How Can We Check Facts? (by Guest Blogger Matthew Mollgaard)

mollgaardAs I was watching the documentary “Waiting for Superman” I felt something was wrong. There were many statements in that documentary that seemed to conflict with other readings from our class. I also noticed some suspect use of statistics and a distinct lack of citations that caused me to doubt what I was watching.

This is an ongoing motif in our class conversations. Education and reform are very charged political topics. There are many special interest groups with different values invested and competing. It can be difficult to test the truth value of any statement, on such an opinion charged topic.

For example, this Huffington Post blog, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/leonie-haimson/factchecking-waiting-for-_b_802900.html ) has done some research and has called into question one of the movies central points, that fewer teachers get fired, per capita, then either doctors or lawyers.

Waiting for Superman claimed ” …in Illinois, 1 in 57 doctors loses his or her medical license, and 1 in 97 attorneys loses his or her law license, but only 1 teacher in 2500 has ever lost his or her credentials.”

Fallacy of false equivalence aside, these numbers are simply not true. The article that I linked to, not only explains that the numbers are un-cited, but also contradicted by real data from around the nation.

Another article, (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2010/nov/11/myth-charter-schools/?pagination=false ) also claimed the documentary was misleading. The article says “The annual Gallup poll about education shows that Americans are overwhelmingly dissatisfied with the quality of the nation’s schools, but 77 percent of public school parents award their own child’s public school a grade of A or B, the highest level of approval since the question was first asked in 1985.”

However, although The Huffington Post is a leading news agency, they are known for leaning left, and the article linked above is to one of their blogs. How can we be certain they are not also trying to fool us? I want something more reliable than a blog vs. blog showdown.

 

Here are two questions that keep me up at night:

  1. How can we navigate through (fact check) such biased and politically charged information?
  2. Is there any way we can remove the political agenda from education and reform, and look at the situation objectively?

 

 

 

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7 thoughts on “How Can We Check Facts? (by Guest Blogger Matthew Mollgaard)

  1. My training is primarily in history and historical research. This training takes the viewpoint that there is no such thing as bias-free information. Even so-called “hard facts” are biased to a certain degree through virtue of having to choose what data to gather and the design of the gathering process. I think, in many ways, public policy based information has the same sort of selection and process filter biases. One historiographical methodology is to become as aware as possible of the inherent biases and then look at reliable data (reliable is an entirely separate can of worms, granted) with opposing biases in an attempt to synthesize a balanced view. This method does not absolve one of the responsibility to “fact check”, but offers some hope of arriving at a relatively bias neutral result.

    • I agree with Andy.

      As nice as it would be to lay all biases aside and look simply and directly at what is, human beings are literally incapable of being truly objective about anything. However, this does not excuse – in my opinion – the exaggeration of facts to push ANY agenda. Even if that agenda is as dear to our hearts as the future of our children, I still don’t appreciate any level of dishonesty. It lessens the integrity of an otherwise worthy cause.

  2. Those are two tough questions I’m not even sure I can answer….but I’ll try!
    For the first, the problem with statistics is it looks at numbers instead of going into a classroom or calling up someone to truly find out is going on. Also, so many different studies out there and they all look at different places in the United States, are done at different times (like 2007 versus 2012). It’s hard to ever get the exact poll on something. If you want to compare data you have to look at when the data was collected and where (also, by whom? Sometimes people are bias about their data).
    For the second, the best way is to look at children’s improvement instead of the government looking at the statistics of their reading/writing/science/math tests. That is how the government looks and sees our educations, they completely disregard the effort of the children.

  3. I think to navigate through all of this bias opinion and what they are calling “fact”, would be hard to do like Lindsey is saying. But I think exactly what you did with checking the facts from the movie and running them against more data it the best way to shift through all of the mess. The key would be finding a reliable source, or from what I hear the best experiment is the one that can keep being retested. So you could always go out and run your own test to find out the truth. And I am not to sure that you could really separate the political agenda from schooling. Because the schools are partly paid for by the government, and if they are paying for something I’m sure they want to have a say in what goes on.

    (Side note, Love the star trek sweater)

  4. To answer your first question, I think critical thinking is a much needed skill in society that unfortunately many people seem to lack. Critical thinking is a valued skill by employers, practitioners, researchers, etc. because critical thinkers can find the flaws and biases in information and can objectively get straight to the point. I personally think there are a number of politicians that refuse to use or acknowledge this skill in public and tend to mislead information for a politically driven motive. In answering your second question, I don’t think we should completely remove the political agenda because it is more or less needed to influence an objectively sound idea that may be beneficial for education reform; however, conflict in political agendas or alternative motives can be problematic to society.

