Monday, March 28, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Florida): Grover Norquist and half of something

Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Aaron Sharockman:  writer, researcher
John Bartosek:  editor


This item immediately caught my attention because of the ambiguity.  What does Grover Norquist's statement mean?  What was the original context?  PolitiFact seemed to figure it out easily and quickly:
"FYI," he wrote. "Withheld union dues fund half of Dem (Democratic) campaigns in Florida."

That's an awfully big number. So, FYI, we decided to check it out.
Is it "an awfully big number"?

On its face, Norquist's statement appears to refer to half the total number of political campaigns of Democrats in Florida.  For some as-yet-unknown reason, PolitiFact takes it to mean that withheld union dues provide half the funding for all Democratic campaigns in Florida.

The difference in those two understandings is very substantial.  Use the wrong understanding and the wrong fact gets checked.

Astonishingly (or not, if you follow PolitiFact like I do), once PolitiFact failed to hear back from Norquist or his spokesperson, PolitiFact simply assumed that he was talking about withheld union dues providing half the funding for all Democratic political campaigns in Florida.

Let it be noted that even if those deductions provide every penny of Florida Democratic campaign funds, Norquist is not going to earn a "True" rating simply because his statement could easily represent the idea that at least some funding for half the total number of Democratic political campaigns in Florida came from union dues withheld from paychecks.  PolitiFact tends to penalize when statements lend themselves to misunderstanding.

The subsequent fact check goes out of its way to cut Norquist break after break, for example by dealing with all union contributions to  Democratic campaigns in Florida rather than those that came from paycheck deductions.  No charitable technique (aside from the discarded technique of charitable interpretation) makes the PolitiFact understanding of Norquist remotely accurate.

Apparently it never occurred to the team responsible for the story that Norquist's statement was amenable to a different interpretation than the one they gave it.  Moreover, Norquist's wording apparently seemed to them a completely appropriate way to describe a scenario where half of funding of Democratic campaigns in Florida came from withheld union dues.  They don't even bother paraphrasing it into greater clarity (yellow highlights added):
In both cases, not chump change. But hardly half of what the candidates raised.

Norquist said union dues fund half of Democratic campaigns in Florida. While unions predominantly donate to Democrats, according to research from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, there's no evidence union dues fund anywhere close to half of state Democratic campaigns.
I guess it depends on what "half of state Democratic campaigns" means.
This claim is way off. We rate it Pants on Fire!
Most likely PolitiFact's interpretation of the claim is off by a mile, and even if it doesn't plainly mean something other than what the PolitiFact team thinks it does it is ambiguous to the point that assuming the meaning for purposes of a fact check is inadvisable/foolhardy.

This is yet another flub that is extremely difficult to understand apart from echo-chamber institutional bias at PolitiFact.  Nobody thought the statement might be talking about something other than half of all the funds received by Democratic Party campaigns?

It's kind of hard to believe.

The grades:

Aaron Sharockman:  F
John Bartosek:  F

Journalists reporting badly.


Took a stab at doing the fact check my way (based on the most natural understanding of Norquist's claim).

 I looked for matches between campaign contributors and the state of Florida's list of agencies permitted to accept funds withheld from paychecks with an exclusive emphasis on public employee unions.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Krauthammer measures Obama's OODA loop

What's the OODA loop?

It's the decision cycle.  I remember hearing about it on Hugh Hewitt's fine and educational radio program.  Successful fighter pilots have a small (that is, short) OODA loop.

OODA is an acronym for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.

I theorized fairly early that in terms of foreign policy the inexperienced President Obama might have an unfortunately expansive OODA loop, placing him at a severe disadvantage on the international stage.  Charles Krauthammer doesn't mention "OODA" in his column, but I take it to mean the same thing:
President Obama is proud of how he put together the Libyan operation. A model of international cooperation. All the necessary paperwork. Arab League backing. A Security Council resolution. (Everything but a resolution from the Congress of the United States, a minor inconvenience for a citizen of the world.) It’s war as designed by an Ivy League professor.

True, it took three weeks to put this together, during which time Moammar Gaddafi went from besieged, delusional (remember those youthful protesters on “hallucinogenic pills”) thug losing support by the hour — to resurgent tyrant who marshaled his forces, marched them to the gates of Benghazi and had the U.S. director of national intelligence predicting that “the regime will prevail.”
(please read the rest at the Washington Post)

Grading PolitiFact: Flopping on Gingrich's Libya flip

The writing, editing and rating process for Flip-O-Meter items is the same as the process for Truth-O-Meter items.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


Let's allow PolitiFact to set the stage:
Seemingly contradictory comments by Gingrich about the wisdom of imposing a no-fly zone prompted a flurry of commentary on the Internet and on cable news shows. It got to the point where Gingrich felt he needed to address his apparent rhetorical contradiction in a Facebook post titled, "My position on Libya."
PolitiFact quotes two Gingrich responses to questions about the Libya situation.  As I often do during analysis, I'll use an expanded context and indicate the portions PolitiFact chose to quote by using yellow highlights.

The first statement occurred when Gingrich appeared on the Fox News Channel's On the Record w/Greta Van Susteren show on March 7, 2011:
VAN SUSTEREN: Which is not insignificant, and I'll get to that in a moment. But first let me ask you about Libya. It's in the news. The president has said that military options with NATO are not off the table. What would you do about Libya?

GINGRICH: Exercise a no-fly zone this evening, communicate to the Libyan military that Qaddafi was gone and that the sooner they switch sides, the more like they were to survive, provided help to the rebels to replace him. I mean, the idea that we're confused about a man who has been an anti-American dictator since 1969 just tells you how inept this administration is. They were very quick to jump on Mubarak, who was their ally for 30 years, and they were confused about getting rid of Qaddafi. This is a moment to get rid of him. Do it. Get it over with. 

VAN SUSTEREN: And why do you think -- you say you think it's ineptitude is why the pause or there's different political... 

GINGRICH: Look... 

VAN SUSTEREN: ... or different diplomacy? 

GINGRICH: I think the most generous comment would be ineptitude. It's also an ideological problem. The United States doesn't need anybody's permission. We don't need to have NATO, who frankly, won't bring much to the fight. We don't need to have the United Nations. All we have to say is that we think that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening. And we don't have to send troops. All we have to do is suppress his air force, which we could do in minutes. And then we have to say publicly that he is gone, that the military should switch sides now, and we should help the rebels. And if that means getting them weapons or whatever it means, the fact that there's no more Libyan air power and the fact that the United States has publicly come out for decisively replacing him, I suspect the military will dump him.
PolitiFact appropriately used an ellipsis in joining Gingrich's two separate passages, unlike a recent case involving PolitiFact Ohio.  But I digress.  Susteren asks Gingrich what he would do ("What would you do about Libya?"), not what he would have done, and Gingrich answers that he would immediately institute a no-fly zone and work until Qaddafi is gone from power.

The second statement occurred  on the Today show on NBC with Matt Lauer from March 23 (transcript mine, based partly on closed caption version):
Over the weekend you said you wanted the president to answer four questions so you could understand why he committed military resources to Libya.  The first of those questions, what is Obama's standard for deciding to intervene. Over the last couple of days have you been able to answer your own question?

