Friday, June 29, 2012

Monday, June 25, 2012

The absurdity of science

I suppose I take the risk of letting the title of this post get taken out of context, but the title appears to fit when scientists blurt out things like the following:
"The Big Bang could've occurred as a result of just the laws of physics being there," said astrophysicist Alex Filippenko of the University of California, Berkeley. "With the laws of physics, you can get universes."
I suppose I shold give Filippenko the benefit of the doubt that he can coherently explain himself given sufficient time.  But his statement, at least on its face, qualifies as absurd.

What are the laws of physics?

The laws of physics are the descriptions of the behavioral properties of physical, observable things (that is, somethings rather than nothings).  Absent physical, observable things, as would be the case with a state of nothingness, what possible law of physics could exist?

One cannot take the laws of physics for granted in the absence of the phenomena those laws describe.

Friday, June 22, 2012

PolitiFlub: PolitiFact math on equal pay for women (Updated)

President Obama's re-election campaign alerts us that women receive only 77 cents on the dollar for performing the same work as men.

No worries.  PolitiFact is on the case:
The 77 cent figure has become a rallying cry for those who seek to eliminate employment discrimination based on gender. And it’s a genuine statistic.
I already know it's a genuine statistic.  It is, for example, the amount of money one should expect as change when using $1 to buy a 33 cent item.  It is probably not at all a genuine statistic in the context of equal pay for equal work, however.

PolitiFact explains, notwithstanding its own muddying of the waters:
In a report released in September 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau wrote that in 2010, the female-to-male earnings ratio of full-time, year-round workers was 0.77." Translated into dollars, that means that in 2010, women working full-time earned 77 cents for every dollar earned by men working full time.
And that's for the same work that men do?  No, of course it isn't.  Consequently, PolitiFact's explanatory paragraph is about as relevant as mine explaining how much change one should expect after using $1 to pay for a 33 cent item.  It's not relevant, and one would hope that a campaign supporting a candidate who presumes to address the problem would know which stats are relevant and which are not.

Probably the campaign knew the stat was misused but did it anyway to improve the impact of the ad.  The error's just too obvious.

Speaking for myself, the right approach to this fact check involves trying to estimate the real difference between pay for men and women doing the same work and confirming whether the Obama campaign landed anywhere near the ballpark.  PolitiFact chose instead to explore the ins and outs of the 77 cent statistic, in the end admitting that it serves as the wrong vehicle for the ad's claim about men and women receiving different pay for the same work.

PolitiFact's approach yielded the following conclusion:
The Obama campaign took a legitimate statistic and described it in a way that makes it sound much more dramatic than it actually is. The 77-cent figure is real, but it does not factor in occupations held, hours worked or length of tenure. Describing that statistic as referring to the pay for women "doing the same work as men" earns it a rating of Mostly False.
That's just PolitiFact spin.

The Obama campaign made a claim about disparate pay for men and women doing the same work and tried to support it with a statistic that doesn't take into account the type of work done.  That's a flatly wrong approach, perhaps even "pants on fire" if one believes in applying subjective judgments to rulings on matters of fact.

PolitiFact's conclusion suggests that the Obama campaign was trying oh-so-hard to simply convey that men and women are paid differently irrespective of the jobs they do and (oopsie!) just happened to get a little mixed up in the delivery.  There's one way to keep the statistic from earning a "False" rating or worse:  Find out the real number and determine whether the 77 cent figure is somewhat close.

Nothing else will do.

Update: tried to do the fact check the right way.

