(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘fact

“Facts are facts and will not disappear on account of your likes”*…

This artist rendering provided by the European South Observatory shows some of the 32 new planets astronomers found outside our solar system

… That said, some facts may morph out from under us. In consideration of “in-between” facts:

When people think of knowledge, they generally think of two sorts of facts: facts that don’t change, like the height of Mount Everest or the capital of the United States, and facts that fluctuate constantly, like the temperature or the stock market close.

But in between there is a third kind: facts that change slowly. These are facts which we tend to view as fixed, but which shift over the course of a lifetime. For example: What is Earth’s population? I remember learning 6 billion, and some of you might even have learned 5 billion. Well, it turns out it’s about 6.8 billion.

Or, imagine you are considering relocating to another city. Not recognizing the slow change in the economic fortunes of various metropolitan areas, you immediately dismiss certain cities. For example, Pittsburgh, a city in the core of the historic Rust Belt of the United States, was for a long time considered to be something of a city to avoid. But recently, its economic fortunes have changed, swapping steel mills for technology, with its job growth ranked sixth in the entire United States.

These slow-changing facts are what I term “mesofacts.” Mesofacts are the facts that change neither too quickly nor too slowly, that lie in this difficult-to-comprehend middle, or meso-, scale. Often, we learn these in school when young and hold onto them, even after they change. For example, if, as a baby boomer, you learned high school chemistry in 1970, and then, as we all are apt to do, did not take care to brush up on your chemistry periodically, you would not realize that there are 12 new elements in the Periodic Table. Over a tenth of the elements have been discovered since you graduated high school! While this might not affect your daily life, it is astonishing and a bit humbling.

For these kinds of facts, the analogy of how to boil a frog is apt: Change the temperature quickly, and the frog jumps out of the pot. But slowly increase the temperature, and the frog doesn’t realize that things are getting warmer, until it’s been boiled. So, too, is it with humans and how we process information. We recognize rapid change, whether it’s as simple as a fast-moving object or living with the knowledge that humans have walked on the moon. But anything short of large-scale rapid change is often ignored. This is the reason we continue to write the wrong year during the first days of January.

Our schools are biased against mesofacts. The arc of our educational system is to be treated as little generalists when children, absorbing bits of knowledge about everything from biology to social studies to geology. But then, as we grow older, we are encouraged to specialize. This might have been useful in decades past, but in our increasingly fast-paced and interdisciplinary world, lacking an even approximate knowledge of our surroundings is unwise.

Updating your mesofacts can change how you think about the world. Do you know the percentage of people in the world who use mobile phones? In 1997, the answer was 4 percent. By 2007, it was nearly 50 percent. The fraction of people who are mobile phone users is the kind of fact you might read in a magazine and quote at a cocktail party. But years later the number you would be quoting would not just be inaccurate, it would be seriously wrong. The difference between a tiny fraction of the world and half the globe is startling, and completely changes our view on global interconnectivity.

Mesofacts can also be fun. Let’s focus for a moment on some mesofacts that can be of vital importance if you’re a child, or parent of a child: those about dinosaurs. Just a few decades ago, dinosaurs were thought to be cold-blooded, slow-witted lizards that walked with their legs splayed out beside them. Now, scientists think that many dinosaurs were warm-blooded and fast-moving creatures. And they even had feathers! Just a few weeks ago we learned about the color patterns of dinosaurs (stripes! with orange tufts!). These facts might not affect how you live your life, but then again, you’re probably not 6 years old. There is another mesofact that is unlikely to affect your daily routine, but might win you a bar bet: the number of planets known outside the solar system. After the first extrasolar planet around an ordinary star made headlines back in 1995, most people stopped paying attention. Well, the number of extrasolar planets is currently over 400. Know this, and the next round won’t be on you.

The fact that the world changes rapidly is exciting, but everyone knows about that. There is much change that is neither fast nor momentous, but no less breathtaking.

Introducing the mesofact: “Warning- Your reality is out of date,” from Samuel Arbesman (@arbesman) who went on to develop this notion in a wonderful book, The Half-Life of Facts. Via @inevernu who notes that the above article, which ran in 2010, contains examples of mesofacts that have already changed again– illustrating Arbesman’s point…

* Jawaharlal Nehru


As we noodle on knowledge, we might recall that it was on this date in 1642 that the first American college commencement ceremony was held at Harvard College. It was North America’s first taste of non-religious ritual– and was designed to send a clear message to England that its American colonies were a going concern. Still, of the nine seniors graduated, three soon crossed the Atlantic the other way, one to serve as a diplomat for the rebellious Oliver Cromwell and another to study medicine in Italy.