No.  I mean, the standard he has fallen back to, of humanitarian intervention, could apply to Sudan, uh, to North Korea, to Zimbabwe, uh, to Syria this week, uh, to Yemen, to Bahrain.  I mean, this isn't a serious standard.  This is a public relations conversation.

But on Thursday of last week, Mr. Gingrich, Moammar Gadhafi said publicly that his troops were headed to Benghazi and that he was going to, uh, basically go into closets and find people.  And, and, basically it sounded like he was promising some kind of real slaughter.  Should the president have stood by and done nothing during that moment? The UN asked for help.

Well, first of all, the president of the United States doesn't report to the United Nations.  He works with the U.S. Congress.  I think the fact that this president has not, in a serious way, consulted Congress, is not looking at American interests. Uh, the Arab League wanted us to do something. The minute we did, (suddenly?) the Arab League began criticizing us doing it.  I, I think that two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a lot.  I think that the problems we have in Pakistan, Egypt, uh, Yemen go, go around the region.  We, we could get engaged by this standard in all sorts of places.  Sudan has been killing--the Sudanese government has been killing people in Darfur for years and years and somehow all the major powers avoided thinking about it.  I'm just suggesting to you there's no standard here.  The president said on March 3 Gadhafi has to go. Well, they're now saying this is a humanitarian intervention, which is nonsense.  If this, if this is not designed to get rid of Gadhafi then this, this makes no sense at all.

Well, let me ask you this.  The other two questions, or twoMoammar Gadhafi be the definition of success, and what should we be willing to do to accomplish it?

Well. given this president who has said publicly Gadhafi should go, it seems to me, I, I--it's his decision.  That he's the one who said that.

But are you in favor of that?  Do you think Moammar Gadhafi has to go as a result of this military intervention ?

I think that now -- let me draw a distinction.  I would not have intervened.  I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Gadhafi.  I think there are a lot of allies in the region we could have worked with.  I would not have used American and European forces.

Well you can't put that genie back in the bottle. We are there now.  Should that now be part of the mission?

Having decided to go there, if Gadhafi does not leave power, it will be a defeat for the United States, it will lengthen our engagement, it will increase our costs. And notice, by the way, at least according to this morning's papers, the White House refuses to even tell Congress whether they're gonna ask for supplemental to pay for the war.  So, I'm just suggesting to you, they currently are in an argument with our allies over who runs the war.  They are currently not willing to tell Congress how it's going to cost or who's going to pay for it.  They can't agree internally on what their goals are.  Uh, this is about as badly run as any foreign operation we have seen in our lifetime.

Let me take it one step further.  If you think that now success has to be determined by the removal of Gadhafi, how far should we be willing to go?  He stood on a balcony last night, apparently at his residence in Tripoli and said to his supporters below "I am here, I am here, I am here." Based on that information it would only take a matter of seconds for a cruise missile to join him there.  Should we kill Moammar Gadhafi ?

I think when you are facing an enemy who is trying to kill your people you should take whatever steps are necessary to defeat him.  We had no compunction about trying to target Saddam Hussein.  Uh, I think the idea--we should be very clear to the, to the Libyans that Gadhafi is going to go.  We should, uh, obviously we're now in this.  That doesn't mean we should put in ground forces.  We should help equip the Libyan rebels.  It means that they ought to have coordinated air strikes.  They ought to do what is necessary to win.  I would let the military determine what is necessary to win, the CIA and others help engage in it, I'd try to get Arab allies in the fight as fast as possible.
Contradiction, juxtaposed with the statement to Van Susteren?  Flip-flop?  Many seemed to think so.

In the blogosphere, critics on both the left and the right charged that Gingrich had flip-flopped. The liberal blog ThinkProgress wrote that "there is no other reasonable explanation for Gingrich’s complete flip-flop" than "opportunism and news media publicity." At the conservative blog site Hot Air, the anonymous AllahPundit suggested that Gingrich’s comments amounted to a flip-flop and asked, "Is this anti-Obama pandering or just a big misunderstanding?"
That's two votes for calling it a flip-flop from opposite ends of the political spectrum.  But are they correct?

PolitiFact acknowledges that Gingrich eventually made a statement to clarify his remarks, saying that after President Obama said Gadhafi must go that the United States limited its viable options.  Failing to oust Gadhafi after declaring that he had to go would amount to a defeat in the eyes of the world.  Hot Air's Allahpundit found Gingrich's explanation lacking but did not provide much of an argument in support of his skepticism.

PolitiFact concurred with Allahpundit and tried to make the case:
Gingrich has not persuaded us that his comments were consistent. The best evidence supporting Gingrich’s explanation is that he did raise some of the themes from his Facebook post during the interview with Today. Gingrich reminded Lauer that "the president said on March 3rd Gadhafi has to go," and he raised the possibility that a  failure could be harmful to the United States’ standing. "Having decided to go there, if Gadhafi does not leave power it will be a defeat for the United States," Gingrich told Lauer. "It will lengthen our engagement, it will increase our costs."

However, if Gingrich’s position is that he was making two separate arguments -- a hypothetical one about what he would have done prior to Obama’s March 3 statement, and a practical one about what he would do once the U.S. had crossed the Rubicon of advocating Gadhafi’s ouster -- he didn’t do a very clear job of explaining himself. In neither interview did he frame the arguments in that fashion. So we think it’s reasonable for viewers to conclude that he’d flip-flopped on the issue of imposing a no-fly zone.
It's fair for PolitiFact to charge Gingrich with a failure to achieve crystalline clarity with his remarks.  On the other hand, to whatever extent Gingrich's remarks were ambiguous rather than logically self-contradictory he is reasonably entitled to that important principle of literary interpretation that PolitiFact often neglects to employ:  the principle of charitable interpretation.  If Gingrich explains himself plausibly then he earns the benefit of the doubt via that principle.  And then there's PolitiFact's own principle of the burden of proof.  If PolitiFact is to claim that Gingrich flip-flopped then it bears the responsibility for making the demonstration--and mere skepticism of Gingrich's claim will not support that burden.

How did PolitiFact do with respect to the evidence?

Not so good.  PolitiFact charged Gingrich with failing to frame his arguments in terms of scenarios before and after March 3.  But the context in both instances supports Gingrich to the point that he shouldn't need to be specific.  As noted above, Van Susteren asked Gingrich what he would do (as of March 7), not what he would have done if presented with the Libyan rebellion from scratch.  And during the interview with Lauer, the context likewise makes clear that Gingrich referred to differing scenarios contingent on the stated need to remove Gadhafi.  When Gingrich starts by saying "I think that now--" prior to saying he would not have intervened, he makes it sufficiently clear that his subsequent distinction ("I would not have intervened") creates the two scenarios PolitiFact fails to find obvious.  Lauer's followup, "you can't put that genie back in the bottle" brings Gingrich back to the explanation of what he would do now (as of  the date of the interview).

It really isn't that complicated.  Sure, mere anonymous conservative blogger Allahpundit had the same trouble, but PolitiFact is staffed by professional journalists.  No comparison, right?