The conclusion:
But the president was flatly wrong to say that women are paid 77 percent of the pay of men for the “same work.” And the fact that women’s median annual earnings are 77 percent of men’s isn’t all or even mostly due to discrimination, as the ad implies.
"Mostly False" gives the Obama campaign considerable benefit of the doubt.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The say anything president

Victor Davis Hanson with a gem:
One of the strangest aspects of Obama’s rationalizations is their utter incoherence and illogic: He brags that America pumped more oil and gas under his watch, even as he did his best to stop just that on public lands; he brags that he put in fewer regulations than did Bush, even as he boasts that he reined in business; he brags that he had to borrow $5 trillion to grow government in order to save the country, even as he claims he reduced the size of government. Why does Obama try to take credit for things on Tuesday that he damned on Monday? Is his new campaign theme: Despite (rather than because of) Obama?
The "all things to all people" approach of Obama's 2008 campaign becomes harder to duplicate when the historical record keeps interfering.

More gems from Hanson if you follow the link.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

PolitFlub: Mitt Romney versus firefighters and police

Just another of many examples where PolitiFact administers a "Truth-O-Meter" rating with no noticeable appreciation for its statement of principles.

This time we have PolitiFact Tennessee checking whether the Tennessee Democratic Party accurately reported that Mitt Romney said we don't need "more firemen, more policemen, more teachers."

PolitiFact ends up largely hiding the way the TNDP misuses the quotation.  Here's a portion of the press release PolitiFact linked:
As Mitt Romney made his way to collect money from wealthy special interests in Williamson County yesterday, Rep. Mike Turner, a career firefighter, and Principal Roxie Ross, a lifelong educator, held a press conference call in response to candidate’s claim that we don’t need “more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.”

Tennesseans know that firefighters, policemen, and teachers are the backbone of a strong and successful community. Romney’s suggestion that these people aren’t vital to our wellbeing is nothing short of shocking. These are hard-working Americans who want to improve their cities and town, ensuring that every American has a shot at the American Dream and the opportunity to live in a safe, prosperous community.  To say anything otherwise is further proof that Mitt Romney is detached from reality in Tennessee, and indeed across America.
This was apparently the best PolitiFact could do in showing the context:
We note that Romney did not say there should be "fewer" policemen, firemen and teachers, but the full context of the quote makes clear he disagreed with Obama’s stated policy goal of having Congress appropriate more stimulus money to add more of them. The more accurate characterization of Romney’s remarks would have been that "Romney disagrees with President Obama’s goal of adding ‘more firemen, more policemen, more teachers,’ " though we recognize that doesn’t have the same zing as the TNDP’s wording.
No, it doesn't have the same zing at all.

The TNDP used the quoted snipped to suggest that Romney doesn't really think society needs police and firefighters ("Romney’s suggestion that these people aren’t vital to our wellbeing is nothing short of shocking").  In context, Romney was saying that expanding public sector jobs does not serve as a good method for relieving economic malaise.  It was in response to President Obama's claim that since the "private sector is doing fine" therefore the government should address the economy by focusing on adding more public sector jobs to replace those that were lost.

PolitiFact at least ends up in the ballpark with respect to Romney's intent and otherwise gives a free pass to the TNDP's taking the statement blatantly out of context.

We end up with this:
The Tennessee Democratic Party says Mitt Romney has said "we don't need 'more firemen, more policemen, more teachers.' "

That's a slight exaggeration of Romney's remarks -- he was responding to Obama's comments on them, not outlining his own specific policy against them. Still, that's pretty close to what Romney said. We rate the claim Mostly True.
"Mostly True"?  Seriously?

The claim from the TNDC indisputably fails to deliver an accurate picture of the context of Romney's statement.  Based on that abundant truth, the ruling has to match one of the following three options.:
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.

HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
It wasn't an "important detail" that Romney was talking about restoring the economy and not whether police, firefighter and teachers are necessary to a healthy society?  Was the statement taken out of context or not?

Does considering the full context of Romney's statement give a different impression than that presented by the TNDP?

PolitiFact offers no clear guidance as to why "Half True" or "Mostly False" doesn't better fit this case.  Rulings like this one make it appear that things like "needs clarification," "needs ... additional information," "important details," "takes things out of context" and "critical facts" are subjectively determined rather than objective determinations.

