The Washington Post has a regular column called “The Fact Checker,” by Glenn Kessler, a longtime Post reporter. It’s a relatively new feature. Earlier this year, Kessler described the column’s origins and purpose:
My colleague¬†Michael Dobbs started the column during the 2008 [Presidential] campaign and now, in 2011, The Washington Post is reviving it as a permanent feature.
We will not be bound by the antics of the presidential campaign season, but will focus on any statements by political figures and government officials–in the United States and abroad–that cry out for fact-checking. It’s a big world out there, and so we will rely on readers to ask questions and point out statements that need to be checked. Over time, we hope to build this page into a more interactive feature than the blog it has been.
The purpose of this website, and an accompanying column in the Post, is to “truth squad” the statements of political figures regarding issues of great importance, be they national, international or local. As the 2012 presidential election approaches, we will increasingly focus on statements made in the heat of the presidential contest. But we will not be limited to political charges or countercharges. We will seek to explain difficult issues, provide missing context and provide analysis and explanation of various “code words” used by politicians, diplomats and others to obscure or shade the truth.
All this makes total sense, of course. And it’s a great public service. But why only for politics? Science is also a battlefield, with claims, counterclaims and all manner of misstatements that cry out for fact checking. Climate science, a subject that is often hotly debated in the public arena, would obviously be a recurring topic in any such Truth Squad column. So would nuclear power, biotechnology, evolution, and many medical and health-related issues that are often in the news.
If it’s important to gauge the accuracy of what politicians say about the budget deficit, foreign policy, Medicare, etc., it’s equally important to gauge the accuracy of what newsmakers say about climate change, stem cell research, vaccines, evolution, and so on.
The big newspapers, such as The New York Times, Washington Post and USA Today, have eminently qualified science reporters that could be charged with a column that fact checks questionable scientific statements made by government officials, politicians, and even widely read pundits.
Science is just as important to society as politics. And just as is the case with political and policy related issues, the public often has trouble separating out fact from fiction on many scientific claims and statements.
Science, like politics, needs a Truth Squad.