The Trouble With Facts

Monday, 24 March, 2014

According to dhmo.org, dihydrogen monoxide—DHMO for short—is a colourless and odourless chemical which is capable of mutating DNA, disrupting cell membranes, and chemically altering neurotransmitters. In Australia alone, DHMO is responsible for thousands of deaths. Some of the effects of DHMO listed by the website include death due to accidental inhalation, tissue damage due to prolonged exposure, and severe burns caused by its gaseous form.

Despite the ill effects of DHMO, most people have never heard of it. Even more surprising is that DHMO is commonly used for a number of purposes, such as an industrial coolant and as a major food additive. In fact, reliable sources have informed me that DHMO is even used in the production of Farrago. 

Campaigners for prohibition of DHMO remain frustrated by Canberra’s lack of enthusiasm to take up the cause. In a bold act of defiance, Tony Abbott went so far as to ingest DHMO in front of cameras before embarking on his daily bike ride. While politicians refuse to accept incontrovertible evidence, more and more innocent people lose their lives to this devastating chemical.

Now that I’ve scared you to a point where you are certain of your imminent death, it’s time I let you in on a secret. The common name of this insidious chemical… is water.

Though I have not told a single lie in this article, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I have misled you. Undeniably, I have.

Amidst accusations of bias, a number of ABC journos have fronted the cameras to defend the ABC’s credentials as an organisation that is only interested in the facts. This seems to be the standard response: “we’re not biased, we just want to present the facts”. The ABC is probably right to laud the quality of their fact checking—after all, they are renowned for ABC Fact Check. But as the DHMO hoax suggests, balance isn’t just a case of presenting the facts.

With just the facts alone, nearly everyone who encounters the DHMO hoax for the first time is left feeling alarmed and worried for their wellbeing. It is therefore wrong for media organisations to suggest that a strict adherence to facts will eliminate bias.

Relying on facts to produce a balanced article is akin to using a fork to eat your soup—you may get a couple of chunks, but you’ve got no chance with the rest. Carefully placed, the right statistic or piece of scientific ‘research’ can give credence to almost any proposition. Omitting a key point, as I have done above, can make crackpot stories seem reasonable. This is a common technique used unabashedly by the spin doctors parading as journalists at Today Tonight and A Current Affair.

The onus is therefore upon media outlets, including Farrago, to develop and follow more detailed standards to prevent bias. A simple reliance on presenting the facts will not suffice. How to achieve these standards is a matter for debate, but that is exactly where the debate should be shifted. While you ponder that, I’m off to pour myself a glass of DHMO.