Chris Mooney is one such.
Mooney writes on a number of subjects concerning science and recently published a book called "The Republican Brain." I'm focused on Mooney's recent article for the The Nation, since I'm satisfied with the review Mooney's book received from one of his erstwhile colleagues at the Center for Inquiry.
In "Reality Bites Republicans" Mooney continues pushing the meme that liberals are somehow more attuned to the truth than conservatives, with most of his fodder coming from the stats connected to the liberal fact checkers at PolitiFact and the Washington Post.
The Smart Politics blog went on to suggest, based on these numbers, that PolitiFact is biased against the right—precisely the type of knee-jerk centrism that Mann and Ornstein have called into question.Knee-jerk centrism is hardly worse than knee-jerk liberalism. So what knee-jerk, if any, are we looking at, here?
I've written a number of times about the Smart Politics study by Eric Ostermeier. People, apparently including Chris Mooney, don't appear to understand the basis for Ostermeier's criticism.
Ostermeier criticized PolitiFact on the basis of a selection bias problem. Mooney, cloaked as he is in an ostentatious mantle of science, ought to have thorough familiarity with the concept.
Ostermeier looked into the method PolitiFact uses to choose which claims it would check, and found PolitiFact editor Bill Adair saying "We choose to check things we are curious about. If we look at something and we think that an elected official or talk show host is wrong, then we will fact-check it." Ostermeier questioned how the above method could explain the numbers: a roughly even number of ratings from the Republican and Democrat groups with one group faring significantly worse in the ratings. Ostermeier's making the point that the PolitiFact data do not constitute anything like a fair scientific experiment designed to figure out which party does a better job as a steward of the truth.
Mooney, if he has the type of familiarity with science that he tries to project in his writing, surely knows that the numbers from PolitiFact do not lend themselves to scientific conclusions. Yet somehow he manages to produce that impression.
After all, there is another possibility: the left just might be right more often (or the right, wrong more often), and the fact-checkers simply too competent not to reflect this—at least over long periods.Ostermeier allowed for that possibility despite the "knee-jerk" characterization from Mooney.
So which interpretation is correct? While certainly not definitive, a study undertaken for my book The Republican Brain and updated for this article—with dedicated data-gathering and statistical analysis from an assistant, Aviva Meyer—lends additional credence to the latter possibility.Mooney's study doesn't lend any "additional credence to the latter possibility." His study of the Washington Post "Fact Checker" column in essence duplicates the Ostermeier study and leaves exactly the same questions about selection bias. Even if one assumes that the fact checks are free from error and bias, the breakdown of the findings is entirely consistent with the hypothesis that liberal media bias accounts for the result.
Mooney's entire argument in support of liberal truthiness appears to stem from an appeal to the principle of parsimony (Occam's razor):
As Kessler’s words suggest, interpreting these data—or, for that matter, the aforementioned data on PolitiFact—as evidence of a liberal bias among the fact-checkers discussed here would be shortsighted and simplistic. All indications are that both outlets try (or even bend over backward) to be as balanced as possible.Apparently since Kessler professes unconcern about which party he fact checks Mooney believes this indicates something akin to a lack of selection bias. In truth, it indicates nothing of the kind and we are left to wonder at how Kessler's words are supposed to connect to the conclusion the liberal bias hypothesis is "shortsighted and simplistic."
A potentially simpler explanation for these results, then, is that the fact-checkers are simply doing their job—and Republicans today just happen to be more egregiously wrong. Democrats, meanwhile, are certainly not innocent when it comes to making misleading statements, but their pants are not on fire.
Mooney says the fact checkers try to be as balanced as possible. Because they say so? That's silly. There is nothing in either Kessler's or PolitiFact's selection process, so far as we know, that would keep the data from manifesting a selection bias problem even if we assume that each individual fact is checked in a neutral manner.
In science, one does not accept a researcher's word that his data is free of selection bias. One expects a check on selection bias built into the method of selection, often accomplished via a simulation of randomness.
Mooney suggests that it is "potentially simpler" to explain the data by assuming that the fact checkers are neutral while Republicans fib more than Democrats. Mooney apparently thinks it simpler to suppose that a large group of Republicans lies more compared to Democrats than to suppose bias in a small group of fact checkers. On the surface, that is the opposite of the way the principle of parsimony is supposed to work.
I challenge Mooney to describe his understanding of Occam's razor as it applies to this issue.
Until he deals with that problem as well as others, he's properly classed as a truth hustler.