Fact-Checkers and Certified Public Logicians


28 Responses to “Fact-Checkers and Certified Public Logicians”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Why bother outsourcing? From what I have seen over the past several years, they have already eliminated the practice.

  2. Anonymous says:

    this strikes me simultaneously as an awesome idea and as an idea that will probably never be implemented, unfortunately. we’re ‘merkins. we don’t care about facts :[

  3. zikman says:

    fact-checking, copyediting, tagging, … this sounds like the kind of minutiae I would love to do for a living.

  4. Adam Stanhope says:

    Herman’s Head.

  5. metametadata says:

    Certified Public Logicians already exist. They’re called librarians. And they already review texts for logical consistency and tag them with appropriate envelope information. It’s called cataloging and metadata production. Y’know, the people and activity we don’t need and can’t provide for the web because there’s too much stuff on the internet and you can’t trust people to tell the truth. Besides, web resources should describe themselves and we can automate the meaning generation process. Right?

  6. MB says:

    All well and good, except for the part where you’re forgetting that facts are less and less important in the big media organizations which you’re talking about as customers.

  7. leviathan says:

    This is an interesting read, but if anthropology, literary studies, linguistics and the philosophy of language have taught us anything over the past century, it’s that there isn’t any innate meaning underlying a text outside of what gets attributed to it.

    Meaning is always contested. And it is these debates/conflicts over meaning that are the heart of politics. So even if the technical and programming issues can be overcome, would people really want to live in social system where someone was deciding for them what stuff ‘means’?

    P.S. big props to the fact-checkers, copy-editors, and other unsung heroes of the publishing industry.

    • arkizzle / Moderator says:


      But surely there are two layers to meaning, the intrinsic (almost mathematical) relationship of words and sentence-stuctures on one hand, and then the deeper interpretive meaning on the other.

      eg. “Horses can fly.”

      The first meaning has little subjective argument, is unconcerned with the veracity of the statement and is likely machine-achievable : [object][relationship][action]

      The second, as you suggest, is factual, political and social, and dependent on the reader: Can horses fly? What is the reason for asserting that they can? What is the context of the statement? Is it fantasy?

      I think the first is doable (far better than now) without getting into the sort of cunundrums of meaning that incite argument and side-taking. I imagine the second will take heavy AI with a massive data cache. I can picture the big search engines of the day, each with their flagship AI personality being promoted on the value of its informed and creative opinion rather than just the matrix of facts it can access.

      Jesus, Johnny Bing has rubbish taste in music, I usually just ask Lisa Limewire for what’s new.”

  8. Wongaboo says:

    Good article. I agree with others that versions of this already exist. My mother (a librarian by training) worked for Shepherds, later Shepherd-McGraw-Hill, and still later a wholy owned subsidiary of Lexis-Nexis. She and her coworkers parsed judicial rulings for precident and relationship to other rulings and case law. Esentially Shepherds and companies like it created enormous books of logical metadata (the leather books you have seen behind lawyer’s desks) which make case law work. Lexis still does the same thing though it has all been computerized now. The main impediment to this becoming the envisioned world brain is the enormous fees requred to access this data.

  9. bledsoe says:

    Doesn’t a logician know a smattering about – um – logic? If that bar’s unrealistically high, do go with the librarians. No need for sci fi. Theirs is an interesting world that deals with relevance issues by comfortably viewing a masters in library science as somehow equivalent to a Ph.D. in computer science. See http://bit.ly/6qVDCa

  10. anansi133 says:

    Makes me think of the ‘fair witness’ idea, in _Stranger in a Strange Land_.

    Certified public accountants exist because business can’t happen smoothly if everyone’s tallying their books differently. If there were a standardized fact-checking system, then lying powerbrokers would be at a competitive disadvantage, and they’re not going to allow *that*.

    I’m trying to imagine wikipedia growing some teeth and becoming a grass roots government in itself. Nah, there’s too much money to be made in a wild-west internet, all the way up until the whole thing collapses because someone has been gaming the power grid.

  11. Dan says:

    Excellent NYer article on one of their retired fact-checkers http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/02/09/090209fa_fact_mcphee

  12. misterfricative says:

    Powerset, for example, has software that has parsed and can answer questions from all of Wikipedia.

    O Rly? Parsed? It can’t even parse the questions. It looks to me like it just does a keyword search.

    And anyway, parsing is the easy bit. Encoding the underlying meaning is, as you say, the real missing piece. And AFAIK, we’ve so far gotten precisely nowhere on that one. (I’d be delighted to be shown that I’m wrong. But you’ll need to do better than powerset.)

    (And btw your powerset hotlink is borked too.)

    • arkizzle / Moderator says:


      Agreed! Although they do tout “understanding meaning” on the website, I asked powerset “not including tuna, which fish have yellow fins?” and got back tuna + generic fish-related results. It can pick out the meaning of an obvious query, but conditions aren’t understood.

      That said, I was comparing Ask and Powerset, and asked both a question I thought they might falter at. “Where is the earth?” Powerset surprised me with a terse: Earth: Contained by Solar System” :)

      And the Powerset link should be fixed now, thanks.

  13. Teller says:

    Sounds kind of like a Fair Witness, except for the “underlying meaning” part. But if you centralize it, by God, who fact-checks the fact-checkers?