PolitiFact head honcho Bill Adair edited the PolitiFact Tennessee story.  We infer that he approves of its content.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

A comeuppance for PolitiFact and Rex Nutting (Updated)

The math simultaneously backs up Nutting’s calculations and demolishes Romney’s contention. The only significant shortcoming of the graphic was that it failed to note that some of the restraint in spending was fueled by demands from congressional Republicans.
--Louis Jacobson, PolitiFact

(clipped from;
click image for larger view )
The White House, with an assist from PolitiFact, has turned Rex Nutting's analysis of President Obama's spending into a key talking point for Obama's re-election campaign.

While I'm neither an accountant nor an economist, I've put together enough evidence to show that Nutting and PolitiFact are selling falsehoods as the truth.

Cherry picking the metric

As I illustrated in an earlier post (at PolitiFact Bias), the "annual average" increase in spending serves as a very misleading method of measuring increased spending.

Cherry picking the window

Nutting compared presidents according to a four-year window of performance.  But Obama has only spent money over a span of less than three years (not counting FY 2009).  This allows Nutting to hide Obama's spending increases over a four-year average by figuring in the constraints of a Republican House of Representatives and the loss of a filibuster-proof Senate majority.

Failing to adequately contextualize Obama's actual spending

PolitiFact admitted in an update that Obama had an unusually active role in spending during FY 2009.  Obama and Congress passed an expensive economic stimulus package among other spending bills.  Nutting and PolitiFact dropped Bush's spending in FY 2009 by $140 billion to offset that spending, but that fails to account for bailout programs like TARP.  TARP involved great sums of money disbursed in unusual ways, so any fact check failing to nail down the major impacts of bailouts on spending for FY 2009 will not definitively address the issue of spending increases relative to the FY 2009 baseline.  Nutting certainly made no serious attempt, and PolitiFact shamefully overlooked that failure.

Cherry picking the future projections for the cherry-picked window

Cherry picking the window was bad enough, but Nutting and PolitiFact amplified the error by also cherry picking the future projections used to complete the picture of Obama's window.  The Office of Management and Budget made future projections.  Nutting did not use the OMB projections despite his use of OMB data for figuring the spending increases of earlier presidents.  Instead, Nutting (and PolitiFact) used the lower of two CBO projections.  Needless to say, the CBO projections used were less realistic as well as more favorable to Obama than the other two.

Shielding a fact check from scrutiny

PolitiFact obscured the reasoning behind its rating of Nutting's claim by simultaneously ruling on a statement from Mitt Romney.  PolitiFact did not answer a request that it explain how it accounted for $140 billion taken from Bush's 2009 spending baseline and instead supposedly credited to Obama.  Was that amount added to Obama's FY 2009 spending or did Obama obtain the benefit of a spending Twilight Zone in FY 2009?

Fixing the problems

The right metric, the right window

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Grading PolitiFact: President Obama and Romney's alleged outsourcing

HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:
(clipped from

PolitiFact finds "Half True" the statement from the Obama campaign that "Romney Outsourced call center jobs to India."  According to PolitiFact's statement of principles (see epigraph), the statement is "partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

The fact checkers:

Molly Moorhead:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


I think I was drawn to this story out of a sense of wonder.  How can one obtain a "Half True" for a non-compound proposition?  For "Beavis and Butt-head broke the window with a rock" we have a compound proposition.  Beavis broke the window with a rock.  Butt-head broke the window with a rock.  If one of the two cartoon characters didn't break the window one could still consider the statement half true.  But no direct route to that kind of half truth exists for "Romney outsourced call center jobs to India."

Let's observe the experts at work.

The Obama campaign pointed us to news accounts of a budget issue in 2004, the second year of Romney’s term. The Democratic-controlled Massachusetts legislature sent Romney a budget with an amendment that "would prohibit Massachusetts from contracting with companies that ‘outsource’ the state's work to other countries," according to the Boston Globe.
Okay, we can see where this is going.  Romney vetoes the proposed legislation, leaving in place the status quo and allowing a company contracting with the commonwealth of Massachusetts to outsource jobs.

