Wednesday, June 29, 2011

PolitiFact and Bill Adair still won't admit to selection bias

Is Adair that dishonest or does he not really understand the problem?

PolitiFact "report cards" tell you virtually nothing about the person receiving the fact check. They tell you something about PolitiFact and what statements are chosen for scrutiny.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blumner shows how consistency isn't always a virtue

Credit this week for Robyn "Blumñata" Blumner of the St. Peterburg Times' editoral page. She demonstrated consistency in condemning President Obama on the issue of presidential power for which she has excoriated President Bush in the past.

But Blumner's column also provides evidence of the unfortunate type of consistency:
These rhetorical criticisms that the candidate leveled at Bush are sad reminders of what we expected of Obama. He was to dismantle the prior occupant's jerry-built rationales for unlimited and unanswerable executive power. But Obama's refusal to follow the strictures of the War Powers Act says that he, too, is willing to manipulate language to ignore inconvenient limits on his power. Bush had John Yoo at the Office of Legal Counsel approving the use of torture by absurdly defining it so narrowly that it no longer included waterboarding.
The unfortunate type of inconsistency occurs when one consistently condemns something like waterboarding without producing a coherent argument.

Blumner called waterboarding torture in part because of deeply flawed essay by Judge Evan Wallach.  Wallach's essay treated substantially different types of techniques under the term "waterboarding" in order to argue it constituted torture.  Wallach's argument wallowed in the fallacy of equivocation throughout.

Suppose somebody buys an equivocation-laced argument such as Wallach's.  What better way to attack the argument on the other side than by claiming that its definitions are too narrow?  That's exactly what Blumner does.

Let's hope Blumner eventually expands her use of the good kind of consistency to avoid the bad kind.

Friday, June 24, 2011

PolitiFlub: Promise kept by Obama on tapping Strategic Petroleum Reserve? (Updated)

Yesterday PolitiFact added another "Promise Kept" to President Obama's list.

Ordinarily PolitiFact's Obameter ratings for promises kept interests me little.  Presidents tend to promise way more than they can ever deliver as a prerequisite to their election.  Obama had the good fortune to take office with a unified government and a filibuster-proof Senate majority.  So the project's a bit of a yawner.

Yesterday's item caught my attention, however.  There had to be context behind a promise to tap the Strategic Oil Reserve.  But the PolitiFact accounts mostly downplayed that context.  Here's how PolitiFact presents the so-called promise:
"Will swap oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to cut prices . . . a limited, responsible swap of light oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) for heavy crude oil to help bring down prices at the pump."
PolitiFact makes it sound like President Obama was pledging to use a release of oil from the Reserve as a method for dealing with the high price of petrol.

But the original context (Page 20) was more specific than that (bold emphasis added):
Swap Oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve to Cut Prices: Barack Obama and Joe Biden believe we have an economic emergency that requires a limited, responsible swap of light oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) for heavy crude oil to help bring down prices at the pump. 
Unless President Obama believes that the oil prices constitute "an economic emergency" then this promise remains unfulfilled.  And perhaps Obama believes exactly that.  But why would PolitiFact bury that aspect of the promise with an ellipsis and refrain from considering it in the story?

My take:  PolitiFact prepared a layup for the president.  Each of the last three presidents (Bush, Clinton, Bush) tapped the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.  By obscuring Obama's statement about economic emergency, the "Promise Kept" rating fails to register as a signal of failing economic policy and instead accords with the narrative of a president who addresses problems:  He's fixing the high price of oil, not admitting to the existence of an economic emergency.


The latest Michael Ramirez cartoon makes much the same point about Obama's decision.  Hat tip to Power Line.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Is Chris Mooney correct about Jon Stewart and the PolitiFact squabble?

The other day I updated my assessment of the Stewart-PolitiFact brouhaha by evaluating the three additional survey sets mentioned in a Chris Mooney post from a few weeks back.

I credited Mooney with appropriate caution in that case.  But apparently I credited him a bit too much.  Mooney has since weighed in to defend Stewart:
(I)n an environment in which conservatives are more inaccurate and more misinformed about science and basic policy facts, the “fact checkers” nevertheless feel unduly compelled to correct “liberal” errors too—which is fine, as long as they are really errors.
But sometimes they aren’t. A case in point is Politifact’s recent and deeply misguided attempt to correct Jon Stewart on the topic of…misinformation and Fox News.
This must mean that Mooney thinks he has evidence that conservatives as a group are more inaccurate and more misinformed about science and basic policy facts.  I had earlier misinterpreted Mooney by thinking he had stopped short of that dubious conclusion.

Straight on to the evidence:
My research, and my recent post, most emphatically supports this statement. Indeed, I cited five (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) separate public opinion studies in support of it—although I carefully noted that these studies do not prove causation (e.g., that watching Fox News causes one to be more misinformed). The causal arrow could very well run the other way—believing wrong things could make one more likely to watch Fox News in the first place.
Mooney apparently thinks he has a middle ground between that staked out by PolitiFact (misinformed=uninformed) and that cultivated by Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake (misinformation=>misinformed).  I've read descriptions along the lines of "misinformed is believing you know something when you don't," which is distinguished from simply not knowing.  Mooney tried to narrow the meaning of Stewart's statement to apply to "science and basic policy facts" rather than to things like which party controls Congress.  I'm not sure Mooney's case is justifiable, but I don't expect the attempted distinction to matter in the end.

Politifact wasn’t even aware of the studies I’ve cited. Instead, the site’s attempt to debunk Stewart largely relied on misunderstanding what he meant.
PolitiFact cited two from Mooney's initial list of five (the two PIPA surveys).  I'm not sure how Mooney missed that.  Perhaps he accidentally omitted a word or two (Mooney later notes that PolitiFact used the PIPA studies).  As I pointed out, the remaining three studies share the same problems that make the PIPA studies unsatisfactory.  Selection bias in determining what information to test infects all five.  To test the general level of political policy and/or scientific information one needs a test designed for that purpose.  Each of Mooney's citations manifests a narrow focus.  Each of the studies features ambiguous statements of fact, which will tend to skew the answers and, as a result, the conclusions.

