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3:48 pm
Sun April 29, 2012

If A Fact Dies In The Forest, Will Anyone Believe It?

Originally published on Sun April 29, 2012 4:04 pm

According to columnist Rex Huppke, there was a recent death that you might have missed. It wasn't an actor, musician or famous politician, but facts.

In a piece for the Chicago Tribune, Huppke says facts – things we know to be true – are now dead.

Huppke says the final blow came on Wednesday, April 18, when Republican Rep. Allen West of Florida declared that about 80 members of the Democratic Party in Congress are members of the Communist Party.

"That was the death-blow for facts," Huppke tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

One call to the Communist Party USA confirmed that this was, in fact, not true. According to them, no one in the U.S. House of Representatives is a member of the Communist Party. Days later, Allen West stood by his comments.

So that led Huppke to the idea that if someone of any political party can say something so patently untrue and stand by it — which seems to happen more and more often, he says — then facts must be meaningless and dead.

"[Facts are] survived by rumor and innuendo, two brothers, and then a sister, emphatic assertion," he says. "They're all grieving right now, but we wish the best for them."

There's another sibling that may be too busy thriving to grieve. Comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" as the notion that truth doesn't lie in books and facts but rather, in your gut. If Huppke is right and facts are indeed dead, perhaps Colbert's satire is our reality. Where does that leave those of us seeking the truth?

If Facts Are Dead, How About Fact-Checking?

Bill Adair is the editor of PolitiFact, a website run by a team of seasoned journalists that checks facts made by members of Congress, the White House and interest groups. Despite Huppke's obituary, he tells NPR's Raz that the market for fact-checking remains strong.

"Whether the fact has actually died or is just on its death bed, I think it means it's a great time to be in the fact-checking business," Adair says, "because there are just so many questions about what's accurate and what's not."

PolitiFact's fact-checking process is long and arduous. The team spends a lot of time researching whether a fact is true, half-true or not at all true, then posts their findings to the site. When it's over, however, the team at PolitiFact — and even some Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists — can't always convince people what is true.

Adair often gets emails accusing them of being biased, but he says he's not sure who they're supposed to be biased in favor of because they get criticized a lot by both sides.

"I think that's just the nature of a very rough-and-tumble political discourse," he says. "We are in a time when there's more political discourse than ever ... and when you hear somebody say your team is wrong, almost like a referee, you're going to argue with the ref. You're going to say the ref is biased."

The 'Backfire Effect'

Increasingly, people don't just say the referee is biased, they say the referee is outright lying.

Dartmouth political scientist Brendan Nyhan, and a colleague of his, Jason Reifler, conducted an experiment where they had people read a mock new article about President George W. Bush.

The article quoted Bush as saying his tax cuts increased government revenue, which is false. Some of the participants were then given a second article that had a correction: it said the Bush tax cuts actually led to a decline in tax revenue, which is true.

Those who opposed President Bush were more prone to believing the second article, while those who supported Bush, even after reading the second corrected article, were more likely to believe the first.

Nyhan calls this phenomenon the "backfire effect," and it affects people of all political stripes.

"In journalism, in health [and] in education we tend to take the attitude that more information is better, and so there's been an assumption that if we put the correct information out there, the facts will prevail," Nyhan says. "Unfortunately, that's not always true."

In some cases, giving people corrective information about a misconception can make the problem worse, Nyhan says. That's the "backfire effect," and it can make them believe in the misconception even more strongly.

While there have been times of less polarization among political elites, Nyhan says there has never been a golden age of factual agreement. People have always believed incorrect things, but what has changed is the way our society is structured.

"That trend toward polarization has exacerbated this divergence in factual perceptions, to the point that it seems like we've lost something," he says.

It's simply too hard to walk back misconceptions once they're out in the wild, Nyhan says, whether put there by political elites or another source. If there was a greater reputational price to pay for putting falsehoods out there, he says, perhaps there would be fewer of them in the first place.

"That, to me, is a difficult problem, but certainly an easier one than trying to change human nature," he says, "which is what you're talking about when you try to talk about convincing people. It's just too difficult most of the time."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

In a few moments, a check in with our correspondent in South Sudan as tension mounts with its northern neighbor. And later, remembering the L.A. riots 20 years ago today.

But first to our cover story today. And it begins with sad news of a death. Rex Huppke, a columnist with the Chicago Tribune, broke that news this past week, and that's when I spoke with him.