By analogy, Butt-head failed to confiscate from Beavis a rock that Beavis could throw at a window.  Since Beavis subsequently broke the window with the same rock, it is half-true that Butt-head broke the window.

Maybe we're missing something?

At the time Massachusetts had a $160,000 a month contract with Citigroup to process debit cards for food stamps. Citigroup outsourced its customer service call center to a facility in India.

A small but important detail: the state didn’t outsource the work -- a state contractor did.
So back to our analogy, somebody definitely broke the window with a rock.  Beavis did it, but Butt-head could have prevented it.  So, when somebody says "Butt-head broke the window with a rock" it is (by analogy) a small but important detail that Beavis was the one who broke the window with the rock.  Which brings us to "Half True," apparently.  Perhaps a larger and even more important detail might have caused the claim to drop as low as "Mostly False," such as Daria breaking the window with a baseball bat instead of Beavis breaking it with a rock.


Our ruling

Obama’s ad charges that "Romney outsourced call center jobs to India."

The Obama campaign's wording suggests a broader, more deliberate policy when the state was sending some work overseas. But in choosing to veto the bill, Romney let the arrangement continue. The statement leaves out important information. We rate it Half True.
The barely coherent summary matches the barely coherent logic preceding it.

PolitiFact ends up drawing a very rough sketch of its reasoning, but apparently the writer and editor was misled by placing an improper emphasis on the fact that jobs were outsourced to India.  The point of the ad is not that jobs were outsourced to India.  The ad stresses Romney's responsibility for that outsourcing.  If Romney had outsourced jobs to China rather than India then one could reasonably take the original claim as "Half True" since the point of the ad holds true:  Romney did the outsourcing.

Unfortunately for PolitiFact, the "small but important" detail is big and very important in this case.  It's very misleading to use language depicting Romney as directly responsible for outsourcing jobs when in fact he simply left intact a policy permitting contracting parties to outsource jobs.  The claim of the ad is literally false but with a germ of truth:  Jobs were outsourced and Romney could have prevented it by signing the legislation.  The closely related underlying argument that Romney outsourced jobs is likewise only supported by a germ of truth.

For comparison:
MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
Even if one thinks of Romney as a butt-head, he didn't break the window.  The greater part of the ad's message is false.

The grades:

Molly Moorhead:  F
Bill Adair:  F

June 15, 2012: Thanks to Matthew Hoy for highlighting this story on Twitter and via his Hoystory blog.  Hoy adds to the story with a eye-opening parallel.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Good, Bad and the Ugly in New Hampshire

PolitiFact returns to New Hampshire with a local affiliate, led by the Nashua Telegraph.

The Telegraph published an editorial about the renewed fact-checking venture.

A few points deserve special emphasis.

The Good
Now, it’s true fact-checking has its imperfections. One major criticism is that fact-checkers get to decide which statements to check, which is a subjective exercise.

 I have yet to see PolitiFact editor Bill Adair make a comparably clear statement admitting to the non-objective nature of story selection.  Compare the above with Adair's response when the latter was asked how PolitiFact avoids the selection bias problem:
There are many things that go into deciding what we are going to choose. We try to be timely, we try to stay on top of the news and we try to have balance so we check people from both parties. That can be challenging though, because if you have eight voices speaking up in a Republican primary and only one Democratic incumbent – naturally you have eight times the number of statements being made on the Republican side than on the Democratic side. We try to check roughly the same number of claims by Democrats as we do for Republicans, but we have to go where the claims are and lately there have been more made by Republicans. In terms of avoiding selection bias, I think the key is to be guided by what serves the reader. Once you get past claims selections, our fact-check process is entirely driven by journalistic and independent assessment.
Note to Adair:  The Telegraph editors have the right of it.  Next time you're asked how you avoid selection bias, just admit that you don't avoid it.  If you want to bolster that answer with the assurance that PolitiFact tries to treat statements fairly after that, then go for it.  But don't go around thinking that the attempt mitigates selection bias.  It doesn't.  Your organization is also very poor at applying its standards fairly, though that's a separate issue.

