You can’t fact-check the fu­ture

Just be­cause we don’t like an opin­ion doesn’t mean it’s wrong

The Hamilton Spectator - - LOCAL - PAUL BERTON

If some­thing doesn’t sound right, we ques­tion it. This is dozens of times a day.

A re­cent col­umn by Hamil­ton writer Ryan McGreal on the web­site Raise the Ham­mer de­clared The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor “no longer factchecks op-ed sub­mis­sions” af­ter a change in pol­icy.

I am aware of no pol­icy change. This news­pa­per, like most oth­ers, has never em­ployed fact-check­ers the way mag­a­zines have, but it is in­cor­rect to claim we don’t vet sub­mis­sions. In­deed, that is what ed­i­tors do. Granted, like most other news­pa­pers, we have fewer ed­i­tors to­day, but we do not print ob­vi­ous false­hoods. And we cor­rect our er­rors.

Like all news­pa­pers, we check dates, fig­ures, events, ad­dresses, per­son­al­i­ties, ti­tles, al­le­ga­tions, the spell­ing of names ...

If some­thing doesn’t sound right, we ques­tion it. This is done dozens of times a day.

As a for­mer mag­a­zine writer, I know the dif­fer­ence be­tween edit­ing and fact-check­ing:

If a writer says “it was a dark and stormy night,” a news­pa­per ed­i­tor ac­cepts it, un­less the story also de­scribes a lun­cheon meet­ing on a pa­tio.

A mag­a­zine fact-checker, on the other hand, will check the phase of the moon (was it re­ally that dark?) search me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal re­ports (how much pre­cip­i­ta­tion?), call the weather of­fice (was it a bona fide storm? What was wind speed?), and even ask oth­ers to ver­ify it (did you hear any thun­der?).

If a writer says some­one was driv­ing “a sil­ver Chevy,” an ed­i­tor ac­cepts that as the truth, whereas a fact-checker will re­search the make and model: Did you mean “Heather Grey?” Or “Gun­metal Ice?”

Yes, it can be painful and some­times ridicu­lous. Such a fact-checker would have a field day with the piece by McGreal, a writer and ed­i­tor for whom I have a great re­spect.

Nei­ther a fact-checker, nor an ed­i­tor, how­ever, can check ev­ery­thing.

For ex­am­ple, most ed­i­tors ac­cept that 97 per cent of sci­en­tists be­lieve hu­mans cause cli­mate change, but we don’t nec­es­sar­ily dis­count those who ques­tion as­sump­tions.

Nor would we nec­es­sar­ily ig­nore politi­cians who op­pose adding flu­o­ride to tap wa­ter, no mat­ter how wacky it might seem to us.

McGreal’s real beef is our de­ci­sion to print opin­ion sub­mis­sions op­pos­ing LRT for Hamil­ton, ar­ti­cles he de­scribes col­lec­tively as “a painful mess of bla­tantly false claims, ar­gu­men­ta­tive fal­la­cies and down­right bad writ­ing.”

It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing Galileo was tried by the In­qui­si­tion and im­pris­oned for sim­i­lar bla­tantly false claims and ar­gu­men­ta­tive fal­la­cies. He said plan­ets re­volved around the sun, when all other sci­en­tists in­sisted ev­ery­thing re­volved around the Earth.

The Spec­ta­tor has of­fi­cially, fre­quently and vo­cif­er­ously sup­ported light rail tran­sit for Hamil­ton from the be­gin­ning. I per­son­ally en­dorse this $1-bil­lion project, but I take the long view.

It is a vir­tual cer­tainty that in the short term, LRT will be viewed, some­times le­git­i­mately, as a fi­nan­cial, eco­nomic, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial de­ba­cle — as all megapro­jects in­evitably are. The tri­umph may not be re­al­ized for years; the even­tual pay­off never fully un­der­stood.

Mean­while, it is as con­ceiv­able LRT will be ob­so­lete and old-fash­ioned by the time it’s com­pleted as it will be the wise saviour of our de­vel­op­men­tal, eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal woes.

No amount of fact-check­ing can see into that fu­ture.

Paul Berton is ed­i­tor-in-chief of The Hamil­ton Spec­ta­tor and thes­pec.com. You can reach him at 905-526-3482 or pber­ton@thes­pec.com

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