Apropos the piece above, the curriculum followed by those graduates was rather different– was filled with different facts– than those of classes in later centuries.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 23, 2021 at 1:00 am

“There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact”*…

Distortions and outright lies by politicians and pundits have become so common that major news outlets like the Associated Press, CNN, BBC, Fox News,and Washington Post routinely assign journalists and fact-checkers to verify claims made during stump speeches and press briefings. The motivation to uncover falsehoods and misleading statements taken out of context is laudable. But when it comes to real-world complexities, the trouble is that people often see different things when looking at the same event, a phenomenon repeatedly documented by psychologists.

Laboratory studies reveal that, when shown a video of a group of protesters, people see either a peaceful protest or an unruly mob blocking pedestrian access, depending on their sociopolitical beliefs. The world outside the lab shows similar biased perception: For example, 68 percent of Republicans consider the videotaped demonstrations in Portland, Ore., Kenosha, Wisc., and New York City to be riots, versus only 30 percent of Democrats, according to a Fox News poll released in September. Journalists and fact-checkers are human beings subject to the same psychological biases as everyone else—and their analyses of what constitute “facts” is affected by their own political and ideological values, resulting in what psychologists term selective perception.

Fact-checkers’ decisions have significant consequences for debates about fake news that cannot be overstated. Researchers have studied the cascading cognitive effects of misinformation, and their findings are relevant to current concerns about fake news and to the limitations of fact-checking. Misinformation can be insidious; it can seep into the unconscious mind and influence beliefs and behaviors long after we have forgotten its source or the evidence invoked to support it. Under laboratory conditions, a selection of objective facts and complete fabrications can be presented, and researchers can then examine the spread of misinformation about these facts and whether and how this spread results in false beliefs.

Unlike a pristine laboratory setting, however, the world of politics is messy, and there can be deep disagreements about the facts themselves, as the above contradictory claims illustrate. When it comes to partisan fact-checking about complex issues—which describes much of the fact-checking that takes place in the context of political news—the truth as stated is often the subjective opinion of people with shared political views.

One path to a solution is “adversarial fact-checking.” Fact-checking is often done by teams of two or more journalists rather than by a single person. We propose that political claims continue to be aggressively fact-checked, but by teams of individuals with diverse sociopolitical views; for example, by pairing fact-checkers from major liberal and conservative news sources. This would add little, if any, cost. The media should abandon fact-checkers’ pretext of objectivity and political disinterest and instead acknowledge their sociopolitical leanings in much the way that NPR tries to pit pro and con points of view in political coverage…

Having each side’s fact-checkers checked by the other side’s fact-checkers could lead to an infinite regress toward an uncertain truth. But this is preferable to belief in a truth that may not exist. Adversarial fact-checkers would debate the same “evidence” and ensure a balanced presentation of the facts. This may not guarantee that fact-checkers will agree or even that readers will discern the truth. But it will reveal the sometimes-tenuous nature of fact-checkers’ claims and the psychological context in which human cognition unfolds—and this would be a meaningful barrier to the spread of fake news and the creation of false beliefs among voters.

One notes that the Hegelian suggestion above assumes that fact-checkers from each side would be actively seeking to overcome their personal biases, to determine an “objective” truth… that only unconscious– not conscious, weaponized– biases are the issue.

Still, it’s certainly true that at least some fact-checkers aim to get closer to the truth, even as their biases can shroud the very truth they seek: “The Psychology of Fact-Checking.”

* Sherlock Holmes, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Boscombe Valley Mystery”


As we clean our lenses, we might recall that it was on this date in 1517– All Hallows (All Saints) Eve– that Martin Luther, a priest and scholar in Wittenberg, Germany, upset by what he saw as the excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church (especially the papal practice of taking payments– “indulgences”– for the forgiveness of sins), posted his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church.  Thus began the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther (source)

Lest in this this pandemic-attenuated moment we forget: today, All Hallows (All Saints) Eve, is celebrated as Halloween, which is (if it is, as many scholars believe, directly descended from the ancient Welsh harvest festival Samhain) the longest-running holiday with a set date… and (usually, anyway) the second-biggest (after Christmas) commercial holiday in the United States.


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