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FactCheck Year in Review: sorting fact from fiction in 2015

Broadcaster Alan Jones was a good sport and readily acknowledged his error on the cost of wind power, giving The Conversation its best-read FactCheck of 2015. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

FactCheck Year in Review: sorting fact from fiction in 2015

In 2015 we heard plenty of assertions that sounded a lot like facts – even when they really weren’t.

FactCheck continued its unique model of double checking statements by politicians and other influential people. First, an academic expert tests the statement against the research evidence. Then, another expert reviews the article without knowing the first author’s identity.

The most read FactCheck of the year was by energy researcher Dylan McConnell from the University of Melbourne. His FactCheck on broadcaster Alan Jones’ assertion that coal-fired power cost $79/kWh and wind power $1502/kWh attracted close to 48,000 reads in less than six months and was highlighted by ABC TV’s Media Watch program – favourably, of course. (As Jones’ readily acknowledged in an email to The Conversation, his figures on the cost of wind and coal powered energy were not correct.)

This year also marked the beginning of our collaboration with ABC TV’s Q&A program, broadcast Mondays at 9.35pm. In August, we began asking viewers to alert us to panellists’ statements worth checking via email, Twitter (using the hashtag #FactCheck) or Facebook. The resulting FactChecks are published on the Conversation and shared on Q&A’s social media accounts.

The response has been enormous, allowing The Conversation to bring FactCheck to a broader audience hungry for evidence and accountability. It became part of the regular #qanda experience for many people: they used #FactCheck to make jokes, they told other Twitter users to submit their grievances to us via the hashtag.

The second most read FactCheck article of 2015 tested statements made on Q&A by traditional marriage advocate Katy Faust about children of same sex marriages against the research evidence. Authored by the University of Melbourne’s Simon Crouch, this piece attracted over 36,000 readers since August.

Other popular FactCheck Q&A articles include FactCheck Q&A: Will India no longer buy Australian coal? by University of Queensland’s Craig Froome (19,387 reads) and FactCheck Q&A: is Australia the most unequal it has been in 75 years? by Flinders University’s Genevieve Knight (18,145 reads).

Mary Anne Kenny, a refugee expert from Murdoch University penned five asylum seeker-themed FactChecks this year, helping separate fact from fiction on one of the most topical policy areas in Australia. Her FactCheck: Does Australia take more refugees per capita through the UNHCR than any other country? attracted 29,707 readers and was the third most read FactCheck of 2015.

For FactCheck: Would Labor’s renewable energy plan cost consumers $60 billion?, ANU energy expert Ken Baldwin tested then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s statement against available economic modelling. He found the statement to be misleading.

Facts can be true but used in a way that makes things sound worse or better than they really are. In FactCheck: is Australia spending over $100m a day more than collected in revenue? ANU tax expert Miranda Stewart factchecked a figure frequently used to support the government’s position that spending cuts are needed to reduce the deficit. The headline figure of $100m was true but she also showed that, in fact, Australia compares favourably to other countries on deficit and debt.

In FactCheck: will the Arts Minister need to publicly disclose who he funds?, arts policy expert Ben Eltham showed that a statement by Greens senator Scott Ludlam was part-truth, part-speculation.

And Helen Hodgson, a tax expert from Curtin University showed in FactCheck: Has the government introduced 17 new taxes? that Tanya Plibersek and other ALP figures were being a little loose with their definition of a tax.

The Conversation doesn’t just FactCheck the easy ones. Sometimes, examination of the research evidence reveals that “facts” are scarce (not that this ever seems to deter politicians on all sides from dressing up speculation as certainties). Many times – particularly on historical, economic and social science issues – the best an expert can do is review the scholarly literature and tell readers what it broadly says.

Take, for example, FactCheck: might there have been people in Australia prior to Aboriginal people? University of New England Australian archaeology expert Iain Davidson found that Senator David Leyonhjelm was technically right to say that, historically, some have doubted whether Aboriginal people were the first Australians – but points out that these doubters are outliers who do not represent the broad research findings on this question.

And in FactCheck Q&A: do we only have space for about 150 people in our lives?, human evolution expert Darren Curnoe revealed that a theory that has become pop science folklore – Dunbar’s number – is actually deeply controversial.

FactCheck is an important part of our broader mission at The Conversation to inject evidence and honesty back into the public debate.

It would not be possible without you, the readers, acting as our eyes and ears and tipping us off whenever a “fact” needs checking. So please do continue to send in your FactCheck ideas via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email.

I wish I could say our work is done but I suspect there will be plenty more “facts” to check in 2016. We’ll see you there.

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