Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tales of the unexpected, featuring PolitiFact

You have to love PolitiFact's fact-challenged statements about itself.

We’ve consistently ruled in the past that the economy is too complex to assign full blame (or credit) for job gains or losses to a president or a governor  
Our ruling

Pelosi compared a select time frame in the Obama administration against the entire length of the Bush administration -- a methodology that treats the two presidents unequally. The irony is that if she had used better methodology, she would have had a sounder argument that more private-sector jobs were created under Obama than under the Bush administration. For her general point, we give Pelosi some credit. For her methodological sins -- repeated at least three times -- we give her thumbs down. On balance, we rate her statement Half True.
There's consistency for you.

The NRCC makes a statement that's correct but represents cherry picking and gets a "Barely True."  Nancy Pelosi makes a statement that's also correct, represents cherry picking and gets a "Half True"--with no mention of docking Pelosi for crediting President Obama.  On the contrary, PolitiFact itself recommends an alternative method for giving President Obama credit for his job creation numbers compared to those of his predecessor.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Grading PolitiFact (Georgia): Rick Santorum and Ruth Bader Ginsburg's constitutional preferences

Sometimes I lead with an epigraph from PolitiFact's statement of principles.  It's hard to choose one in this case, since PolitiFact Georgia may have violated all of them.

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

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


PolitiFact Georgia notably neglects the real context of Rick Santorum's speech, substituting in its stead an economical and prejudicial summary:
A political rally drew Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum to First Redeemer Church in Forsyth County, not Sunday services.

So instead of teaching the Bible on Feb. 19, he preached on the U.S. Constitution and what he thinks is an effort by liberals to push it aside.
Santorum spoke for over an hour.  The PolitiFact summary barely hints at the content of his speech.

Comments referencing Justice Ginsburg start at about 25:00

Santorum’s example was U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is widely considered among the most liberal justices. He asked his audience of 3,000 whether they heard what she said the other day, and they erupted into boos and guffaws.
PolitiFact's reporting is mostly inaccurate.  It's true that the audience reacted to the statement about Ginsburg's statement--before its content was described--with a smattering of boos, changing to laughter when Santurm said "Well I guess you did hear that."  But Ginsburg wasn't Santorum's example of the left trying to push the Constitution aside.  Rather, it was his example of the left preferring a constitution where rights have a different foundation than in the U.S. system of government.  Santorum previously spoke at some length about the foundation for rights laid out in the Declaration of Independence.

"So she prefers the South African Constitution over the United States Constitution. A Supreme Court justice says we should be recommending to the world a South African view," Santorum told them.

More boos.

Did she really say that?
Are we going to try to answer the question without putting Santorum's comments in proper context?

We found she said no such thing.

First, some context.

After a popular uprising and the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt is in the midst of writing a new constitution. Ginsburg went to Egypt in January to meet with Egyptian judges and legal experts, and while there gave an interview to Al Hayat TV.
Context is a good thing.  But why all the focus on the context of Ginsburg's interview statements in contrast to a one-sentence distillation of Santorum's remarks?
Ginsburg’s lengthy, nuanced responses repeatedly praised the values, concepts and language of the U.S. Constitution and called the people who wrote it "some of the most brilliant minds of the day "

Ginsburg warned that a constitution means "nothing unless the people are yearning for liberty and freedom." She emphasized the importance of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and of the separation of powers between Congress, the president and the judiciary that it created.

Ginsburg also pointed out that a long time had passed between the passage of the U.S. Constitution and Egypt’s current efforts.
All true, though I'm not sure what business an objective reporter has calling Ginsburg's statements nuanced (when does Politifact drop the pretext of objectivity?).  But what did Ginsburg say about basic rights other than mentioning the importance of the First Amendment?

PolitiFact (bold emphasis added):
South Africa came up when Al Hayat asked whether Egypt should incorporate parts of other countries’ constitutions in its draft constitution.

"Would your honor’s advice be that a society like ours, with what we call -- what we like to call  -- a transition to the second republic, would your honor’s advice be to get part or use other countries’ constitutions?

"Maybe the United States or other countries as a model? Or [that] we come up with our own methods and our own draft?" the interviewer asked.

Ginsburg replied:

"You should certainly be aided by all the constitution writing that has gone on since the end of World War II. I would not look to the U.S. Constitution if I were drafting a constitution in the year 2012. I might look at the constitution of South Africa.

"That was a deliberate attempt to have a fundamental instrument of government that embraced basic human rights [and] had an independent judiciary. It really is, I think, a great piece of work that was done.

"Much more recently than the U.S. Constitution is Canada, [which] has a charter of rights and freedoms [and] dates from 1982. You would almost certainly look at the European Convention on Human Rights. … I'm a very strong believer in listening and learning from others.''
How is one supposed to escape the conclusion that Ginsburg would prefer the South African constitution to the U.S. Constitution as a model for a contemporary effort to draft a constitution?    Ginsburg very clearly expressed a preference in the above.  The remaining question is whether Santorum's use of her statement adequately respects the context.

