Wednesday, September 9, 2020

SearchResearch Challenge (9/9/20): Your everyday fact-checking? What do you do?

In the swirl of current news and political tempests, we all need some basic fact-checking skills... 

... and I'm curious about what you do to exercise the ability to do some basic checks on the things you read. 

A wave of assertions comes at you every day.
Which are correct? Which ones do you check? How do you check?  

For instance, I recently read an article that claimed that over 1 million acres of California had burned this year.  True or not?  

As you lead your life, hearing or reading the news, you'll get many such assertions:  Politician X said outrageous statement Y.  Or that some terrible / horrifying policy is have such-and-such an effect on the environment / group of people /  city / state.  

There's a lot of this going around these days.  I know what I do, but I'm curious about what you do in your day-to-day practice.  And this leads to our  Challenge for the week: 

1.  About how often do you spend the time to fact-check something you learn about?  

2.  When you DO decide to look up something, what motivates you to do so?  

3.  What do you do to fact-check?  (Do you have a preferred set of sites that you appeal to for the inside story?  How much backtracking of data do you do?)  

4.  Finally, do you have a story about a fact that you checked recently?  Can you tell us what you did and how you went about checking?  

In my case, when I read about the "1 million acres of California had burned this year" I was suspicious.  That seemed like a really large number. 

A quick back of the envelope calculation (aka Fermi Estimation, as we discussed a while back) told me that 1M acres is roughly 1600 square miles (about 4600 square km).  A space that size would be 40 miles on a side.  The distance from San Francisco to Mountain View (the Googleplex) is about 40 miles, and going east from there takes you to the edge of the Central Valley.  

I did a quick sketch in Google Maps to get a sense of the size of 1M acres (that is, 1600 square miles).  Here's what I drew.  (The calculation is done automatically by Google Maps.)  

 Now that I see it this way, the 1M acres number is fairly plausible.

So I went back to the SF Chronicle fire tracker and added up the first few fires by acreage burned: 

     LNU Lightning Complex:  375,209

     SCU Lightning Complex: 396,624

     Creek Fire:                    152,833

     CZU Lightning Complex:   86,509

     W-5 Cold Springs:            74,819


375,209 + 396,624 + 152,833 + 86,509 + 74,819 = 1,085,994

And that's just the top 5 fires in the state, and none of them are contained.  There are 58 fires listed on that page--so this implausible / outrageous number is in fact a low estimate.  The reality is much higher and we're still a couple of months away from the end of fire season.  

But you see my point: the number sounded too large to be true, but a quick estimate of what 1M acres looks like suggests that it's not an implausible number.  Doing a quick search to get some data from a reliable source tells me that it's way low.  The reality is, by the end of the year, going to be more like 2M acres of California consumed by wildfire.  

In this case my fact-check strategy was to find a reliable source of data (the SF Chronicle Fire Map, which collects data directly from satellite data).  In their methodology section (which they actually included in the article--hurrah!), the fire perimeters are based on infrared and thermal imaging from NASA's MODIS and VIIRS-I data products.  

This isn't a complex fact-check, but it shows my key point.  

But now I'm curious about your behavior.  What do YOU do to fact-check things you see and hear?   

Let us know by posting in the comments.  

Search on! 


  1. I think the interesting thing about the "1 million acres of California" fact is that, while it may be factually true, the person who wrote it probably knew that most people (including you and me) cannot visualise what 1m acres looks like, and it is therefore deliberately(?) alarmist. If they had instead expressed it as "less than 1% of California's 105 million acres", it would have provided context, and readers would have been able to visualise it better.

    1. It's a good question: What do readers understand about explanations that are given? I'm not sure I knew how big a 1M acre area would be. In some sense, a 40X40 (miles) square is smaller than I expected. Interesting. I like the 1% description.

