Sources for Fact-Checking:
Primary, Secondary & Tertiary
If you've identified a factual claim that you want to check, how should you do it? In the previous entry*, we saw that a factual claim is checked against the facts that either show it to be true or to be false. To do this, you need to find a source or, preferably, sources of the facts. There are three kinds of source that you can use to check factual claims, categorized on the basis of how close they are to the facts:
- Primary Sources: These sources are primary because they are the closest to the facts. In some cases, the source closest to the facts is you and your own senses. Suppose that you feel a draft and wonder whether the window is open. Then, the factual claim that you want to check is: "The window is open." To check whether this statement is a fact, you can look at the window and see whether it's open. However, in most research, you won't be in a position to check a claim directly with your own senses. Instead, you must rely upon the reports of others who are or were in such a position, that is, eyewitness reports.
Example: Suppose that we're dealing with a murder mystery. Then, an obvious primary source would be an eyewitness to the crime. So, if you happened to see the crime take place, your senses would be your primary source of evidence. However, if you were not yourself a witness, other witnesses would be your primary sources. In addition, any photographic or audio recording of the crime would be a primary source. Finally, any other direct evidence found at the scene of the crime, such as fingerprints or the murder weapon, would also be primary sources.
Primary sources are the strongest type of evidence, but that doesn't mean they're infallible. Even eyewitness reports are notoriously fallible. So, just because you find a primary source does not mean that you're finished fact-checking, even if that source is your own eyesight. Whenever possible, check multiple primary sources against one another.
Example: Suppose that you're not an eyewitness to the crime, but someone else is. Then, you're going to want to interview the eyewitness, or at least get access to a firsthand report by the witness or a recorded interview. However, don't forget that witnesses are often mistaken. If there is more than one witness then you need access to the others as well. If multiple eyewitnesses disagree with each other, then you'll know that you cannot rely solely on eyewitness evidence; in contrast, if more than one witness agrees, you'll have much stronger evidence than if you must rely on only a single one.
One problem with some primary sources is that they may be difficult for a layman to understand, so you may need an expert witness to examine and explain it. For instance, specialized knowledge is needed to understand such primary sources as fingerprints or ballistic evidence. This is one reason why you may need the second type of source:
- Secondary Sources: A secondary source is one that's not itself a primary source, but based on primary sources. For this reason, secondary sources are often useful in research by pointing you to the primary sources. Another advantage that secondary sources often have over primary ones is that they may be based on more than one primary source. A single primary source may be biased or limited in its perspective, whereas a secondary one may be able to draw on multiple primary accounts.
Example: In the case of the murder mystery, a news report on the crime would count as a secondary source, assuming that the reporter was not an eyewitness. If the journalist has done a good job, the report will be based on at least one primary source, such as an interview with an eyewitness. If more than one witness or other primary source is consulted, the stronger will be the evidence provided by the report.
As mentioned above, one type of secondary source is the expert witness needed to interpret some primary sources of evidence. Evaluating expert sources raises special issues of its own that should be addressed in a future entry.
Unfortunately, many news reports are not based on witnesses or other primary sources; instead, they may be based on nothing more than rumors. Sometimes journalists rely on anonymous sources, making it impossible to evaluate whether the source is firsthand, secondhand, or just rumor. In such cases, news reports should not count as secondary sources, since they're not known to be based on primary sources. For such sources we need a third category:
- Tertiary Sources: A tertiary source is one that's not a secondary source, but based on secondary sources. For instance, most reference works, such as encyclopedias, will rely on secondary rather than primary sources. Similarly, textbooks are usually written based on the secondary literature, rather than going back to primary sources. Primary sources come first in strength of evidence, but tertiary sources are in most cases the first ones you should consult.
Example: If the murder mystery were important enough, it might be used as a case study in a textbook on crime, or have an entry in a reference work. Such an entry should include information on the primary sources of evidence, such as eyewitnesses, as well as secondary sources for the interpretation of technical evidence, such as the report of the medical examiner who examined the victim's body.
The farther a source is from the event or topic in question, the weaker it will tend to be as evidence. So, primary sources provide the strongest evidence, and tertiary ones the weakest. However, finding the primary sources can be difficult. If you can find one, start your fact-checking with a good reference work that gives an overview of the topic and includes pointers to primary or secondary sources. Good research starts with tertiary sources, but only superficial research ends there.
* Earlier entries in this series on fact-checking:
- Why You Need to be Able to Check Facts, 9/8/2020
- Fact-checking Vs. Nit-picking, 10/20/2020
- Four Types of Misleading Quote, 11/27/2020
- News Sources Vs. Familiar Quotations, 12/4/2020
- Rules of Thumb, 1/2/2021
- A Case Study, 2/4/2021
- Reliable Sources, 3/2/2021
- What is a fact?, 3/2/2021
2020 Hindsight, Part 3
In part 1, we saw a phony Nostradamus prediction of the coronavirus epidemic1, and in part 2, we looked at some alleged Nostradamus predictions for last year that didn't come true2. This month, let's turn to a genuine quatrain by Nostradamus that has been interpreted in hindsight as predicting the epidemic of 20203. The quatrain in question is II-65, that is, the 65th poem in the second book of Nostradamus' Les Propheties. Here it is, together with the English translation quoted in the article4:
Le parc enclin grande calamité.
