The Importance of Fact-Checking and Following-Up

At the Secular Student Alliance conference earlier this month, I spoke about the need for atheists to fact-check the statements and statistics we love to cite (like the atheists-in-prison data) and follow-up with the stories we care about.

Video of that talk is now online:



About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • C Peterson

    This isn’t a criticism, because the message is an important one. But I find it very sad and disturbing that it’s even necessary to have a discussion about the importance of fact checking!

    • Gander

      Particularly because we are caught in a debate with people that use zero facts.

    • anthrosciguy

      Remember that we live in a time when the ombudsman of the NYT asked his readers if it was possible for a newspaper to be “objective and fair” if they were to point out that one of the people they’re quoting is lying.

    • jferris

      I think the issue is defining a fact. I know that sounds silly, but bring in 4 people to watch an event as a witness, and you will have four different reports. Consider the argument of climate change. FACTS show it is warming. FACTS can be shown that it is normal AND FACTS can be shown that man is the leading contributor.

      And please, I’m sorry I used climate change as an example, but it is late, after a long day of work, and I don’t really have the mental capacity to come up with a better example. So please, I’m not arguing why climate change is occurring. I am using it as an example. Not trying to change or confuse the subject.

      • UWIR

        Of course, facts can also show that the earth is cooling, given a particular of definition of “cooling” (such as “There was a point in the past when the earth was hotter than it is now”).

  • Craig

    Great talk. I find myself often having to ask people to verify facts about claims that have been made. It is vital for the credibility of Atheists as viewed by the public. Just as important is our view of ourselves.

  • UWIR

    Citing your sources is also rather important. And don’t just post a link to someone else talking about it. I’m really tired a blog linking to a blog linking to a blog linking to a blog. Often, the top results when Googling a claim are people talking about the claim, rather than the actual original source. And if you’re drawing inference, paraphrasing, summarizing, or in any way not repeating what the source says verbatim, you should provide some discussion of how you got from the source to your claim.

  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I would point out that further to the H.W. Bush quote story, at the time number of people tried to get Bush to either admit or deny the quote, and he never did. Granted, a president shouldn’t be required to deny every single offhand quote attributed to them, but this one was big enough, and the push hard enough, that I think it certainly deserved a second of this time. At least I hope that 25 years later it would.

    As for anti-gay conference attendees, I had a history prof say that in his opinion most of the US Communist party in the 50s were FBI agents all spying on each other.

  • Mick

    Regarding the prison population story at the 9’40″ mark in the video:

    Back in my drinking days I was arrested for being drunk and disorderly, and along with name, age and address, I had to tell the police my religion.

    [It was in Australia a long time ago, so maybe the booking form no longer has a question about religion - I don't know.]

    Anyway, I said I was an atheist and the desk sergeant said, “I’m not having any atheists in my jail. You’re going down as C of E.” (Church of England)

    So when you fact check the numbers, you will also need to find out how the numbers were collected in the first place.


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