Hoping Fact-Checkers Will Be Believed

Fact checking must be counted among the many victims of this election season (others include political prognosticators and professional campaign advisers/fundraisers). PolitiFact judged 15 percent of Donald Trump’s statements as True or Mostly True, while 51 percent of his pronouncements were False or “Pants on Fire” False. Trump earned fifty-nine “four Pinocchio” ratings from the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, compared with seven for Hillary Clinton. Trump won the election anyway.

Last month, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin offered up a solution: think tanks. “In an era of ‘fake news,’ with a president-elect who regularly lies and partisan hacks who dispute that there are such things as ‘facts,'” she wrote, “think tanks seem more important than ever.” She called on think tanks to author more joint studies, for example “a joint project confirming Russian attempts to interfere with our and our allies’ elections” and to convene more panels featuring a broad spectrum of views, including by inviting colleagues from other institutions to speak. She even called out the Cato Institute.

Rubin is certainly correct that our collective inability to sort out truth from fact is a major problem. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that it’s at the core of what is tearing this country apart. Alas, I’m not sure that her solution will work.

In the eyes of many, the major news organizations, including newspapers such as Rubin’s Washington Post and the New York Times, and many leading public intellectuals, were, and have been all along, thoroughly in the tank for Hillary Clinton. Others, including many reliably conservative writers and publications, from George Will to the Wall Street Journal and National Review, came out strongly against Trump, or against many of his proposals. That undermines their authority as objective referees of fact versus fiction.

So, in our current state, who is the arbiter of actual truth from mere speculation? What institution or person can help us sort out what is true or false? Answer, no one. So everyone merely asserts, and people believe who and what they want to believe.

Indeed, increasingly it seems that a fact is only believed as such if it advances one’s preconceived notions.         If a seemingly perfectly normal guy from North Carolina can become convinced that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta were running a child sex-slave operation in the tunnels beneath a pizza joint in Northwest D.C., and to believe it so strongly that he traveled to D.C. in search of said tunnels, gun in hand, then any similarly mentally fit person in American could come to believe equally absurd things.

Confirmation bias is a feature of human cognition. Convincing people to accept unsettling things as truth is difficult. It’s even harder when these inconvenient truths are detrimental to their well-being and livelihood.

I am skeptical that joint think-tank fact checking will fix the phenomenon of people believing what they want to believe. But since I don’t have any alternative suggestions, and I’m not ready to change careers just yet, I guess I have to believe (or at least hope) that it will.