Helen Alvare

Discerning the Facts in the Age of Fake News

Q: So often in conversations and arguments I don’t have the real facts and I have a hard time discerning what’s true in the media and what sources are accurate. Can you give me some places where I can turn to form my conscience as a Catholic woman trying to understand political issues?

A: Ah, a great question in this time of hyper-awareness of fake news! Several responses:

First. Often you really won’t be able to become an expert in a particular topic in short order. You’re going to want to figure out what you really want to know… the areas in which you really want to serve the truth and the people affected by it!  But there are simply too many controverted topics for you to become expert in each and every one.  It’s ok. You need to save some time for daily life. And people will admire a person who doesn’t have an adamant opinion about every little thing, and admits “that’s not my expertise.”  It might also be the case that the person you’re conversing with is likewise not an expert and you might gently probe: “Is this your expertise?” along with: “Could you please tell me where your facts come from so that I can take a look?”

So figure out what you care deeply about …deeply enough to work for! And know that your dialogue partners are regularly not experts, and be ready to probe their sources if you wish.

Second. Here’s the bad news: once you commit to know something, you are going to have to invest a bit of time reading, and a bit of time reflecting. And add to this the energy you’ll need in order to remain “copacetic” (“peaceful”) whilst in dispute with another person!

Third. The very best sources of information are the primary sources involved in any dispute. If people are freaking out over a Trump executive order, go read it. These are at whitehouse.gov, from the press secretary’s office. Like so. If they’re freaking out over a study with results they don’t want to hear, read the study. The National Institutes of Health has enormous quantities of free studies online. For example, here’s the big one linking contraception and depression.  Sometimes, though not always, the online source Politifact will have the accurate political analysis you need, though it leans a little left. If you want to be sure to read articles on both sides of any political issue, go read realclearpolitics.com. You’ll get each sides sets of prior commitments and arguments.

But really….to be better than almost every commentator on the planet…read the original material!

Fourth. The most accurate and current materials about women, about sex and about the family are found on two websites: first, the Institute for Family Studies. Their articles are crazy good… perfectly sourced. Second, Women Speak for Themselves, my own website and Facebook page, only uses original sourced material and keeps up with daily news and controversies.

Fifth. Try to shed light and not heat when you enter a debate. If you can agree with some of the points of your opponent, do so. If they have made factual mistakes, point them out charitably. And have your own facts and argument neatly and simply phrased on 2 to 3 points, max.