  14. mgfarrelly says:

    Every day I see more and more of a need for librarians and yet still everyone seems to be afraid to use the “L” word. Perhaps it conveys some sense of the dusty, the disused, the pre-modern? As if we’re all just stack mice who scurry about tut-tutting about the noise those darn kids are making by the car catalog or something.

    Librarians not only provide information, we spend our careers parsing sources for reliability and usefulness. We might not be experts in Medicine or biotech or law, but we can look at a database covering one of those topics and give a sense of how on the ball they are. We evaluate, process, fact check and deliver everything from cursory questions to in-depth reference projects. Academic librarians are often the first people thanked in any decent treatsie or work of non-fiction, and rightly so. Oh and public librarians do all that while providing programming from lapsits to advice on retirement.

    We’re also criminally under-paid, under-staffed and under-valued.

    Honestly, if you want to super-charge the economy, get science and math and general education going gangbusters and give families a “third place” to build a stronger community, INVEST IN LIBRARIES.

    Seriously, bailout the libraries, save the world man.

  15. MadLogician says:

    Checking facts may be do-able. Harder would be checking the use of statistics in support of an argument: most of the time when someone quotes numbers in an attempt to show that a policy is effective, those numbers are worthless for lack of a control group or because they’re not allowing for reversion to the mean.

  16. andyhavens says:

    Also librarians. More of them, and they’re even less prone to bias than folks who work for a particular publication.

  17. Marilyn Terrell says:

    Thank you for this rare encomium to my profession! There are far fewer of us employed on magazines these days than when I first started, but we take our jobs seriously and fight behind the scenes for truth and clarity of expression. It’s cool to think of becoming a Certified Public Logician, but we generally work under pretty tight deadlines & I can’t imagine having the time to diagram sentences as well as check their accuracy.

    As this “Fact Checkers Unit” Funny or Die video with Bill Murray reveals, there’s more to this job than consulting Wikipedia:

  18. Avram / Moderator says:

    I think people are misremembering, or maybe idealizing, Heinlein’s notion of the Fair Witness. The Fair Witness didn’t check facts, she just reported what she personally witnessed, and had been trained not to make suppositions about things she hadn’t witnessed.

    Remember the example of the house? “It’s painted white on this side.” A fact checker would have either gone to the house and circled it to find out the color on all sides, or (more likely) phoned the owners or someone who lived nearby.

  19. 0uterj0in says:

    Wait, isn’t this what the semantic web was supposed to be? Did Clay Shirkey say that categorizing things is a waste of time?

  20. wrecksdart says:


    I’m with you. I’m currently working on my MLIS degree and I’m pleased to echo what you’ve said. From the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics (which has been practically bludgeoned into my tiny little mind):

    I. We provide the highest level of service to all library users through appropriate and usefully organized resources; equitable service policies; equitable access; and accurate, unbiased, and courteous responses to all requests.

    VI. We do not advance private interests at the expense of library users, colleagues, or our employing institutions.

    VII. We distinguish between our personal convictions and professional duties and do not allow our personal beliefs to interfere with fair representation of the aims of our institutions or the provision of access to their information resources.

    (From the ALA’s website: http://www.ala.org/ala/aboutala/offices/oif/statementspols/c
    odeofethics/codeethics.cfm, but that link is long, and may break. Try this one: http://tinyurl.com/6×3246 )

    Fact-checking is what we do—it’s out lifeblood. Unfortunately, in this world of reality TV and the cult of the personality, veracity just ain’t what it used to be.


    re: the comparative worth of MLIS v. PhD in CS,

    They’re asking for someone highly qualified in the field to help develop and organize CS information, a person that will partner with others in the Uni “in initiating projects to enhance the university’s research and scholarly data management and curation programs”, among other things. They’re not looking for a Computer Scientist, but a highly informed person to collect, organize, and make available the best CS info currently known. If anything, it’s a step down for a PhD. to take that job—if they get someone with a MLIS, then that’s good. With a PhD., then all the better.

  21. slamorte says:

    I wholeheartedly support this position.

    I could see the need for not one, but several competing organizations concerned with analyzing and verifying both the facts and logic of a variety of texts, positions, and public statements. Truthout.org and Snopes come to mind, as well as the science section of Ars Technica, though I would love to see these expanded even further.

    These groups members should be subject to rigorous standards in order to keep the organization’s standard at its highest value.

    As reputations become more valuable as a form of social currency, some sort of truthing group, network, or process becomes vital to stopping those that would game the system.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Fact checkers in many publishers and news organizations have a legally driven bias, and the outcome is not always a better article.

    Specifically, their employers are most concerned with avoiding lawsuits. Therefore, facts in an article which could lead to a lawsuit if incorrect are checked more carefully than facts that could not. If the article states that “Senator Smith said that the moon is made of green cheese”, then it will be checked that he did indeed say this. However, “The moon is made of green cheese” is less likely to be checked, because the moon is much less likely to sue. Again, this varies a lot from publication to publication – The New Yorker for instance employs superb fact checkers and would undoubtedly check both things – but this generally seems to me to be the bias.

  23. Anonymous says:

    the logicians you describe already exist as copyeditors, another underappreciated and uncredited (and largely forgotten?) profession.

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