What Stewart obviously meant—and what I mean—is that when it comes to politicized, contested issues where the facts have been made murky due to political biases, it is Fox viewers who are the most likely to believe incorrect things—to fall prey to misinformation. A quintessential example of such an issue is global warming, or whether Saddam Hussein’s Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction or was collaborating with Al Qaeda. There are many, many others.
I suspect that the segue from "politicized, contested issues where the facts have been made murky" to "most likely to believe incorrect things" is not as clean as Mooney appears to suggest.  The WMD issue serves as a case in point.  It is absolutely undeniable that Saddam Hussein's Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.  Possessing them was one of the prerequisites for the ceasefire condition requiring their destruction.

What?  Mooney is talking about immediately prior to the invasion?  Even then, Iraq unquestionably possessed weapons of mass destruction, albeit old, small in number and of very questionable effectiveness.

It is exactly that type of ambiguity that renders the PIPA studies and their like relatively worthless as a measure of individual and group misinformation.  Notably, that type of ambiguity tends to occur precisely when the author thinks it is obvious what is meant because of their own ideological predisposition.  A liberal like Mooney will automatically assume that it refers to large stockpiles of ready-to-go WMD.  A conservative, maybe not so much.  Therefore the conservative is misinformed?

Mooney also skimps on the fact that large differences occur regarding beliefs in various supposed facts.  For example, his citation of the Kaiser Family Foundation study examining beliefs about the health care reform legislation found that Republicans were more likely than Democrats to possess an awareness of the individual mandate feature (73 percent to 63 percent).  The questions asked and the phraseology used make all the difference.

It is of course around contested political facts, and contested scientific facts, where we find active, politically impelled, and emotionally laden misinformation campaigns—and it is in the latter realm that Fox News viewers are clearly more misinformed. Once again, I’ve cited 5 studies to this effect—concerning the Iraq war, the 2010 election, global warming, health care reform, and the Ground Zero Mosque. By contrast, Politifact only cites two of these studies, and attempts to critique one of them (the 2010 election study)—misguidedly to my mind, but who really even cares. It is obvious where the weight of the evidence lies at this point, unless further, relevant studies are brought to bear.
With all due respect to Mooney, the "weight of the evidence" is a vapor.

Is it possible that Fox News viewers as a group are misinformed in the category Mooney names?  Sure, it's possible.  And PolitiFact won't get to the bottom of it without finding a new and groundbreaking study.  PolitiFact uses a fallacious "burden of proof" criterion and may justify rating Stewart "False" according to that standard.  But on the full set of facts as we have them, Stewart is just wrong.  There are no studies that scientifically support the conclusion he's peddling.  Mooney shares the error.


Mooney updated his post with a reference to another study supposedly supporting Stewart:
I've run across (thanks to Steve Benen) a sixth survey that supports Stewart.
The cited NBC poll supports Stewart no better than the other five.  Note the selection bias and the ambiguity (click to enlarge):

Mooney.  Dude.  Link the primary source.

Democrats' message board vigilantes

As if PolitiFact's Matrix isn't bad enough, now we've got message-board vigilantes.

Check out this pair of posts from PolitiFact's FaceBook page:

No doubt Hussain confirmed that I am not a real person by using his tricorder.

Wallenius needed no tricorder.  Her techniques derive from the classic sleuths such as Sherlock Holmes, Lord Peter Wimsey and Columbo.  Or maybe Adam West's Batman:
Jen Emmelman
Sheila, how do you know that about Bryan? I mean I am aware that he is a troll, but how did you figure out the rest?

Sheila Fahey Wallenius
Jen: two things - recent meeting I attended exposing the "professional troll training" the tightie righties are engaging in, so i knew what to look for. One of those things to look for is see where they're posting.

If you looked at his Wall - - going back nearly a full MONTH - - the ONLY PLACE that "Bryan" posts IS on "PolitiFact" - that tells me he's been specifically assigned to PolitiFact. He'll be back I'm sure, but now I've ID'd him, reported him and blocked him, so it might slow him down a bit for awhile.

Others are "assigned" to the various Obama campaign pages; still others to the White House page, etc. etc.

Sheila Fahey Wallenius Jen, I believe there's a You Tube video somewhere taken by someone with a cell phone cam at one of the "professional troll trainings"

The tactics they use are fascinating - dishonest and despicable as hell - but fascinating.

But, y'know... when you don't have the TRUTH, FACTS & EVIDENCE on your side, that's the kind of scumbag stuff I would expect the tightie righties and teabaggers would resort to.
My troll tactic with Wallenius was to point out that PolitiFact uses Heritage Foundation material in its source lists.  Wallenius denied it:
PolitiFact CITES Heritage Foundation, ONLY when they're drawing a comparison between statements coming from a right leaning group to those made by a lef-leaning (sic) group.
It wasn't hard finding an exception to Wallenius' claim.

Apart from her unsupported claim regarding PolitiFact's use of Heritage Foundation as a source, the disturbing thing about Wallenius is her resemblance to the evil spectre she tried to paint of me.

I'm supposedly some sort of agent, trained by the GOP to troll innocent message boards and assigned to the PolitiFact message board in particular--let alone the fact I've been criticizing PolitiFact under my own name and plainly announced the purpose of my FaceBook account many months ago. Meanwhile, Wallenius actually attends some sort of seminar to help her ferret out GOP agents and neutralize them.  One of us is a party operative, anyway.

Holy GOP imposter, Sheila!

Thank you, reality-based community. Wonderful stuff.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

More misinformation about the misinformed

This is an update to the recent controversy over Jon Stewart's PolitiFacted claim that polls show Fox News viewers as the most consistently misinformed group in "every poll."

In my reply to Jane Hamsher's defense of Stewart I dealt briefly with the problems inherent in the two studies produced by the Program on International Policy Attitudes.

Many on the Web have started referencing a list of five polls cited by Chris Mooney purporting to demonstrate "that those who watch Fox, or watch it frequently, are more likely to be misinformed."  Two from Mooney's list are the same two PIPA surveys cited by Hamsher.  The other three share a similar set of problems.

Please note that Mooney wrote in advance of the Stewart controversy and that I take the quotation from Mooney in the preceding paragraph somewhat out of context.  Mooney is admirably cautious about drawing solid conclusions from flimsy evidence, and the quotation tends not to convey his careful approach to the issue.