  2. The one good lesson I learned from my education is: go to the sources. I also try to read from media which has a good reputation for fact-checking and publishing corrections. This includes The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, PBS, The New York Review of Books, and The Washington Post. Even from those élite sources, I still do compare and contrast the reporting and use third parties to check stories that seem way out-of-line (,,, etc.). Another excellent source for skepticism is the comments section for articles; crowdsourcing really works, and I have found some of the best criticism and information in stories' public comments. I fact-check a lot of information posted on social media, usually to correct conspiracy theories, bad medical advice, and doctored media. In the pandemic there is a lot of bad information shared; I always question the source. I recently researched this doctored video:

    1. Thanks for the link. That's a classic (and dumb) edited video. Nice.

  3. I use several methods:
    1. Type into google, the supposed fact and voila ...
    2. Pose the question to google "What is the total acreage burned in the us in 2020 by wildfires" and ...
    3. Go to or or and ...

  4. This morning, I found related with our previous SRS Challenge, this:

    How fast have the fires in #Oregon developed? This #Sentinel3 animation visualises it.

    For this Challenge:

    1. About how often do you spend the time to fact-check something you learn about?

    Most of the time. I do it specially if it is something that for me is a big surprise or something important. It also depends on how "easy" and fast I think to find the answer will be and the free time I have. I am very curious so I invest a lot in fact-checking. It also depends on the source. Many times if I trust the source, I don't fact check.

    2. When you DO decide to look up something, what motivates you to do so?
    As I said, it depends on how big a surprise it was or if it is a topic that I like. I have searched for a lot of things that I never thought of thanks to connections with SRS Challenges. Another thing is how funny the answer could be or if what I am looking for is something that changes the concept I had about something.

    It is not only fact-check. When I find something new about a topic I like, I do "lateral learning" to find more and learn more.

    3. What do you do to fact-check? (Do you have a preferred set of sites that you appeal to for the inside story? How much backtracking of data do you do?)

    For fact.check, I go to sites that I already know if I think they will have the answer as for example in case of news, quotes or possible facts. If I am searching for data, I try to find the source that I heard/read/view to confirm the data. And, also search for the subject using " " and if I know a specialized site on the topic, I go there.

    Sometimes, my fact-check is only to read about us part of the site and to read if they mention the biography of the author or how much the person knows about the subject mentioned.

  5. 4. Finally, do you have a story about a fact that you checked recently? Can you tell us what you did and how you went about checking?

    I was listening Manager Tools podcast and heard about a symbol in Canada. How it was different from the one used in the UK. The symbol was the prohibition one. I trust the source and it was a big surprise plus, my mind couldn't (and still can't remember how the symbol is in our country.) Even more, I have been watching the symbol a lot these days related to FC Barcelona's president and also remembered the Ghostbusters movie. So I thought, I have been using the symbol the wrong way? I just watch the symbol, know what it means but I don't notice how it is?

    Searched [Red circle with (here tried different words to find and learn. I tried backslash, left to right slash, right to left slash)]

    No symbol

    Learned about the shared path symbol.

    I did a Ctr-F search [right] and found: The Ghostbusters logo is a fictional example of this, although it uses a mirror image of the no symbol instead of the ISO 3864-1 version.

    [prohibitions signs]

    Found lots of images and

    Wikipedia: Prohibitory traffic sign

    Some with right to left slash. And with no explanation of the why

    With [Ghostbusters symbol history] I tried before [Prohibition symbol] history and found nothing.

    The original version had the crossbar running top left to bottom right, like in all the no signs in Europe. However, in the US, the “backwards” variation was used. It was created by Michael Gross

    Went to Wikipedia and ctr-f "right"

    to find:

    And there are, in fact, two versions of the Ghostbusters logo, Gross reveals And continues: So it’s two ways; if you see it ‘backwards’, it’s US; if you see it the ‘correct’ way it’s European.”

    As the image is not (at least on my lap) searched [ghostbusters logo left to right]

    Links to image of the "correct one"

    Finally, Ghostbusters created a symbol so popular that now we use it this way more like the official one?

