Monday, January 31, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Michele Bachmann and the promise

It was "dumb" for President Obama and his aides to promise that unemployment would not surpass 8 percent if the stimulus act passed, a top House Democrat said Tuesday.
--The Hill

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


Recently PolitiFact has deliberately drawn attention to the fact that Michele Bachmann (R-Min.) was the only political figure with an appreciate number of ratings who had failed to have one other than "False" or "Pants on Fire."  This claim rates "Barely True" according to PolitiFact, so that record evidently falls by the wayside.

The claim, of course, surrounds the Obama administration's sales job on the stimulus package.  That bill was the first major legislation to pass after Obama took office.

First, the Bachmann version:

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Talking points from the Van Hollen twins

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

The issues:

click to enlarge

The fact checkers:

Group A
Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor

Group B
Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


Both fact checks come from the same Van Hollen utterance:
“I’m interested to hear my colleagues say that they can identify with all the problems in the health care system.  Between the year 2000 and 2006, premiums in this country doubled, health insurance company profits quadrupled, and this Congress did nothing."
(yellow and blue highlights added)
The yellow highlights indicate the portion of the quotation that PolitiFact chose to fact check.  The blue highlights indicate where I believe Van Hollen expressed his underlying point.

This is what Van Hollen looked like in action, for those interested:

Claim A

In fact, we first visited a very similar claim when Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., wrote a Sept. 21, 2009, opinion piece for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call in which he said, "Insurance companies have seen their profits soar by more than 400 percent since 2001, while premiums for consumers have doubled."
And that's no idle reminiscence.  PolitiFact pretty much recycles the earlier fact check.  Rockefeller ended up with a "Half True" rating.  Van Hollen cherry-picked his years with greater care--2001 through 2006 instead of 2001 through 2009--so he fares a bit better.  Though I'm still wondering why PolitiFact does the comparison between years 2000 and 2006 while calling it the comparison between 2001 and 2006 (we won't see the same error when it comes to Claim B).

PolitiFact explains:
Back in 2009, we rated Rockefeller's claim Half True, noting that if he had carried the data forward to 2008 — an admittedly somewhat atypical year — the increase fell short of his stated quadrupling. But Van Hollen had a clearer reason to set the parameters between 2000 and 2006. Democrats regained control of the House in 2007. So it's fair for him to stop short of the 2008 figures.
If we're just verifying the numbers then the "clearer reason" that PolitiFact uses to rate Van Hollen higher than Rockefeller is irrelevant.  Apparently the underlying point has something to do with Democrats regaining control of the House in 2007.  Unfortunately, that doesn't entirely jibe with what Van Hollen said.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Rick Perry and the priority of Houston

To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message. In Paul's case, his point was a simple one, that many people have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He overstated the number, but not by all that many. 
--Bill Adair, PolitiFact

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Meghan Ashford-Grooms:  writer, researcher
Brenda Bell:  editor
W. Gardner Selby:  editor


In many ways, this fact check of Texas governor Rick Perry is fine and dandy.  PolitiFact provides a transcript that pretty clearly indicates that "Houston" was not the first word spoken from the moon.  And experts apparently agreed on that point.  Case closed.  The statement is False. 

Or is it?

Hearken back to PolitiFact head honcho Bill Adair's description as to how PolitiFact handles number claims.  The most important thing, Adair says, is the underlying argument.  And Gov. Perry clearly has an underlying argument, that being the central role of the city of Houston in space exploration.

So, either PolitiFact erred by failing to consider Perry's underlying point in its rating or else "first" is somehow not a number claim.

The grades:

Meghan Ashford-Grooms:  I
Brenda Bell: I
W. Gardner Selby: I

Each receives an incomplete grade (I) until I have more information on which to base a grade.

Hey, Jay Rosen! That's my soapbox!

Jay Rosen, media critic and associate professor of journalism at New York University, thinks journalists ought to offer more in the way of self-disclosure.

That makes two of us.  For several years now I've been arguing that the tradition of reporters keeping mum about their opinions is obsolete.  It has one role:  to hoodwink the public with regard to the objectivity of the press.

NPR's David Folkenflik reports on Rosen's views and offers a representation of the argument against Rosen.  Which I found very amusing:
Much of the conventional press has guarded against public exposure of journalists' private opinion lest it undermine the ability of readers, viewers or listeners to believe what they print or broadcast. Many journalists say they did not get into the news business to parade their personal opinions. They say they did it to uncover the facts.
Isn't that a hoot and a half?

Letting the public in on journalists' private opinions might "undermine the ability of readers ... to believe what they print or broadcast."  I'm pretty sure that's what I said up above, except without the euphemistic phrasing.  The media outlets are hoodwinking the audience into thinking they're objective.  The conscientious press is concerned about their poor readers!  We must not interfere with their suspension of disbelief!  That would be wrong!

The latter part of the paragraph is just as funny.  Journalists didn't get into the news business "to parade their person opinions," but to "uncover the facts."  Unless the fact is that they have specific personal opinions.  Let that fact remain forever covered, please.  After all, uncovering that fact might interfere with the ability of the audience to believe the media message.

Too flippin' hilarious.

But it's nice to see NPR reporting on this at all.  Seriously.

Jan. 27, 2011:  Finally remembered to include the URL to the NPR story.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Wisconsin): Jim Sensenbrenner and the emphatic American voter

The issue:

The fact checkers:

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


How many times has it happened that PolitiFact created a straw man via paraphrase?  Whatever the number, the tally increases by one with this story on Sensenbrenner:

The quotation:
"the American voters said no--emphatically."

The paraphrase:
Americans have "emphatically" rejected the federal health care reform bill

Anybody detect a difference? Does "American voters" constitute a different set than "Americans"?  Of course it does.  Now, the careless paraphrase does not necessarily de-legitimize the fact check unless the fact check proceeds to check the wrong fact.  In this case we'll see a mixed set of results.

"The House of Representatives -- and this representative -- has listened to the American people," Sensenbrenner said. "We had a debate on whether ‘ObamaCare' was the way to go to fix up health care and the American voters said no -- emphatically."

Of course, public opinion can be a moving target. And election mandates can grow over time, especially in the eyes of the winners.

So we decided to take a look at Sensenbrenner’s statement, including at what current polls are showing.
Sensenbrenner's statement lends itself most obviously to his interpretation of election results, with the most recent election results occurring in Nov. 2010.  Therefore, current polls are not particularly useful in fact checking Sensenbrenner even if we stick with polls referring to "likely voters" or those who voted in the relevant elections.

PolitiFact is again off on the wrong foot and an unbalanced fact check results.

PolitiFact considers a recent Rasmussen poll of likely voters.  The poll indicated a slight dip in opposition to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, though a majority (55 percent) still favored repeal and a plurality (40 percent) strongly favored repeal.