The Bad
Yet every other article we choose to publish in the newspaper or online also holds a degree of subjectivity. Anticipating the interests of readers is at the foundation of good journalism.
This bizarre rationalization amounts to a self-referential application of the tu quoque ("You also") fallacy.  The tu quoque fallacy rationalizes one action based on the fact another (typically the accuser) performs the same action.  In this case the message amounts to "Yes, it's subjective to choose which stories we fact check, but we do that all the time in "objective" newspapers."  It's a "Me, too!" version of the "You, too!" fallacy.

Readers are willing to forgive non-objective story selection because there really isn't much of an alternative.   The response from the Telegraph misses the point.  Nobody criticizes on the issue of selection bias.  Why is that?  It's because does not use a silly "Truth-O-Meter" that misleads readers into thinking that they have a useful guide as to the truthfulness of individual politicians based on a selected sampling of fact check stories.  As researcher Eric Ostermeier of the University of Minnesota and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs put it (bold emphasis added):
The question is not whether PolitiFact will ultimately convert skeptics on the right that they do not have ulterior motives in the selection of what statements are rated, but whether the organization can give a convincing argument that either a) Republicans in fact do lie much more than Democrats, or b) if they do not, that it is immaterial that PolitiFact covers political discourse with a frame that suggests this is the case.
The Telegraph needs no excuse for selection bias if it does not join PolitiFact in using "Truth-O-Meter" stats to produce the impression that such statistic represent reliable information about a pattern of truth-telling by the individuals rated.  The excuse does not mitigate the sins of the Truth-O-Meter.

The Ugly

Another criticism is that journalists themselves – Republicans, Democrats or something else along the political spectrum – can’t resist tilting the scales toward the ideology they agree with most.

The same criticism is made in professional sports. Referees are accused of making calls that are overly generous for one team and overly critical of the other. There’s no doubt it happens.
Adair has used this same referee analogy recently:
"When you're a loyal fan of a team, you're going to think the referee is biased against your team."
The Telegraph deserves some credit for taking the analogy to a point Adair tends to avoid, specifically the reality that referees make mistakes and allow bias to affect their rulings.  That's one example showing why the referee analogy serves PolitiFact poorly by coming too close to the truth.

Other examples show the ugliness of the analogy.

Why do sports leagues employ referees?

Because somebody has to make a final determination on matters where the application of the rules has an effect on the outcome of a game.  The sports league chooses the referees, and the league has an interest in choosing quality referees in order to protect the image of its product.

In contrast, journalistic fact checkers appoint themselves to look over a "game" (American politics) that lacks an owner.  Without an owner with an interest in maintaining the integrity of the game, what is supposed to motivate fact checkers to provide neutral judgment? 

The Telegraph provides an answer of sorts.  There are many referees, so somebody will make the right call.

The Telegraph offers no guidance as to which referee we should trust.  Lacking that, it's hard to see how the answer helps us.

The ugliness of the analogy reveals itself as we realize that the game of politics needs no referee other than the voter.  Fact checking is not a referee function.  Ideally, it is an information resource the real referees--the voters--can use to help fulfill their role in the political process.

When fact checkers raise their status to that of refereeing the political process they become nothing other than another elite voice trying to sway voters.

That is a partisan place.

PolitiFlub: No credit or blame for Bill Clinton?

Rookie mistake?

Close on the heels of a hard-to-explain discrepancy involving call-and-response claims from the Obama and Romney campaigns, PolitiFact New Jersey sheds one of PolitiFact's principles like newly adult cicadas shed old exoskeletons .

Recall PolitiFact editor Bill Adair's edict that the fact checkers would start taking credit and blame consistently into account:
About a year ago, we realized we were ducking the underlying point of blame or credit, which was the crucial message. So we began rating those types of claims as compound statements.
Now watch PolitiFact New Jersey duck blame or credit as Bill Clinton claims credit for balancing the budget and partially paying down the national debt:
Our ruling

At a June 1 campaign event, Clinton touted his fiscal record in the final years of his presidency. "Then I gave you four surplus budgets for the first time in more than 70 years, paid $600 billion down on the national debt," Clinton told the crowd.

