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Fact checks gone wrong: UN-related document on sex with minors

The United Nations logo is displayed on a door at U.N. headquarters in New York February 26, 2011.
The United Nations logo is displayed on a door at U.N. headquarters in New York February 26, 2011. | Reuters/Joshua Lott

An UN-related entity, the International Committee of Jurists (ICJ), recently released a document that seemingly called for the legalization of sex with minors. To say “this caused a panic among conservatives” is putting it lightly. At first pass, the document seems to advocate that minors can consent to sex. And conservative readers took that to mean “minors can consent to all kinds of sex” — which would include sex with adults. Fact-checkers, such as AP News, asserted that the document in question — called the “March 8 Principles” — were only describing sex between minors.

So, the question is: who is right? According to AP News’ Fact Check and Erin Murphy (a law professor from New York University), the “March 8 Principles” not only doesn’t call for decriminalizing sex with children but instead calls for the enforcement of child protection laws. Erin Murphy goes on to explain that instead of making a judgment about where the age of consent should be set, the document instead claims that if you set a minimum age of consent, you shouldn’t be able to evade it by getting married. She explains that the law is simply “[referring] to situations where laws set a minimum age of consent that don’t necessarily reflect the actual practice of sexual intimacy among young people.”

But there’s a real problem with this fact check. And it’s a common problem with many fact-checks. It has conflated expert opinion with fact.

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It is true that the document does not specify that sex between adults and children should be legal. And it is true it only states that minors can consent to sex and has no specifications as to “with whom.” The “March 8 Principles” is very careful — as Erin Murphy asserts — not to prescribe age limits on sex one way or another. In fact, the “8 March Principles “(while making mention of other forms of abuse) make no mention of child sexual abuse at all. To many, this silence is deafening. It raises the question: if a report devoted to criminal law and sexual conduct is going to address child sexuality, why would it not address criminal sexual abuse? Different readers have arrived at wildly different conclusions to that question, resulting in their inferences coloring the “fact-checking.”

Erin Murphy and AP News are inferring information from silence. Specifically, they are interpreting silence on child sexual abuse as condemnation of that abuse. Conservatives are also inferring information from silence. They are interpreting silence on child sexual abuse as leaving an open door for that abuse — or at the very least that the authors consider it less worthy of mention than other abuses. Regardless of who you agree with, replacing facts with trusted opinions is a very dangerous game.

Political and social opportunists prey upon people’s inability to distinguish “fact” from “opinion.” Conflating the two is becoming a national crisis. In 2021, a Pew Research Center survey asked over 5,000 US adults to identify 10 statements as fact or opinion. Only one-quarter of respondents were able to identify all five factual statements, and only one-third correctly spotted all five opinions. From here, the trend of identifying “news I disagree with” as “fake news” and “news I like” as “fact” should come as no surprise. The divisiveness and damage caused by Americans living in “parallel realities” are self-evident for anyone engaging in any kind of political discourse post-2016.

Today, even the most respected news sources often equate expert opinions with facts. So, what’s the solution?

To begin with, expert opinions should be clearly labeled as such and promoted as such. It is very hard to overstate the importance of the expert opinions of Erin Murphy and the others quoted in the AP News article. Those opinions do not have to be facts to be valuable. Treating opinions as fact is not only misleading for readers but it fails to acknowledge the value those expert statements have as opinions.

Secondly, fact-checkers often try to address multiple versions of the same story. For example, since publishing their Principles, the ICJ has condemned pedophilia and clarified they do not advocate for abolishing age of consent laws (a point AP News included in their fact check). But condemning pedophilia after the fact does not change whether the “March 8 Principles” left a loophole for child sexual abuse. The claim “ICJ promotes child sexual abuse” is significantly easier to disprove than “The March 8 Principles allowed for pedophilia.” The reason for this is that even if the ICJ didn’t intend to allow for that kind of sexual abuse, the actual wording of their principles may still have done so by accident. And that kind of analysis doesn’t fit neatly into a “fact check.”

To deal with this complexity, fact-checkers sometimes generalize allegations, picking the easiest version of an allegation to refute — as was the case with the AP News article. While this simplifies the task of writing an article, the fact check usually becomes a “straw man” fallacy — meaning it refutes the easiest version of the argument to disprove and not necessarily the argument being discussed.

Rather than running the razor’s edge between “summarizing arguments” and “strawmanning arguments,” fact-checkers would be better served by engaging in what is called “steelmanning” an argument. Steelmanning is the practice of addressing the strongest version of an argument, even if it is not the version that the person you’re arguing with specifically presented. Doing this forces the fact-checker to consider objections to their claims and forces them to consider all facets of an argument. Generally speaking, a rebuttal that works on a steelman will also refute a strawman; whereas a rebuttal of a strawman will usually fail to refute a steelman.

It is only through sticking with the facts (rather than relying on interpretation) and fairly representing counterarguments that people can fully understand complex documents like the March 8 Principles. As long as expert opinions and strawmen fallacies are presented as facts, American people will be forced to piece the puzzle together themselves.

David Sidebotham is a founding member of Telios Teaches with over a decade of experience in curriculum management. He takes attorney generated curriculum and translates it into online courses that are accessible to all learners, while still remaining informative to learners who may be subject matter experts themselves. Telios Teaches includes both sexual harassment and child protection training.

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