Stanford University/Jon Krosnick
Krosnick's survey dealt exclusively with issues related to global climate change, and thus serves as a poor standard for judging the overall set of misinformation possessed by a group.  This is another manifestation of the selection bias problem found in both PIPA studies.  With no control on the selection of items intended to reflected general misinformation the end result will reflect selection bias.  Additionally, the study offers no method of discerning whether Fox News actively misinformed its viewers.  As Krosnick notes in his conclusion:
It is impossible to discern from these results what causal processes produced the observed relations.

Kaiser Family Foundation
The KFF study focused on a set of beliefs regarding the health care reform legislation.  Obviously, as with global climate change, misinformation about a particular health care reform bill serves as a relatively poor measure of general misinformation, political or otherwise.  In addition, a number of the truth propositions qualify as ambiguous.  For example, "Allow a government panel to make decisions about end-of-life care for people on Medicare" might serve to describe the effects of cost saving measures occurring as the result of the Independent Payment Advisory Board created under the reform legislation.

Nisbet & Garrett at Ohio State University
The Ohio State researchers examined misinformation about the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque," certainly another example of a narrow topic that fails to obviously serve as an indicator of political misinformation in general.  The researchers focused on a set of four "rumors" regarding the proposed mosque.

What does it all mean?

If Stewart wants to say that Fox viewers are misinformed as to some specific statement then the survey data can offer him some support, depending on the specific charge.  But none of the five surveys mentioned by Mooney serves as a good support for the type of broad claim Stewart made during his appearance on Fox News.

Hey ... maybe Stewart spoke false because he was appearing on Fox News ... ?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The misperceptions misperception mushrooms (Updated x2)

PolitiFact, it seems, has mired itself in the misperceptions marsh.

The problem started when the fact checkers went to test a recent claim made by comedian/Daily Show host Jon Stewart during an interview with Fox News' Chris Wallace (yellow highlights added):
WALLACE: I don't think our viewers are the least bit disappointed with us. I think our viewers think, finally, they're getting somebody who tells the other side of the story.
WALLACE: And in -- no, no, no. One more example.
STEWART: Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox, Fox viewers, consistently, every poll.
WALLACE: Can we talk about your network? Can we talk about Comedy Central?
PolitiFact's story ended up rating Stewart's statement "False," noting that the bulk of the available polling showed that Fox viewers were better informed than those who follow some other news sources.

Then things got interesting.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Herman Cain, Social Security and Galveston County

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:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


When PolitiFact does a fact check, context matters.  They examine the claim in full context, including the comments before and after.  They painstakingly root out the question that prompted the claim and carefully consider the point the person was trying to make.

Yeah, right.

Hilariously enough, even though PolitiFact does not pay any attention at all to the question that prompted Cain's claim about the Galveston County retirement option, there remained sufficient context to figure out Cain's point.  But PolitiFact ignored that, too.

Cain's comment, along with the question that prompted the answer (bold highlights indicate the portion used by PolitiFact; bold emphasis added):

DISTASO: Thank you, John.

Mr. Cain, back to you. And while you're fired up there, let's turn to Social Security. Can you be specific regarding ages and income levels? Everyone talks about reform. What is your specific Social Security reform plan in regards to raising the retirement age, at what ages, cutting benefits and what income level means testing kicking in?

Thank you.

CAIN: Let's fix the problem and that is to restructure Social Security. I support a personal retirement account option in order to phase out the current system. We know that this works. It worked in the small country of Chile when they did it 30 years.

That payroll tax had gotten up to 27 percent for every dollar that the worker made. I believe we can do the same thing. That break point would approximately 40 years of age.

Now, young people realize they still got to contribute to the current system for those people that are on Social Security, that are near Social Security.

DISTASO: Are you going to raise the retirement age as president of the United States?

CAIN: I don't have to raise the retirement age, because that by itself isn't going to solve the problem. If Congress decides to do that, that's a different matter.

Here's -- let me give you one another example where this approach has worked. The city of Galveston, they opted out of the Social Security system way back in the '70s. And now, they retire with a whole lot more money. Why? For a real simple reason -- they have an account with their money on it.

What I'm simply saying is we've got to restructure the program using a personal retirement account option in order to eventually make it solvent.
It is powerfully obvious throughout Cain's statements on Social Security that he fixes his focus on the program's solvency.  For that reason, Cain doesn't bother with the details of Distaso's question, based as they are on the premise of the insolvency created by Ponzi financing and shifting demographics.

Cain suggests an alternate financing plan for individual retirement.

We’ll give Cain a pass on a pair of minor errors -- it’s Galveston County, not city, and the program launched in 1981, not in the 1970s. Instead, we’ll cut to the bottom line: Has the program meant that participants "retire with a whole lot more money" than they would under Social Security?
The answer to that question varies depending on whether we're talking about benefits or financing.  PolitiFact proceeds to focus exclusively on benefits.

PolitiFact summarizes several paragraphs comparing benefits under Social Security with those under Galveston County's alternate plan with the following:
The takeaway from the GAO and SSA studies is that the Galveston plan can be better than Social Security -- if you’re better off and if you fall into certain specific demographic categories. For many workers, especially those who are paid less, Social Security provides more.

This result doesn’t directly conflict with Cain’s statement, but it does undermine the sweeping certitude with which he said that participants will "retire with a whole lot more money."
Cain's certitude remains entirely intact in terms of financing.  Under Galveston County's system people's retirement plans are fully funded at the time they retire.  Social Security, by contrast, has spent the individual's contributions on benefits for persons already retired.  The government spends any remainder but promises to fund future benefits with the payroll deductions of future workers.