    I still can't remember how we use it in Mexico. Later I will go to see the symbols in the street and see. I also think, Jon tU, maybe can add more data about the No symbol use in Canada.

    1. Every provincial jurisdiction in Canada uses its own imagination regarding anything to do with motoring. In my area the NO is the red circle with the diagonal band running top left to bottom right. Jon tU

    2. Nice tale, Ramón. It's not uncommon for symbols and images in movie advertising to be rotations or mirror images of the original artwork. So I'm not sure if the "backwards" art was intentional, or simply a graphic artist in a hurry.

  6. A news article about entry to medical school said students had to pass an extremely difficult entrance test and the top 90% were accepted. That seemed very strange so I emailed the newspaper, assuming they meant 90th percentile instead of 90%. But it turned out it was true, which begs the question - why bother with the test at all if it only weeds out 10% of students, and Maori students don't need to sit it at all?

  7. I think the answer about fact checking is "it depends".

    It depends on whether I'm interested or curious to verify the information or whether to just file it mentally as "so what" in which case I won't bother checking. In contrast if I file it mentally as "wow - I wonder if that's true or not" then I'll spend a considerable time checking it and if it's important e.g. for work, it could be a lot of time as I don't want to give clients something false.

    I have no single approach to fact checking. If it's something I feel needs to be refuted e.g. something posted on Facebook I'll go to sites such as Snopes or political fact check sites. If somebody has posted something on Quora that I think is biased I'll look for original material and if they quoted something I'll go to that to verify what they say is in the original (which can often be a LONG report requiring skim reading). As an example, when the Iran JCPA nuclear deal came out, there were lots of posts saying about how bad this was and the requirements for checking, etc. I read the whole JCPA deal (skim read it for the key bits) so I could respond to the rumours, lies and bias against it. (In my view it is faulty - but not because of what's written which is what people were falsely claiming - but in what's NOT written i.e. limitations on what can't or can't be done).

    I always try and verify my sources - and some of what I check is quite specific and probably hard to find. I did some checks yesterday that give an example of how esoteric things can get. I was at a class last night and our Rabbi mentioned he'd heard of a "prophesy" from a 19th century Rabbi that the Jewish year 2020 (5780) would be a really bad year and that 2021 (5781) would be a good year - and that obviously the 19th century Rabbi had no idea about Covid which shows his "greatness". That intrigued me so I wanted to verify if this was true or not by finding the quotation. This required me to search using the Hebrew dates and the name of the Rabbi. The rumour turned out to be half true. On StackExchange somebody had asked the same question and got an answer with an image of the source and explanation. The discussion was apparently not about years at all. Hebrew dates (e.g. 5780 and 5781) can be words and the passage was looking at these words and using a verse from the book of Psalms about rising from the depths. So what was being said was true, but the interpretation was more fanciful and trying to fit things to get a meaning.

    1. Nicely done. Thanks for the excellent example. I trust that 5781 will be better for us all.

    2. Thank you. I think it has to be.... it can't really be worse.

      Or I hope that it can't - although I guess for a significant proportion of Americans it may be, whichever side wins in November, and in the UK we still have the final twists of Brexit to contend with.

  8. Besides important news events I use the internet to check on historical celebrations like the 100th anniversary of Woman’s Suffrage and how women’s suffrage was finally ratified and to verify the information I use one of the standardized website evaluation such as CARS(credibility, accuracy, reasonableness, support) or one of the fake news tools because even back int early 1900’s there was fake news. Today I discovered on the MakeUseOf blog an article listing 5 apps to check whether it is fake news https:/

    1. Thanks for this list. I'll look at it tonight!

  9. Florida burns 2.1 million acres each year to PREVENT forest fires.

    1. Many states (California included) follow prescribed burns to remove excess fuel. California burns about 125,000 acres / year in prescribed burns. -- in addition, there's the fires that happen each year. 125K in 2019; 1.6M in 2018; 1.2M in 2017. (Per: )