PolitiFact's reaction?
On the face of it, 55 percent does not seem "emphatic." Indeed, according to the firm, the percentage strongly favoring repeal has fallen.
Um--according to what objective measure does 55 percent not seem emphatic?  Search definitions for "emphatic" and you won't find much in terms of appeal to majoritarianism.  PolitiFact's reasoning here seems built on nothing.  Emphatic refers to emphasis (note the common root).  Forty percent of likely voters strongly favoring repeal is emphasis ("strongly"), and what PolitiFact spins as evidence against Sensenbrenner ("the percentage strongly favoring repeal has fallen") is, in truth, an evidence supporting Sensenbrenner.  That's because the emphatic percentage was greater than 40 percent when the votes were being cast.  And though that's the number that PolitiFact ought to have investigated, instead we get a set of recent polls not even restricted to likely voters.

It's not a legitimate fact check of Sensenbrenner unless the fact being checked is one Sensenbrenner used.

Sensenbrenner said American voters had "emphatically" rejected the federal health reform changes. District residents may have felt that way, though calls to a congressman’s office are hardly scientific -- and Sensenbrenner’s statement cited national opinion on the issue. Also, numerous polls after the November election indicated that voters had one issue foremost in their mind: the economy.
The link connects to a document about a series of AP-GfK polls where some of the data sets apply to likely voters.  But the problem is not with the polling but with the PolitiFact interpretation.  No poll question compared concern over the economy with the repeal of health care reform in terms of importance--and that would be a silly aim for a poll in the first place.  The degree to which likely voters thought the economy was the most important issue is largely irrelevant to the passion attached to the prospect of repealing the health care reform bill.  That's because the health care bill gets in the way of economic recovery in the view of many who oppose it.  The only truly relevant section of the document simply confirms the data from Rasmussen:

The question for this item was "In general, do you support, oppose or neither support nor oppose the health care reforms that were passed by Congress in March?"  The column for "likely voters" has two emphatic groups.  One emphatically supports PPACA to the tune of 19 percent of likely voters surveyed.  The other, in line with Rasmussen, emphatically opposes the bill and represents 41 percent of likely voters.  The emphatically opposed group, in other words, represents a plurality.

Given that a plurality of likely voters near the time of the election emphatically opposed PPACA, and given that emphatic opposition has to do with passion rather than percentage, what type of numbers does Sensenbrenner need to in order to confirm his statement as fact?

When it comes right down to it, Sensenbrenner was offering a subjective judgment based on facts he had observed.  The electorate was demonstrative in opposing health care reform.  Demonstrative behavior accompanies emphatic feelings.  Sensenbrenner's solid there.  In addition, the opposition to health care reform was arguably the one issue that most galvanized opposition to the Democratic Party's handling of its leaderhip role in the government.  Sensenbrenner has all the justification he needs to say the American voter was emphatic in opposing health care reform.

But is there an underlying argument in play?

Yes, Sensebrenner is justifying the Republican move to repeal the PPACA according to the voter passion that, among other things, helped put a Republican majority in the House of Representatives.  PolitiFact appears to argue that if Sensenbrenner does not carry a clear mandate from a supermajority of the American people in general then the push for repeal is not justified.  Or at least not justified by the appeal to an "emphatic" set of voters.

Skipping to the end, PolitiFact rated Sensenbrenner "Barely True."  How silly.

If Sensenbrenner's statement even entered the realm of the objective to the point of warranting a fact check, he receives more than adequate support through poll data and the election results for the House.  House Republicans can certainly justify acting according to the wishes of voters in their districts, and issues where voters were most demonstrative (as with opposition to the health care reform bill) make that justification ridiculously easy and entirely rational.  Even if PolitiFact doesn't like it.

The grades:

James B. Nelson:  F
Greg Borowski:  F

The fact check was ill chosen and ill executed.  It was like nailing Jell-O to a wall using Nerf airplanes.  This was another case of PolitiFact arbitrarily setting a non-specific arbitrary standard and then ruling that the subject mostly failed to meet that standard.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Mike Pence and the job-killing financial regulation bill

What is it with these Republicans and their violent rhetoric?

The issue:

Note the date of the statement from Pence.  July 15, 2010.  Such a timely fact check!  What brings this on?

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Morris Kennedy:  editor


The subject, as noted above, is the Dodd-Frank financial regulation bill that was passed with very little help from Republicans.

The law is complex -- here is a summary assembled by the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee -- but in general, the bill created an independent consumer protection agency, established new ways to liquidate failed financial firms, created a council to warn about systemic risks to the financial system and tighten regulatory scrutiny of the financial system while increasing transparency.
The portions of the summary mentioned by PolitiFact all come from the "Highlights of the bill" section of the summary.  The summary also includes stuff such as this:
Costs to Financial Firms, Not Taxpayers: Charges the largest financial firms $50 billion for an upfront fund, built up over time, that will be used if needed for any liquidation. Industry, not the taxpayers, will take a hit for liquidating large, interconnected financial companies.
The pledge that industry rather than taxpayers take the hit for bailout costs is laughable, by the way.  Such costs are always passed on to the consumer.  That even includes people who don't ordinarily pay federal taxes, like a person below poverty level who has late charges levied on their bank account.  In short, the bill sets up a tax that is embedded in the cost of doing banking.
On July 15, 2010, shortly after the Senate passed the measure, then-House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence, R-Ind., released a statement critical of the bill. In part, it said, "This so-called financial reform bill will kill jobs, raise taxes, restrict the flow of credit, make bailouts permanent and turn the Democrats’ disastrous too-big-to-fail approach into federal law."


As part of our look at the range of bills that have been attacked as "job-killing," we thought we'd look at whether the charge is accurate when leveled against the Dodd-Frank bill.
 So there's the fact they're checking.  On with the fact check:

PolitiFactual machinations

Some recent PolitiFact research led me to stumble across a piece by PolitiFact's founder, Bill Adair, explaining how PolitiFact handles ratings for the accuracy of number claims.  From the story titled "Numbers game":
To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message. In Paul's case, his point was a simple one, that many people have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He overstated the number, but not by all that many.
Adair offers two examples to illustrate.  In one, Ron Paul overestimated American deaths in Afghanistan by about 15 percent or more (652/4,349, and just to be clear I calculated the percentage, not Adair).  That degree of error cost Paul a "True" rating, dropping him down to "Mostly True."

In the second example, Barack Obama underestimated the number of states in which his parents' marriage would have broken the law.  Obama said 12 states, but PolitiFact said the correct number was 22 states.  Though Obama was way off by percentage, PolitiFact rated Obama fully "True" based on the accuracy of the underlying argument.

If you think about it, however, the rating is more complicated than Adair suggests.  According to Adair's description, Paul's underlying argument is just as true as Obama's.  The only real difference is that Paul's numbers overstated the truth (a little) while Obama's understated the truth (considerably).

