Reflections: Burdens of proof as a fact checker

Generally, receiving an email from me is a bittersweet experience. On one hand, I am there to help and respond to the author’s needs. On the other, it often means I found something wrong or have questions, because I am showing up to poke the research and find its weak points. Sometimes it stresses people out and makes them feel badly about their work. Never, of course, my intent.

When I first introduce myself now, I explain to speakers and others whose work I am reviewing: Hi! I am the in house researcher/fact checker and I am on your team to protect you and your work from internet trolls. We aren’t going to give them anything to poke at so they will instead engage with your ideas.

Because, really, we are a team. I am there to support them and tell them where we need to include better citations or data, where we can ask more critical questions, how we can introduce necessary “degrees of doubt,” etc.

I like to allow the speaker/writer to set their own “burden of proof.” This comes in several forms. I might read your work and see someone introducing “science,” or “social science,” an “Oped,” “predictive work,” “fiction,” or a “personal story,” among others. I adapt my research support and feedback accordingly.

If, for example, you tell me you are a scientist, I will hold you to the guidelines set out by the scientific method. This means that I need to find proof that your study and results have been reviewed and cleared, that the results and experiment is reproducible, etc.

If your piece is an Oped, I will make sure your foundational facts and reasoning can be supported, then you get to shape the rest of your analysis with the occasional question from me.

Each version of a script comes with a different degree of scrutiny to make sure I am supporting the piece in the best way I can. But I always make my intentions transparent to the author, to make sure we can work together to produce the best piece we can.

[If you don’t fact check, you might end up citing someone made up sharing fake information. Here is a funny story about myth busting around “chocolate as a health food.“]

Header Photo credit: Re:imagine Mobility – New Visions for 2030 workshop at TEDSummit2016, June 26 – 30, 2016, Banff, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

Love of the Fact Check

People who know me well are not surprised when I tell them that I enjoy fact checking.

People who don’t know me very well look some combination of shocked, horrified, or judgmental when I tell them that I enjoy fact checking.

What they are missing is that fact checking is not about proving people wrong — I don’t like having to flag notes or facts and then follow up for a “can I see your data set” conversation. It’s not about making anyone look bad or asking them to do more work and more research… it’s about ensuring that what is produced is the best piece we can build together.

For me, the fact check is like being a sleuth. I need to figure out what kinds of questions the initial data collectors were asking and whether or not the data is being interpreted accurately when it’s allowed to roam free and be interpreted by other people outside the initial collection team. This is sort of like sniffing out the initial environment of the “scene of the crime” where the data was collected.

Then I get to check out the arguments the opponents or other groups are making and see where there are interpretation issues. Sometimes data sets are very consistent.. sometimes it’s an entirely different story.

I get to look up conversations between brilliant thinkers and try to track down the initial inception point of a thought or idea that became a major piece of intellectual capital.

I get to have really cool conversations about strengthening arguments and narratives with facts. I LOVE this part. I want to make my speakers be the best they can be, because the talk should be able to stand on its own at the point that it’s given… and years later or when its viewed online by people in other contexts.

I hope next time people wont be so horrified when I tell them that I love fact checking. I know I always appreciate the feedback on my own work.

July: Favorite TED Talks

When people find out what I do now, I am always asked what my favorite talks are from our site. These are my current favorites, though the last one is almost always in my top 3.

This one always fills me with wonder and makes me smile.

This one reminds me that the world is beautiful and worth exploring.
This one reminds me to make time to reflect.

TEDUniversity at TEDGlobal 2014

On Tuesday, I presented my talk at TEDGlobal 2014 to close out the TEDUniversity session. Here is a recap of the full event.

It was a really great experience. I rewrote and edited this talk frequently to get it right and try to fit my 7 minute mark. I had a lot of help and feedback from a number of mentors and the TED content team, which really helped me think through the content, sequence and strategy of the talk. It was, in essence, a very basic intro to why informal communities are interesting. I hope I will get to dig into more of the reasoning slowly as I keep moving forward with research.

I think I ran over in the end, but I was really in the zone during delivery… so I never looked at the clock beyond the 2.30 mark, where I was still making great time. After nervous run throughs all week and early early that morning in the hallway of the Copacabana Hotel… it felt good to walk on stage. Take a deep breathe and grin before delivering the best run through of my talk I had done yet.

It felt so good.

I received a lot of wonderful feedback and had really wonderful conversations about informal economies for hours (and now days….) afterwards. Which is essentially my ideal place to be.

It’s also helping me find ways to explain the ideas floating around in my head. The larger reasons why informal economies are interesting and worth noting. Especially for governments that want to understand fuller profiles of their cities.

To end, I’ll share one particular victory moment. A personal hero is a really talented researcher who works on black market/criminal activity and has spoken at TED before. I have asked him to advise my work before and he has been very supportive of me/my research. He was at TEDUniversity and saw my talk on Tuesday. And then found me Tuesday evening to tell me that I had done a great job. The feeling was comparable to what it would be like if Neil Armstrong told a young Astronaut that they had done a good job on a NASA mission. Not to say that my work is anywhere near as complicated and/or delicate as a NASA mission. But this was… well. I am very pleased with how this all turned out!

Thank you to everyone who sat through edits, run throughs, exhausted and frustrated phone calls/drafts/discussions with me. You are all so wonderful 🙂