PolitiFact's conclusion:
Gingrich has a point that Obama’s March 3 declaration about Gadhafi had consequences, and if Gingrich had provided that context of his thinking in both interviews, he could have made a reasonable argument that the two statements were consistent. However, Gingrich didn’t clarify his comments in that way until after he started taking heat for having flip-flopped. Because he didn’t, we give him a Full Flop.
The conclusion represents yet another example of PolitiFallacious reasoning, if we apply to PolitiFact the principles it would apply to others.  Gingrich bore his burden of proof by providing a logically consistent method of understanding his remarks.   PolitiFact, failing to find Gingrich's explanation clear in his original statements, concludes that the statements represent a 180 degree change in stance.  It is a form of the fallacy of the appeal to ignorance.  If PolitiFact's fails to detect evidence showing the statements are consistent then PolitiFact concludes that they are not consistent.
Argumentum ad Ignorantiam: (appeal to ignorance) the fallacy that a proposition is true simply on the basis that it has not been proved false or that it is false simply because it has not been proved true. This error in reasoning is often expressed with influential rhetoric.
The fallacy is compounded, of course, by the fact that PolitiFact did detect evidence in support of Gingrich's explanation.  It wasn't as much evidence as PolitiFact should have found, but it certainly ought to have discouraged PolitiFact from committing an informal fallacy.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

Conclusions based jointly on the failure to pay proper attention to context and commission of informal fallacies will not result in passing grades.


Just to reinforce for the reader PolitiFact's failure according to its own standards:
Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?  

Context matters -- We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.

Burden of proof -- People who make factual claims are accountable for their words and should be able to provide evidence to back them up. We will try to verify their statements, but we believe the burden of proof is on the person making the statement.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter
PolitiFact is people who make factual claims, such as "Pants on Fire" and "Full Flop."  Any time the final "Truth-O-Meter" rating is based on the subject's failure to bear the burden of proof, PolitiFact is engaged in rank hypocrisy.

March 29, 2011:  Moved the word "clear" to a better spot in one of the sentences in the paragraph preceding the definition of "argumentum ad ignorantiam."   Sentences what makes sense is gooder than the others.

Friday, March 25, 2011

PolitiFact: Selection bias? What selection bias?

Does PolitiFact encourage its readers to draw conclusions about political figures based on their collected "Truth-O-Meter" ratings irrespective of selection bias?

Of course.  There should be no controversy about it at all (click image for enlarged view):

What's the point of a "report card" if you're not supposed to learn something about the person the report is about?

In terms of PolitiFact's way of grading statements, this one seems to fit:
Barely True – The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
Again, PolitiFact fails to meet the standards it sets for others.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A tale of two fact checks

PolitiFact recently checked a claim by Rep. H. Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) that EPA regulations on mining wastewater are so strict that even some popular bottled waters would not pass.

The fact check is notable because it is one for which the claim is technically accurate but leaves a misleading impression.  Those types of claims seem like they should typically result in a "Mostly True" or "Half True" true rating, since PolitiFact's descriptions of those ratings suggest as much (yellow highlights added):
TrueThe statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
Mostly TrueThe statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
Half TrueThe statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
Barely True – The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
False – The statement is not accurate.
Pants on Fire – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.
Compare a claim from President Barack Obama back in 2009:
"The problem is that, for decades, we have avoided doing what must be done as a nation to turn challenge into opportunity," Obama said. "As a consequence, we import more oil today than we did on 9/11. The 1908 Model T earned better gas mileage than a typical SUV sold in 2008. And even as our economy has been transformed by new forms of technology, our electric grid looks largely the same as it did half a century ago."
As with Griffith, the fact check found that Obama created an impression that was the reverse of the truth, though it was deferentially described as "a reach" rather than flatly false:
But his implication is that we haven't gotten more fuel efficient in 100 years. And that's a reach.
It's more than a reach. It's simply untrue, as was highlighted in a NPR broadcast I referenced in my review of the Obama fact check.

The stories are parallel except for the fact that Griffith ends with a "Barely True" rating and the president ends with a "Mostly True" rating from the "Truth-O-Meter."  That's if we overlook the fact that Obama's statement  may well have been technically false contrary to PolitiFact's finding.

The story comparison suggests that those who work for PolitiFact subjectively interpret PolitiFact's grading structure.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Ann Coulter says more radiation is good for you?

Context matters -- We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

Here we go again.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


Another preliminary sign that a fact check will manifest a significant flub:  Marked disparity between the headline quotation and the subsequent deck paraphrase.

Anyone who thinks "There is a growing body of evidence that radiation in excess of what the government says are the minimum amounts you should be exposed to are actually good for you and reduce cases of cancer" readily equates with "exposure to low levels of radiation is good for you, reduces cancer risk" is logically challenged.  Can PolitiFact make the case based on broader considerations?

As news broke last week that Japan's nuclear disaster may result in low levels of radiation wafting all the way to the U.S., political pundit Ann Coulter wrote a column arguing that too much is made of exposure to low levels of radiation. In an appearance on Fox's O'Reilly Factor on March 17, Coulter argued some exposure to radiation may actually be good for you.

"There is a growing body of evidence that radiation in excess of what the government says are the minimum amounts you should be exposed to are actually good for you and reduce cases of cancer," Coulter said.
The beginning offers little encouragement.  PolitiFact appears to use Coulter's statement as its jumping-off point to reach the distorted language of its deck description.  The sole saving grace is the word "may," which makes the presentation in the opening paragraph at least 10 times more accurate than the deck material.

Before you go sticking your head in the X-ray machine, a little perspective is in order here. While there are scientists who subscribe to the theory that low levels of radiation can have beneficial health effects -- it's called hormesis -- it is still an outside-the-mainstream opinion.
Writer Robert Farley goes on to provide a sampling of expert opinion, which comes down generally against the hormesis hypothesis.

But is Farley checking the right claim?  Was Coulter trying to make the point that hormesis is solid science?

Let's go to the tape:

It is clear that Coulter appeared on "The O'Reilly Factor" to answer questions about her recent column titled "A Glowing Report on Radiation."  In that column, Coulter makes it very clear that she does not think it is hard science, and the same paragraph where she makes that clear also makes the point of her column:
Although it is hardly a settled scientific fact that excess radiation is a health benefit, there's certainly evidence that it decreases the risk of some cancers -- and there are plenty of scientists willing to say so. But Jenny McCarthy's vaccine theories get more press than Harvard physics professors' studies on the potential benefits of radiation.
In context, Coulter was making the point that the media are passing on a classic "man bites dog" story.  In other words she's making a point about media coverage of Japanese radiation leaks rather than jumping on a pseudoscientific bandwagon.  Coulter tried to emphasize the same point on O'Reilly's program but ended up having to instead deal with the host's skepticism about the evidence.

The story provides no evidence that PolitiFact examined the claim in the full context.

The story provides no evidence that PolitiFact paid attention to the comments that occurred before and after the key claim.

The story provides scant evidence that PolitiFact paid attention to the question that prompted Coulter's response.  For example (transcript mine):

The column is entitled "A Glowing Report on Radiation."  "Glowing," "Radiation," very, very good.  But you are not down on radiation poisoning.

Well, it's not me, I'm citing a stunning number of physicists, and from the New York Times and the Times of London there, there's a growing body of evidence that, uh, radiation in excess of what the government says are the minimum (sic) amounts you should be exposed to are actually good for you and reduces cases of, um, cancer.

Farley's story provides no evidence that he accurately discerned Coulter's point.