I guess there's still the question of this:
At no point during the interview did Ginsburg say that she prefers the South African Constitution to the U.S. one. Her point was that it’s better for Egypt to base its constitution on more recent ones written after Word War II [sic].
What a load of manure.  As noted above, Ginsburg very clearly preferred the South African Constitution over the U.S. Constitution as a contemporary model for Egypt.

As for Ginsburg's supposed point, Ginsburg did recommend using as models constitutions more recent than World War II.  The specified date range excludes the U.S. Constitution.  Ginsburg mentions the constitution of South Africa by name.  That's a preference.

From this point, PolitiFact Georgia displays no concern over whether Santorum's remarks respected the context of Ginsburg's interview statements.  That's unsurprising given PolitiFact's disregard for the context of Santorum's speech as well as for the plain text of Ginbsurg's interview.

The grades:

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


ObamaCare tramples contract law?

Fascinating argument.  Hat tip to Hot Air.

Monday, February 27, 2012

The unbearable lightness of caving

You just have to laugh.

PolitiFact, after the latest fact-check clamor from the left, has again revised one of its Truth-O-Meter ratings, and this one may top the last one for the nonsensical justification accompanying the new ruling. PolitiFact decided to change its ruling of Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) statement that most Americans are conservative from "Mostly True" to "Half True."

The rationale supplies the evening's entertainment.

Let's start with the editor's note:
EDITOR'S NOTE: An analysis of this claim by U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., was published on Feb. 14, 2012. After it appeared, we heard from many readers who argued that our rating of Mostly True was the wrong call. The debate centered on whether to judge Rubio on his literal statement or the underlying point. We try to balance that question in many of our rulings. Upon further discussion, and bolstered by more reporting, we have decided to change this ruling to Half True. (The original item is archived here.)
The further discussion was "bolstered by more reporting."  Like what? We placed the stories side-by-side for comparison.

Here are the significant differences in reporting:
We found three sets of reputable polls that were comprehensive and addressed voter ideology.
The first version of the story used only a series of Gallup polls.
Before we get to those polls, we should note two important precautions about considering the data. First, it matters how questions get asked. In this case, it particularly matters which options a pollster offers for answers to a given question. Second, political ideology is not the same as party affiliation.These days, people split Republican and Democrat pretty evenly, with the answer "independent" garnering significant support. But here, we’re looking at political ideology on a liberal to conservative scale.
The above is an absolutely excellent addition to the story.  Too bad it doesn't really make any difference except to make clear that the part in the earlier version of the story about the Republican leaning of Independents was completely irrelevant. The summary of the Gallup poll data remains pretty much unchanged.  There were two more polls considered.

Here are the summaries.

 American National Election Studies
In 2008, 32 percent placed themselves on the conservative side; 25 percent said they hadn’t thought much about it; 22 percent chose the liberal side; and 22 percent said they were moderate.
That poll offered two choices that defied categorization into either "conservative" or "liberal," obviously.

POLITICO-George Washington University Battleground Poll
In the most recent poll, conducted in November 2011, 61 percent said they were conservative while 34 percent said liberal.
That poll more or less forced respondents into moving out of the middle to express a preference for either conservative or liberal.  PolitiFact quotes a representative as saying the poll does that by design.

Through this stage we have three relevant new pieces of reporting.  First, the number of answers a poll provides respondents matters.  Second, the ANES poll has results that somewhat agree with the Gallup poll except that more respondents concentrated toward the middle without accepting either the conservative or liberal labels.  Third, we have a poll that unequivocally supports Rubio, albeit by  forcing a choice on those who would trend toward the middle. What we have so far only helps Rubio, pending additional sifting of the evidence.

PolitiFact's next section, featuring comments from pollsters, must serve as the key evidence behind the change in the ruling.

Mark Mellman, a pollster for Democrats, said conservatives never cross the 50-percent threshold when moderate is offered as an option, and moderate always should be offered. "Questions need to contain the range of relevant alternatives in order to be ‘valid,’" he said via email.
Mellman's wrong with the claim that moderate should always be offered as an option, but correct with the latter.  Is "moderate" a relevant alternative in this case?  As  Celinda Lake said in explanation of the approach for the Battleground poll, "(T)hey deliberately don’t offer 'moderate' because it becomes a default answer and is less predictive of voting behavior."

"The real question is, so what?" he added. "Identification with these broad general terms is only loosely correlated with people’s views on any particular substantive issue … Saying more people are conservative than liberal tells us nothing about their views on taxing the wealthy, protecting Medicare, protecting the environment or any other of a host of issues."
Mellman's right again.  But if we're concerned about context at all, Rubio prefaced his statement about majority conservatism with comments about the U.S. economy and later added belief in the Constitution as a trait of conservatives.  A fact checker might be interested in whether a conservative majority exists on things like economic approaches and maybe protections of religious liberty--things that might have major relevance when it comes to convincing voters to support conservatives, in other words.


