Fact-checking, and another “Who Said That?”

One of my previous job titles is “fact-checker.” Yes, I checked facts. Instead of doing my own writing, I read what other people had written, checked their sources, consulted other sources, corrected wrong information, and made sure the company would publish something that was accurate and reliable. The writers were paid five cents a word. I was paid an hourly rate. I probably earned more checking facts than the writers earned for their work.

When I was in college, one of the assigned texts that every student read was a small book, How To Lie With Statistics. I checked amazon this morning and saw that the book is still available. Its only fault is that the examples all date from the 1950s. Aside from that, the book is wonderfully readable and extremely helpful. The title is, of course, a joke. The book does not teach the reader how to lie with statistics; it shows how other people lie with statistics and teaches the reader how to evaluate the data that others use to prove their points.

For example: on another blog last week a commenter asserted that 91 percent of scientists are atheists and 97 of biologists are atheists. I refrained from commenting (not wanting to enter the conversation), but I had many significant questions to ask. Who conducted the survey? How did they choose their respondents? How did they define atheism? The numbers quoted are so incredible (meaning unbelievable) that the survey is almost certainly skewed.

Perhaps they surveyed science professors in secular European colleges and universities. Perhaps the survey was conducted through a periodical whose readers are mostly secular scientists. Perhaps the survey was mailed in a package that Christians and Jews and Muslims would be likely to disregard. For that matter, perhaps the survey was designed to lump agnostics and deists into the category of atheists. If they intended from the start to demonstrate that most scientists do not believe in God, they had several ways to achieve that goal, and more than likely they used all of them.

A fact-checker like me easily becomes a curmudgeon (and when I place a post in the category “curmudgeon,” you can be sure I am not taking myself very seriously). Inaccurate information rankles me. A few years ago I was part of a trivia contest conducted as a fundraiser for a Christian camp. One of the first questions was, “Who wrote the poem that begins, ‘I think that I shall never see a poem lovely as a tree’?” The correct answer is Joyce Kilmer, but the judges of the contest insisted that the author was James Joyce. I shrugged off the mistake and continued in the competition that evening, but I have not returned to the annual event since that year. (This paragraph actually belongs in Saturday’s post, but it slipped my mind then as I was writing.)

Some of my crabbiness probably stems from being done with winter and ready for spring. Some comes from stress helping my daughter deal with a broken phone, a broken car, difficulty at her workplace, and the last semester of college. Some stems from hope and uncertainty about my own future. I appreciate the patience and support of all of you. J.