Remember facts? Those verifiable observations about that thing we call reality?
Pinch me, because I think they may be coming back. The signs are there, although subject to alternative interpretations (making predictions is not unlike reading entrails).
First, there was Nate Silver. Silver’s dogged focus on data drove a lot of discussion during the election. That focus wasn’t new–he’d also predicted the 2010 Republican blowout–but his insistence upon empirical investigation hadn’t previously gotten noticed by people outside the world of political junkies. When the spin-meisters pooh-poohed his “novel methodology” (aka beginning with facts), they succeeded in illuminating their methodology, the technical name for which is “making stuff up.” In the wake of the election, there has been a subtle but discernible shift in the media toward actual fact-checking.
Exhibit two: Costco. No kidding. I got my most recent Costco member’s magazine, and was leafing through it, when I came to an article titled “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” It was a story about fact-checking on the Internet. The gist was that more and more fact-checking sites are popping up to join Politifact, Snopes and Factcheck.com. This phenomenon tells me a couple of things: there’s a market for fact-checking the “information” that’s so readily available but so often misleading; and recognition of the need for verification is widespread enough to merit notice from a mass retailer like Costco.
Exhibit three: in an inventive vein, I got an email the other day advertising something called LazyTruth [link]. It’s a plug-in for Chrome that automatically scans email for information that FactCheck.org and Politifact have deemed false. If something doesn’t check out, it’ll provide a few words of correction and a link to where you can find out more. You can then easily pass that verified information on to the crazy uncle or friend who forwarded the email to you in the first place. Down the road, the developer plans to add more kinds of rumors to LazyTruth’s filter — urban myths, hoaxes, false security threats, etc. — but for now the tool is limited to political tall tales.
As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’ve been very concerned about the loss of journalism–real journalism that deals with verifiable facts about actual events that matter in a democratic system, that gives us the information we need to keep our government and other institutions accountable. These signs that we may be groping our way toward new ways of obtaining the facts we need are incredibly encouraging. The return of respect for actual facts rather than desirable fabrications is more than welcome.
I think I’ll call it “the Silver Effect.”