Robert Blendon of Harvard University, who specializes in polling on health care policy; said he prefers the Gallup poll numbers when thinking about political ideology, but added, "I’ve never seen a poll that doesn’t show more conservatives than liberals," he said.
Blendon, then, doesn't support finding Rubio literally true that a majority of Americans are conservative, but appears to support a potential underlying argument that conservatives outnumber liberals.  That underlying point would at least partially encompass the context of Rubio's statement.

Karlyn Bowman of the conservative American Enterprise Institute distills the results of many polls on similar topics. She said she thought Rubio was on the right track with his comments.  "Ideologically, we are more conservative than liberal, and that’s consistent across the polls," she said.
And that's it.  Mellman said it's important to use polls that have options representing all the relevant choices, but whether moderates were relevant in the context of Rubio's statement isn't clear.  Blendon prefers the Gallup poll (and presumably the inclusion of the "moderate" choice) but does not apply his preference to Rubio's statement.  From Bowman we have essentially the statement that Americans are more conservative than liberal.

It's time to bolster the new rating with the fresh reporting.

Rubio said that the majority of Americans are conservative. Two of the three pollls show that while conservatives are a plurality, they are short of a majority. Rubio can't claim majority status because a significant share of the electorate identifies itself as moderate. In the one poll that gives voters two choices -- liberal or conservative -- conservatives have consistently been the majority. So by the two polls, he was incorrect. By one, he was correct and we find support for his underlying point that there are more conservatives than liberals. On balance, we rate this claim Half True.
As is so often the case with PolitiFact, a "Huh?" is warranted.

One of the new polls essentially agreed with the earlier poll.  The second one agreed with Rubio.  How can that justify downgrading the ruling?  The answer is easy:  It can't.  This PolitiFact story is flimflam.  The claim that the new reporting bolsters the new ruling is untrue, particularly as presented in the summary paragraphs above.  The new reporting provides a pretense for changing the ruling; PolitiFact does not clearly communicate any reasonable justification for downgrading Rubio.  The new ruling is easier to justify from the old reporting.

PolitiFact's blown the story twice.

Explaining the updated ruling

As noted above, the new reporting on the Rubio item appears to support Rubio, on balance, more than did the reporting in the original item. What is the best and most charitable explanation for the downgrade in terms of the evidence?

I suggest PolitiFact may have used the following spurious lines of evidence:

1)  Arbitrary reliance on Mellman instead of Lake leaves us with the proposition that a poll of political ideology should always include "moderate" as an option.  Following that dictum, one should prefer the two polls that offered less support to Rubio.

2)  The PolitiFact summary implicitly suggests that two polls are better than one.  Granted that leaves us with the question of whether 2-1 is better than 1-0.

The two charitable attempts above are of such dubious quality that we can't rule out the less charitable explanation:  PolitiFact repented of its original ruling in advance of and regardless of new reporting, refused to admit any error in reaching the original conclusion and subsequently used the new reporting as a deliberate pretense to unveil a new ruling motivated by criticism from the left.


The best version of the story would have taken Rubio in context and taken its cue from from the combined testimony of Lake and Mellman:  Look for polling including all the relevant options, and recognize that the conservative/liberal dilemma is the superior predictor of voting behavior.  Lake is saying that "moderate" is relatively irrelevant in predicting voting patterns.  The Battleground poll stands as the best of the three for testing Rubio's claim. The original ruling was probably correct, but PolitiFact never produced adequate reasoning for either of its conclusions.

The likely explanation for the changed ruling occurs early in the editor's note:  "(W)e heard from many readers who argued that our rating of Mostly True was the wrong call."

So PolitiFact caved to external pressure.  That's the story right there.

Feb. 28, 2012:  Eliminated a redundant and misplaced descriptor, and in the "Wrap" changed "The best explanation" to "The likely explanation."

Friday, February 24, 2012

Reminder to self: This is the Internets

As is my habit, I dropped in on a liberal blog for a bit of discussion.

More properly, I dropped in to ask a question, since a statement at the blog hinted at the existence of some sort of rigorous statistical treatment of PolitiFact.

No luck with that, but the ensuing exchange was entertaining for its tendency to match the pattern of response I often see at liberal blogs (attack and "other" the interloper).