The expert opinions that make up the bulk of Farley's story are interesting but ultimately do not give us the tools to rate Coulter's claim as PolitiFact's principles suggest it should be rated.  Farley's conclusion as much as admits the statement is taken out of context (bold emphasis added):
We are not rating whether hormesis -- or as Coulter put it, the theory that exposure to low levels of radiation is actually good for you and reduces cases of cancer -- is correct. Reputable scientists disagree about that. We're rating whether Coulter was correct in saying there is "a growing body of evidence" that radiation in excess of approved exposure levels may be beneficial.

There is a small but growing body of research to back up those claims. But the fact is that the mainstream of the scientific community has not embraced the theory. They point to limitations of those studies and argue the research falls well short of scientific evidence. Coulter failed to present this counter-weight, the opinion shared by the majority in the scientific community, which doesn't buy into -- and in many cases outright rejects -- the idea that low levels of radiation can have beneficial health effects and reduce the risk of cancer. And so we rate Coulter's claim Barely True.
Also note that while PolitiFact says it is rating Coulter on her "growing body of evidence" claim, the rating actually proceeds from what PolitiFact feels should have been the context of the claim, namely the fact that hormesis is not accepted in the mainstream of science.  PolitiFact, in fact, does not rate Coulter on the truth of her statement ("There is a small but growing body of research to back up those claims"="Mostly True" or "True").   When Coulter's statement is taken in context, there is no need for her to repeat that the truth of hormesis is not the mainstream view.  That was stated in her column and has little to do with the point of the column.

The grades:

Robert Farley:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

Monday, March 21, 2011

More from PolitiFact's "Matrix"

The visitor interface at FaceBook has some significant issues, it appears, unless PolitiFact really is actively manipulating it.  I don't imagine a news organization can afford to pay somebody to do that, so for now I'll blame it all on FaceBook.

PolitiFact's FaceBook page has Wall discussions and a separate Discussions area.  At the latter, I have periodically updated a thread called "Fact Check This."  The list of discussions is listed in reverse chronological order by the most recent post in each thread.  And the list looks like this near the thread I started:

Despite an update within the past two weeks, the "Latest post" supposedly occurred "over a year ago."

Pants on Fire, FaceBook!

Take that, machine overlords!

PolitiFact's "Matrix"

I've written before about suspicions that PolitiFact isn't playing it straight with comments on its FaceBook page.

Screen clip from Monday, March 21, 2011, this IP address using my normal personal FaceBook account:

Screen clip from Monday, March 21, 2011, this IP address while logged off from FaceBook:

Note that Sene Sean's name has gone black (no hotlink) and the presence of hotlinks to the lower right.

And, finally, a screen clip from Monday, March 21, 2011, this IP address while logged on with an organizational account I started for PolitiFact Bias:

Note the presence of a post invisible from the other account even though it was posted on Friday.

This phenomenon is a fine breakthrough for Internet discussion.  Everyone can have the last word in their own little version of the Matrix.

Using the organizational account, I hope to pick up a few clues as to what causes posts to disappear depending on the account used to view the page.  So far I see no obvious way to selectively edit some posts by one person while leaving others available for viewing.  But there are a few things I can try that might shed some light on the matter.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Blumneconomics XIV: the solution to poverty

Though I'm still waiting for Robyn "Blumñata" Blumner to plug another Western European socialist country, we at least have installment XIV in the Blumneconomics series with her "Poverty is not a character flaw" column from last week.

Blumner got the laughter rolling early:
Sen. Bernie Sanders, a liberal, political independent and all-around good egg, has put together a book of excerpts of letters he's received from Vermonters who are struggling through the recession.
Liberal.  Political independent.  All-around good egg.  Socialist.

Blumner may have decided to omit that label because of the regularity with which comments on her columns tag her with "communist" or "socialist."  So here she is lauding the socialist Bernie Sanders in her column.  Perfect.

And Sanders put together a book!:
In short, blunt paragraphs, the writers tell of how they are falling out of the middle class:

"I can't find a job to save my soul that will pay enough to make a difference," says Sue, who is described as "jobless since April" and "facing foreclosure."
Can't find a job that pays enough to make a difference?  The difference between something and nothing is still something, isn't it?  Or maybe Sue's receiving jobless benefits and won't take a job that "will pay enough to make a difference."  It makes a difference to taxpayers, if that's her situation.

"I patch together a full-time job making $12/hour and various painting jobs and still can't afford to get myself out of debt, or make necessary repairs on my home," laments a single mom in her late 40s.
Bummer.  I wonder if marriage has crossed her mind a second (third?  I dunno) time?

"I am a 35-year-old man living paycheck to paycheck trying to make ends meet while working at a chain retailer. I feel I am being overworked and underpaid," offers a writer from Middlebury who lives with his parents because he can't afford housing.
We have a winner!  How can a person live "paycheck to paycheck trying to make ends meet" while living with their parents?  Even working only 30 hours per week at minimum wage he's got to be taking home about $600 per month.  A person who can't get by on $600 per month while living with their parents probably has issues with budgeting.

That was all for the poverty parade.  But now comes Blumner's economic nonsense for a few paragraphs:
While Republicans in Congress push to unravel more of America's frayed social safety net, they have no plans to help rock-ribbed, hard-working Americans earn a decent living.
Sure they do.  Do what worked in the past.  Harness the free market and let American ingenuity do the rest.  If that won't work then we have no alternative with a proven history of success.  People who fail to understand that are often called "socialists."
Do conservative politicians think, if you're not rich, you're not working hard enough? No one works harder than a roofer in the Florida sun or a tomato picker. But in the GOP's world, it is as if poverty indicates a character flaw. It's an unconscious bias that metastasizes into contempt for people who are struggling economically.
It isn't that poverty is a character flaw.  It's that poor job skills lead to low-paying jobs in a market economy.  And no economy can fool the market indefinitely.  That's why bubbles burst and the business cycle cycles.  A roofer can make pretty good money because it takes a certain degree of skill.  Tomato pickers don't need much skill.  But the market doesn't reward work simply because it is physically difficult.  If I go dig a ditch that nobody wants there's no need to doubt that the work will prove very difficult.  Dirt is pretty heavy, kind of a like thousands of tiny little rocks.  But I don't get a dime if the work is not valuable to a person or persons.

And that's what liberals and socialists always seem to misunderstand about the free market.  There's no escaping it.  You either work with it or fight against it.  Fighting against it carries a terrible economic history.

Blumner's column follows that misstep off into the mire.  She can't understand why Republican free-market policies favor increased freedom for businesses.  She thinks businesses should give (like charity) jobs to people regardless of profit.  In her mind, salaries given for jobs that do not profit the employer serve as the magic bullet that permits people to "earn a decent living."  These useless jobs pump money into the economy, just like unemployment benefits.  And liberals know that paying unemployment benefits is one of the very best ways to stimulate the economy.

But even liberals, if pressed, seem to realize that paying everyone unemployment benefits would not result in a terrific economy.  The missing component?  Wealth creation.  No, printing more money does not create wealth.  It dilutes wealth and creates yet another market condition that will help some and harm others.

Who creates wealth?  Those who direct businesses into ventures that people find valuable.  The Chevy Volt will serve a great test case.  If people (paying customers) value the Volt enough to buy many of them, then the Volt will create wealth.  If the customers don't show then the investors lose money.

There's a good chance the Volt will fail, because it represents the vision of what some people want the market to be while ignoring what the market is in real life.

They never seem to learn.

Correction 7/21/2012:  Fixed dyslexic take ("IVX") on the Roman numeral representation of 14 in the title and text.