With Cain's point more prominent than a Truth-O-Meter graphic, PolitiFact still missed it:
On the specific question Cain raised -- whether participants in Galveston will "retire with a whole lot more money" than if they were in Social Security -- the answer is, "it depends." According to studies published a dozen years ago, some will, and some won’t. And the outlook today for the Galveston plan’s rate of return -- while not immutable going forward -- is more downbeat than it was in 1999. On balance, we rate Cain’s statement Half True.
Other than in its quotation of Cain, PolitiFact neglected to even mention Cain's focus.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

The PolitiFact team, in practical terms, completely ignored one of PolitiFact's plainly stated principles.  And since the principle was one of the good and important ones on PolitiFact's list, the team receives failing grades and the "Journalists Reporting Badly" tag.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Corrupt Word Police target Reince Priebus

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:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


I designate PolitiFact as the "Word Police" in this item because, as with another recent item, PolitiFact's conclusion ultimately hinges on a single word, and PolitiFact takes inappropriate liberties with the word in question.

The ordinary reader should immediately note the incongruity between "rivals" and "more than."  Something that "rivals" another thing can either fall short of or exceed the second thing.  There is no logical justification for taking "rivals" by itself to assume that Priebus claimed present unemployment exceeds Great Depression unemployment.  At this juncture we must charitably assume that PolitiFact found additional material from RNC Chair Reince Priebus to justify its headline material.

Let's do a ride-along with the Word Police:
Priebus invoked the Great Depression twice during the joint interview with Democratic counterpart, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.
That appears to significantly limit PolitiFact's possibilities when it comes to finding additional material to back up its interpretation of Priebus' statement.  But it makes our job easier, anyway.

Word Police (bold emphasis added):
Priebus said, in part, "Look, I'm not defending these guys, but the fact of the matter is, we have big issues here to tackle in this country. We have unemployment that rivals the Great Depression. We have gas prices that are out of this world. We have crushing debt. We know what's happening to this economy. And here's the problem. It's not so much as much as 'the economy, stupid,' as people say, it's 'the policy's stupid' too. And the president's policies in regard to saving this country, getting our economy back on track are not working."
One almost wonders why the Word Police don't bust Priebus for "out of this world" gas prices as well as "crushing" debt.  The context suggests a string of hyperbolic images.

Word Police (bold emphasis added):
The second instance came when Priebus sought to counter Wasserman Schultz’s defense of President Barack Obama’s economic record.

Addressing host David Gregory, Priebus said, "The chairwoman's living in Fantasyland. We know that the facts are the facts, and we can't get away from that. And Barack Obama is defenseless to the truth on what's going on in the American economy. We have lost as--two and a half million jobs since Barack Obama's been president. And of that two and a half million jobs, almost 45 percent of those people have been out of work for six months. That number, that number rivals the Great Depression."
The second reference appears more straightforward and literal, and so any evaluation will rest on the way "rivals" functions as a verb.  The identity of "that number" will also figure in, of course.

The Word Police properly separate the two statements for purposes of evaluation:
First, is it fair to say that "we have unemployment that rivals the Great Depression"?

As bad as the unemployment situation is currently -- and it’s unquestionably bad -- there’s little statistical support that it "rivals" the situation that existed during the Great Depression.
Is it fair to rule that the statement has little statistical support without pinning down the definition of "rivals"?

"Rivals" when used as a verb has a fairly broad range of meaning.
compete with, match, equal, oppose, compare with, contend, come up to, emulate, vie with, measure up to, be a match for, bear comparison with, seek to displace Cassettes cannot rival the sound quality of CDs.
The use of "rival" in the example sentence is instructive.  Cassette playback typically results in a substantial amount of background hiss, among other defects.  On the other hand, cassette playback represents very detailed analog sound reproduction that is superior to CD sound in that sense.  CD sound consists of selected samples of the analog sound reproduced without extraneous background noise.  Comparisons are relative, and this may include rivalry comparisons.

Merriam-Webster likewise paints a panoramic view of the breadth of meaning for the verb "rival."

The Word Police, of course, are notorious for ignoring such subtleties of language.  With a hat-tip to Humpty Dumpty, "Rivals" will mean what they wish it to mean.  Nothing less and nothing more.

Word Police:
Any way you cut it, peak unemployment since the start of the most recent recession, as bad as it has been, remains well under half of the peak it reached during the Great Depression. For more than a decade, annual unemployment never fell below 14.3 percent, or a level about 40 percent higher than the worst of what we’ve seen recently. Any suggestion that the two situations are equivalent requires herculean cherry picking.
Likewise, any suggestion that Priebus' use of "rivals" must mean that he was saying the two situations are equivalent requires herculean cherry picking.  But that's always been a specialty of the word police. 
So Priebus is wrong on the first claim. But what about the second -- that "almost 45 percent of (the unemployed) have been out of work for six months," a number that "rivals the Great Depression"?
The Word Police allow that the 45 percent figure is suitably accurate.  But they could not locate data that would confirm or falsify the Great Depression comparison, with one exception (bold emphasis added):
The only place we saw this claim made came in a CBS News story from June 5, 2011, which said that "45.1 percent of all unemployed workers in this country have been jobless for more than six months -- a higher percentage than during the Great Depression." When we checked with the CBS reporter, Ben Tracy, he told us that there had been an error in the story due to some garbled relaying of information and that a corrected version of the story had been ordered.
Based on the preceding material from the Word Police, it appears the fact checkers thought they were fact checking CBS News rather than Reince Priebus.  Priebus gets headline credit for CBS News' error.  Perhaps garbled relaying of information was to blame for PolitiFact's mistake.  No doubt they'll promptly correct the error and attach an editor's note to the story explaining the correction or clarification:
When we find we've made a mistake, we correct the mistake.
  • In the case of a factual error, an editor's note will be added and labeled "CORRECTION" explaining how the article has been changed.
  • In the case of clarifications or updates, an editor's note will be added and labeled "UPDATE" explaining how the article has been changed.
Back to the Word Police:
At PolitiFact, our policy is that citing a news account does not protect a statement from being ruled False if it turns out that news account is inaccurate.
Fortunately for Barbara Boxer, that policy does not stretch to inaccurate information included in reports bearing the stamp of the Congressional Budget Office.

And fortunately for us as well as PolitiFact, CBS News finally got around to updating its story (bold emphasis added):
About 6.2 million Americans, 45.1 percent of all unemployed workers in this country, have been jobless for more than six months - at its highest since the Great Depression.
The updated story represents a problem for either CBS News or PolitiFact.  The PolitiFact narrative suggests that CBS News has no factual basis for its claim.  Yet after the two entities finished communicating with each other CBS revised its story in a way that strongly implies that it was able to find data on which to base a revised claim--a claim that may well fall within the scope of meaning we see for the verb form of "rivals."

