. Will the US better better or worse off because of Obama's health care legislation?
  3. The hard to prove facts because the evidence is incomplete or inconsistent.
    1. Did the defendant commit the crime?  
    2. Is your boyfriend cheating?  (How do you each define cheating?)
    3. Is this really organic?
    4. Will a glass of red wine three times a weak decrease the likelihood of a heart attack?
  4. Lies versus Errors  -  Here we get to intent.  
    1. Did she believe what she was saying was true?  
    2. Is it better to not know you are wrong than to know the truth but lie anyway?  Or said another way:  Is ignorance better than lying?
  5. Kinds of Lies  -  Let's define a lie as something the speaker knows is not true, but intentionally says it.  There's a wide variety of kinds of lies, starting with "You look great."
    1. There are the lies people told the authorities to protect Jews during WW II.
    2. The lies undercover agents tell to gain the confidence of drug dealers.
    3. There are lies people tell to get sex, to get jobs, to get better grades or to get elected.  
This is just a short list.  Another complication is that each of these categories can overlap with another.

But parsing things out into details like this also makes it easy for liars to find cover in all these clarifications.  Fact checkers, the good ones anyway, do know the difference between big, obvious lies, and those situations that are more ambiguous.

As a final thought, I found the etymology of 'fact' at the Oxford Dictionary online to be an interesting twist:
late 15th century: from Latin factum, neuter past participle of facere 'do'. The original sense was 'an act', later 'a crime', surviving in the phrase before (or after) the fact. The earliest of the current senses ( 'truth, reality') dates from the late 16th century

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.