Attempts to answer my question quickly devolved into attacks:
I’m just a “liberal,” Bryan, not somebody who’s ironically set himself up as yet another arbiter of truth.
I tried to make the point that pretty much anybody who writes for public consumption is an arbiter of truth at some level.  That also drew attacks, such as the following:
“Anybody who says things that they expect to be taken as true is an arbiter of truth at some level.”
If you can’t understand the difference between saying, “It’s my opinion ___ is true” and “We have determined ___ is objectively 87.4634626324% true through quantitative, scientific analysis” there is seriously no [****]ing hope for you.  For the sake of the pedestrians in your neighborhood, I hope you don’t drive like you think.
What discussion eventually took place revolved around the purpose of the PolitiFact Bias blog and whether there was truth to Sarah Palin's statement about Obama's "death panel," with the latter eventually touching on an example referenced in a column by Don Surber.

Perhaps the funniest moment came from the threat that my comments would be accessible via Google:
I’m just content to be diverting you from your ever-so-important quest. Which appears to be to make Politifact a right-leaning factchecker. Put it this way: If it was, I seriously doubt you’d be bothered. Deny that if you will
Add to that the fact that Google will neatly catalogue your repeated obfuscations and kneeslapping logic fails on this thread alongside your name and I’m a pig in clover.
People can find the argument using Google?  Who knew?

"Obfuscations," so far as I can tell, is a code word for reasoning the writer does not agree with, and "kneeslapping logic" is essentially the same thing.  The blog community made no serious attempt to find problems with my logic, but rather engaged in something akin to a systematic fallacy of appeal to ridicule.

Those interested in the exchange as a case study can find it here.  Profanity warning.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Bob Cesca's Uncle Santa

While hunting up information concerning PolitiFact, I happened upon "Bob Cesca's Awesome Blog."

Not that awesome, as it turns out, since Cesca swallowed the line that PolitiFact had "debunked" Marco Rubio's claim about  majority conservatism.  But it's old news that PolitiFact was probably accurate with its claim despite the poor quality of the fact check.

What got me interested in posting about Cesca's blog is the graphic that adorns the blog header.  It appears to be ... it looks like ...

Uncle Santa!

Sure, the whiskers say "Uncle Sam," but look at the paunch.  And get a load of that big star-spangled bag o' goodies Uncle Santa is carrying for good liberals and progressives!  Or maybe this was Santa's chosen look for when he delivered presents during the bicentennial (1976) Christmas season?

Who knows? 

But interesting visual, all the same.

Paul Krugman and Hoover's austerity measures

Economist and political hack Paul Krugman yesterday:
Specifically, in early 2010 austerity economics — the insistence that governments should slash spending even in the face of high unemployment — became all the rage in European capitals. The doctrine asserted that the direct negative effects of spending cuts on employment would be offset by changes in “confidence,” that savage spending cuts would lead to a surge in consumer and business spending, while nations failing to make such cuts would see capital flight and soaring interest rates. If this sounds to you like something Herbert Hoover might have said, you’re right: It does and he did.
Hoover did speak of a crisis in consumer confidence.  But it's hard to tell what austerity measures Krugman detects in Hoover's policy.

Megan McCardle explains last year:
According to the historical tables of the Office of Management and Budget, spending in 1929 was $3.1 billion, up from $2.9 billion the year before.  In 1930 it was $3.3 billion.  In 1931, Hoover raised spending to $3.6 billion.  And in 1932, he opened the taps to $4.7 billion, where it basically stayed into 1933 (most of which was a Hoover budget).  As a percentage of GDP, spending rose from 3.4% in 1930 to 8% in 1933--an increase larger than the increase under FDR, though of course thankfully under FDR, the denominator (GDP) had stopped shrinking.  
Where are Hoover's "savage spending cuts"?

What a hack.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

PolitiFact and playing the percentages (Updated)

American Journalism Review's editor and senior vice president Rem Rieder is back at it again, writing about PolitiFact in a way that demands a response.

Last time, Rieder argued in effect that journalists' role as truth-tellers compelled them to call out lies.  Rieder blurred the line between a "lie" as an inaccurate statement and a "lie" as an attempt to deceive and wound up catching himself in his own criticism.  In my response I argued that objective journalism doesn't permit reporting motives based on misstatements of fact.

This time, Rieder broadcasts his disappointment with PolitiFact's ruling of "Mostly True" on Sen. Marco Rubio's claim that a majority of Americans are conservative.
As it assessed the Florida Republican's assertion, PolitiFact turned to the findings of the Gallup Poll, which regularly asks Americans about their political orientation. In 2011, Gallup found that 40 percent considered themselves conservative, 35 percent moderate and 21 percent liberal. It also found that the number calling themselves conservative has never been above 50 percent.