Second place is nothing to sneeze at, in other words.

So who's telling the truth?  CBS News?  Or PolitiFact?
More from the Word Police:
When we contacted the RNC, we were told that the notion that unemployment "rivals the Great Depression" is valid since there are 13.9 million unemployed Americans today, according to BLS, compared to a maximum of 12.8 million unemployed Americans during the Great Depression, specifically in 1933. "‘Rivals’ would be the right characterization," the RNC said in a statement. "Chairman Priebus did not cite the ‘unemployment rate," as PolitiFact did in its query.

But we think this is a ridiculous comparison, since the population of the United States was 123 million then, compared to nearly 309 million today.
If the RNC makes that comparison then PolitiFact owes it to its readers to see that argument in the RNC's words, not in the form of a chopped quotation accompanied by PolitiFact's paraphrasing.  This is, after all, the fact checking outfit that attributes CBS News' mistake to Priebus.
In an e-mail to PolitiFact, the RNC argued that "today, chronic unemployment of 27 weeks or longer is 45.1 percent. As BLS itself cited the Great Depression in talking about a chronic unemployment rate almost half of what it is today, we think it’s more than fair for Chairman Priebus to make the Great Depression comparison in reference to today’s numbers."

We disagree. Just because BLS in 1984 said that the 1981-1982 recession "resulted in levels of long-term unemployment far higher than any experienced since the Great Depression" doesn’t mean that nearly doubling the rate brings it to levels that "rival" the Great Depression.
On what do the Word Police base their disagreement?  An imperial edict from their own mouths?  Can we imagine a more brazen attempt to bully the English language?  Fear not.  They aren't done yet:
The fact that the recent recession was the worst since the Great Depression doesn't mean that it "rivals" the Great Depression in severity. The fact is, the RNC can’t point to any statistic that makes its point. Maybe it’s true, but with the disappearance of the erroneous CBS report, there is no evidence for it.
The revised CBS News story suggests the 45 percent figure is second only to the Great Depression.  Why can't that make the two periods rivals according to the dictionary definition?  Isn't the degree to which first place compares to second place a matter of subjective judgment even where we have objective data measurements to work from?  At what percentage would prolonged unemployment suddenly turn comparable to Great Depression numbers?

Once again, PolitiFact enmeshes itself in a net of hypocrisy.  PolitiFact provides no evidence that Priebus uses "rivals" improperly, and PolitiFact accepts that conclusion despite its supposed burden of proof principle.  PolitiFact takes claims lacking proof as false unless those claims are its own.
More broadly, both liberal and conservative economists expressed skepticism about Priebus’ comparison of the recent recession and the Great Depression.
The opinions of economists matter, but it's hard to say how the group of experts had the issue framed by PolitiFact and to what degree that may have led toward their conclusions.

Speaking of conclusions, the Word Police act as judge and jury:
So where does this leave us? Today’s jobs picture is the worst it has been in decades, not just measured by unemployment rates but also by duration of unemployment. However, all of the available statistics -- imperfect though they may be -- suggest that today’s numbers aren’t anywhere near high enough to "rival" those that prevailed for more than a decade during the Great Depression. We rate Priebus’ statement False.
PolitiFact made its ruling without even attempting to appeal to its burden of proof criterion.  Instead, it relied entirely on an assumed fiction regarding the verb "rivals."

The Word Police.  They're coming to your town, too.  Prepare yourself.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

The reporting from PolitiFact--not that I trust it--suggests a poor job of justification by the RNC.  But that serves as no excuse for PolitiFact's failure to pay properly close attention to the word "rivals" and the way Priebus used it.

Terms of indeterminate precision make poor fodder for fact checkers.  Pretending otherwise magnifies the problem.

Jacobson and Hamilton fail despite partial forgiveness for the headline gaffe.  An uncredited copy editor may have perpetrated that blunder, so the PolitiFact team receives only partial blame in their final grades.


PolitiFact on FaceBook reproduced the misleading headline with nary a blush:

(clipped from PolitiFact's FaceBook page)

I tried to help:

Monday, June 13, 2011

More Krugman hackery

It's almost as though economist and partisan hack Paul Krugman doesn't realize that private insurance subsidizes Medicare:
The idea of Medicare as a money-saving program may seem hard to grasp. After all, hasn’t Medicare spending risen dramatically over time? Yes, it has: adjusting for overall inflation, Medicare spending per beneficiary rose more than 400 percent from 1969 to 2009.

But inflation-adjusted premiums on private health insurance rose more than 700 percent over the same period. So while it’s true that Medicare has done an inadequate job of controlling costs, the private sector has done much worse. And if we deny Medicare to 65- and 66-year-olds, we’ll be forcing them to get private insurance — if they can — that will cost much more than it would have cost to provide the same coverage through Medicare.
Medicare pays health care providers rates that fall under the market price.  As a result, the market price must increase to make up the difference.  Private insurers carry the bulk of that burden.  If Krugman doesn't realize this then he's no economist.  If he does realize it and still writes this garbage then he's a hack.

Happy anniversary St. Petersburg Times' flub!

The St. Petersburg Times' double-barreled mistake in reporting Charlie Crist's share of public campaign financing dollars has (nearly) reached its one-year anniversary!

Hip-hip-HURRAH!  Hip-hip-HURRAH!!

Sometimes I didn't think the blunder would last this long.  After all, I informed the Times of its error back on June 14 of last year:

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Florida): The Word Police accuse Marjorie Dannenfelser

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:

(image clipped from

The fact checkers:

Amy Sherman:  writer, researcher
John Bartosek:  editor


PolitiFact tips off its complaint against Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion/pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, in the deck material reproduced above.  The quotation marks setting off "profit" as a word clue us in that PolitiFact's fact check hinges on the word.

Paul Bedard used Dannenfelser as a source for a May 26 blog for U.S. News & World Report:
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, said: “The truly ‘anti-woman’ organization here is Planned Parenthood and the party that continues to defend its taxpayer funding when it has raked in more than $300 million in profits over the past four years. Fifty-four percent of Americans don’t want to be coerced into contributing to an organization they don’t believe in just by paying their taxes—nor should they be.”