  5. This general problem, how do we check the truth value of a political statement, has been bothering me more than usual. I have been attempting to write a response, but I couldn’t seem to find anything worth saying. There are some excellent points made in the comments above. I have been reflecting on this question, and although I haven’t found an answer, I have focused the dilemma a bit.
    My thoughts on this are a bit long, but I don’t think I could say it in fewer words. Even as long as this post has become, I feel it is too short and skips over important points. But oh well… here goes!
    Callie expressed my position very well. I also think it is inexcusable for someone to use embellishment to strengthen their position, or weaken someone else’s. When anyone uses these tactics, it is a dead giveaway that their position is weak. But when both sides use these tactics, who am I left to trust?
    Steven is absolutely right when he emphasizes the importance of checking facts, but this is where I run into trouble. I know how to check a scientific fact. My education in integrated science has given me an understanding of the larger science community and how science, as a process, works. It depends on the integrity of both individuals and multiple institutions. If a scientist were to use the same sorts of tactics that we are seeing during this national debate, the larger scientific community would instantly disregard whatever claim is being made.
    Even bunk science becomes easy to spot after a while. Occasionally a lie is dressed up into a lab report and published as if it were a science journal. It is not too much trouble to deal with these. Usually, what I will do is consider the weight of the implications of the study, and compare it to the type and amount of evidence gathered to reach this conclusion. If the implications are big, the evidence must also be big. If new research overturns established science, then the new evidence must weigh as much, or more, than all the evidence used to justify the old ideas. This requires a basic understanding of the subject, which most Americans don’t have.
    Next, I will likely search the National Academy of Sciences, other international academies, and top tier journal publications such as Science and Nature. I will look for said study, or similar studies. These institutions depend on their reputation for integrity, and have a historically clean track record. Over the past few decades, there has been a substantial effort by big tobacco and big oil to produce bad science in an attempt to downplay the dangers of the products they sell. These science institutions have, so far, been immune to this special interest money. These agencies work hard to identify and denounce fraud fraud.
    The final step in this fact checking process is to wait ten years. Occasionally a new study comes out, and it is not immediately apparent what the truth is. All I need to do is wait five or ten years. Sooner or later more research will either refute, or reinforce the study in question. As time goes on, the evidence supporting a correct theory will grow and grow and grow. When the pile of evidence become a mountain (that continues to grow), I am ready to be convinced.
    Now we come back to my dilemma. This fact checking process described above does not apply when dealing with politically charged topics.
    First of all, unlike scientists, political figures do not depend on integrity. I regularly catch both the left and the right using manipulative rhetoric to convince me of their agenda. In this age, it seems it is the only option. Someone might have something very important to say, but if they cannot sum it up in eight words or less, it will not be heard by the general public. If they fail to use the talking point strategy, an opposing news agency will spin the story by taking a single phrase out of context. Even good politicians, who would love to be honest and longwinded, cannot break away from this necessary evil.
    In this clip, Jon Stewart is being interviewed on “Cross Fire.” Notice how careful he is to only use short talking points. This way he is able to deliver his message to the audience, despite both hosts trying to shut him down.
    The next problem is this: I do not have a basic understanding of the reality of US politics. I neither have a degree in political science, nor in history. I have a layman’s understanding, but that is another way of saying I have no understanding at all. All I have to work with are the talking points that trickle out of the news, and a bunch of hearsay from other laymen. I do not have a body of knowledge to compare a new statement too. I am unequipped to identify a statement as being reasonable or outlandish. I am also highly suspicious of anyone claiming to have a clear understanding of US politics. Andy hit on this point rather well. When it comes to history, politics, and media, there is no such thing as unbiased information.
    And finally, there is no test of time. These issues are happening today, and we cannot wait ten years. Every year there is a political war between two (constantly shifting) ideals. We cannot wait for ten years’ worth of data before talking about Iran’s nuclear program. We cannot wait for ten years’ worth of data when trying to understand the NSA. We cannot wait ten years for the evidence on charter schools to add up. These are issues that need to be discussed today.
    So where does that leave us? I, for one, feel defeated, which is why this post was so difficult to compose. My current strategy is to keep my head in the sand, and keep the weight of the world off my shoulders. I try hard not to give myself migraines. I am but one man, and I do not have the strength to sort the truth out of all this rubbish. I can only do my best to be a good science teacher, and hope that we, as a nation, are able to have this collective conversation, and move in the right direction.
    If you have any answers or thoughts on any of these questions, please share them with me. I am all ears.
    Matthew Mollgaard
    P.S. If anyone would like to read more about the importance of scientific integrity, please ready this excellent commencement speech given by Richard Feynman.