Grading PolitiFact: Anne Hathaway and the gay marriage majority

Timing – Our rulings are based on when a statement was made and on the information available at that time.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


Here's how my selection bias works with respect to PolitiFact:  If I see a fact check involving a claim with which journalistic liberals will feel sympathy, there's a good chance I'll inspect it.

Away we go:
Actor Anne Hathaway and other Hollywood celebrities recently wrote to President Barack Obama urging him to support gay marriage. The letter said a majority of Americans now support it.

Indeed, public opinion on gay marriage is shifting quickly. How quickly? Let's just say we're glad we waited a day to publish our item.
I suppose we'll eventually receive an explanation of the cryptic ending to the second paragraph.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Ohio): Marcia Fudge gets a break on her factses

  • Is the statement leaving a particular impression that may be misleading?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Sabrina Eaton:  writer, researcher
Robert Higgs:  editor


Context first:

(transcript mine, yellow highlights indicate portions quoted by PolitiFact)

Good morning.  Um,  I got a couple things I want to talk about.  One in particular, you know, I hear all the time about 50 percent of the people not paying their taxes.  But, you know, 50 percent of the people are pretty much living from day to day and in poverty.  That's, um, one.

The other thing about paying your fair share of taxes, uh, I'm in business for myself.  And I can write off pretty much everything.  And the larger businesses can write off more than I can ever begin to write off.  So they're not paying any taxes, you know, people talk about, uh,  paying your fair, uh, share, uh, or gaming the system.  Uh, these large businesses, they have parties, they write off all their food, they write off everything.  Clothes, and the whole bit.  Now you have people that are poor that can't write off anything.  I would much rather be in the position that I am in than to get welfare.  If you're getting welfare, food stamps, and that, you can' t pay your bills.  You're working from day to day, and you're definitely (?) conservative because if you weren't conservative you wouldn't be able to survive 30 days off of uh welfare and food stamps and anybody that thinks that they can, they need to trade that position with some of these people that are getting food stamps.

Rep. Fudge
There are corporations in this nation, some of the biggest corporations in this nation, who do not pay taxes.  You are certainly correct.  Um, But it's a matter of tax policy.  Over the last probably 15 years in this nation, tax policy has skewed to the very wealthy.  It's not that they are cheating, it's not that they are doing something wrong, they're, they're, they're using what we have given them.  We have given them tools to keep them from paying taxes. 

Uh, and so the policies need to change.  We need to take a look at tax policy in general.  But we certainly need to take a look at corporate tax policy.  Because when we continue to allow the wealthiest people and the biggest corporations in this nation to not pay taxes that is why we have created this huge gap between rich and poor.  Um, I know that we often talk about middle income people but at some point we have to talk about the gap between rich and poor, which has consistently gotten bigger in this country over the last 10 years.  And now it is larger than anyone ever imagined it could be.  So I think that it is absurd to say that it, that, that taxes should not be increased on the wealthiest people in this nation, who some pay probably less taxes than I pay.  And that we should not do things for the people who are most in need.  I think it's, it's absurd.

The above method of examining the original context can emphasize the degree to which a reporter massaged a quotation into shape. This example has Eaton pushing, if not shredding, the envelope by omitting material in the midst of a quotation without using an ellipsis:
"It is not that they are cheating," Fudge continued. "It is not that they are doing something wrong. We have given them tools."

We thought examining Fudge’s tax claim would be worthwhile, since representatives of some of the nation’s biggest companies, such as Cincinnati’s Procter & Gamble, argue that Congress should be cutting business taxes.
Eaton spelled out something of an agenda with the latter paragraph.  Corporations need their taxes cut?  We'll see about that!

Are some large U.S. businesses not paying taxes, as Fudge claims?

To back up her assertion, Fudge’s office cites media reports about particular companies – like General Electric and Bank of America -- that did not pay 2009 taxes as well as a July 2008 report from Congress’ Government Accountability Office that showed it’s relatively common for big companies to pay no taxes.
Remember, Fudge argues that corporations aren't paying taxes because the government gives them the tools to avoid paying taxes.  Let's follow the links:
NEW YORK ( -- General Electric filed more than 7,000 income tax returns in hundreds of global jurisdictions last year, but when push came to shove, the company owed the U.S. government a whopping bill of $0.

How'd it pull off that trick? By losing lots of money. 
Thanks for the tools, federal government!
As for Bank of America - after major losses in 2009... it ended the year with a tax benefit of almost $2 billion.
CNN anchor Jack Cafferty offers no clue as to how he calculates a "tax benefit" or what the term actually means.  My investigation suggests that he is misinterpreting and/or misrepresenting its meaning.  It appears to mean that a past write-off was recovered and had to be reported as income for the current tax year--which would increase the income tax if the company had demonstrated a net income.

And how about that GAO report?  Yes, it showed that big companies often pay no (income) taxes.  Because big companies often lose money at the bottom line.  From the report's "Results in Brief":
Corporations can establish the basis for no tax liability at different places on their tax returns. For example, some corporations could have zero income before deducting expenses and others could have zero net income after deducting expenses—both of which could result in no tax liability. In 2005, large FCDCs and USCCs differed little in where on their tax returns they first established no tax liability. Most large FCDCs and USCCs first established no tax liability where they reported their net current income after deducting expenses. A smaller proportion—about 10 percent—reported losses from prior years that eliminated any tax liability.
The final two sentences seem especially relevant, since they suggest that most corporations establish the status of no tax liability by posting an operating loss.  All part of the government's plan to keep the rich from paying taxes, no doubt.

PolitiFact does a good bit of fiddling with the statistics from the GAO report, but the stats ultimately don't mean much.  Businesses that consistently lose money--especially large businesses--don't stay in business for long.  And the businesses that make money pay income taxes on the income.  It is difficult to see how that finding supports Fudge's claim.  How does the fact that businesses don't pay income taxes when they don't have net income have a significant effect on the gap between the rich and the poor?  We could use an explanation.  But we're not going to get one.

What, conclusion time already?

The nation’s big business representatives don’t dispute the (GAO) report’s findings, even as they stress it should not be misconstrued to mean businesses are evading taxes they owe. During her television appearance, Fudge stressed that the businesses who don’t pay taxes aren’t cheating or doing anything wrong.

Our research finds solid ground beneath her claim that some large U.S. companies don’t pay taxes. That’s why we rate her statement as True.
The rating is ridiculous.  Fudge did not mention the fact that when U.S. companies do not pay income taxes it is because they did not make money.  Nor did she distinguish between income taxes and other types of taxes such as property and sales taxes.  Ask Allen West how that can affect your Truth-O-Meter rating if you're a Republican.  The "True" rating is supposed to apply when "there’s nothing significant missing."  It is inconsistent to rate West "Barely True" for a parallel statement lacking that sort of context and then find a similar omission insignificant when rating Fudge.

The grades:

Sabrina Eaton:  F
Robert Higgs:  F

Journalists who fail to apply proper standards are journalists reporting badly.  In this case, the PolitiFacters did not care whether the statement left an impression that was misleading and did not pay close attention to the specific wording of the claim nor the context with its underlying point.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Fred Upton and "rising gas prices"

Context matters -- We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

 The issue:

Right away one wonders:  Is Upton saying the bill will "help" stop rising gas prices (top) or is he saying saying the bill "will" stop rising gas prices?  Doesn't PolitiFact detect a difference?

