Wednesday 30 October 2013

Questioning the location of Macclesfield: the curse of fact checking


It was one of those Sunday lunchtime family discussions, the ones that gradually descend into pointless row. And for reasons lost in the mist of time the question of Macclesfield's location arose.

"Macclesfield's in Cheshire."

"No, Macclesfield's in Greater Manchester."

For a minute or two the discussion continues in this vein. I stomp from the room pick up the atlas, find the relevant page and point to the map.

"There you are! Macclesfield is definitely in Cheshire."

A momentary hiatus in the discussion.

"No, the boundaries have changed since that map was published. Macclesfield is now in Greater Manchester."

The discussion continued, now escalated into a row about people who don't believe things even when they're up to the elbow in a spear wound.

Today, in our political discourse we have become obsessed with facts. Or rather with a thing called "fact checking". Rather than engage with reasoned argument we resort to Google and crawl all over the offending comments seeking an error.

At one level this is yah boo - "you've got a date wrong so everything else you say has to be wrong". Or worse still minor grammar errors or a misspelling are fingered - "you can't even write English, why should I believe anything you say."

At another level the correcting of facts is more relevant  - what we might call the 'Location of Macclesfield' question. This might be an understandable confusion between 'income' and 'earnings', a mix-up over two numbers (say illegal immigrants and asylum seekers) or using out-of-date information such as an earlier rate for minimum wage or some or other benefit.

Now it may be the case that one of other of these errors invalidates the argument being made (Macclesfield is in Greater Manchester) but the simple identification of the error isn't enough. You have to demonstrate that, with this error corrected, the argument no longer stands (Macclesfield is in Cheshire). If the argument still stands then the corrected error is just that, a corrected error and not a deal breaker.

"Proving" that someone is wrong by pointing out errors in their facts is great fun if you're the sort of person who doesn't mind getting into a stupid row about the location of Macclesfield ("guilty as charged m'lud") but, as the basis for political discourse it's only a marginal improvement on "I'm right and you're wrong". Sadly, in this data-rich age it is easier to crawl over something looking for what might be errors of fact than it is to engage with the actual argument being made.

Finally, we should remember that facts are selected. We don't use all the facts in this game, just the facts that suit our argument (and, more to the point, the other person's errors that suit our argument). The result is unedifying, often rude and seldom gets us closer to the basis for disagreement. It may well be the case that poverty has risen in the USA. Or indeed it may not be the case that this is so. What I know is that we can engage in a spat about facts without getting any closer to answering the actual question!

And Macclesfield is in Cheshire!



asquith said...

I wouldn't wade into such an argument if I weren't 100% sure of the facts. I know Macclesfield is in Cheshire. But if there were the slightest uncertainty of something in my mind, why risk humiliation by pressing a point that might be wrong? Baffling.

I often see a closely related phenomenon, the ultimate example of which is here:

My view of this issue is:
a. He is wrong to say coding only appeals to "weirdos": I haven't the slightest interest in it myself, but I've got every respect to those who do.

b. His substantial argument is right.

And some people have been so upset by his slurs that they've ignored what he said. I think the premise is right and coding shouldn't be mandatory in schools. Others consider it wrong. But why not engage with the premise of the article rather than an unfortunate choice of words that he probably already regrets?

That is what happens when a typo or stray words are pounced upon. Used repeatedly, it can indicate carelessness, but it doesn't immediately discredit an argument, however upset it may make someone.

Pam Nash said...

A family arguing about something that doesn't actually affect them in any way - it was ever thus ��