03/13/14: Facts aren’t optional

This op-ed appeared in The Virginian-Pilot on the date shown.

RONALD REAGAN paraphrased John Adams when he said, “Facts are stubborn things.” Adams had continued: “whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Have you noticed the proliferation of fact-checkers? At one time, to check the veracity of the latest breathless email from cousin Joe, you’d turn to Snopes.com  . While it’s still the largest in terms of the topics covered, other sources have emerged that provide a similar service.

One area where fact-checking has exploded is in the political arena. Politicians and political groups are prone to make statements that sometimes stretch credibility.

Fact-checking has become big business. Not only do we have websites covering national politicians and issues, such as FactCheck.org  , but we also have sites covering state and local. The largest of these is PolitiFact, a project of the Tampa Bay Times. It has expanded to 10 states, including Virginia. Some newspapers, such as The Washington Post, have set up in-house fact-checking operations.

Why has fact-checking become so widespread? Perhaps it is because playing loose with facts has become the norm, an adherence to the Albert Einstein model: “If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.”

I think we’ve come to expect that politicians and advocacy groups will, given the opportunity , change or simply ignore facts that don’t support their position.

But it doesn’t stop there. Opinions appear daily that deliberately distort or ignore the facts. Intellectual honesty requires that one set aside personal beliefs and present facts in an unbiased manner. In other words, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” as Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is reported to have said.

So if the politicians and advocacy groups cleaned up their acts, and those offering their opinions did the same, would the need for fact-checking go away? Hardly. Because we are part of the problem, too.

One of my favorite parts of FactCheck.org has to be the section called “Party Lines,” which looks at misleading political talking points of both political parties.

Talking points are the latest corollary of the Big Lie: repeat something often enough and people will believe it. Don’t let the facts get in the way.

As observers, we filter everything lest we come face-to-face with something that contradicts our beliefs. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. We limit our exposure to things that threaten what we already believe. In doing so, we minimize our risk of cognitive dissonance, another psychological term.

We are willing to believe the distorted “facts” rather than suffer the mental stress and discomfort of examining the veracity of our own beliefs.

If anything eliminates the fact-checkers, it will be attacks on them. Not because they aren’t right, but because we disagree with their conclusions. That’s not to say that fact-checkers are always right because they aren’t; after all, they are human. But in combination, we can use them to ascertain the real facts — and act accordingly. A little discomfort now and again isn’t a bad thing.

Perhaps Malcom X said it best: “Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as a new experience and new knowledge unfolds. I have always kept an open mind, a flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of the intelligent search for truth.”