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Jayachandran/Mint
Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Recovering from the factoid epidemic

A healthy mistrust of the numbers and claims being peddled may lead to more credible data that in turn can deliver transparency and better outcomes via focused policy

On Wednesday morning India time, US President Donald Trump delivered his state of the Union (SOTU) address to a joint session of the US Congress, an annual feature in the country’s political system. However, Trump’s 82-minute speech was marked by something that is surely not par for the course. Even as ‘45’—as the forty-fifth US President is sometimes referred to—was speaking, US media outlets were checking the claims and numbers he put out. While Trump is known to play fast and loose with facts, this live-checking was a new chapter. Earlier, media outlets would at least wait till the end of whatever address a President was delivering before dissecting the speech for its authenticity. The websites of many of these media outlets also placed the stories on dubious claims made in the SOTU speech, which, truth be told, has been the case for a long time and not limited to Trump. (As an aside, there was another live fact-checking playing out, in the form of Speaker Nancy Pelosi rolling her eyes, smirking, giving blank stares, and “clapping at" Trump, which was an instant meme).

Scepticism, of course, is not the monopoly of the US. This healthy quality has been on display in India, too. For instance, when claims were made at a recent science congress that ancient Indians were capable of producing test tube babies or had a fleet of aircraft, there was instant pushback, and not just from the scientific community, but from the common people. When pictures were posted of a rally in West Bengal this week, they were quickly dissected. Or, when the gross domestic product back series was recalibrated, there were howls of protest. More recently, the furore over the National Sample Survey Office withholding the data on employment, and the botched defence of the numbers, is yet to quieten down. Of course, it is not just governments. The torrent of “fake news" spewing out from social media has spawned a mini-industry in fact checking, with the likes of Snopes or FactCheck seeing enough custom, even if in percentage terms the number of people consuming unsubstantiated news is small.

This questioning of numbers and claims is a good thing. For one, in an age where there is increased policing of news and what constitutes news, a doubting Thomas attitude will help sift the truth from the “alternative fact" as Trump aide Kellyanne Conway famously put it. This healthy suspicion should ideally lead to a greater transparency and more credible data that in turn will deliver better outcomes. Crunching the numbers serves no purpose when the numbers are of questionable merit. In fact, doubt, then, could well turn out to be the surest answer to an era of increased uncertainty. And, it may not be too late to digest Richard Feynman: “It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is. It doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong."

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