Apparently, if you can give the appearance of making no attempt to embroider your case by exaggerating a figure in your favor it helps move the "Truth-O-Meter" needle in sympathy.

Politicians, maximize your Truth-O-Meter ratings by using deliberate underestimation.

And then ponder the irony.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Obama hair-dye scandal?

The Daily Mail suggests, using photo evidence, that President Obama may be dying his hair in order to hide the gray.

The photo evidence also suggests a bigger scandal:  The president is also having his skin darkened.

Seriously, when the light and contrast are so different in two photos it's reason enough to suspend judgment.

Update to the Sith blogroll

At long last I've deleted the link to Wick o' the Bailey.  Barnum's Baileywick had established an impressive record of inactivity for the past couple of years.  I'd have made the move earlier if a suitable replacement had come to my attention.

Speaking of my attention, Wick is replaced with "Intellectual Bubblegum."

IB gets the add because I liked the "About" page.  Plus I couldn't help but relate to the blog title, sharing as it does with this one a certain degree of paradox in the space of two words.  I'm loosely inferring a liberal point of view based on the blogroll over there.

Sampo sample:
This blog is to look at the concepts and ideas and thinking behind issues and current events and human issues. Not a ” I-hate-those-guys” bitchfest.  Here we chew on the ideas or meaning behind events or beliefs.

If you can’t think or aren’t open to examining ideas you don’t already believe or easily offended by the idea of something, this blog is not for you.

Friday, January 21, 2011

PolitiFact to the rescue

Yeah, I thought I detected a pattern.

I don't remember the same interest when Democrats were promoting "jobs bill" after "jobs bill."

It sounds to me like the guardians of truth at PolitiFact are determined not to let the people be misled by "job killing" the way they were with "death panels" and "government takeover of health care."

It's a pity that they can't distinguish their behavior from partisan spin, since that's what it is.

I'm already working on the next PolitiFact fact check on "job killing."

PolitiSpin ...

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Eric Cantor and "job-killing" ObamaCare

PolitiFact has placed considerable recent focus on claims surrounding the health care reform bill and the repeal proposal.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Angie Drobnic Holan:  writer, researcher
Louis Jacobson:  researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


PolitiFact has a problem with standards.  Specifically, the grading system lacks specifics to the point where fact checking may be made to appear to fit the "Truth-O-Meter" grading system when the grade is truly the result of subjective opinion.  This example will serve nicely to illustrate.
We've read a number of critiques that say the law isn't quite the "job killer" that Republicans claim it is, so we wanted to investigate for ourselves and evaluate the evidence. The Republican leadership recently published a document titled, "Obamacare: A budget-busting, job-killing health care law," which cites several pieces of evidence for its job-killing claim:

"Independent analyses have determined that the health care law will cause significant job losses for the U.S. economy: the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has determined that the law will reduce the 'amount of labor used in the economy by … roughly half a percent...,' an estimate that adds up to roughly 650,000 jobs lost. A study by the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB), the nation's largest small business association, found that an employer mandate alone could lead to the elimination of 1.6 million jobs, with 66 percent of those coming from small businesses."
(yellow highlights added)
That's two studies and about four numbers.  Do the four numbers make up the "several pieces of evidence" PolitiFact mentions?

The story points out a real problem with the estimate of 650,000 jobs lost.  Reducing the amount of labor affects the labor supply.  Job availability has to do with the demand for labor.  The GOP is misusing that piece of evidence.  On the other hand, the reasons behind the drop in the labor supply may well have job-killing effects.

The GOP's use of the NFIB study likewise has problems accurately sussed out by the PolitiFact team.  The study used assumptions that do not accurately reflect the content of the health care reform bill the GOP wants to repeal.  Again, however, there's an untold part of the story.  PolitiFact pulled the same trick when it graded an Obama claim that he had provided a tax cut for 95 percent of working Americans.  The fact checkers used a study produced before Obama was even elected and ignored a later study that used more appropriate numbers.

In the case of the NFIB study, the GOP's misapplication of the data exaggerate the degree of job loss.  But the exaggeration does not eradicate the threat of job loss.

So far the story has us sailing along without much of a rudder. What specific claim has PolitiFact set out to check?  If the bill "isn't quite the 'job killer' that Republicans claim it is" then are we on course for "Half True"?
In evaluating this statement, we should reiterate that the health care law is a complicated piece of legislation. Large employers who do not currently offer insurance or who offer limited coverage will see greater costs under the bill, either because they will have to buy their employees new or additional coverage or they get hit with fines.

We asked Cantor's office about whether the bill was "job-killing." A spokesman insisted that it was, pointing to individual business owners who said they would face increased costs under health care. He also pointed us to a letter organized from the American Action Network, a conservative think tank. The letter, signed by 200 economists, said, "The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act contains expensive mandates and penalties that create major barriers to stronger job growth. The mandates will compete for the scarce business resources used for hiring and firm expansion."
We're still tacking back and forth.  It appears from the story that we have evidence the health care reform bill will kill at least some jobs.  But what's the destination?  The next three paragraphs do little to clear things up.  PolitiFact admits the bill will "cost some employers money, particularly large ones."  The CBO says low-wage workers will feel that pinch the most.  And the effect will be "somewhat limited," whatever that's supposed to mean.  Beyond that, PolitiFact uselessly points out that the legislation does not go into effect until 2014, and trots out the perhaps illusory silver lining that improved employee health might improve economic productivity nationally.

Where is this headed?  PolitiFact will tell you where it's headed:
Republicans have used the "job-killing" claim hundreds of times -- so often that they used the phrase in the name of the bill. It implies that job losses will be one of the most significant effects of the law. But they have flimsy evidence to back it up.

The phrase suggests a massive decline in employment, but the data doesn't support that. The Republican evidence is extrapolated from a report that was talking about a reduction in the labor supply rather than the loss of jobs, or based on measures that weren't included in the final health care law. We rate the statement False.
I've written many times about the importance of charitable interpretation and its role in fact checking.  I've written about it many times because PolitiFact exhibits a severe problem in applying the principle.

By emphasizing an uncharitable intepretation of the Republican claim ("suggests a massive decline in unemployment"), PolitiFact creates a loophole in its grading system.  The fact checkers have provided an out so that they need not consider that job losses below an unspecified minimum would make the Republican claim "Barely True," "Half True," "Mostly True" or even "True."  Instead, PolitiFact can conveniently judge that the unspecified standard was not met and quickly conclude that the claim was "False" or worse.  The middle ground in PolitiFact's grading system is thus eliminated in certain select instances.

This fact check of Cantor represents another of those instances.

As bad as that is, PolitiFact is guilty of another malfeasance.  Remember those "several" evidences and the four numbers?  It turns out that the Republican position paper did contain several evidences, one of which surfaced later in the story when Cantor's office responded to PolitiFact's inquiries.