Clinton delivered four consecutive surplus budgets for the first time in more than seven decades, but the former president misstated the level of debt reduction. During those four fiscal years, the debt held by the public dropped by nearly $453 billion, but total debt jumped by about $400 billion.

We rate the statement Mostly True.
Who says the executive branch doesn't control the purse strings of the federal government?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Obama of history foretold?

It turns out that President Obama has thrice met with noted presidential historians to glean from them hints on succeeding in office.  An admirable goal, no doubt, but the interesting part happens when the historians glean things about the president.

Edward Klein/Fox News:
On the evening of Tuesday, June 30, 2009—just five months into his administration—Barack Obama invited a small group of presidential historians to dine with him in the Family Quarters of the White House. His chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, personally delivered the invitations with a word of caution: the meeting was to remain private and off the record. As a result, the media missed the chance to report on an important event, for the evening with the historians provided a remarkable sneak preview of why the Obama presidency would shortly go off the rails.
It's good reading, so get to it.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

June Artist: Flying Colors

"Flying Colors" is the name of a new group that features three of my favorite musicians:  guitarist Steve Morse (Deep Purple, Steve Morse Band, Kansas, Dixie Dregs), bassist Dave LaRue (Steve Morse Band, Dixie Dregs) and drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Transatlantic).  With noted progressive artist Neal Morse (Spock's Beard) on keys and vocals and Casey McPherson (Alpha Rev) on vocals, Flying Colors' lineup falls in the "supergroup" category.

Disappointing efforts by supergroups, of course, are a dime a dozen, but Flying Colors achieves an uncommon success.

The band plays a mixture of pop and prog on its debut recording, a mix that evokes a certain similarity to Asia.  No one member of the group dominates the sound and at the same time no member fails to stand out.

The success of the Flying Colors is exemplified on the song "Kayla," which sounds like a pop song while crammed with top-notch musicianship and prog-like properties.

Flying Colors - Kayla by Musictheoriesrecordings

Note: I have no control over commentary occurring in the embed.

PolitiFlub: Blaming Romney for blaming Obama

PolitiFact has found yet another method for allowing inconsistent standards to taint its ratings of political statements.

Call it the "blame game" game.

We saw an early warning of this tendency in the form of gauging credit rather than blame.  PolitiFact repented of supposedly overplaying the degree to which President Obama took credit for positive changes in job numbers.  Obama received an upgrade from "Half True" to "Mostly True" in that case.

We saw it again earlier this week when PolitiFact gave both the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign "Half True" ratings based on blame.  Obama adviser David Axelrod tied Romney to Massachusetts' job creation ranking during Romney's tenure as governor.  Romney campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom responded by pointing out a positive trend in the Massachusetts ranking under Romney as well as an overall positive picture of unemployment in the state.  Did Fehnstrom simply add important context to the situation described by Axelrod or was he giving Romney credit?  PolitiFact ignored the former possibility and docked Fehrnstrom down to "Half True" despite accurate statistics.

Later in the week PolitiFact gave us yet another example.

In a new Web ad, the Romney campaign questions how Hispanics in the U.S. have fared under President Barack Obama.

The ad, titled "Dismal," flashes shadowy faces of Latinos along with text citing rising unemployment and poverty rates in that minority group. The statistics are bookended by clips from Obama’s own Spanish-language ads that say the country is moving in the right direction.

"Really?" the ad asks.
To PolitiFact, the above unquestionably shows that the Romney campaign is blaming Obama for the economic plight of Hispanics.  PolitiFact communicates this clearly in the conclusion (bold emphasis added):
Our ruling

Romney’s ad correctly states that more Hispanics in the U.S. have fallen below the poverty line since Obama took office: 2.25 million more people through 2010, according to the census.