Thank you for being with us during this difficult time, Rex.

REX HUPPKE: I appreciate that. Thanks.

RAZ: Tell us about the deceased.

HUPPKE: Well, facts, unfortunately passed away Wednesday, April 18th.

RAZ: Facts, of course, is not a person; facts are things we know to be true. And Rex Huppke says in this day and age, facts are dead.

HUPPKE: The final blow came after Representative Allen West down in Florida declared that about 80 Democratic congresspeople were communists. That was the deathblow for facts.

RAZ: Just a review, if you missed that story. Rex Huppke is talking about some comments Republican Allen West, a congressman from Florida, made recently at an event where he was asked how many members of Congress were card-carrying Marxist or international socialists. And here's what he said.

REPRESENTATIVE ALLEN WEST: I believe there's about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party who are members of the Communist Party.

RAZ: Seventy-eight to 81 members of the Democratic Party are members of the Communist Party, he says. Now, what's amazing about that clip is that people in the audience gasped. They audibly gasped because they cannot believe what he has just said is true. And, of course, it's not.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you for calling the Communist Party USA.

RAZ: We called up one of the vice chairs of the Communist Party USA.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: For media inquiries or interviews, please press three.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEP)

RAZ: Libero Della Piana. What percentage of the U.S. House of Representatives, of the members there, what percentage of them are card-carrying members of the Communist Party?

LIBERO DELLA PIANA: That would be a zero.

RAZ: Zero.

PIANA: Yeah.

RAZ: Not a single one.

PIANA: No.

RAZ: Do you still - do you distribute cards to your members?

PIANA: Not so much. We have them, but most members don't get a card when they join.

RAZ: So not a fact on two counts. There are no communists in the U.S. House of Representatives, but Allen West said so, and he even stood by those comments.

So anyway, that's what led Rex Huppke to this idea that if someone of any political party can say something so patently untrue and stand by it, which seems to happen more and more often, then facts must be meaningless. Dead. Who is facts survived by?

HUPPKE: Survived by rumor and innuendo, two brothers, and then a sister, emphatic assertion.

RAZ: Well, we're going to explore that idea and find out if facts are dead, what happened, and are they gone forever? We're going to start with someone Rex Huppke spoke to when he was writing his obituary: NYU Professor Mary Poovey. He called her up last week, and he said he was writing an obituary for facts. Well, what did you think?

MARY POOVEY: I thought it was high time. I think facts died a long time ago, and it's taken people quite a while to notice.

RAZ: Now, Mary Poovey should know. She literally wrote the biography on facts. It's called "A History of the Modern Fact."

POOVEY: Facts are very old. The concept of a fact goes back to Aristotle, but it wasn't really until the early 17th century that facts began to be used in the sense that we think of facts, which has to do with observable concrete particulars in the real world. Francis Bacon was important for getting people to think about facts as what you could see and eventually what you could measure or count.

RAZ: In other words, science.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: All rock that is formed by fire is called igneous.

RAZ: Maybe you remember those kinds of facts, but Mary Poovey says that's all they are: memories. And here's how it happened.

POOVEY: I think the first thing that contributed to that was the gradual emergence of mathematical modeling using quantification in mathematics to create a new kind of truth, one that couldn't be observed but could only be modeled.

RAZ: And that's probably why so many people keep asking economists, why couldn't you tell us what was going to happen?

POOVEY: That's right. And, of course, economics was one of the disciplines that used that notion, but it's now used very widely in making statements about climate or making statements about the future of your health care costs and so on. Then I think something else began to happen in the - when the Internet made it possible for people to air opinions and to make those opinions seem as credible as scientific truth claims.

RAZ: I mean, when Francis Bacon was revising and essentially defining our modern understanding of facts, Gutenberg was also revolutionizing print technology. So you would think that facts would be constantly challenged - under challenged.

POOVEY: Well, certainly, facts have always been contested. There's no doubt about that. But there's always been relatively high barriers to getting into print. It was a fairly expensive technology. And that means that print, ironically, carried the power to authenticate facts as much as it carried the power to undermine or contest facts.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIAL TONE)

RAZ: And so today, with a lot more contested facts floating around, there's a pretty modern job - organizations where all they do: check facts. Please go ahead and introduce yourself, Bill.

BILL ADAIR: Sure. I am Bill Adair. I am the editor of politifact.com.