For example:
Experts at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) expect this as well, stating in a paper on “Health Reform and Small Business” that “economic theory suggests the penalty should ultimately be passed through [as] lower wages [to an employee]. If firms cannot pass on the cost in lower wages, the higher cost of workers may lead firms to reduce output and the number of workers.” CRS estimates that about one in five employees work for a business that could be negatively impacted by the new employer penalty.”
Where does PolitiFact get off telling its readers that "the evidence falls short" while at the same it cherry-picks the evidence and ignores the rest including a bit that crept into the story anyway (the letter from 200 economists)?


The grades:

Robert Farley:  F
Angie Drobnic Holan:  F
Louis Jacobson:  F
Bill Adair:  F

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Ohio): Dennis Kucinich and faux health care dollars

The issue:

Makes one wonder what a "health care dollar" is, doesn't it?

The fact checker:

PolitiFact Ohio has a solo operation going this time.  Perhaps we can refer to Tom Feran as a "blogger" since he's apparently working without the layers of accountability that help put the mainstream media securely above the rest when it comes to providing reliable information.

Tom Feran:  writer, researcher, editor


Feran, perhaps influenced by the narrative style of the St. Petersburg Times, takes his time getting to the point:
Republicans took control of the House of Representatives this month with the announced intention of dismantling the new health care law.

They started by approving rules that would permit the legislation's repeal without any requirement to make up resulting losses in revenue. The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Health Care Law Act would reduce federal budget deficits by $145 billion over 10 years. Repealing the legislation (which Republicans formally labeled "the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act") would increase federal deficits $230 billion over the next decade.
This is a fact check of Dennis Kucinich, mind you.  Feran's second paragraph essentially repeats a bogus Democrat talking point about the effect of PPACA on the federal budget.  For my explanation as to why Feran's CBO numbers aren't important, go here.

With the Republicans cast as the budget-busting heavies in this tale, it's time for Feran to introduce the hero:
Rep. Dennis Kucinich is among defenders of the health care law. One of its benefits "is to make sure that more of the health care premium dollar goes for, in fact, health care," the Cleveland Democrat said in an interview on CNN.
One almost expects dramatic Kucinich-to-the-rescue theme music to accompany the first line.  But what benefit is Kucinich talking about?  Surely not the provisions that add additional layers to the federal bureaucracy attached to health care, such as the Independent Payment Advisory Board.  Kucinich must be talking about the new federal regulations under PPACA that fix a minimum percentage of premiums private insurers must apply toward benefits (otherwise offering rebates to their customers).

Unfortunately, the search for context leads to a dead end on the PolitiFact page.  The text of the story refers to "an interview on CNN."  The list of sources in the sidebar to the right features an entry for a Congressional Quarterly transcript of a Fox News interview from Dec. 31.   Did Fox and CNN merge and I missed it?  Kucinich hit a similar talking point Jan. 3 on MSNBC (here).

The, uh, money quote:
"You have to keep in mind," he said, "that prior to the passage of the health care reform bill, one out of $3, of every health care dollar spent, went for corporate profits, stock options, executive salaries, advertising and marketing, the cost of paperwork -- that was over $800 billion a year -- didn't go for health care."

That's a lot of expenses. PolitiFact Ohio thought it would check Kucinich’s statement.
There's the supposed fact check.  But are we checking for the one out of $3 that went to corporate profits and the like or are we checking the "over $800 billion a year" that didn't go for health care?  Bear that question in mind as we continue to follow along.
The congressman's staff said his primary source for the breakdown was a much-cited study by Drs. Steffie Woolhandler and David Himmelstein of Harvard Medical School. Published in 2003 in the New England Journal of Medicine, the peer-reviewed study analyzed administrative costs of the U.S. health system, and found that they consume 31 percent of health spending.
It's a problem for Kucinich to use that study as his primary source.  Will PolitiFact notice the problem?
Kucinich's estimate of the total tab comes from the the official estimate of total health care spending in the United States, the National Health Expenditure Accounts issued by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Their latest report, issued this month, said that health expenditures in 2009 reached $2.5 trillion. (The figure represented the slowest rate of increase in 50 years, which was attributed to people losing jobs and health insurance and deferring medical care.)

We did the math. Thirty-one percent of that comes to $775 billion -- close to $800 billion, but not "over" it.
Hmmm.  That's not the problem I had in mind.  PolitiFact neglected to round up from 31 percent to one-third (33 percent).  Doing that makes Kucinich's numbers work perfectly ($833 billion).  Sort of.
But the 31 percent figure might be too low, and a higher percentage could push costs past $800 billion.
Well, that's another way to rescue Kucinich.  Unless PolitiFact uses its method of justifying a "False" rating based on a lack of evidence.

More on the heroic Kucinich:
Kucinich’s staff noted that the study by Woolhandler and Himmelstein looked at administrative costs for the year 1999. Costs since then, they said, reflect "immense growth in (health coverage) plans more complicated to administer." Going back to 1970, the number of physicians has increased by less than 200 percent while the number of administrators has increased by 3,000 percent, according to the federal government and an analysis by Himmelstein and Woolhandler.
Kucinich's staff says it's more expensive now.  Isn't that proof enough?

How about a comment from an expert?
Woolhandler was lead researcher for the 2003 study of administrative costs. Since then, she told us,  "I think it is likely costs have gone up just a little bit as a share" of total expenditures. "The reason they haven't gone up hugely as a share is that they were so high to begin with."

So does that mean the annual cost could top $800 billion? Woolhandler told us she thinks Kucinich’s numbers are correct. But she, too, is offering an educated opinion, rather than a statement rooted in new numbers and up-to-date data.
I'd sure like to see the text of the Woolhandler interview.  How did PolitiFact present the material to keep Kucinich from looking entirely clueless?  And/or produce a Woolhandler quotation that hides Kucinich's cluelessness?

The problem with Kucinich's numbers should be entirely obvious.  The Woolhandler/Himmelstein study dealt in administrative costs in the health care system as a whole.  That means it counted things like physician compliance with Medicare documentation requirements and hospital administration--an entirely different category of expenses than Kucinich's "corporate profits, stock options, executive salaries, advertising and marketing, the cost of paperwork."  With the exception of the last one, anyway.

Kucinich, as noted above, seemed to be specifically targeting private insurance with his comments, since that's the only component of the health care system addressed by the new rules on medical loss ratios.  Kucinich played up the supposed savings in the private insurance market through an appeal to the costs of administration throughout the health care system--a classic misdirection apparently missed entirely by the media expert at PolitiFact.

