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As a Matter of Fact: Accuracy Vs. Authority

As a Matter of Fact: Accuracy Vs. Authority

During the last presidential election, the Washington Post was working on implementing an automatic real-time fact-checking system for political speeches. Stories about this have a sort of breathless, world-of-tomorrow kind of feel to them (“a Shazam for truth,” as an executive producer from the Post calls it), though tinged with serious questions about the technology, the approach, the relevance, and the challenges.

Verifying the “Facts”

What is only hinted at is the information literacy angle, which we know is critical to any attempt to “validate” or “verify” facts. It immediately reminded me of a class exercise in which I ask students to independently check a variety of things found in the World Almanac. It starts benignly, asking for alternative lists of birthstones—which are numerous, mainly from a variety of jewelry associations, all understandably trying to sell gems.

They then work on other examples, exploring the “official,” if almost certainly imprecise, election vote totals, trying to determine who actually measures the world’s longest railway tunnels and whether anybody other than MLB.com can be definitive on all-time homerun leaders (no, though the Hall of Fame plaque for Negro Leagues star Josh Gibson mentions his “almost 800”).

Consider the Source

More potentially fraught are questions of how many homeschooled students there are, what kinds of organizations and institutions are interested in that question, and what their various and likely competing motivations might be. By the time my students get to “some notable new books for children,” courtesy of ALA’s Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), and the delicately titled table “Examples of Genocides Since 1900” with its very large and very round numbers and no sources whatsoever, a number of furrowed brows and scrunched looks appear around the room.

The point of the exercise is mainly about how we typically substitute authority for accuracy because it’s easier to figure out. The second point, not very far beneath the surface, is, “What’s a fact?” Trivially, if my birthstone is opal rather than aquamarine, who really cares? But shouldn’t Josh Gibson get credit if he really hit more home runs than Barry Bonds, asterisks notwithstanding? Couldn’t very different numbers, perhaps based on different definitions of homeschoolers, potentially affect public perception, professional practice, and policy questions? And if my genocide is your war of liberation, how does one properly record and memorialize that?

Is there an app for that? Not yet.

It’s fascinating to contemplate how one might work and how that would affect political coverage, not to mention daily life. If Guinness World Records was meant to prevent pub fights, what would a made-up factoid lead to? Who knows what the state of the art on factual interpretation will be by the next election, not to mention views on marijuana and marriage . . . but that’s another story.

(Editor’s Note: A version of this article was originally published in American Libraries Magazine.)

About Joe Janes

Joe is interested in how information and information resources work, what they are for, what they do and what they tell us about the human condition. In addition, he has a focus on libraries, how they work, how they change, how they have evolved, and what we can learn and adopt from previous practice, blended with new and exciting ideas, to keep libraries of all kinds vital, necessary and important parts of their communities. He teaches courses in information sources and services, in search, in research methods and statistics, and on the use of Internet technologies in librarianship. Associate Professor Janes holds the MLS (1983) and PhD (1989) from Syracuse University.

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