But the ad’s clear message is that it’s Obama’s fault but experts say it's a much more complicated picture than that. We rate the statement Half True.
Isn't the ad's message much more complicated than simply blaming Obama for the level of Hispanic unemployment?

The ad shows Obama's claims that the country is moving in the right direction.  Is Obama claiming credit for taking the country in the right direction?  The Romney campaign ad does not address that question.  Instead, it uses the stats on Hispanic poverty rates to question Obama's claim that the country is moving in the right direction.

PolitiFact badly overstates the degree to which the ad blames Obama for changes in Hispanic poverty rates.  At most, the ad faults Obama for not doing a better job of improving the American economy, even to the point where the poverty rate among Hispanics would bear out a claim like "We're moving in the right direction."

The Romney campaign hit Obama on a legitimate discrepancy between Obama's claim and the Hispanic poverty rate.  PolitiFact's use of blame to drop the rating amounts to grasping at straws, and grasping at straws is an unbecoming behavior for fact checkers.

Fact checking as PolitiFact does it in the above cases remains indistinguishable from deliberate partisan spin.

Thursday, June 07, 2012

PolitiFact uses "In Context" feature to vanish Bill Clinton's clearest statement on tax hikes

I was intrigued to see the latest "In Context" article at PolitiFact minutes ago.  I was intrigued initially because it claimed to provide the context surrounding Bill Clinton's remarks that Republicans have construed as opposed to President Obama's policy stance on the future of the Bush tax cuts.  Those cuts are set to expire after this year.

I was intrigued even more because I had referenced Clinton's statement in a discussion on PolitiFact's Facebook page about the wisdom of raising taxes to the levels existing during Clinton's presidency.

And I was especially intrigued when the "In Context" story did not include the quotation of Clinton I used, which was from September of last year.

Here's what I referenced from Politico:
“I personally don’t believe we ought to be raising taxes or cutting spending, either one, until we get this economy off the ground,” Clinton told Newsmax in an interview Tuesday. “This has been a dead flat economy.”
This "In Context" feature seems designed to let Clinton make us believe the economy has taken off.  It leaves out the context of Clinton's clearer statements on tax increases.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Thine own petard lieth in wait for such as thee, Andrew Sullivan

It's simply amazing. 

Sullivan shows us how to hoist one's self with his own petard like a father patiently demonstrating to his young son how to tie a tie.

No, really.  Sullivan shares with his readers a chart derived from PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" readings.

Sullivan comments:
Of course, there's a big bold disclaimer: Politifact picks and chooses what topics it covers; it itself is not unblemished in its impartiality; none of this pretends to be a comprehensive, independent analysis of large swirling, now uncoordinated campaigns. Nonetheless, you can separate out party leaders on both sides, as selected by Politifact, and gauge their truthfulness, as measured by Politifact.
Exactly!  The chart tells you nothing dependably about the candidates, but it does potentially tell you something about PolitiFact.


That's a nicely tied tie! 

Unfortunately, Sullivan doesn't seem aware that he has undercut the point of his post.
Again, what you see is a GOP advantage in truthiness in general but a huge discrepancy when it comes to total, massive, pants-on-fire whoppers.
Sullivan's claims especially tickled me since I'm completing the first of a series of studies examining PolitiFact for signs of bias.  The first such study looks specifically at "Pants on Fire" ratings compared to other ratings.  The difference between "False" and "Pants on Fire" is important because PolitiFact defines the difference between the two (so far as I can tell) on entirely subjective terms.
FALSE – The statement is not accurate.

PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.
Until PolitiFact reveals its objective means for determining that a statement is worthy of ridicule, it's reasonable to take the definitions literally.  Far from showing that Republicans lie outrageously, Sullivan's stats simply show PolitiFact's tendency to think Republican untruths worthy of ridicule.

Of note, PolitiFact Wisconsin is often criticized as leaning to the right.  This measure bears that suspicion out to some extent, though I suspect the reasons behind the numbers differ significantly.