Speaking of the media expert, he found that Kucinich basically saved the day:
So where does that leave him on the Truth-O-Meter?
  • What is clear is that Kucinich’s main point, that a significant amount of the money spent on health care doesn’t go toward actual care, is accurate.
  • The percentage figure and total dollars figure he cites both are close, but high, as compared to the primary source of data his staff provided us. He may not have overstated the numbers, given what has happened in the health care industry, but current data isn’t available. That’s a point that needs clarification for full understanding.
On that basis we rate his statement as Mostly True.
Kucinich's supposed point that a significant amount of money spent on health care doesn't go toward actual care is trivially true.  Hospitals and doctor's offices have to pay rents, leases, mortgages, salaries, insurance and all manner of things.  Kucinich's so-called point overlooks a fact plainly noted in the study on which he relied:
Administrators are indispensable to modern health care; their tasks include ensuring that supplies are on hand, that records are filed, and that nurses are paid. Many view intensive, sophisticated management as an attractive solution to cost and quality problems27-29; that utilization review, clinical-information systems, and quality-improvement programs should upgrade care seems obvious. However, some regard much of administration as superfluous, born of the quirks of the payment system rather than of clinical needs.
 PolitiFact finds his figures "close" and rates Kucinich's statement "Mostly True."  And now it's time for us to reconsider the earlier question.  What claim of Kucinich's are we checking?  PolitiFact checked Kucinich on an irrelevant claim and ignored the context of that claim.

As noted in the quotation of the study, administration is necessary to modern health care, so the fact that "health care dollars" aren't spent on health care per se (what a semantic mess) is irrelevant to the main point Kucinich was actually trying to make.  His real point was that the PPACA possesses features desirable for reigning in costs, and in doing so he carelessly mixed private insurance funds not used directly for patient benefits with the general cost of health care administration.  It's far from clear-cut that Kucinich has any leg to stand on at all regarding that point even potentially, but it's clear-cut that Kucinich's argument as presented was a total wreck.  Yet PolitiFact overlooked its significant flaws in favor of minor complaints about an irrelevant dollar figure.

Reporting this bad makes it difficult not to consider ideological bias as the direct cause of the giant blind spot.

The grade:

Tom Feran:  F


In light of PolitiFact's choice for "Lie of the Year" for 2010, I experienced some amusement with the title of the New York Times article cited for this story ("Taking Control, G.O.P. Overhauls Rules in House") and with the language employed by Ed Schultz during his interview of Kucinich--stuff about giving control back to the insurance companies and special interests.  Come, now!  That type of language isn't appropriate, is it?  The GOP can't take control just by changing some rules, can it?  And since the federal government never took control of health care in the first place, it's ridiculous for Schultz to talk about repeal giving control back to private insurance companies.

It just goes to show how even those who should know better swallowed the Republican lies.  

Or something like that.

More Afters:

Almost forgot!  One of PolitiFact's Web pages featured a striking blurb for the fact check of Kucinich.  Observe:

See what I see?  Lower right:  "30 percent plus is the bitter corporate pill."  Message:  It's the evil corporations responsible for wasting that $800 billion.  The facts in the story simply don't support that conclusion.  The person responsible for that blurb earns an F grade in addition to those awarded above.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Texas): MLK's voting record

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Meghan Ashford-Grooms:  writer, researcher
W. Gardner Selby:  researcher
Brenda Bell:  editor


"The Catalog of Fantastic Things" contains an entry for a bicycle called the "Wild Tripper."  The Wild Tripper features two seats and two sets of handlebars, each facing one another.  The caption reads "Pedal faster and faster until you crash into yourself.  Collect double damages!"  This PolitiFact story reminds me a little of the Wild Tripper.

PolitiFact takes the Republican group "Raging Elephants" to task over an online statement that "Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican! (exclamation point in the original)"

The claim is apparently based on the statement of Dr. Alveda King, Martin Luther King Jr.'s niece.  The former King is a confirmed Republican.  During a pro-life/anti-abortion video Alveda King states that Martin Luther King, Jr. "was a Republican during his lifetime."

PolitiFact adopts the stance of skepticism for the purposes of its fact check:
We weren't aware that the late civil rights leader ever expressed a partisan affiliation.
Briefly, the fact check piece locates a couple of partisans who claim King was a Republican.  And it quotes expert sources to the effect that King was politically non-partisan while pursuing civil rights and leaning toward socialism.  And then it concludes that the claim that King was a Republican is false.

That, my friends, is a Bizarro-World approach to fact checking.

It is improper to look at the facts supporting a claim, find the support wanting and then conclude the claim is false.  Doing so serves as an example of the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam--the so-called appeal to ignorance.  PolitiFact's hand was tipped in that direction from the start: "We weren't aware ..."

The weakness of the evidence leads only to the conclusion that the truth of the claim is not established, or possibly that its truth is unlikely.

In the case of Martin Luther King Jr.'s political alignment, it is plausible on its face that King was registered as a Republican.  His father was a Republican, not that anyone would say that the younger King followed in his father's footsteps to any appreciable degree (both were Baptist ministers).  As a relatively well-to-do family, the Kings would have something of a tradition going with respect to party allegiance.

This argument comes with a bundle of caveats, of course.  The American political scene was far less polarized during the Civil Rights era, oddly enough.  Civil Rights legislation was passed by a coalition of Republicans and northern Democrats.  President Truman desegregated the United States armed forces.  President Eisenhower pushed for voting rights for blacks and eventually signed a weak set of civil rights measures (weakened by Congressional Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson).  Senator John F. Kennedy's support for Martin Luther King, Jr. helped continue the trend of increasing black support for the Democratic Party, capped off by the civil rights acts passed under President Johnson.

So by the 1960s, if not before, a majority of blacks supported Democrats, at least where Democrats were supporting civil rights initiatives and the like.  But prior to Johnson's landmark legislation a considerable bloc of blacks remained loyal to the GOP--the party of Lincoln.

The bottom line is that the story produces no definitive evidence establishing whether or not Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican for some significant portion of his lifetime.

Now, think about how this type of reasoning works directly against PolitiFact with respect to its "Truth-O-Meter" ruling.

PolitiFact found a statement false essentially because the evidence in favor was weak and counterbalanced by similarly weak contrary evidence.  That results in a conclusion ("We rate the statement False") that is flawed in essentially the same respect as the original claim.  Using PolitiFact's methods to rate the PolitiFact rating, we would be obliged to rate as "False" PolitiFact's claim that the statement was false.

And that's ridiculous.

The grades:

Meghan Ashford-Grooms:  F
W. Gardner Selby:  F
Brenda Bell:  F

Probably the PolitiFact Texas staff is trapped by the flawed PolitiFact official rules for fact checking, so it's tempting to cut them a break.  On the other hand, it seems pretty well established that Martin Luther King Jr. voted for Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower and somehow that receives no mention at all in the story.


Though PolitiFact did little to separate them, there were actually two claims represented concerning King.  One was the claim from Raging Elephants that King "was a Republican!"  That claim may easily be taken as referring to King's career generally, and is misleading in light of King's socialist sympathies.  The other more plausible claim, via Alveda King, was that he was a Republican "during his lifetime," a very plausible claim given the circumstances described above.  PolitiFact lumped the latter claim in with the other, in effect.

