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September 8th, 2020 (Permalink)

Why You Need to be Able to Check Facts

This is the first entry in a new occasional series on how to check facts. In this introduction, I explain why such a series may be useful.

You might wonder why such a series is needed, given the existence of fact-checkers in the media: Don't they make sure that the facts are right before publishing? In addition, there are independent fact-checking groups: Won't they check anything that gets past the news media fact-checkers?

There are two types of institutional fact-checking: pre-publication and post-publication. Pre-publication checking is done by checkers hired by an author or publication before a work is published or broadcast. Post-publication fact-checking is primarily the job of the groups mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Assuming that I've now convinced you that learning to check facts for yourself is a valuable intellectual self-defense skill, you might think of getting ahold of one or both of the fact-checking books I've already cited in the notes, below. I don't mean to discourage you from doing so, but both were written by professional fact-checkers for fellow professionals, rather than for us amateurs. While there are some useful pointers in them, they are disappointingly unhelpful for the amateur, which is why some guidance specifically aimed at non-professionals may be useful.

I am not, nor have I ever been, a professional fact-checker, but this series is not intended for the pros, though perhaps even they could benefit from it. Rather, it is by an amateur, for amateurs. Amateur fact-checking differs from the professional kind in four main ways:

  1. Trivia: The professionals are often concerned with minutiae, such as exactly how people's names are spelled, and a great deal of their time and effort is devoted to phoning people to check such things. This is because one sure way to make people angry is to misspell their names, and the only sure way to check the spelling is to ask them. As an amateur, there is no reason to be concerned with such trivia, and checking facts will seldom involve using the phone. The facts we amateurs need to check are the important ones.
  2. Libel: An important concern of fact-checkers who work for authors or periodicals is the possibility of libel. As a result, the pros need to check claims that may be libelous, and one fact-checking guide has a whole chapter on libel law8. As an amateur, you're neither the author nor publisher of the claims you are checking, so you needn't worry about whether they are libelous. What you want to know is are they true.
  3. Plagiarism: Another worry for the professional but not the amateur is the possibility of plagiarism. There have been several prominent scandals in the past few decades involving plagiarism, and publishers are therefore worried about it. As a consequence, works for the professional will discuss plagiarism, what it is and how to detect it9. However, who made a claim first is really not the amateur's concern, but whether it is true or false.
  4. Tact: An important aspect of professional fact-checking is getting along with the authors and editors one has to deal with, and this may involve a lot of negotiation10. Thankfully, we amateurs don't need to worry so much about stepping on people's toes, except perhaps if you want to get an author or publication to correct or retract an article.

For the above reasons, publications aimed at professional fact-checkers are usually of limited value for the amateur, hence this proposed series of entries. Questions that future entries will attempt to answer include the following: Just what is a fact? What's the difference between a fact and an opinion? What's the difference between a fact and a value? Which facts are checkable and which are not? How can you tell when a supposed "fact" needs checking? Why should you develop your own plausibility detector, and how do you do it?

Fact-checking is too important a task to leave to the professionals.


  1. Sarah Harrison Smith, The Fact Checker's Bible: A Guide to Getting it Right (2004), pp. 29-32; hereinafter "Smith".
  2. Brooke Borel, The Chicago Guide to Fact-Checking (2016), p. 6; hereinafter "Borel".
  3. Emma Copley Eisenberg, "Fact Checking Is the Core of Nonfiction Writing. Why Do So Many Publishers Refuse to Do It?", Esquire, 8/26/2020.
  4. Stephanie Fairyington, "In the era of fake news, where have all the fact-checkers gone?", Columbia Journalism Review, 2/23/2018.
  5. Sarah Harrison Smith, author of The Fact Checker's Bible, was a fact-checker at The New Yorker; see Smith, p. i.
  6. Who Will Fact-Check the Fact-Checkers?, 7/30/2020
  7. "Snopes is the internet's definitive fact-checking resource.", Snopes, accessed: 9/8/2020.
  8. Smith, chapter 6.
  9. Smith, pp. 87-95 & Borel, pp. 88-89.
  10. Smith has an entire chapter on this: chapter 3; but Borel has only a short section: pp. 57-58.

September 1st, 2020 (Permalink)

Prussian Roulette, Game 2*

If you survive a game of Prussian roulette consisting of two rounds, those wily Prussians will suggest that you play a second game, also consisting of two rounds. However, this time, the two bullets will be inserted into non-adjacent chambers in the revolver.

Your chance of surviving the first round of this game is unchanged from the previous one. Just as in the first game, if you survive the first round you'll be offered the choice of spinning or not spinning the cylinder for the second round. Should you accept a spin in this game, should you decline a spin, or doesn't it matter?

Extra Credit: What are your chances of surviving a game of this version of Prussian roulette if you choose to spin the cylinder on the second round, and if you choose not to spin it?

* For the first game, see: Prussian Roulette, 8/3/2020

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