Getting our facts right

By Tim Phillips
Wed 17th April 2019 | Blog

When reading The Economy, are you intrigued by our claim that “white people who think that being white is important to getting ahead strongly support redistribution to the poor,” and want to find out more? Maybe you are sceptical that Thriller, by Michael Jackson “is the best-selling music album in history”. Or do you just wonder how we discovered that ocean freighters carrying commodities move at 33 km per hour?

Whether you want to go deeper, think we got our facts wrong, or just want the source, we recommend the CORE Fact Checker. In The Economy we made at least 2,107 disprovable statements, not counting theoretical work, figures and data. We know that’s a lower bound, because that is how many we recently gave to our fact-check interns to follow up.

Sometimes there was evidence for more than one interpretation (for example, historical dates) and so we made a judgement about which was reasonable. Occasionally they came back to us with corrections, which we made. Most of the time they reported that the text was accurate. Now we have made the links and sources that they found available to you, section by section, on our Fact Check page.

Why accuracy matters

Why do this? As Wendy Carlin and Sam Bowles pointed out in an article about how CORE changes the paradigm for introductory economics, we have tried to value and incorporate the insights and prior work of philosophers, political scientists, historians, and biologists, as well as of a wide range of economists, to help understand how prices, wages and interest rates and the degree of inequality are determined, and how the aggregate economy functions. We also start each unit by investigating the world around us before we reach for theory.

So, put simply, there’s more to check than in most economics textbooks. And if we build our explanations on a foundation of empirical data, we need to report those observations as fairly as we can.

A fact-checking culture

As fact-checking organisations like Full Fact or point out, checking our sources enhances both the potential for reasoned debate, and confidence in the institutions that generate and use knowledge. It is also a form of self-discipline. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a writer, has praised the role of fact-checkers in preventing writers from making unsustainable claims:¹

“[F]act-checkers serve as a valuable check to prevent writers from lapsing into the kind of arrogant laziness which breeds plagiarism and the manufacture of facts … a culture of fact-checking, of honesty, is as important as the actual fact-checking.”

One of the reasons we created CORE was that the theories taught in economics courses don’t always match what either economics teachers, or their students, can see on the news or in their homes. The empirical data on the effect of a minimum wage (section 19.8) is one example of this.

Who did the checking?

We first blogged about our fact-check interns in early 2018, and the heroic efforts of Stanislas Lalanne (“Factcheck Stan”) to check our first drafts. For the final text, Stan was helped by Adam Nadzri, György Ruzicska, and Clemens Blab, who shared the job of creating the database that you are using when you access the Fact Checker. They built on previous work done by Victoria Manning-Monro in an earlier version, using a fact-checking method that we first used for our beta versions.

Fact-checking has the reputation of being a tedious and repetitive task, but our interns found it also had a creative side (though, we note, none of them disagreed that it had been hard work).

“Fact-checking is a great way to correct your biases. At first you think it will be easy, but confirming even a single line of historical information can take a lot of effort.” Adam recalls, “So I have become more sceptical. When someone quotes a fact now, I tend to ask for the sources. And when you have experience of fact-checking, you know which sources you can rely on.”

Clemens agrees that experience as a fact-checker has made him more sensitive to the nuances of the economics he had studied. “As a student, you have read the books but you are not always aware of what’s in the background, where those ideas came from,” he says, “It’s like seeing an economic model and not thinking about the assumptions behind the equations.”

Adam is currently working for the Employees Provident Fund in Malaysia, helping to make policy recommendations. He says that his experience as a fact-checker has “made me more careful and conservative what I recommend, especially when I know it impacts the livelihoods of a lot of people.

“Now I ask myself: am I cherry-picking facts? Can I rely on these numbers? It’s something I constantly think about.”

Creative debunking

In publishing our checks, we have also made it easier for you to point out any factual errors that have slipped through. We hope there are none but, if you find one for us, we consider it a good thing because then we can fix it. We are constantly crowdsourcing improvements from all of you.

So if you think we have our facts wrong, let us know. As John Maynard Keynes said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”²

¹ Coates is quoted in this entertaining introduction to fact-checking published by Quartz.

² A rare example of fact-checking humour: there is no evidence that Keynes ever said this.