Fact-Checking is Fatal to Science

Misinformation is commonly construed as the opposite of information. But information and misinformation aren’t related the way public discourse suggests they are.

The common view

Experience in how scientific information is made suggests that the difference between misinformation and information is tenuous. Scientists make science bit by bit, by saying lots of slightly wrong things all the time, often even completely wrong things, and diligently adjusting them.  If we take “misinformation” to mean “wrong, incomplete, messy or somehow imperfect information“, then, in science, there is no information without misinformation being worked on. If there was a ban on saying wrong or messy things, then scientists (and science) would be among the first to suffer. They would lose their job which would stop existing. Good information just doesn’t get produced without saying wrong and messy things.  So wherever there is scientific information you can be sure there also is the ability to work with misinformation: the ability to challenge it, to contextualise it, to reformulate it, to compare it, to decompose it, to substantiate it, to update it, to complete it, to refine it, to ditch it, to replace it, to recycle it … Without those abilities, misinformation is not the problem. The problem is the wrong – unable – hands it’s in.

The scientific reality

The norm in science is misinformation being meticulously processed and improved using a battery of analytical tools. This is why science is so successful: on a given question, it either has nothing to say or it’s ahead of the game in terms of misinformation management. Because of this lead, scientific information can be described as the most exquisite and cutting edge misinformation you can find at any point in time.

Let's not pretend it's so clear

It’s unclear that there can even be information without misinformation, nor that we can rid our information spaces of misinformation without as well suspending use of the analytical tools with which slightly inaccurate information gets processed.

In short, in terms of logic:

science ⇒ misinformation

If you have science, then you necessarily have misinformation, i.e.:

no misinformation ⇒ no science

Eradicating misinformation is enough to eradicate science.

We need to be careful what we wish for. Is a world without misinformation really what we want?

Fact-checking is evidently failing at raising the quality of information circulating on our public information spaces. So There is no general improvement of quality so far. This doesn’t mean fact-checking is impactless. Fact-checking affirms and further normalizes some extremist ideas on information and society:  that there are two kinds of information, the trustworthy and the untrustworthy, that there are ‘information authorities’ who distinguish between the two kinds of information for the commoners who don’t, and that the commoner’s only liberty and responsibility is to chose who feeds them information

Being informed requires work. Significantly more work than resorting to the argument from authority. You’re not informed if you have let someone else do all the work. You haven’t gotten smarter. You haven’t earned a perspective. You haven’t earned nuance. You haven’t earned a new skill that you can use next time you are faced with information.

If science manages to produce vaccines that turn a severe health hazard into a regular cold, it’s because of work. Not truth. Not trust. Not fact.

Understanding is not the same as trusting, nor even as knowing.

Anything like-fact-checking that promotes the argument from authority massively at the expense of promoting the work and the analytical skills required to perform the work is a crime against information.

It doesn’t matter if someone is an expert if they are not the right kind of expert: if they haven’t done the relevant work, if they haven’t striven to tie their work with the work already done by generations of scientists. Without minimal experience of the kind of work that produces good quality information, one can’t be aware of what work that is. One can’t begin to appreciate nor select expertise. One can’t appreciate the significance of expert consensus and of lack of it. One can’t appreciate imperfect information, not to mention the imperfection in it. One can’t appreciate information.

closing remarks

There seams to be a comfortable consensus on the definition of “misinformation” nowadays. Detecting and avoiding misinformation is still a struggle. But many people are using the term “misinformation” as if there was no question about what “misinformation” means and what needs to be done with it, eg avoid it. Meanwhile, we are nowhere close to having a consensual definition of “information”. And most people have no idea what to do with it.  I find the difference in treatment strange and very telling of our times. Information-wise, this is prehistory.


Forget all this. Take your favourite difinitions of “misinformation” and “information”. 

Fighting against misinformation still doesn’t mean fighting for information, does it?

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