FactCheck.org's Brooks Jackson on Overcoming Motivated Skepticism

Once upon a time, before the age of the Internet, we lived in a world of "many economists." If a newspaper reporter was writing a story on inflation, for instance, he or she would call up a number of experts and relay their comments -- not just via quotes -- in an article: "Many economists think inflation is likely to rise in the near future." In other words, we lived in a world where reporters and their editors were the only link between sources and readers. And what were we, the readers, to make of what we read? For the non-expert at least, we could choose to trust it or not, and that was about it.

There is a danger of automatically distrusting anything said by people in authority.

Fast forward to the present. Those articles still get written, of course, but the dynamic between reader, author and source has drastically changed. If I want to know what economists think about an issue, I can go straight to their blogs. The benefits of this wealth of expert information are so obvious that I won't dwell on them here. But the arrangement presents its own challenges.

By now you may have heard that there is a lot of false or misleading information on the Internet. So your first challenge as a reader is knowing where to look. That may seem easy enough, but it's complicated by a second issue: We have a stubborn tendency to seek out and accept information that conforms to our existing worldview.

A number of articles and books have already been written about the dangers of the Internet in these regards. But while it has subverted many of the traditions of journalism, the Internet has arguably led to the rediscovery of one of its most crucial processes: fact-checking. In the midst of an explosion of opinionated writing, a new class of online arbiter has emerged, led by sites like PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org.

These sites have become invaluable sources of information about controversial political matters. Perhaps more interestingly, the methods they rely on to sort fact from fiction may serve as a guide to our own efforts to determine reliability as we filter information online.

With that in mind, I spoke with FactCheck.org Director Brooks Jackson over e-mail about the process he and his team use in their work.

While some of the claims Factcheck.org examines are relatively simple, you and your team don't shy away from complex issues. For instance, you did multiple analyses of President Obama's stimulus package. Taking on some of the claims meant wading into some heavy-duty economics. How did you decide to take that on? Do you have economists on staff at Factcheck.org?

We have no economist, or budget to hire one. I've covered economic subjects off and on in Washington for a long time, though. As for deciding to take on a subject -- when the public is subjected to conflicting claims -- the case here -- we seek out the best information we can find to prise out the facts. In this case, the stimulus was the biggest issue of the day for a long time. We try to take on whatever people are wondering about.

In Febuary 2009, Factcheck Wire ran a post outlining disagreements between economists on the stimulus, and deferring on the question of whether or not it would work. Your September 2010 analysis is more confident in its assessment of the bill's job impact. How did your team's approach to analyzing the stimulus evolve over that time?

As we noted in Feburary, at that time economists had very little data. Six months later there was more data available. Also, the CBO had weighed in. We give great weight to CBO analysis because they are scrupulously nonpartisan, they have great expertise (I'm told there are 150 Ph.D.'s on staff, and many economists.) It's important to note that we make no attempt at independent economic analysis on our own -- that's beyond our resources and expertise. What we can do is seek out the best sources of neutral analysis and lay it out for our readers in understandable terms.

Appeals to authority are tricky enough, but part of the debate over the stimulus also required weighing different models of the economy as well as different "schools" of macroeconomic thought. What kind of challenges did these factors present?

We don't try to pick which estimate is right -- we just note the range of credible expert opinion. About all we can say is that there's no doubt the stimulus spending created jobs (contrary to some silly utterances by some Republicans) but we can't be sure how many, or it's a matter of opinion as to whether they were worth the expense.

In your analysis of the stimulus, you cite the Congressional Budget Office. Ezra Klein has written about how the healthcare reform battle may have damaged the CBO's reputation, and has accused Republicans of trying to discredit "the last truly neutral, truly respected scorekeeper in Washington." Is that threat real?

CBO has certainly been attacked by some Republicans who did not like its findings. Does that mean its reputation is damaged? I'm not sure I agree. So far as I can see it still labors as honestly and skillfully as ever to give Congress an accurate picture of the likely budget consequences of proposed legislation.

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Walter Frick is a Staff Writer at BostInno covering technology and venture capital. He has also written for The Atlantic, Nieman Journalism Lab, and The Energy Collective, among other publications.

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