So this one should be easy. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a majority is "a number or percentage equaling more than half of a total." Not even close. The number of conservatives would have to be more than 25 percent higher to be a majority. The verdict on the PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter is "Pants on Fire," right?
Can we blame Rieder for ignoring the context of Rubio's statement if PolitiFact did the same thing?  Of course we can, kids!  As I pointed out in an analysis over at the associated blog "PolitiFact Bias," Rubio spoke in the context of preferring conservative over liberal.  Here's part of the quotation, via PolitiFact:
"You know, somebody asked me: ‘How do you know that? How do you know Americans are majority conservative?’ Here’s why: How come liberals never admit that they are liberals? They never admit it. They’ve now come up with a new word called progressive, which I thought was an insurance company, but apparently it’s a label."
PolitiFact nearly hit on an approach to the fact check that might have tested what Rubio was claiming.  PolitiFact took into consideration the political leaning of Independents, reporting that "45 percent of Americans identified as Republicans or leaned that way."

Adding the conservative lean of moderates to the percentage of self-identified conservatives probably represents the best method of testing Rubio's claim.

A short illustration will help show why.

Suppose we used a self-identification poll with 50 choices.  Conservatives, for the sake of argument, represent only 4 percent of the total, with the other 36 percent who chose "conservative" out of only three choices picking some other label.

Do conservatives make up 40 percent of the total or just 4 percent?

The number of choices matters.

For that reason, limiting the choices to match the nature of Rubio's claim constitutes the best method of testing the claim.  Calculating the conservative lean of moderates added to self-identified conservatives is a fair measurement.  Gallup doesn't ask that question of moderates, so we can't use that stat to test Rubio's claim.  As a result we don't really know the answer.  My guess is that the conservative lean of moderates would exceed 10 percent of the total and put conservatives over the 50 percent bar.  Therefore I think PolitiFact's rating is reasonably accurate but flawed in its reasoning.  But worse still is the reasoning coming from critics on the left.  Can the statement be reasonably termed "False" based on self-identification surveys with three choices?

Rieder clearly thinks so.  And maybe he'd just as willingly accept a self-identification survey with 50 choices in deciding the question.

Oops, did I lump Rieder in with critics on the left?  But he's an objective journalist, isn't he?

I don't think so.  If Rieder was objective he might have taken the opportunity to criticize PolitiFact's "Mostly True" rating for White House representative Cecilia Muñoz's claim that 98 percent of Catholic women have used contraception.  That claim is off by at least the 10 percentage points representing women who have never had sex at all; it simply couldn't be a true claim at all in contrast to Rubio's, and the degree of error is at least similar to that Rieder finds an obvious "Pants on Fire" for Rubio.

So where's Rieder's objection?

I'm not holding my breath.

Update 3:40 p.m.

Kevin Drum of the liberal rag Mother Jones points to survey data supportive of Marco Rubio's statement:
In this poll, 61% of the country identified as conservative. That's a majority!

Now, this is a poll of "likely" voters. It forces a choice between liberal and conservative. And even though we all know that "independent" voters mostly lean left or right pretty reliably, I imagine this poll still understates the number of true centrists.

Nonetheless, it's a poll. And Rubio could quite reasonably point to it as evidence that a majority of the country is conservative.
The Politico/George Washington University survey samples likely voters, so it isn't quite the perfect support for Rubio.  Of significance, however, Democrats and Democrat-leaners constitute a plurality in the sample population.  Drum fails to emphasize that key point while mentioning a few less significant complications.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A "Penigma" enigma

While surveying Internet material associated with PolitiFact, I ran across a blog post over at the "Penigma" blog misrepresenting a portion of a PolitiFact story.

The story was about the Obama administration's claim that 98 percent of Catholic women use contraception other than natural family planning.

Here's part of the Penigma takeaway (bold emphasis added):
I personally have always found the Guttmacher Institute to be an excellent research organization in the past, and have read other studies as well as this one. I'm not the only one who finds the Guttmacher Institute to be reliable. The article noted that the Catholic Medical Association has found the source credible in earlier studies of the same question, and found a pretty consistent percentage of use of contraception among Roman Catholics over time.
The highlighted portion is an inaccurate interpretation of the story.  PolitiFact hides the truth a bit with a semantic/syntactical shell game (which I charitably take as an accident):
The study, "Countering Conventional Wisdom: New Evidence on Religion and Contraceptive Use," is based on government data collected in the National Survey of Family Growth.

The survey has been conducted seven times since 1973 by the National Center for Health Statistics, with the most recent cycle in 2006-10. The survey includes women ages 15 to 44. Researchers conduct personal interviews to gather information on marriage, divorce, contraception, infertility and health of women and infants.

The source is regularly used for studies on contraceptives and religion, including one we found published by the Catholic Medical Association. (The 2001 article found the high rate of contraceptive use by Catholic women "not new or surprising.")
The first paragraph starts by referring to the Guttmacher material as "the study."  And it ends by referring to the source of the information:  The National Survey of Family Growth.

In the second paragraph "the survey" is the topic, not "the study." Skimming the story will certainly leave the impression that it's talking about the Guttmacher Institute throughout.

