By Daniel Rigney
A factoid is a statement that has the look and feel of a fact even when it is demonstrably false. The campaign speeches of Mitt Romney and the spincasts of Fox News have been studded with false or misleading factoids this political season, including false predictions of the outcomes of the November elections. Dick Morris's notorious announcement of an impending "Romney landslide" keeps coming to mind.
Some factoids, however, may in fact be factual. In the wake of the recent elections, NYT blogger Nate Silver’s election forecasts, for instance, have turned out to be closely in line with actual vote counts. Silver has proven his mettle once again as a member of the reality-based community – a veritable gold standard of analysis and prognostication.
Yet in the weeks preceding the election, many on the right dismissed Silver’s gold in favor of the more Republican-friendly tin forecasts of the Rasmussen poll and the Drudge Report.
No wonder Republicans were surprised by the outcome of the recent election. They failed to fact check their own factoids.
In fairness to the right, those of us on the center-left should be equally scrupulous in our vetting of facts. Here are some examples of factoids about prominent GOP leaders that stand in desperate need of verification.
Is it really the case, for example, that Donald Trump belonged to the college fraternity Sigma Phi Nothing? And is it true that his hair was the chapter mascot? We shouldn’t make claims of this sort, however plausible they may seem, without first doing some serious fact-checking.
Is it true that Karl Rove lives in an alternate universe in which Ohio had a Republican majority on election day? If so, how would we fact-check that claim? Not the claim about Ohio. That fact is in. I mean the claim that Karl Rove is not from the planet Earth as we know it.
Have you seen Rove’s Earth certificate? Or Trump’s, for that matter? I certainly haven’t. Someone needs to look into these things.
And while we’re checking facts, can someone please check preliminary reports that the Republican bridge to the 19th century has collapsed under the weight of the coal-fired locomotive of a Tea Party express train? Many careers are feared lost in the unexpected disaster, and massive sums of dark money will be needed to rebuild the party’s infrastructure.
If these aren’t true facts, we shouldn’t report them as such. Not every claim or factoid that sounds true passes the Veritas test.
I hope all you journalism majors and Young Republicans out there are taking notes. Your future may depend on the depth and quality of your relationship with reality.
Bonus question: Is our relationship with reality relevant to our reporting and understanding of climate change? Is nature itself the final fact checker?