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


The question that arose from the title blurbs is magnified and expanded right away in the following story:
To hear Reps. Fred Upton and Ed Whitfield talk about their new energy bill, you'd think it will prevent gas prices from increasing before your next fill-up.

Upton, the Michigan Republican who chairs the influential Energy and Commerce Committee, and Ed Whitfield, the Kentucky Republican who heads the Energy and Power subcommittee, recently argued in a letter to fellow lawmakers that one way to stop rising gas prices would be to pass the Energy Tax Prevention Act of 2011 (H.R. 910).
PolitiFact views the statement from Upton and Whitfield as claiming that prices would pretty much immediately freeze with passage of the bill.

I'll try to interpret that as hyperbole.  Which, of course, leaves the ambiguity from the title blurbs intact unless the hyperbole explanation falls apart.

The bill grows out of longstanding frustration by industry groups and lawmakers who believe that Environmental Protection Agency regulations unnecessarily burden many companies.

The measure -- which Whitfield’s subcommittee approved on March 10, 2011, and which now heads to the full committee -- would prevent the EPA from regulating greenhouse gases for the purpose of addressing climate change.
The above two paragraphs represent an oasis of accuracy.  It's always nice to run across such things in a PolitiFact story.

Now for the nuts and bolts of Upton's claim and the associated fact check.  PolitiFact uses three paragraphs to quote material from the Upton/Whitfield letter.  The quotations contain ellipses, so rather than quoting all three paragraphs I'll instead quote directly from the letter, using yellow highlights to identify the portions quoted by PolitiFact:

Monday, March 14, 2011

Andrew Klavan explains public sector unions

City Journal's Andrew Klavan explains the problem with public sector unions.  It's basically the same as the explanation I've been giving at sites like PolitiFact's FaceBook page, but benefits from Klavan's inimitable style and some creative animations:

(hat tip to Anchor Rising)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Virginia): Morgan Griffith milking it?

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Jacob Geigner:  writer, researcher
Warren Fiske:  editor


Skipping past the cutesy introductory comments PolitiFact often offers to the meat of the story:
In a February newsletter to constituents, Griffith claimed that new EPA rules treat milk spills the same way they treat oil spills. He titled the newsletter "Crying over spilt milk." 
"What do spilt milk and oil have in common?" he wrote. "Quite a bit, according to the EPA. In fact, a new ruling by the EPA would force dairy farmers to comply with the Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure Program when dealing with spilt milk -- the same regulations oil and natural gas producers must follow. The EPA’s reasoning is that milk contains ‘a percentage of animal fats, which is a non-petroleum oil.’ It appears spilt milk is just as threatening as an oil spill."
The quotation from Griffith comes with sufficient context so that it accurately represents the content of the newsletter.  Good so far.

Beth Breeding, Griffith’s press secretary, said her boss’s information came from the EPA’s website. So we went there.

Right away, we found problems with Griffith’s claim. The website says milk has been regulated under the Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure program since 1973, when the Clean Water Act took effect. The law was passed by Congress the preceding year over the veto of Republican President Richard Nixon. So this is hardly a "new ruling," as Griffith says. It has been in effect for 38 years.
Skepticism is warranted.  Bear that in mind as we allow Geigner to proceed with his case:
The EPA site says "since the SPCC rule became law in 1973, all kinds of oils including petroleum and edible oils (such as animal fats and vegetable oils) have been considered oils. This is because the SPCC rule gets its definition of ‘oil’ from the Clean Water Act, which was authored by Congress."
Who's buying it?

Here's how the Clean Water Act reads:
SEC. 311. (a) For the purpose of this section, the term—(1) ‘‘oil’’ means oil of any kind or in any form, including, but not limited to, petroleum, fuel oil, sludge, oil refuse, and oil mixed with wastes other than dredged spoil;
The EPA apparently wants us to believe that if we have a tanker of water with some peppermint oil added to it then the tanker of water is subject to regulation under the hazardous waste procedures mandated by the Clean Water Act.  Who's buying it?  And who's buying the notion that the EPA has been duly regulating milk under the Clean Water Act since roughly 1973?  Anybody?

Oh.  PolitiFact buys it.

So what’s new?  According to the EPA, the only thing that comes close is a rule change it announced on Jan. 15, 2009. It goes in effect at the end of this month. 
The simple purpose of the change is to exclude milk and dairy farms from the spill rules governing oil products. That’s the exact opposite of what Griffith claims. Here’s what the regulation says:

"EPA proposes to exempt milk containers and associated piping and appurtenances from the SPCC requirements provided they are constructed according to the current applicable 3-A Sanitary Standards, and are subject to the current applicable Grade "A" Pasteurized Milk Ordinance," or similar state laws.

Translated into plain English, the rule means milk storage will no longer have to meet the EPA’s oil spill rules, provided storage tanks meet pasteurization laws. In Virginia it is illegal to sell "raw," or unpasteurized, milk, so the state’s dairy farmers should already be in compliance with the new standards. 
To parrot PolitiFact, there are immediate problems with the EPA's explanation and PolitiFact's acceptance of the same.

If it is true that there is nothing new in the regulations other than an exemption for milk storage, then why has the milk production industry clamored for the exemption as though it provides relief from new requirements?  On its face, it makes no sense.

A journalist ought to wonder why the dairy industry thinks it is encountering a new burden if not for the exemption.

The New York Farm Bureau has an explanation:
The SPCC rules were revised in 2002 but left considerable ambiguity about the regulations’ impact on milk, which can be considered a non petroleum-oil because of its butterfat content. In 2005, an EPA presentation made clear that the current SPCC policies could be applied to milk. Since then, milk producers have been working to ensure that EPA regulations don’t apply to milk producers. The Bush administration proposed a rule to officially exempt milk producers from any SPCC regulations, but the rule was held up as part of the Obama administration’s complete review of all EPA rules proposed under the previous administration. A rule exempting milk has never been finalized.
Now doesn't that sound quite a bit more plausible than "milk has been regulated under the Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure program since 1973, when the Clean Water Act took effect"?  It is exactly the sort of information that helps fill the gaping hole in Geigner's story.

The EPA ring through Geigner's nose leads to the EPA-friendly conclusion:
Let’s review our findings.

Griffith claimed a "new ruling by the EPA would force dairy farmers to comply" with strict regulations for spills and leaks. He said the rules were the same as those enforced on oil and natural gas companies.

In fact, these regulations have been in place for 38 years and are not new at all. The "new ruling" from the EPA, announced in 2009 and taking effect in a few weeks, actually excludes milk from the spill standards, giving dairy farmers fewer regulations to meet. That’s the exact opposite of what Griffith claims.

Sure, Griffith got some of his information from an inaccurate editorial in The Wall Street Journal. But a  congressman who is railing against a federal agency has the means to get his facts right.

Griffith is dishing udder cow chips. We rate his statement False.
Way to go, EPA.  You made Geigner miss the story.  And somehow you did it so well that he ended up inserting some haughty 'tude in the text.

Even if we were somehow able to ignore the hole in Geigner's story, he couldn't justify the "False" rating for Griffith.  Geigner implicitly admits that raw milk producers will not obtain the proposed exemption.  So Griffith is "Barely True" at worst since the lack of an exemption makes his statement at least somewhat true.  Under current rules and lacking any exemption or delay in enforcement, raw milk spills would be treated like petroleum spills by the EPA.  And that would apparently remain the case under the permanent exemption promised in the spring.