  6. This general problem, how do we check the truth value of a political statement, has been bothering me more than usual. I have been attempting to write a response, but I couldn’t seem to find anything worth saying. There are some excellent points made in the comments above. I have been reflecting on this question, and although I haven’t found an answer, I have focused the dilemma a bit.

    My thoughts on this are a bit long, but I don’t think I could say it in fewer words. Even as long as this post has become, I feel it is too short and skips over important points. But oh well… here goes!

    Callie expressed my position very well. I also think it is inexcusable for someone to use embellishment to strengthen their position, or weaken someone else’s. When anyone uses these tactics, it is a dead giveaway that their position is weak. But when both sides use these tactics, who am I left to trust?

    Steven is absolutely right when he emphasizes the importance of checking facts, but this is where I run into trouble. I know how to check a scientific fact. My education in integrated science has given me an understanding of the larger science community and how science, as a process, works. It depends on the integrity of both individuals and multiple institutions. If a scientist were to use the same sorts of tactics that we are seeing during this national debate, the larger scientific community would instantly disregard whatever claim is being made.

    Even bunk science becomes easy to spot after a while. Occasionally a lie is dressed up into a lab report and published as if it were a science journal. It is not too much trouble to deal with these. Usually, what I will do is consider the weight of the implications of the study, and compare it to the type and amount of evidence gathered to reach this conclusion. If the implications are big, the evidence must also be big. If new research overturns established science, then the new evidence must weigh as much, or more, than all the evidence used to justify the old ideas. This requires a basic understanding of the subject, which most Americans don’t have.

    Next, I will likely search the National Academy of Sciences, other international academies, and top tier journal publications such as Science and Nature. I will look for said study, or similar studies. These institutions depend on their reputation for integrity, and have a historically clean track record. Over the past few decades, there has been a substantial effort by big tobacco and big oil to produce bad science in an attempt to downplay the dangers of the products they sell. These science institutions have, so far, been immune to this special interest money. These agencies work hard to identify and denounce fraud fraud.

    The final step in this fact checking process is to wait ten years. Occasionally a new study comes out, and it is not immediately apparent what the truth is. All I need to do is wait five or ten years. Sooner or later more research will either refute, or reinforce the study in question. As time goes on, the evidence supporting a correct theory will grow and grow and grow. When the pile of evidence become a mountain (that continues to grow), I am ready to be convinced.

    Now we come back to my dilemma. This fact checking process described above does not apply when dealing with politically charged topics.

    First of all, unlike scientists, political figures do not depend on integrity. I regularly catch both the left and the right using manipulative rhetoric to convince me of their agenda. In this age, it seems it is the only option. Someone might have something very important to say, but if they cannot sum it up in eight words or less, it will not be heard by the general public. If they fail to use the talking point strategy, an opposing news agency will spin the story by taking a single phrase out of context. Even good politicians, who would love to be honest and longwinded, cannot break away from this necessary evil.

    In this clip, Jon Stewart is being interviewed on “Cross Fire.” Notice how careful he is to only use short talking points. This way he is able to deliver his message to the audience, despite both hosts trying to shut him down.

    The next problem is this: I do not have a basic understanding of the reality of US politics. I neither have a degree in political science, nor in history. I have a layman’s understanding, but that is another way of saying I have no understanding at all. All I have to work with are the talking points that trickle out of the news, and a bunch of hearsay from other laymen. I do not have a body of knowledge to compare a new statement too. I am unequipped to identify a statement as being reasonable or outlandish. I am also highly suspicious of anyone claiming to have a clear understanding of US politics. Andy hit on this point rather well. When it comes to history, politics, and media, there is no such thing as unbiased information.

    And finally, there is no test of time. These issues are happening today, and we cannot wait ten years. Every year there is a political war between two (constantly shifting) ideals. We cannot wait for ten years’ worth of data before talking about Iran’s nuclear program. We cannot wait for ten years’ worth of data when trying to understand the NSA. We cannot wait ten years for the evidence on charter schools to add up. These are issues that need to be discussed today.

    So where does that leave us? I, for one, feel defeated, which is why this post was so difficult to compose. My current strategy is to keep my head in the sand, and keep the weight of the world off my shoulders. I try hard not to give myself migraines. I am but one man, and I do not have the strength to sort the truth out of all this rubbish. I can only do my best to be a good science teacher, and hope that we, as a nation, are able to have this collective conversation, and move in the right
    direction.

    If you have any answers or thoughts on any of these questions, please share them with me. I am all ears.

    Matthew Mollgaard

    P.S. If anyone would like to read more about the importance of scientific integrity, please ready this excellent commencement speech given by Richard Feynman.

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