I remember sharing the initial impression that PolitiFact was saying the CMA relied on Guttmacher Institute data.  But that simply isn't the case.  The Penigma post links to the CMA Web page that refers to the survey, which in turn has a link to a .pdf of the CMA journal article:
The National Center for Health Statistics periodically conducts surveys to collect nationally representative data on factors related to childbearing, including data on contraception, sterilization and infertility. These surveys are known as the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG). The primary sources of data for this article are the 1988 and 1995 rounds of the NSFG.
I notified the Penigma folks of the error:
I'm pretty sure you'll find that the CMA was looking at the government source that the Guttmacher people used as the foundation for their study.

The confusion is understandable in light of the sentence construction PolitiFact used.  Revisit it and you'll see that it refers to the CDC (government) survey.

Gotta watch out for PolitiFact.  ;-)
That was on Feb. 15, and I received a response not long after that made it appear that the author wasn't particularly concerned.

Must be part of the "reality-based" community?  This type of thing bewilders me.

Fix it, Penigma!  And feel free to drop me a line when the deed is done.  I'll cheerfully update this item to offer due credit.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

American Journalism Review and the lying liars who accuse lying liars

American Journalism Review published a story late last year in defense of today's fact check fashion.  It carried the title "Calling a Lie a Lie," but that was deceptive.  The subsequent deck material was more clear:  "When something is clearly false, journalists shouldn’t be bashful about pointing it out."

The deck sentiment is correct. Unfortunately, writer Rem Rieder appears uncertain whether to support the ambiguous sentiment in the title or the more reasonable assertion from the deck.

Rieder strangles his message in ambiguity from the start:
So should journalists brand a lie a lie?

This should not be a tough call: Of course they should.
If we understand "lie" as  a clearly false statement, then Rieder is correct. 

If, on the other hand, we're talking about the much more widely understood definition of "lie" as a statement intended to deceive, then the answer is no, at least in objective reporting.  Objective reporting does not permit the journalist sufficient leeway to judge the motives of a speaker or writer.

So already we've got a problem.  If an "objective" journalist calls a statement a "lie" in the false statement sense and the audience understands "lie" to refer to intentional deceit, then the journalist is, in effect, communicating a false message to the reader.  A lie?

Why would the journalist use ambiguous language if not for the express purpose of misleading the reader?  Assuming the journalist is intelligent enough to distinguish between the different meanings for the term "lie," of course.

Rieder then follows with a nearly perfect illustration of his own problem with ambiguity:
The issue is very much in the air now in the wake of Mitt Romney's completely duplicitous ad about President Barack Obama.

The "Believe in America" ad shows Obama saying, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."

What Obama really said was, "Senator [John] McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, 'if we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.' "

This is a completely cynical distortion of the president's remark. It's an incredibly cynical piece of political mischief. It needs to be called out. 
 Just to state the obvious, journalists very often truncate quotations.  They lop material off the front.  They omit material in the middle.  They chop off material at the end. 

It's okay to shorten quotations under one condition:  It doesn't substantially change the meaning of what the person wrote or said.

President Obama's handlers immediately reacted to the Romney ad, alleging it distorted what President Obama said.  Romney's defenders pointed out that the ad provided enough context so that the viewer--even including left-leaning journalists--should be able to tell that Obama was speaking back in 2008 well before Mr. Obama would have thoughts of whether to talk about the economy when seeking reelection.

To amplify the point, Romney's ad carries the same message substituting the full quotation Rieder provides.  The only exception comes from viewers such as Rieder who assume, contrary to the facts presented in the ad, that Obama referred to himself in the context of the 2012 election.

Plainly the ad was intended to portray the irony of Obama condemning the economy in 2008 while holding responsibility for a worse economy leading toward the 2012 election.  And it's the journalist's responsibility to expose a lie in that?

No, it's the journalist's responsibility to explain the ad in terms of the facts and in terms of its message, correcting any obvious errors of fact in accordance with the statement in Rieder's deck.  It is not the journalist's responsibility to make false statements about how the ad is obviously false and in need of rebuke.

This controversy over fact checking helps illustrate time and again how journalists have lost touch with the concept of objective reporting.

Monday, February 06, 2012

Not that we're taking over health care or anything, but ...

Remember how false it is that the PPACA represents a "government takeover" of health care?

Just pointing out the obvious:
Today, virtually all American women use contraception at some point in their lives. And we have a large body of medical evidence showing it has significant benefits for their health, as well as the health of their children. But birth control can also be quite expensive, costing an average of $600 a year, which puts it out of reach for many women whose health plans don't cover it.

The public health case for making sure insurance covers contraception is clear. But we also recognize that many religious organizations have deeply held beliefs opposing the use of birth control.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is breaking it to us rather gently, but unavoidably she just told us that the federal government took over the determination of what kind of insurance a Catholic hospital can legally purchase.

Move along.  Nothing to see here.  It simply isn't possible that this is the type of thing opponents of the bill had in mind when they called it a "government takeover."  Is it?