It may or may not be true that the Martin Luther King Jr. was meaningfully Republican at some point during his adult life.  PolitiFact did nothing to truly settle the issue.  Reputable fact checkers ought to eschew the use of logical fallacies, and PolitiFact failed in that by reaching a conclusion based chiefly on a lack of evidence.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Michelle Malkin and the White House brand

While we continue to wait for the fact check of  "Giffords' blood is on Sarah Palin's hands," we can tackle PolitiFact's latest foray into Giffords-connected political claims.

The issue:

So far two would-be quotations of Malkin consisting of one word.  That puts us on red alert for examination of a paraphrased version of Malkin's statement.

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


The University of Arizona memorial service for the victims of the Tucson, Ariz. shootings was called "Together We Thrive." But Michele Malkin claimed the slogan was cooked up by the White House(.)
Did she?

In an opinion piece about the Jan. 12, 2011, memorial event, Malkin, a conservative pundit, accused the White House of "branding" the memorial service with the slogan, complete with its own logo.
She did?

Malkin noted that all 13,000 people who attended the "Together We Thrive" event were given blue and white T-shirts with the logo.
Yes, Malkin did that.  But is that the same as claiming the slogan was cooked up by the White House or accusing the White House of "branding" the memorial service with the slogan?

We get better evidence than this, right?

 "Can't the Democrat political stage managers give it a break just once?" Malkin wrote in her column.
Yes, Malkin wrote that in her column.  But is asking rhetorically whether Democrat political stage managers can give it a break the same as claiming the slogan was cooked up by the White House or accusing the White House of "branding" the memorial service with the slogan?

We get better evidence than this, right?  Or does the White House have a monopoly on Democrat political stage managers?

After these attempts to create the impression that Malkin was accusing the White House of dressing up the Arizona event, much of the remainder of the story focuses on assurances from the White House and University of Arizona officials (neutral parties all) that the whole nine yards was local initiative.

That's nice, but did Malkin make the claim attributed to her by PolitiFact?  Perhaps the best evidence that Malkin made the claim comes from an update to her post (noted in the PolitiFact story):
Update: As noted above, the University of Arizona announced the Together We Thrive event — and a few readers write in to say that the campus initiated the logo/campaign. Given U of A president Robert Shelton’s embarrassing, thinly-veiled partisan cheerleading for Obama tonight, it may indeed be a 100 percent-campus-initiated campaign. Given the Obama White House’s meticulous attention to stage prop details, however, I would say the odds of involvement by Axelrod/Plouffe & Co. are high.
But even noting that readers wrote to emphasize that the university was responsible for putting the event together falls well short of admitting to having pinned responsibility on the White House, even if Malkin goes on to assign it a high probability.  To wit:  the statement that the event "may indeed be a 100 percent-campus-initiated campaign" contradicts nothing that Malkin had written above in her post.  And that simply couldn't be the case if Malkin had actually made the claim that PolitiFact says she made.

Maybe fact checkers who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Welcome to the grand conclusion (to paraphrase Styx):
The burden of proof is on Malkin and she has failed to prove any White House involvement. She may believe she sees the handiwork of the White House at play, but there's no evidence to back that up. Certainly not enough to justify her claim the White House used the shooting tragedy as an opportunity to orchestrate a "branded" political event. We rate Malkin's claim False.
"The burden of proof."  Hah!  The burden of proof rests on any person who makes a claim that is expected to be taken as true.  PolitiFact presented no reasonable evidence that Malkin expected readers to take it as true that the White House was behind the memorial event.  The best evidence for that was Malkin's opinion that White House input was likely, and that's close to no evidence at all.  PolitiFact obviously expects its readers to accept as true that Malkin claimed the White House was responsible.  But PolitiFact failed to bear its burden of proof.

It's bad journalism, it smacks of agenda journalism, and it's hypocritical.

It's journalists reporting badly.

The grades:

Robert Farley:  F
Bill Adair:  F

Grading PolitiFact: Frank Lautenberg and murders or guns or something (Updated)

Those of us on the right have watched with a combination of amusement and anger as many figures on the left have tried to politicize the attack on Rep. Gabriella Giffords that left nine dead and Giffords critically wounded.  The initial attempt to politicize the event painted the gunman's attack as the result of heightened political rhetoric from (where else?) the right.  People aren't buying that, so the next best thing is to use the event to push for gun control.  And PolitiFact was there.

Fortunately, PolitiFact changed its usual practice and had both the writer and the editor of the story publicly announce their positions on gun control prior to publishing the story.

Just kidding.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson: writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton: editor


PolitiFact adequately provides the setting:
One of the lawmakers who made the case for tightening gun laws was Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J. In an interview on MSNBC on Jan. 11, 2011. Lautenberg -- who is preparing legislation to ban high-capacity gun clips like the ones used in the Tucson attack -- said, "But the fact of the matter is, when we look at the number of murders in the United States, 2009, we had 9,500 people murdered. When we look around the world, we see large companies -- large countries, the U.K., Germany, Japan had 200 or less killed in a year."
The wider context of Lautenberg's statement shows that PolitiFact is hiding Lautenberg's underlying argument--that is, the justification he's giving for tightening gun laws:
QUESTION: All right. Well, let`s say that the -- the cartridges had remained banned, that you would not be able to carry 33 rounds in one extended magazine. Ten rounds is still enough to kill the same amount of victims that we have here, the people who died in the shooting on Saturday.So why is that clip the focus of your energy and your attention now?

LAUTENBERG: Well, because it`s the one thing that, obviously, permitted this madman to hit so many people in such a short period of time. And thank goodness we had some heroic actions that interrupted his ability to put in another magazine. Otherwise we`d have seen a greater loss. But the fact of the matter is, when we look at the number of murders in the United States, 2009, we had 9,500 people murdered. When we look around the world, we see large companies -- large countries, the U.K., Germany, Japan had 200 or less killed in a year. And we`re at 9,500. There`s got to be a reason for that. We don`t have more madmen, but we have more guns.

QUESTION: Why is this magazine your focus and not mental health?
To me, it should go without saying that a cherry-picked comparison of firearm murder rates between the United States and three other nations--two of which might as well be living on an island--is not the basis for a good argument.  PolitiFact apparently chooses its battles when it comes to that sort of thing.

Back to the fact checking:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Defending the "doc fix" omission?

Jonathan Bernstein is one of a number of liberal pundits writing in defense of the CBO scoring of the PPACA. Bernstein, in fact called out Speaker of the House John Boehner for telling a "whopper" when he citing the omission of the "doc fix" when referring to the scoring of the bill.