RAZ: Have you guys thought about changing your name to just Politi?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ADAIR: I think whether the fact has actually died or is just on its deathbed, you know, it's a great time to be in the fact-checking business because there are just so many questions about what's accurate and what's not.

RAZ: In a small office here in Washington, D.C., Bill Adair and some colleagues are on a conference call, answering one of those questions.

ADAIR: Does the speaker prove the claim to be true?

RAZ: Today, they're fact checking a graphic being posted on Facebook. It lists the top five donors to both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns.

ADAIR: All right. Any edits?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I could have one...

RAZ: It is a long and arduous process. Now, when everyone agrees whether the claim is true or half-true or not at all, they post the result on their website. But the point is even when it's over, the people who run Politifact - these are journalists with stellar reputations, even Pulitzer prizes - even they can't always convince people what is true, what is a fact.

ADAIR: What's funny is sometimes I'll get an email that'll say you guys are so biased, but I won't know who we're supposed to be biased in favor of because we get criticized a lot by both sides. And I think that's just the nature of a very rough and tumble political discourse. We are in a time when there's more political discourse than ever, it's more passionate than ever, we have a more polarized Congress than ever.

And when you hear somebody say your team is wrong, almost like a referee, you're going to argue with the ref. You're going to say the ref is biased.

RAZ: But there's a problem. Increasingly, people don't just say the ref is biased; they say the ref is lying. A political scientist named Brendan Nyhan and a colleague of his, Jason Reifler, conducted an experiment where they had people read a mock news article about President George W. Bush. The article quoted Bush as saying his tax cuts increased government revenue. And then some of the participants were given a second article, this one with a correction. It said the Bush tax cuts actually led to a decline in tax revenue.

Now, those who opposed President Bush were more prone to believing the second article, which happened to be true. Those who supported Mr. Bush? Well, even after reading the second corrected article, many were even more likely to believe the first. And Brendan Nyhan, who carried out the research, calls this phenomenon backfire, and it affects people of all political stripes.

BRENDAN NYHAN: In journalism, in health, in education, we tend to take the attitude that more information is better, and so there's been an assumption that if we put the correct information out there, the facts will prevail. But unfortunately, that's not always true. In some cases, giving people corrective information about a misperception can make the problem worse. It can make them believe in the misperception even more strongly. And this is what we call the backfire effect.

RAZ: Can you describe a period of time, in the political realm, let's say, where everybody agreed on a set of facts but just sort of, you know, had a difference of philosophy?

NYHAN: You know, I don't think there is this golden age of factual agreement. It's certainly true that in the mid-20th century, the political leads in this country were much less polarized than they are now, and so people weren't getting these sharply divergent cues about what the relevant facts were. But people have always believed incorrect things. Human nature hasn't changed. What's changed is the way our society is structured. And that trend towards polarization, I think, has exacerbated this divergence in factual perceptions to the point that, you know, it seems like we've lost something.

RAZ: Let's talk about something that Stephen Colbert has coined - this phrase truthiness. Right? When he launched his show in 2005, he coined this term truthiness.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE COLBERT REPORT")

STEPHEN COLBERT: Truthiness.

RAZ: Which seems to capture all of these things that we're talking about.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, 'THE COLBERT REPORT")

COLBERT: Because that's where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen, the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your stomach than in your head? Look it up. Now, somebody's going to say I did look that up and it's wrong. Well, mister, that's because you looked it up in a book.

NYHAN: I think one of the things that's great about that is the idea of something feeling true. So in a lot of pieces, what you see are ideological actors, think tanks, pundits and so forth, manufacturing the appearance of verisimilitude, right? So things that appear to be scientific. So if you watch negative ads now, they frequently have documentation at the bottom to make them look authoritative, even though that documentation itself may be misleading.

RAZ: So I guess the question is, where - I mean, where is this all headed? It seems like what you're saying is we are just headed or we are in a factless world.

NYHAN: Well, it's simply too hard to walk back misperceptions once they're out there. To give you one example, the weapons of mass destruction misperception stuck around for years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. You know, a lot of the action here is at the elite level. If people pay a reputational price for putting these claims out there, maybe there'll be fewer of them in the first place.

That, to me, is a difficult problem but certainly an easier one than trying to change human nature, which is what you're talking about when you try to talk about convincing people, you know, at the mass level to change their mind. It's just too difficult most of the time.

RAZ: Brendan Nyhan. He is a professor at Dartmouth, and he also covers New Hampshire politics for the Columbia Journalism Review. And you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. And that's a fact. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.