Hat tip to Master Yoda for the coherence of the link highlight

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Grading PolitiFact (Tennessee): Stacey Campfield and the origin of AIDS

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:

Zack McMillin:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor
Tom Chester:  editor


Is this fact check a slam dunk falsehood? Did Tennessee legislator Stacey Campfield claim that AIDS originated when a man had sex with a monkey before subsequently having sex with other men?

Fact checks like this one tend to draw my attention because journalists often display a difficulty in reporting science and because of a widespread journalistic sympathy toward social liberalism.

Of the many controversial claims state Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, made in an interview on satellite radio last week with a gay-rights advocate, none was more sensational than his assertion that AIDS in humans came from "one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men."
Campfield supposedly asserts that AIDS came from "one guy screwing a monkey ... then having sex with men."

What does "assertion" mean?
Something declared or stated positively, often with no support or attempt at proof. (
And "stated positively" means what?
assert, claim:  Careful writers distinguish between these verbs, though they are often used synonymously.  Claim implies having evidence to back up an assertion, while to assert is to state one's position boldly.  Some authorities declare this battle is now over, and those who find claim to be stronger than assert or contend are free to use it.  But the word may imply a lack of foundation, so use it with care.
("The Right Word:  How To Say What You Really Mean" page 37)
PolitiFact, by describing the nature of Campfield's statement with variations of "claims" and "asserts," frames the legislator as though he is attempting to make an authoritative statement about the origin of AIDS.  Unfortunately for PolitiFact, the immediate context of the quotation argues directly against that frame.  Campfield was asked if he knew the origin of AIDS and offered his understanding according to his recollection.  Campfield was not attempting to make any point associated with his proposed legislation apart from the harm caused by homosexual practices.  That is, the spread of AIDS.

In short, PolitiFact is failing to give appropriate weight to the context.

If only that exhausted PolitiFact's blunders in this story.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Rick Santorum and "bla-" vs. "black"

I finally got around to looking into this claim that Rick Santorum intimated that blacks tend to be on welfare with his comments during a campaign stop in Iowa.

I know it's all the rage to portray every Republican as racist, but this example just doesn't wash.  Let's assume that Santorum said "black" and try to make sense of his statement.

Via CBS (edited to leave only Santorum's words):
"It just keeps expanding - I was in Indianola a few months ago and I was talking to someone who works in the department of public welfare here, and she told me that the state of Iowa is going to get fined if they don't sign up more people under the Medicaid program.  They're just pushing harder and harder to get more and more of you dependent upon them so they can get your vote. That's what the bottom line is.  I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money."
It's been pointed out that Santorum was speaking to an audience of white people.  In Iowa, that den of racism (I'm kidding, Iowa).  And that's why the comment, contextually, doesn't make sense if he's saying "black."  Santorum just got through saying "They're just pushing harder and harder to get more and more of you dependent upon them so they can get your vote."  More of "you."  He was addressing his audience, which represented Iowa.  "Black" doesn't fit the context.  "Black" mainly fits as some sort of Freudian slip letting his fellow racists in Iowa know where he stands on race (still kidding, Iowa).

Granted, I have no idea what Santorum meant to say.  It's possible he meant to say "blacks" despite the fact that it doesn't fit the context.  But the times I've heard him say "blacks" he enunciates it more clearly than in the Iowa video.

Who hears racist dog whistles and why?

I'm a skeptic of racist dog whistles.  Could they exist?  I suppose so.  May they be used effectively?  I can imagine some circumstances where they might.  But in electoral politics the key is reaching the independents and undecided voters.  Do those groups contain enough racists or latent racists to make dog-whistle racial messaging an effective election strategy?

Jeffrey Goldberg, writing his Blomberg View column, apparently thinks that may be the case.  He predicts big things from the dog whistlers in the 2012 election season:
Here are some things you could learn about black Americans from the recent statements and insinuations of Republican presidential candidates, Republican congressmen and Republican-friendly radio personalities:

Black people have lost the desire to perform a day’s work. Black people rely on food stamps provided to them by white taxpayers. Black people, including Barack and Michelle Obama, believe that the U.S. owes them something because they are black. Black children should work as janitors in their high schools as a way to keep them from becoming pimps. And the pathologies afflicting black Americans are caused partly by the Democratic Party, which has created in them a dependency on government not dissimilar to the forced dependency of slaves on their owners.
I'm trying to keep an open mind, here.

Supposedly a Republican/Republican-friendly said/insinuated black people have lost the desire to perform a day's work.  Goldberg provides a link, but it provides no apparent support for his claim.  Rather, it deals with the Food Stamp program in response to Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's comments in response to a question from Fox News contributor Juan Williams.  Gingrich, in fact, explicitly denied that the comments that stimulated Williams' question were racist in nature, and Gingrich did not declare that any race had lost its desire to perform a day's work.