Here's how Bernstein describes it over at The New Republic:
The doc fix, as many have explained, wasn’t counted in the CBO score of the health care bill because it has essentially nothing to do with the health care bill.
Good grief.  The 'doc fix' has everything to do with the health care bill because the bill supposedly brings down health care costs.  But the reduction in health care costs is an illusion precisely because the bill (and the CBO as a result) pretends that Congress will not continue to apply the "doc fix."  Boehner's point, which should be obvious and irresistible, is that a cost scoring that ignores reality holds little value.

Bernstein then makes the absurd charge that the "doc fix" should be counted as a cost of a repeal of the PPACA, apparently reasoning that if the CBO supposedly should include it in the scoring of health care reform then it should be included for the repeal of the same bill.

Bernstein misses the point.

The scoring of either the bill or its repeal is made substantially moot by ignoring things that are likely to happen regardless of either bill, such as the "doc fix."  The supposed increase to the deficit found in the CBO's repeal scoring is essentially the reciprocal figure for the projected deficit reduction of the PPACA.  Call that figure A, and the cost of the "doc fix" D.   Bernstein would turn the math on its head by adding the cost of the "doc fix" to A as a cost of repeal (repeal supposedly costs A+D).  But note that his strategy will not work if both projections count the "doc fix."  The figure (A-D) (reform) does not counterbalance -(A+D) (repeal) and the reciprocal relationship of the two CBO scores cannot hold.

The figure D is a reality because the "doc fix" is necessary to keep Medicare providers from abandoning Medicare.  It's a figure that will affect health care costs in reality.  The CBO did project the savings for the PPACA in part by assuming that the "doc fix" would not occur under the bill.  That means that figure A is a sham.  And figure A is a sham regardless of whether it appears as a deficit reduction under the PPACA or as a deficit increase under its repeal.

To be sure, there is a feature of the PPACA that would have an effect on government revenue.  The bill levies tax increases.  A strong economy might bear tax increases and a deficit decrease may result.  With a weaker economy, the tax increase may further hurt commerce and increase the deficit over the long term.

The big lie from Bernstein comes from his truth that the "doc fix" was not part of the reform bill.  Because the "doc fix" could easily have been made part of the bill except for the fact that the bill could never have been made to appear relatively deficit neutral and passed via reconciliation while acknowledging the hard reality of the "doc fix."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Mission: Fail

Haw.  This one brought me up short, culled from near the beginning of a Politico column anticipating the Giffords shooting as the opportunity for President Obama to have his "Oklahoma City moment":
Obama idolizes Lincoln, and like his fellow Illinoisan he sees himself as a warrior by compulsion, forced by circumstance to take up arms against political adversaries instead of following his preferred path of reconciliation, civility and compromise.
(yellow highlights added for emphasis)
Our political discourse is duly elevated.

SPT reports the news about the insidious effect of coarse partisan debate

From "Arizona shooting prompts soul-searching in Congress":

The debate over health care over the past year spawned some of the hardest feelings, with mass protests outside the Capitol, displays of firearms at political rallies, heated words at town hall meetings and threats of violence against lawmakers, including Giffords.

The shooting in Arizona made it clear that those threats are not to be taken lightly.
The first three examples in the list are throwaways, no?
  • Mass protests outside the Capitol
So what else is new?  Mass protests outside the Capitol building occur often.
  • displays of firearms at political rallies
We're talking about political rallies addressing health care, right?  Because if we're talking about political rallies by, say, the tea party where gun rights are one of a number of live issues then the context of the displays of firearms makes a big difference.
  • heated words at town hall meetings
Oooh!  Scary!  Give me a break.

Only the last on the list--threats of violence against lawmakers--is serious, and it has always been taken seriously.  As a result, the next graph about taking threats seriously is another throwaway.

The news story (please let it be a column or news analysis!) feeds into the groundless lefty meme that aforementioned political behavior led Gifford's attacker to act as he did.

Grading PolitiFact (Georgia): Ray McBerry and the black Confederate soldier

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Willoughby Mariano:  writer, researcher
Elizabeth Miniet:  editor
Jim Tharpe:  editor


Note:  I am of a Southern family and have studied the Civil War in some depth, though with no particular attention paid to this particular issue.  I have no personal interest in the truth of the matter either way, other than as a matter of favoring the truth over something less.

Ray McBerry, spokesperson for the Georgia  Sons of Confederate Veterans, appeared on public radio station WABE after the History Channel stopped airing a commercial that advocated a minority view about the American Civil War.

Context (transcript mine):
One of the spots on the Sons of Confederate Veterans' Web site refers to the war as a time when--I'm quoting here--(")Men and women of the South stood courageously for liberty.(") unquote.  How can the Sons of Confederate Veterans make a sweeping statement like that when millions of blacks were enslaved in the South?

The reason that the Sons of Confederate Veterans are able to say that Southern men and women were standing up for the issue of liberty is because those foundational bedrock principles upon which the, the Confederacy was formed, were the exact same principles embodied in the Declaration of Independence, and when the South chose peacefully to secede in 1861, um, they were really doing the exact same thing that our founding fathers had done from England in 1776.  That was, attempting to peacefully secede and just go their own separate way.  And had Mr. Lincoln and the North allowed that to happen, it would have been a peaceful separation.

Shouldn't your ads, when they refer to "the people of the South" have an important qualifier and maybe just say "the white people of the South" and that would be historically accurate?

No, in order to be accurate, uh, we believe they should be written the way they are.  Because there were also many freed blacks who actually fought on behalf of the South during the war.  In fact, uh, one of the largest slave owners, I think in Louisiana, was a freed black man, uh, was a doctor there in the Louisiana area, and many freed blacks, as well as slaves, fought voluntarily on the side of the South during the war.  Um, you'll find, uh, blacks in almost every regiment throughout the South who fought right alongside, uh, white Southerners, and in almost every case they--it was a voluntary decision that the free blacks made.

I take McBerry to say that blacks either slave or free occurred in nearly every Confederate regiment and that it was almost always a voluntary decision in the case of the free blacks.  He mentions both slave and free soldiers and does an imperfect job of keeping the two groups distinct during his discourse.

The PolitiFact reaction:

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Nothing isn't nothing?

I've recently had a dispute with a person who argued that Lawrence Krauss does not argue for a universe literally coming from nothing.  That person argued that Krauss's "nothing" is explained by Krauss as "nothing isn't nothing in physics any longer."  I argued that Krauss was taken out of context, with the ~nothing "nothing" representing the features of space in an existent universe, which obviously can't apply until time and space fully exist.  I located an interview of Krauss that helps cinch my argument.  A transcript of the relevant portion, starting at about 7:17, follows.

I had someone who asked if you could explain what, what the nothing before the big bang was.  It-It's one of those concepts that--nothing-- we depend on, on, on interactions with objects, and things, the idea of nothing is sort of beyond comprehension.  What does the nothing before the big bang actually mean?