Somehow PolitiFact Florida got wind of this exciting development:
For this Truth-O-Meter, we wanted to check Dannenfelser's claim that Planned Parenthood "raked in more than $300 million in profits over the past four years." We'll focus on two parts: Is the dollar figure right, and is 'profit' the right word?
Off we go on the dollar figure fact check, hopefully bearing in mind the fact that the underlying message is the most important thing when fact checking a numbers claim:
We contacted SBA List spokeswoman Mallory Quigley, who referred us to "excess of revenue over expenses" listed in Planned Parenthood's annual reports. Here is what those reports show:

2005-06: $55.8 million
2006-07: $114.8 million
2007-08: $85 million
2008-09: $63.4 million

Total: $319 million.
While the total comes out over $300 million, in apparent justification of Dannenfelser's claim, the numbers fail to account for a investment loss of $78.1 million in the last of the four reports.

PolitiFact frets over Planned Parenthood's inconsistency in accounting:
In the reports from other years, the financial data does not refer to investment losses or gains, and Sye said those amounts were simply included in the totals for those years. The extraordinary losses when the markets plunged for almost all investors, presented differently in the 2008-09 report, makes it awkward to combine the four years since Planned Parenthood didn't detail its investment losses or gains previously. Subtracting the $78 million would leave the group with about $240 million in revenue over expenses in the four-year period. But how much more or less is unknown since we were unable to obtain the actual investment income for the other years.

 I say pish posh.

The value of investments ought to reflect in the total net assets reported.  The alternate accounting was probably a theatrical strategy intended to influence donors to donate.  Subtract the $78 million from the supposed operating surplus and the remainder matches the newly reported net assets for the year ending in June 2009.  Simply taking the net assets at the start of the string of reports and subtracting that figure from the net asset value at the end ought to provide a useful figure reflecting Planned Parenthood's yearly net income.

Unfortunately, the resulting figure was about $210 million--suspiciously lower than the figure PolitiFact ended up using ($240 million).  About $11 million of the missing amount was reported as "other changes in net assets" and the rest went suspiciously missing between the end of the second report and the start of the third.  That might prove interesting to a journalist.  Or maybe not.  PolitiFact showed no signs of noticing.

As to the raw numbers, if we use Planned Parenthood's dubious reports we can determine that Dannenfelser inflated Planned Parenthood's increased asset value by 43 percent.  PolitiFact's figures would result in a somewhat lower inflation amount of 30 percent.

We should note that PolitiFact has in the past granted Barbara Boxer a "Half True" rating for a claim resting on a figure that was off by 355 percent.  On the other hand, Michele Bachmann received a "False" rating for a figure that was off from 42 to 76 percent.  So it's anybody's guess what ruling is thus far implied by Dannenfelser's imprecision.

In the second part of our fact-checking, does the "excess revenue over expenses" constitute a "profit"?

We sent Dannenfelser's claim to experts in nonprofit management and heard back from four. Three disagreed with using the term "profit" to describe excess revenues over expenses: Christopher Stone, faculty director of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations at Harvard University; Herman B. "Dutch" Leonard, professor of public management at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and at the Harvard Business School; and Beth Gazley, assistant professor at Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Sound the pedantry alert for this trio of experts.

Pedant No. 1:  Explain yourself, please.
"Bottom line: a nonprofit’s surplus should not be confused with profit," Stone wrote in an e-mail. "Profits are generated by businesses to reward investors. Businesses also use profits to provide additional compensation (bonuses tied to profits) for employees who help generate the profits for investors. Because nonprofits may not use their surpluses for either of these purposes, these surpluses should not be confused with profits. All surpluses must be devoted to the charitable purposes of the organization."
To be fair, PolitiFact may have simply applied Stone's answer in a pedantic fashion.  At face value Stone is exactly right that a nonprofit's surplus cash should not be confused with the profits a business distributes to its ownership group.  But it's hardly clear that Dannefelser's claim commits that type of confusion.  Rather, Dannenfelser simply employs a different (widely accepted) definition of "profit" than the one Stone uses:
3 : net income usually for a given period of time
Pedant No. 2:  Explain yourself, please:
And Gazley wrote: "But more to the point, the 'taxpayer'-funded portions of the Planned Parenthood affiliates’ budgets are either program grants or reimbursements for services eligible for Medicaid. So the government-funded parts of the (Planned Parenthood) budget would NOT be generating a 'profit' – they would be used in full each year. This means any excess of revenues over expenses (AKA 'profit') would have come from other sources – private donations, endowment income, etc. So Ms. Dannenfelser’s argument that the taxpayers are somehow subsidizing this 'profit' is misleading."

Hilarious.  Of course the taxpayers subsidize the profit, just like allowing oil companies to drill for oil on federal lands for free would subsidize oil company profits even though "any excess of revenues over expenses (AKA 'profit') would have to come from other sources."  Gazely's statement is far more misleading than Dannenfelser's.  Even the best accounting tricks can't hide the obvious in this case.

PolitiFact spares us the explanation from Herman B. "Dutch" Leonard, but we do get the explanation from the lone expert out of step with the other three:
Terri Renner, longtime CPA and lecturer at Indiana University's school of Public and Environmental Affairs, argued that "the excess of revenues over expenses is the accounting definition of profit."
Renner's argument is unassailable, given that she is correct in identifying the operative definition of "profit."

But the Word Police from PolitiFact take their cues from the pedants:
We said we'd examine both the dollar figure and the word "profits." We think the "more than $300 million" description is off base because of the $78 million in losses, but neither Planned Parenthood nor the SBA List is saying definitively what the investment gains or losses were for the four-year period. Still, there is some element of truth in that it's at least scores of millions of dollars.

In the second part of our ruling, we looked at whether "excess revenue over expenses" for a nonprofit is the same as "profit." Most of the experts we consulted say no. And the one who would call it profit agrees that it's not treated the same way as profit for a corporation. Companies distribute their profits to shareholders and owners, while nonprofits put their excess revenues back into the organization's work. We think the real sting in this claim comes from the word "profits," so we weighed that more heavily than the vague dollar figures in our ruling. We rate this claim Barely True.
Respecting the numbers claim, remember that PolitiFact's numbers indicate a 30 percent error by Dannenfelser aside from the uncertainty created by Planned Parenthood's inability/unwillingness to divulge more precise figures.