Supposedly a Republican/Republican-friendly said/insinuated black people rely on food stamps provide to them by white taxpayers.  Goldberg again provides a link, which tells the same type of story as the previous one.  Race isn't mentioned, but Goldberg is apparently able to detect a reference to race, at least to the point of definitively claiming the Republican candidates are teaching us that "Black people rely on food stamps provided to them by white taxpayers."   Goldberg apparently figured all that out when candidate Rick Santorum said "I don't want to make black people's lives better by giving them somebody else's money; I want to give them the opportunity to go out and earn the money."

Supposedly a Republican/Republican-friendly said/insinuated the Obamas feel as though they are owed something because they are black.  That one's close to being true, since radio personality Rush Limbaugh stated he thinks the Obamas feel owed something because of the way their ancestors were treated.  I think we're supposed to set aside the fact that ill treatment of ancestors is not a racial reason for expecting some payback.  A white ancestor, after all, is perfectly capable of receiving ill treatment.  And the racial angle falters as Limbaugh continues:
I think if you look at the way the Obamas live, with Michelle and her separate vacations and not being concerned about how much it costs to take separate airplanes -- there's no question in my mind that they view this as -- whatever else they view it as, as an opportunity to live high on the hog without having it cost them a dime. And they justify it by thinking, "Well, we deserve this, or we're owed this because of what's been done to us and our ancestors all these" -- who knows? I think that's -- I think that's part of it. 
I also think that it is why the Republican establishment wants back -- and everybody in Washington wants to be in charge of the money. Everybody wants to run the committee chairmans-- the committee and be the chairman. Everybody wants to be in charge of the budget. Everybody wants to have power over it. Do not discount, ever, the money.
If Limbaugh blunts his racism at all with the intimation that the Republican establishment is black, Goldberg takes no notice.

We get the picture.  It is the plausible deniability of the racial angle that makes the dog whistle a dog whistle.  Other than decoding specialists like Goldberg and every liberal blogger in the whole wide world, it's just a special targeted sub-population (of Republicans) that receives the racial message.

Dog-whistling -- the use of coded, ambiguous language to appeal to the prejudices of certain subsets of voters -- is one of the darkest political arts.
Just to be clear, Goldberg is not intimating  that blacks ("darkest political arts") disproportionately engage in the use of racist dog-whistle techniques.  Goldberg is not a Republican, so we can't draw any conclusion like that.  He's just saying that using that type of ambiguous language is evil.

And Goldberg helpfully introduces us to an expert at understanding and combating the dark art of racial dog-whistle politics:
(Randall) Kennedy, who studies the role of race in national elections, told me last week of a rule he uses to measure whether a candidate’s appeal to prejudice will succeed: If it takes more than two sentences for a critic to explain why a dog-whistle is a dog-whistle, the whistler wins.
Thank goodness for run-on sentences.

Okay, seriously.  Kennedy is an academic serving as a law professor at Harvard.  But the appeal to authority isn't good enough.  What is the evidence for the existence of a working racist dog whistle?  And why is Jeffrey Goldberg better at hearing them than I am?  Am I not Republican enough?  Is Goldberg a closet Republican?

I needed an academic willing to talk in terms of evidence.  Kennedy wasn't the guy, so I did some searching and came up with another name:  Tali Mendelberg.

Mendelberg's "The Race Card" was published in 2001.  It supposedly contains experimental evidence of the effects of dog whistle politics.  But what I found most intriguing while I read the first chapter was the support the work provides for my counter-theory.

Mendelberg's first example comes from the use of Willie Horton to attack the candidacy of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis.
When an implicit appeal is rendered explicit—when other elites bring the racial meaning of the appeal to voters’ attention—it appears to violate the norm of racial equality.
Mendelberg suggests the violation of "the norm of racial equality" negates the effect of the dog-whistle ad, using as evidence an increase in Dukakis' poll numbers after elites denounced the ad on racial grounds.  But what stops her from drawing the inference that denouncing the ad counted as a net gain for Dukakis?  We apparently have two dynamics in play rather than just one.  What if we had a non-racist alleged dog-whistle ad denounced as racist?  And what if it takes fewer than two sentences to explain the alleged racism?

That's the beauty of the counter strategy.  Making racist dog whistles by definition deniable removes from those who cry "racism!" any real responsibility for making their case that a statement constitutes a racial appeal.

Perhaps Jeffrey Goldberg is researching the issue for us.

Related viewing.

February Artist: Joe Beier

I listen to quite a bit of instrumental guitar music, everything from Allan Holdsworth to Joe Satriani.

Joe Beier is new to me this year.  I downloaded some of his music in January and it's receiving repeated listens.

His songwriting reminds me of guitarist Dave Weiner, but Beier's music is more interesting to me--it has that eclectic approach that artists like Steve Morse use. 

Anyway, give it a listen for the great tone, tasteful playing and accessible songwriting.