This piece warrants the special tag "journalists reporting badly."

The grades:

Jacob Geigner:  F
Warren Fiske:  F

March 14, 2011:  I repented about the words I used to describe the hole in the story.  I chose them poorly and they did not accurately communicate the truth of the matter.  I've preserved the old wording for posterity  below: 

"why has the milk production industry clamored for time to meet the exemption standards?"
"A journalist ought to wonder why the dairy industry needs time to comply with an exemption standard."

Apologies to any who were confused or misled.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Wisconsin): Michael Moore and the richest 400

We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter
To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message.
--Bill Adair

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Tom Kertscher:  writer, researcher
Greg Borowski:  editor


This item didn't interest me at first.  Usually I know from the subject matter in the title whether I want to fact check the fact checkers.  This time I saw the need after starting to read the story just to obtain a sense of it.

First, Michael Moore's claim, as presented by PolitiFact:
"Right now, this afternoon, just 400 Americans -- 400 -- have more wealth than half of all Americans combined," Moore avowed to tens of thousands of protesters.
PolitiFact continued the quotation of Moore in the subsequent paragraph, but that continuance failed to capture the context that informs us regarding Moore's underlying point.  Here's the video, followed by a transcript including the expanded context:

Moore (using Moore's transcript with yellow highlights indicating the portions used by PolitiFact; bold and italicized emphasis in the original):
America is not broke.

Contrary to what those in power would like you to believe so that you'll give up your pension, cut your wages, and settle for the life your great-grandparents had, America is not broke. Not by a long shot. The country is awash in wealth and cash. It's just that it's not in your hands. It has been transferred, in the greatest heist in history, from the workers and consumers to the banks and the portfolios of the uber-rich.

Today just 400 Americans have the same wealth as half of all Americans combined.

Let me say that again. 400 obscenely rich people, most of whom benefited in some way from the multi-trillion dollar taxpayer "bailout" of 2008, now have as much loot, stock and property as the assets of 155 million Americans combined. If you can't bring yourself to call that a financial coup d'état, then you are simply not being honest about what you know in your heart to be true.
Moore has at least one underlying point.  The most obvious is that 400 people have so much money that it demonstrates that America is not broke.  Despite the guidance of PolitiFact's founder, Bill Adair, this fact check will stick with the superficial point rather than the underlying point.

Let's follow the course of Kertscher and Borowski as they continue their literary journey with the guidance system discarded:
Now let’s see if what he asserts -- that 400 Americans "have more wealth than half of all Americans combined" -- is true.

Moore has made other staggering claims about the gap between the nation’s rich and poor. In Capitalism: A Love Story, his 2009 documentary, Moore said "the richest 1 percent have more financial wealth than the bottom 95 percent combined."
My reaction to the latter paragraph is approximately that of Vicini upon being told a few details about iocaine powder.

PolitiFact goes on to investigate the embedded link in Moore's text version of his speech ("same wealth") and finds that it says that the poorest 50 percent of Americans had a total wealth greater than that of the richest 400.  While that's not a good sign, PolitiFact adapted to Moore's presentation of secondary evidence:
We were referred to another item on Moore’s website that was posted two days after the Madison speech. It cites more recent figures, for 2009.

So, let’s start again.

In that item, Moore correctly quoted Forbes, which said in a September 2009 article that the net worth of the nation’s 400 wealthiest Americans was $1.27 trillion.
That's a good bit of wealth.  Not as big as the projected federal budget deficit for each of the next two years, but still considerable.
The second part of Moore’s claim -- that the net worth of half of all Americans is less than that of the Forbes 400 -- is more complicated.
Um--it's really only a one-part claim comparing two numbers, and Moore doesn't specify either number.  He's making a simple claim about the relationship between those numbers.  But maybe PolitiFact refers to the secondary evidence at Moore's website rather than to his Madison claim.  Though that source talks about the poorest 60 percent of all Americans rather than 50 percent of all Americans.

Sure enough, PolitiFact ends up investigating the nuts and bolts of Moore's secondary claim and finds it true.  But there's a fairly obvious problem, and it isn't the 10 percentage point difference between 50 percent and 60 percent.  It's the difference between "the bottom 60% of households" and "half of all Americans."

Moore's source, economist Edward Wolff of Bard College and New York University, found that the bottom 60 percent of Americans held 2.3 percent of the nation's net worth.  Moore applied that figure to the nation's total net worth and ended with $1.22 trillion.

PolitiFact reasoned that $1.22 trillion is a lower figure than the $1.27 trillion Forbes figured in the possessions of the richest 400, and further reasoned that the lowest 50 percent could hardly possess more than the lowest 60 percent.

That reasoning is good, so far as it goes, but it doesn't address the problem with Moore's imprecision.  In Madison, Moore did not restrict himself to any particular segment of the U.S. population.  He simply said "half of all Americans combined."

Remember back when PolitiFact paid "close attention to the specific wording of a claim"?  Those were the days.

Contemporary PolitiFact:
(O)ur assessment indicates that as of 2009, the net worth of the nation’s 400 wealthiest individuals exceeds the net worth of half of all American households.

Ironically, my assessment using the same numbers indicates that as of 2009, the net worth of half of all American households exceeds the net worth of the nation's 400 wealthiest individuals.

How does this apparently contradictory result obtain?  Simple.  I cherry-pick the half of the American people that Moore didn't cherry-pick.  I take the $53.1 trillion total net worth, subtract the total for the half of Americans Moore used ($1.22 trillion) and then subtract the $1.27 trillion for the top 400 just for good measure.  I end up with half of American households holding a net worth of over $50 trillion.  I then reason that $50 trillion is greater than $1.27 trillion.

A statement that is both true and false at the same time typically fails to qualify as a precise statement.  Moore omits important qualifying language in making his claim, and PolitiFact grants him the most favorable pass on his imprecision by completely ignoring it in favor of charitable interpretation.

As I have often emphasized, I am all in favor of charitable interpretation.  But the practice must be uniform in the context of fact checking in order to avoid bias, and moreover it is appropriate to let the reader know when applying the principle of charitable interpretation.  PolitiFact's statements of standards do not acknowledge the importance of charitable interpretation.  They do emphasize the importance of precise phrasing.  PolitiFact also claims that it pays very close attention to the particular words used in expressing a claim.  Yet that commitment fails to show up in this fact check of Moore.  Likewise absent is an emphasis on Moore's underlying point.

The grades:

Tom Kertscher:  F
Greg Borowski:  F

March 12, 2011:  Changed tense in a few sentences to improve consistency.

Friday, March 11, 2011

A little MKH to brighten your day ...

...with a little bit of economic gloom & doom.

Or to put it another way, why Michael Moore doesn't know what he's talking about.

Is PolitiFact a GOTV operation directed at Democrats?

PolitiFact's FaceBook activity yesterday gave me pause:

"A nice affirmation that we're doing it right at PolitiFact with our accountability journalism!"


The evidence that PolitiFact is supposedly "doing it right" comes from a story in Science Daily indicating that passive (he said/she said) journalism leaves readers feeling as though they can't determine who is right.