The ruling on the use of "profit" is pure pedantry.  Dannefelser's use of the term fits perfectly with a standard usage and creates no apparent barrier to understanding the statement in accord with the context in which it was offered:  Planned Parenthood operates substantially in the black and therefore does not require over $350 million per year in government money.

The grades:

Amy Sherman:  F
John Bartosek:  F

Journalists simply can't lend themselves out to pedantic experts or indulge in pedantry themselves by using the comments of experts as an ad hoc justification.  The trusting reader is rendered less intelligent by this fact check and therefore the special tag "Journalists Reporting Badly" applies.

Grading PolitiFact (Georgia): Herman Cain and hiring Muslims

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:

(image clipped from

The fact checkers:

Willoughby Mariano:  writer, researcher
Jim Denery:  editor
Jim Tharpe:  editor


PolitiFact's fact check in this case consists of a shell game.  Whether or not the PolitiFact team consciously planned that type of result I cannot say.

The pea:  Herman Cain will not appoint Muslims.

Shell No. 1 (bold emphasis added):
(A) blogger for liberal questioned him at the Conservative Principles Conference in Des Moines, Iowa.
"Would you be comfortable appointing a Muslim either in your Cabinet or as a federal judge?" the blogger asked.

"No, I will not," Cain replied. "And here’s why. There is this creeping attempt, there’s this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government. It does not belong in our government."
Shell No. 2 (bold emphasis added):
This brings us back to Beck’s radio show, where Cain said his statement was "misconstrued."

"[The reporter] said, would you be comfortable with a Muslim in your Cabinet?" Cain told Beck. "And I immediately said, without thinking, ‘No, I would not be comfortable.’ I did not say that I would not have them in my Cabinet. Because if you look at my career, I have hired good people regardless of race, religion, sex, gender or orientation and this sort of thing."
Shell No. 3 (bold emphasis added):
The Monday after the news broke, Cain recounted what he said on Fox News’ "Your World with Neil Cavuto."

"A reporter asked me ‘Would I appoint a Muslim to my administration?’ I did say ‘no,’ " Cain told Cavuto.

"And here’s why ... I would have to have people totally committed to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. And many of the Muslims, they’re not totally dedicated to this country," he said. 
 Shell No. 4 (bold emphasis added):
In April, Cain repeated he would not hire a Muslim to radio host Bryan Fischer, who is also a conservative. We found an excerpt from the show on a website critical of the political right:

"[T]he comment I made that became controversial, and my staff keeps hoping will die, is that I wouldn’t have Muslims in my administration. And it’s real simple. The Constitution does not have room for Sharia law ... and to introduce that element as part of an administration when we’ve got all of these other issues, I think I have the right to say that I won’t," Cain said.  
The magicians at PolitiFact first show us shells No. 1 and No. 2, telling us that there is apparently no pea under either shell:
Indeed, the question the blogger asked Cain was whether he would be "comfortable" with a Muslim in his Cabinet, not whether he would appoint one. If you take the video on its face, the explanation Cain gave on Beck’s show seems reasonable.
But PolitiFact informs us there is supposedly a problem.  There is a pea under shell No. 3 and another under shell No. 4--and apparently there was one under No. 1 after all:
(C)ontrary to his claim on Beck’s program, Cain did say he would not have Muslims in his Cabinet. Not once or twice, but three times in as many weeks to, Cavuto and Fischer.
Consider PolitiFact's approach to this fact check.  The fact check team finds the claim from ThinkProgress consistent with the claim from the Beck program.  But they also find the ThinkProgress claim consistent with the statements from the Cavuto and Fischer programs.  The supposed consistency of the ThinkProgress material with the statements from each of the other venues individually shows that the original comment was ambiguous.

PolitiFact fails to plainly admit the ambiguity of the first comment.  Instead, it gets lumped in as a claim contrary to Cain's statement to Glen Beck.  But Cain's ThinkProgress and Beck comments cannot be both contradictory and non-contradictory.  That's a contradiction.  Yet that's exactly what PolitiFact concludes in the course of the fact check.

PolitiFact's logic fails

With PolitiFact's contradiction set aside we can more easily follow the movements of the entity manipulating the shells.

PolitiFact interprets two of Cain's statements (shell No. 3 and shell No. 4) as inconsistent with his statement to Beck (shell No. 2).  PolitiFact concludes that the statement to Beck was ridiculously false.  But somehow PolitiFact accomplished that feat without evaluating the other two statements as to their truth value.  If the other two statements are not true then the conclusion doesn't follow.

PolitiFact can't even appeal to its fallacious "burden of proof" criterion since Cain ought to have the burden of proof for both statements.  In this case, the structure of the story suggests that PolitiFact arbitrarily ruled two of Cain's statements true in order to find the fact-checked statement false.  In principle, one may obtain clues as to the truth values for a pair of conflicting statements, but this story displays no specific evidence of that type of reasoning.

What was Cain saying?

This analysis sets aside the question of whether Cain could successfully distinguish between hiring a Muslim as itself a political act and hiring a Muslim as the result of hiring the best available person for a given job.  The latter understanding, in fact, makes the original question from the ThinkProgress blogger nearly incomprehensible.  It is foolish to hire a person one does not trust--regardless of his religious persuasion.

In the end, Cain's statements parse with difficulty because of ambiguity.  PolitiFact avoids the problem by assuming a lack of significant ambiguity.  That approach is inappropriate in fact checking but ordinarily readily acceptable in opinion journalism.  PolitiFact is supposed to represent the former.

The grades:

Willoughby Mariano:  F
Jim Denery:  F
Jim Tharpe:  F

Herman Cain was using language capable of significant nuance because of its ambiguity, somewhat similar to the distinctions often drawn between "listening" and "hearing."  PolitiFact ignores those distinctions.  Worse, PolitiFact takes statements by Cain that might have appropriately received treatment as a flip-flop and instead rules one of the statements as false with no other justification than the discrepancy.