Par l'Hesperie & Insubre fera:
Le feu en nef peste et captivité,
Mercure en l'Arc Saturne fenera.
In the feeble lists, great calamity
Through America and Lombardy.
The fire in the ship, plague and captivity;
Mercury in Sagittarius, Saturn warning.
Before considering the interpretation of the poem, let's look at the English translation by Erika Cheetham. Even if you've no knowledge of French, let alone the French of Nostradamus' time, you'll notice that the French version of the word "America"―namely, "Americh" in the Old French spelling used by Nostradamus5―does not appear in the original. Instead, "America" is Cheetham's interpretation of the word "Hesperie", which is the French version of the Latin word "Hesperia". "Hesperia" came from a Greek word meaning "western land", which was used by the Greeks as a name for Italy, which is west of Greece. The Romans used their version of the word to refer to Spain, which was to their west. So, an accurate translation of "Hesperie" would be "western land"6.
Now, America is to the west of France, but translating "Hesperie" as "America" is an interpretation masquerading as a translation. Spain, is also west of most of France as is England. Such tendentious translation is one of the ways in which Nostradamus interpreters mislead English-speaking readers, who will probably not compare the translation to the original.
Another questionable translation is "le parc enclin" as "feeble lists". The author of the article touting this quatrain as a prediction of the coronavirus epidemic thinks that "feeble lists" refers to "the sick and the dead"3. However, "parc" appears to mean much the same as "park" in English, especially one intended for hunting; and "enclin" is similar to English "inclined". Thus, Edgar Leoni translates "le parc enclin" as "the sloping park"7, and Henry Roberts as "the park inclineth"8. I suppose that Cheetham may have been using "lists" in the sense of "inclines to one side", usually used of boats, but where she got "feeble" I don't know. At any rate, I see no connection between an inclined or listing park and the epidemic.
Once you remove the questionable translations, the only things left in this quatrain that suggest the coronavirus epidemic are "peste et captivité", that is, "plague and captivity", with the captivity referring to quarantines and shutdowns. However, plagues are favorite subjects of prophecies, with Nostradamus speaking of "peste" or "pestes" in 26 quatrains, and they are frequent occurrences throughout human history. Moreover, quarantines are nothing new in the history of epidemics, though there are only two quatrains among the Les Propheties that use the word "captivité"9. What reason is there to connect this poem to this epidemic and not another?
Perhaps the astrological information in the last line of the quatrain may allow us to determine when the "peste et captivité" are supposed to take place. The article author claims: "Mercury entered Sagittarius in December 2019, which is when the first cases of coronavirus occurred, and Saturn moved into Aquarius on March 21, right as New York City was going into lockdown.3" Where did Aquarius come from?
The last word of the poem, "fenera", seems to be obscure, making it unclear what it is that Saturn is supposed to be doing. Cheetham translates it as "warning", but her translations are often doubtful, as we've seen. Leoni translates the phrase as "Saturn will fade"7, and Roberts as "Saturn shall wither"8. They seem to be taking "fenera" as a form of the Old French word "fener" which literally meant "to make hay", but in the phrase "se fener" meant "to fade, wither, wax deadish, or decay"10. I don't know how Cheetham got "warning" out of this, nor what Aquarius has to do with it.
The article's author relies on Cheetham's translation of the poem, but makes no mention of what Cheetham herself writes about the last line: "According to Wöllner the next date for this configuration is 7th December 2044, the last being 1839"11. I don't know enough astrology to confirm or deny this, and I'm not sufficiently interested to learn it, so I'll just have to take the mysterious Wöllner's word for it.
In any case, it appears that either the plague predicted in the poem happened in 1839, or it won't happen until another 23 years have gone by. I may not be around on 12/7/2044, but if I am I'll add an update.
- 2020 Hindsight, 3/10/2021.
- 2020 Hindsight, Part 2, 4/2/2021.
- Rae Alexandra, "Perhaps Nostradamus Predicted Coronavirus After All…", KQED, 4/6/2020. Thanks to KQED, a public television station, for wasting our tax money on this junk.
- Nostradamus, The Prophecies of Nostradamus, translated, edited & introduced by Erika Cheetham (1981).
- Nostradamus uses this word only once in Les Propheties, see: X-66.
- Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable, edited by Ivor H. Evans (Centenary Edition, Revised, 1981).
- Edgar Leoni, Nostradamus and His Prophecies (1982).
- Nostradamus, The Complete Prophecies of Nostradamus, translated, edited & interpreted by Henry C. Roberts (New Revised Edition, 1982).
- I used the following online edition to check the frequency of these words: Nostradamus, The Compleat Works of Nostradamus, accessed: 5/2/2021.
- See: Randle Cotgrave, A Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues (1611), under "Fener".
- Op. cit. I don't know who Wöllner is, and that name is not in the book's index.