How does that finding indicate that PolitiFact is "doing it right"?  Even a wrong determination as to the truth of the matter might well improve readers' perceptions about their ability to understand the issues.  So the finding from the (Web) pages of Science Daily is orthogonal to whether the reporting itself is any good.

Given that readers' perceptions about their abilities may improve regardless of the quality of the reporting, how is it supposed to follow that PolitiFact is "doing it right"?

The key finding of the study, accurately portrayed in brief by PolitiFact, was that telling readers which facts were accurate helped readers feel like they could determine the truth for themselves.

It follows that PolitiFact feels it is doing journalism the right way if it helps readers feel as though they can figure out truth values for themselves.  It further follows, pending a deeper explanation from PolitiFact that I suspect will never occur, that one of PolitiFact's important aims is to help readers feel better about their epistemological acumen--their ability to arrive at the truth of the matter.

Why, exactly, should that be one of the aims of fact checking?

Perhaps the study itself will help answer that question.

The research was done by Raymond Pingree of the Ohio State University.  Pingree was investigating the question of journalism's effects on epistemic political efficacy, which is a fancy term for how people feel about their ability to discern the wise political path.  Pingree's concern is a common one among liberals who want more people to vote, particularly among those who feel that higher voter turnout favors liberal causes--a dubious proposition.

Turnout by party is a different proposition, however.  Better turnout by one party compared to another can lead to a huge advantage at the polls.

If PolitiFact readers are predominantly liberal, and if PolitiFact telling its readers what's politically true and what's not increases their epistemic political efficacy, then doesn't it follow that PolitiFact would operate in practice as a Democratic Party get-out-the-vote operation?

Is that why doing things "the right way" is desirable?

I'll emphasize again that I am reasonably confident that the PolitiFact staff as a whole takes fairness seriously and sees itself as taking on the two main political parties relatively equally.  But it isn't always easy to sustain that confidence.  What were they thinking by calling Pingree's study an affirmation of their methods?  The claim implicitly indicates a definite aim above and beyond simply doing fact checking.  Indeed, Pingree's thesis ought to hold regardless of whether journalistic guidance proved dependable, so long as that guidance was not obviously unreliable in the eyes of readers.  At best, PolitiFact's claim of affirmation suggests either a poor understanding of the science involved or a motive unbecoming in a non-partisan organization.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Wisconsin): Mike Huebsch and the capitol cleanup

We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.
--Bill Adair
We always try to get the original statement in its full context rather than an edited form that appeared in news stories.
--About PolitiFact

The issue:

The fact checkers:

James B. Nelson:  writer, researcher
Greg Borowski:  editor


At first blush, judging from the headline and deck material, this fact check should be a snap.  We apparently have an unequivocal statement estimating repair costs for the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin.

But very quickly we find something curious in this fact check story.  We don't have a quotation.  No quotation marks in the headline or subsequent deck material.  And the body of the story produces no improvement in those results.

What's going on?

Apparently, contrary to PolitiFact's stated methods, this PolitiFact Wisconsin fact check is proceeding based on paraphrases from Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel news accounts.

If there's one saving grace in this disgrace, it's the fact that the Journal-Sentinel happens to serve as the home base for PolitiFact Wisconsin.  So James B. Nelson can just shout across the room and ask Don Walker, Jason Stein and/or Bill Glauber to produce their story notes or tape recordings in order to produce a definitive quotation that settles any questions about the nature of the statement he's fact checking.

Unfortunately, we have absolutely no evidence from the story or source list that PolitiFact Wisconsin went to any such great lengths to obtain the truth of the matter in this case.  We're stuck with the news accounts until a transcript of the court proceedings, or the like, appears.

The supposed claim from Huebsch comes straight from Don Walker's Journal-Sentinel politics blog:
Madison - State officials said Thursday that damage to the marble inside and out the State Capitol would cost an estimated $7.5 million.

Cari Anne Renlund, chief legal counsel for the state Department of Administration, said in Dane County court that estimates of damage to marble includes $6 million to repair damaged marble inside the Capitol, $1 million for damage outside and $500,000 for costs to supervise the damage.
The later Journal-Sentinel story, by Stein and Glauber, contained a slightly different account.  Or rather, two different accounts that vary from Walker's.  First:
Madison - Officials charged with overseeing the state Capitol Friday backpedaled sharply from their estimate - delivered in a high-profile court case only the day before - that demonstrators did more than $7 million in damage to the building and grounds during the tumultuous yet peaceful protests that erupted Feb. 15.
The first one substantially agrees with Walker's account.  "(M)ore than $7 million" is a fair way to represent $7.5 million.

It was Cari Anne Renlund, chief legal counsel for the Department of Administration, who said in court Thursday that costs for a full cleanup and restoration at the Capitol could reach $7.5 million.

"It's important to note that the $7.5 million described yesterday (Thursday) in court was the information I had available to me based upon estimates provided me by the Division of State Facilities," said Michael Huebsch, secretary of the Department of Administration, during a news conference.

That would be Plale's division.

But on Friday, Plale said "I think that's more of a worst-case scenario."
Stick with me.
1)  We have another paraphrase of Renlund, this one stating that the cleanup cost "could reach" $7.5 million.
2)  "(C)ould reach" is a different claim than "will reach."
3)  It's very important in fact checking to have an accurate account of the claim.

Time out:
Our rulings are based on when a statement was made and on the information available at that time.
--Bill Adair
Stick with me again:
4)  Huebsch said he got the $7.5 million estimate from the Division of State Facilities.
5)  Jeff Plale of the Division of State Facilities calls the $7.5 million estimate "a worst-case scenario."
6)  A "worst-case scenario" fits well with high-end estimate that "could reach" $7.5 million (see #1).

This latter section of the Journal-Sentinel story is written as though the facts are contradicting Huebsch and Renlund.  But that's only the case if the first paraphrase is the accurate one of the two.  And we have no way of knowing if we should rely on that paraphrase over the latter one.

And neither does PolitiFact, based on the list of sources provided.  For what it's worth, during Huebsch's Mar. 4 press conference he emphasized that the $7.5 million figure was a high-end estimate, though without making clear how the figure was communicated by Renlund during the court proceedings.

In the end, we can have no fact check without a definitive version of the original statement in its original context.  Yet PolitiFact gave us the fact check anyway.  As a result, the fact check is a fake and a farce.

The grades:

James B. Nelson:  F
Greg Borowski:  F

Journalists reporting badly.


Something about the news story by Stein and Glauber caught my eye.  It was the photo accompanying the story. Isn't it touching the way the protesters carefully used blue masking tape in order to attach their sign to the marble?

Credit is due for using the blue tape.  I won't minimize that aspect of the photo.  But what caught my eye is the evidence that the sign was originally affixed using duct tape.  It's most obvious in the center top of the sign, where the old tape is still attached but folded under the sign.  A close examination indicates the same in the upper left hand corner.  One may infer that duct tape was also originally used at the top right of the sign.

I wonder what became of the sticky residue?

I just found it ironic that a story containing an emphasis on the supposedly inflated cleanup estimate featured evidence supporting the potential need for expensive restoration, that stemming from the porosity of marble and the damaging effects of adhesive over time.

Mar. 9, 2011:  Polished the delivery in a few sentences, and most especially corrected spelling of "attach" in the first paragraph of the "afters" section.  I must have spelled it "attack" because of my right-wing affinity for violent rhetoric.