Some of the non-objective writing in this piece deserves special attention:
Metro Atlantans are accustomed to Cain as an agitator. He’s been goading liberals for years as a conservative talk show host on AM 750 and 95.5FM News/Talk WSB.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the type of language that opinion journalists use.

A reporter would make sure the assessment above came from a third-party source, or would at least provide some sort of evidence in support of the assessment.  In this case we get none of that.  Instead, the PolitiFact team simply provides readers its own assessment of Cain's style on the radio.

Cain's radio colleague, Neal Boortz, does agitate and goad liberals.  But Cain's style, at least in my experience, is conversational and non-confrontational.  Based in part on PolitiFact Georgia's previous ratings of Cain, there is reason to doubt whether the PolitiFact team has ever listened to Cain's radio program.  It would not surprise me if Mariano and company conducted their research on Cain's radio career by asking around in the newsroom and taking the resulting poll as a suitable summary of Cain's radio career.  Don't buy the PolitiFact portrait of Cain on faith.

The following YouTube video shows Herman Cain engaging President Bill Clinton on Clinton's health care plan.  The video serves as a good example of Cain's style of communication.

If anything, the video shortchanges Cain with respect to the humor and good will he used to good effect on the radio.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Why Herman Cain can't win the presidency

Herman Cain's recent appearance on CBS News provides a probable foretaste of his failed bid to win the presidency:

Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain told Hotsheet Wednesday that homosexuality is a sin and a choice.

"I believe homosexuality is a sin because I'm a Bible-believing Christian, I believe it's a sin," he said. "But I know that some people make that choice. That's their choice."
Cain was asked: "So you believe it's a choice?"

"I believe it is a choice," he responded.
The reporter was almost certainly asking Cain whether he believed homosexual orientation is a choice.

Cain was probably saying that he believes that homosexual sex acts are a choice.

The mainstream media will push the narrative that Cain thinks homosexual orientation is a choice, and  mainstream media narratives carry considerable weight with the independent voters a candidate needs in order to win national election.

If Cain doesn't learn to speak the language of the mainstream voter and thus prevent the mainstream media from constructing a narrative destructive to his chances for election, then Cain has no chance at the national level.  But he may remain a central player in the Republican primary right through the end.  Republican primary voters carry a stronger resistance to mainstream press narratives than the average voter.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

No "gotcha" fact checks for PolitiFact?

Is the statement significant? We avoid minor "gotchas"’ on claims that obviously represent a slip of the tongue.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter
When is a slip of the tongue obvious?

A recent PolitiFact fact check on Sarah Palin helps us gauge PolitiFact's degree of difficulty.  The conclusion:
Palin is correct that the moratorium caused a dip in Gulf of Mexico oil production. But she overstated the amount of the dip attributable to the moratorium, and she grossly overstated the cost of that dip if a similar mount of oil is purchased from foreign sources. By the most generous accounting, the cost of that dip in oil production and the substitution of imports comes to a little less than $35 million a day. Palin said $8 billion a day. That's way off. We rate her claim Pants on Fire.
One of the basic rules of literary interpretation involves offering the writer or speaker charity as to the intent.  The practice makes sense in normal communications because people do make obvious errors in everyday speech and writing.

One application of literary charity consists of the willingness to consider obvious alternatives to what was literally stated or written.  By using that application, I promptly located the probable source of Palin's claim--and I have yet to observe PolitiFact make use of this technique.

Palin's likely source:
While our government struggles to formulate some sort of workable energy policy in light of domestic and international events, our national and economic security remain at risk. We’ll need energy from somewhere, and continued inaction in the Gulf threatens to force the United States to import an extra 88 million barrels of oil per year by 2016, at a cost of $8 billion.
Maybe Palin failed to remember the appropriate time frame.  Perhaps she simply misspoke, having intended to say "per year" rather than "per day."  Either way, isn't it something a fact checker ought to consider?

Palin's Revere narrative

After an email alert from friend Jeff Dyberg (not a Palin fan), I spend a bit of time researching Paul Revere's history and learned a few things I didn't know about it.  And some of those things it seems Palin did have some idea about based on her response to the reporter's question.

I did reach a conclusion, but John Hinderaker put it very nicely into words to spare me the trouble of writing extensively about it. 

The key sentence:
The real problem that was exposed at Old North Church wasn't Palin's lack of knowledge about American history, it was incoherence.
Hinderaker nails it.  Though there is enough detail in Palin's account for one knowledgeable about Revere's ride to see that she has at least some picture of some of the lesser-known details, nobody could could reasonably use her account to obtain a realistic picture of what Revere did on his ride without that prior knowledge.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Barbara Boxer and Medicare overhead

To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message.
--PolitiFact editor Bill Adair

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher,
Bill Adair:  editor


I favor an examination of context no less for liberals than for conservatives (transcript mine; source video below):
And this is something people should never forget:  You know, Newt Gingrich said, 15 years ago, let Medicare wither on the vine.  Bob Dole, when--I went back into the 60s when Medicare was put into place--said something like it's socialism and it's horrible and it's the worst thing in the world.  And the fact of the matter is, it works.  There's a 1.5 to 2 percent overhead in Medicare.  The insurance companies have a 20 to 30 percent overhead.  What are these boys doing on the other side.

The video version:

I would identify four propositions in Boxer's statement.

1)  Medicare carries an overhead of 1.5 to 2 percent.
2)  Private insurance companies carry an overhead of 20 to 30 percent.
3)  Medicare is at least 10 times (20 divided by 2) more efficient than private insurance in terms of overhead.
4)  Medicare operates more efficiently than private insurance (the underlying message).

This time, PolitiFact is not blind to the underlying message:
Boxer’s comment cuts to the core of whether a government-run program like Medicare has advantages over one in which private insurers take a primary role.
The term "advantages" might easily turn out a weasel-word.  Boxer asserts better efficiency, using as her representative example the claim that overhead is at least 10 times greater for private insurance.  If correct, Boxer's assertion would constitute an important evidence of Medicare's overall greater efficiency.  Individual advantages one way or another carry modest importance except where one model has an overall advantage over the other.

Weighing the evidence?