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November 25, 2020

DIY Truth-Checking

Because you can’t trust anyone else to do it for you.

We’re deluged with assertions on twitter, on Facebook, and on the more formal news. Whom do we believe? “The science”? Whose version? The NY Times? Fox News? The legions of fact-checkers sprouting up all over the web? Your favorite blogger? “Fact” is, you can’t trust any of ‘em (trust me).

Part of my quarantine routine is to try to help my grandchildren become savvier critics of assertions. Gave them the following quiz:

A story on the news says:

“A man was found shot in the street last night outside City Hall. No weapon has been found. No one knows who shot him.” You don’t know anything beyond this about the man, the reporter, or the story. Choose the statements below which are true. You may choose more than one.

  1. As far as I know, the story is true.
  2. As far as I know, the story is false.
  3. The reporter cannot know that the whole story is true.
  4. At least one sentence is apparently false.

With careful reading, they’re all true. The word “know” is key to the evaluation

A is true because you don’t know the story is false.

B is true because you don’t know the story is true.

C is true because the reporter would have to know what everyone in the world knows in order to know that no one knows who shot the victim.

D is only apparently true (but I used the weasel word “apparently”). It is likely that someone does know who shot the man. The shooter should know; there may be witnesses who haven’t come forward. However, it could be true that no one knows. He could’ve been killed by a stray shot. The killer could be dead. It could be suicide and someone stole the weapon.

The point of this exercise is 1) practice in knowing whether the teller can possibly know what he or she is asserting, 2) knowing how much or how little you know as a result of being told something, 3) learning to look carefully at the words that are used to make an assertion. I’m the child of an English teacher and a storyteller.

Now back in the real world. The NY Times says “Trump Asserts (pick your assertion) Without Evidence”. We know from experience that Trump’s assertion may well be false (although it’s a false syllogism to say the assertion is false because Trump made it). However, we also know that the NY Times can’t possibly know what evidence Trump has or doesn’t have. I’m tempted to rewrite this “The NY Times Claims Without Evidence that Trump Asserts …  Without Evidence.” They could have easily made the headline accurate by saying “Trump Asserts… Without Giving Evidence” if indeed he hasn’t instead of damaging their own credibility with an assertion they can’t possibly know is true.

That’s why we need DIY truth-checking.

For more on DIY truth-checking see False Syllogisms

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