Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Fact checking and mental arithmetic

When I was at school our maths teacher once expressed his horror at going to a shop and when he bought something the shop assistant used an adding machine to calculate the change due. Yes, in those days they were called adding machines, not calculators, and they operated mechanically and not electronically. He told the story to encourage us to improve our mental arithmetic skills, and not become zombies dependent on dumb machines.

addmachI think of that maths teacher quite a lot, because in the course of my family history research I quite often need to calculate a date of birth from a person’s age at a census or death, and when I do so, I reach for my cell phone, which has a calculator in it. Is it just that I’m becoming mentally lazy? Possibly, but I find that I make fewer mistakes that way, even though calculating dates is a lot easier than working out change in pounds, shillings and pence.

dictionaryToday in an online forum for discussing English usage someone mentioned something similar. Like my maths teacher, teachers of English apparently deprecated the use of online dictionaries, as they thought that lazy students resorted to these rather than improving their vocabulary and memorising lists of irregular verbs. I’ve always thought that memorising lists of irregular verbs was a rather useless method of language learning, but still.

And now that you can access the Internet from almost anywhere, why bother to memorise any facts at all, since you can always look them up when you need them? That would be the ultimate example of machine dependence.

Twenty years ago I used to make lists of things to look up when I went to the library or the archives to do research. I still do, but the lists are a lot more focused now. When I arrive at the archives, I order the files I want straight away, because I’ve looked them up in the online indexess beforehand. But last week the computers were down, and that formed almost the sole topic of conversation on at least one genealogy mailing list ( see Hayes & Greene family history: South African archives computers down for a week).

When I reach the end of the month and I run out of ADSL bandwidth (usually because my sons have been watching too many videos), I feel that something has been amputated because I’m not able to look things up on line. It’s become so easy that we get frustrated if, for any reason, the service is not available.

So is there any reason to learn facts any longer? Why bother, when you can just Google for them?

But then the historian in me kicks in, and I start getting like my old maths teacher and his extolling the virtues of mental arithmetic. I get like the language teacher extolling the virtues of a large vocabulary.

mental-mathBut there is a difference. Calculators are generally accurate. You can check their accuracy with mental arithmetic, but it is very rare that you would need to. The same applies, to a slightly lesser extent, to online dictionaries. But the same does not apply to facts. The facts that you find online are not always reliable, and if you rely only on looking up stuff online you are likely to find it difficult to distinguish between facts, factoids, and outright falsehoods.

Do you know what a factoid is?

Many people think it is a trivial fact, one that is not important. And that is a case in point, because a factoid is actually a falsehood that is repeated so often in the media and elsewhere that many people simply assume that it is true.

If people knew more of the facts of history, they would be far less likely to be taken in (as millions were) by the falsehoods in books like The da Vinci code.

Not everything you read online is true. For example Opinionated Vicar: Facebook: Don’t Believe What You Read?:

I’m one of over 3000 people on the ‘Yeovil Real News’ Facebook group, which serves up a mix of news stories, road closures, adverts for Zumba classes and the like. Twice in the last week the group has been taken in by wrong information.

Firstly, a definite hoax – a local pub burnt down, and someone posting under a false name announced a candlelit vigil with hymns and a cake. We should have smelled a rat, but instead over 50 people, including local councillors, turned up at the appointed time. They were rightly pretty miffed, though at the same time it showed community support for the pub.

Even if your calculator doesn’t make a mistake, you can. Your finger can slip. With no knowledge of mental arithmetic, you might not realise you have made a mistake, but if you know mental arithmetic, you might realise that the result is improbable.

This is even more important with facts. Knowledge of facts gives you discernment to distinguish facts from falsehoods, including the less obvious falsehoods like factoids, which are falsehoods masquerading as facts.


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