PolitiFlub: The argument over job creation in Mitt Romney's Massachusetts

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

Apparently PolitiFact simply isn't capable of applying the results of its examination.

A  pair of fact check stories published yesterday illustrate the point.

The Obama campaign has hit former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney over his record on job creation in that state.  The Romney campaign has replied with numbers that imply Romney performed well in Massachusetts on job creation.

PolitiFact picks up on the context of battling rhetoric:
Both presidential campaigns are using job statistics to attack each other. President Barack Obama and his allies have spent months criticizing Mitt Romney’s job-creation record as governor of Massachusetts. Now, Romney and his surrogates are arguing that job creation in Massachusetts actually improved on Romney’s watch.

So who’s right?
PolitiFact's wrong, at least if we take its "attack each other" description to apply to this pair of fact checks.  The Obama campaign is attacking.  The Romney campaign is defending.  PolitiFact mischaracterizes the relationship between the two claims and botches at least one of the rulings.

For this fact-check, we'll follow our usual approach of looking at the claim in two parts: first, are the numbers correct, and second, how much is the change because of Romney's policies?
The described approach works well, at least potentially, for the attacking claim from Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod.  Axelrod says Massachusetts ranked 47th in job creation under Romney.  The claim only makes sense in the campaign if Romney is significantly responsible for the number.

The same approach is wrong for Eric Fehrnstrom's reply because Fehrnstrom is countering Axelrod's attack.  Fehrnstrom's argument doesn't require credit to Romney for the rise in rankings.  Fehrnstrom's statistic plays its primary role in undercutting Axelrod's argument.  Fehrnstrom, in effect, supplies part of the context that Axelrod deliberately neglected.

PolitiFact often bases its rulings on the degree to which a statement ignores context that might shed different light on a claim.  Fehrnstrom's head and shoulders over Axelrod in that regard in this case, but PolitiFact misreports Fehrnstrom's role in the argument and laughably gives both statements a "Half True" rating.

Want some partisan spin with your fact checking?  PolitiFact's your source.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Rex Nutting and PolitiFact

PolitiFact tried to get away with an absolutely epic non-endorsement endorsement of Rex Nutting's claim that Presdent Obama hasn't been a big spender.

PolitiFact Bias now hosts a detailed response to Nutting and PolitiFact that brings to light some of the misleading tricks both of them pulled over the past two weeks or so.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Nutting argument nothing new

The attempt to make Obama's spending increases into a mere lie fomented by the conservative opposition started well prior to this year, as it turns out.

Rex Nutting has received notoriety or his mathematical gamesmanship in promoting the idea, but Nobel Prize-winning economist and left-wing political hack Paul Krugman was crafting the legend back in 2010.

Charles Blahouse blew the whistle on Krugman back then just as many conservatives are doing today with regard to Nutting.

Blahouse explains how TARP spending distorts the picture:
By far the biggest single expenditure increase in 2009 (44% of the total) was in budget function 370, where outlays for the TARP financial stabilization program were categorized. Incredibly, however, the government overall projects to spend even more in 2010 than in 2009, despite the fact that TARP’s transactions have turned around completely during the current year. OMB has actually projected a positive swing of over $300 billion in TARP spending from 2009-2010 – from a $292 billion net outlay in 2009 to a $25 billion net savings in 2010. This $300-plus billion fiscal improvement will be swamped, and then some, by still more spending increases currently in process.
TARP accounting hides over $300 billion in government outlays, which makes up 8.7 percent of all federal outlays for 2010 as reported by the OMB.  That's a substantial percentage.

I'm not a big fan of answering arguments like Krugman's with figures showing spending as a percentage of GDP.  Using that measure can obscure the fact that lower revenues have a great effect on the percentages.  Blahouse does use the GDP measure but provides enough context to avoid misleading the average reader.  Some of those trying to answer Nutting were not as careful.

Obama was a big spender from the first.  And Krugman's a left-wing hack.