Well, it could be many things.  It could be there was empty space.  It was empty space--space existed but it was completely empty--or it could be that space itself didn't exist and it came into existence bef--with the big bang.  That's hard for people to picture, but space is--general relativity tells us space itself, that features of space depend on the nature of matter and it's dynamical and it's certainly possible that the laws of quantum mechanics caused literally space to suddenly come into being.  And so, there could have been nothing, there could have even, even been (gap of silence)
And there are laws of physics, of course, and those existed, but it could even be that even the laws of physics came into existence at the same time as space did.  And, uh, what we know is that (garbled) is consistent with a universe that came from nothing.  And it's kind of remarkable because it didn't have to be that way.

In the portion where the audio was garbled during Krauss's close I take to refer to his claim that observations of the makeup of our universe are consistent with the notion that the net energy of the universe is zero.  But it simply wasn't possible for me to create an accurate transcript of that portion because of the distorted audio.

Krauss has a book ("A Universe From Nothing") coming out in February (apparently Feb. 2012--bww).  I trust that the book will help erase lingering doubts about the author's position on cosmology.  That is, if people refuse to accept that his title is deliberately misleading if he's talking about a nothing that isn't nothing.

Friday, January 07, 2011

PolitiFact D'oh

With its 2010 "Lie of the Year" still generating controversy the beleaguered crew at PolitiFact continues to blow oxygen into the flames of controversy.

PolitiFact's head, Bill Adair, wrote a little piece going over some of the ongoing discussion, repeating an acknowledgment of the critical WSJ editorial, the Eau Claire Journal's apparent unabashed agreement with PolitiFact and the Brattleboro Reformer's opinion that the so-called lie had significantly altered the debate.  Adair also mentioned an objecting voice from the Oklahoman.

The Reformer example is particularly interesting since PolitiFact never made a factual case that the debate had been significantly altered.  Indeed, political science researcher Brendan Nyhan looked into the issue and found no survey data to back the claim, albeit his paper spited his evidence by concluding that an influence was likely anyway.

The upshot is that PolitiFact has joined the political left in its own mythmaking project, selling the unfounded notion that "government takeover" was used to mislead people into opposing the PPACA.

Adair ended his little story by noting "On Thursday, Rep. Steve Cohen mentioned the Lie of the Year on the House floor."  Adair included the video, offering tacit approval of Cohen's repetition of the unfounded claim:

If this is supposed to be objective reporting, it certainly carries the distinctive stench of covert editorializing.

The 2010 "Lie of the Year" will continue to damage PolitiFact until it acknowledges some of the problems. Doubling down isn't going to cut it, unless the goal is to resemble a sister site to Media Matters.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Excellent: Egyptian Muslims move to show solidarity with Coptic Christians

More of this, please:
“Although 2011 started tragically, I feel it will be a year of eagerly anticipated change, where Egyptians will stand against sectarianism and unite as one,” Father Rafaeil Sarwat of the Mar-Mina church told Ahram Online. The Coptic priest was commenting on the now widespread call by Muslim intellectuals and activists upon Egyptian Muslims at large to flock to Coptic churches across the country to attend Coptic Christmas Eve mass, to show solidarity with the nation's Coptic minority, but also to serve as "human shields" against possible attacks by Islamist militants.
I do see one problem, unfortunately.  Radical Muslims don't see to show much reluctance when it comes to blowing their Muslim brethren to bits.  Consorting with the enemy seems to be one of the standard justifications.

Still, massive props to these Egyptian Muslims for setting a fine example for a truly peaceful version of Islam.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Brendan Nyhan and the fudge factor

Is Paul Krugman the only liberal who's comfortable with death panels?

PolitiFact chose Sarah Palin's "death panel" comment on FaceBook as its "Lie of the Year" in 2009.  In 2010, political scientist (and professional handwringer) Brendan Nyhan continues to bemoan the damaging branding of Democrats' attempts to reform health care.

I've found Nyhan less than scientific in his pronouncements over time, and his 2010 paper on the supposed influence of GOP disinformation on public attitudes about health care reform provides additional grist for the mill.  In brief, Nyhan's reasoning suffers from unhealthy dollops of equivocation.


The equivocation occurs in the term "death panel."  Nyhan doesn't seem sure what he means by it from one moment to the next, unless he understands it as a semantic grab-bag designed to fill whatever need his reasoning requires.  On page one, in the abstract, "death panels" represent the refusal of care to the elderly because of government bureaucracy:
(M)isconceptions also clouded the recent debate about health care reform under President Obama, including the myth that the elderly would have medical care denied by so-called government “death panels.”
When Nyhan begins to trace the history of the so-called "Obama 'Death Panel' myth," however, death panels transform into end-of-life counseling that might encourage the elderly to forgo medical treatment (p. 8):
McCaughey had her greatest impact on the debate during the summer of 2009 when she invented the false claim that the health care legislation in Congress would result in seniors being directed to “end their life sooner.”
Nyhan goes on to quote McCaughey from an appearance on a radio program with Fred Thompson (R-Ten.).  The same statement is later identified as the start of the "death panel" myth on a chart:

Only after the claim was "embellished by Sarah Palin" (8/7/09 by Nyhan's chart) did it begin to resemble the version Nyhan identified in his abstract.

Question:  In what respect is the so-called myth spreading if it alters its character almost completely in a few weeks?

Sarah Palin's statements about "death panels," taken in context, cannot easily be dismissed.  Though not for lack of trying by the mainstream media and liberal elites like Nyhan:
After coming under criticism, Palin defended her statement by citing the counseling provision identified by McCaughey and academic articles previously written by Obama adviser Ezekiel Emanuel (Palin 2009a). However, independent observers condemned her claim about “death panels” as false ( 2009b; 2009c): there was simply no evidence that funding for voluntary end-of-life consultations would create a mechanism for ‘‘‘bureaucrats” to withdraw care from “[t]he sick, elderly, or disabled.”
Saying that Palin "defended her statement by citing the counseling provision" is misleading.  Rather, Palin's follow-up to her "death panel" post was a reply to President Obama, who had mused that Palin's "death panel" referred to the end-of-life counseling provision in the bill.

The provision that President Obama refers to is Section 1233 of HR 3200, entitled “Advance Care Planning Consultation.” [2] With all due respect, it’s misleading for the President to describe this section as an entirely voluntary provision that simply increases the information offered to Medicare recipients. The issue is the context in which that information is provided and the coercive effect these consultations will have in that context.
Palin goes on to make a strong case for herself, not that a person getting the story from Nyhan would have any idea (speaking of spreading misperceptions).  Nyhan's next statement went on to acknowledge that health care reform may lead to more restrictive rationing but that those consequences hardly justified Palin's statement about death panels.  One wonders what aspects of science or logic permit Nyhan to reliably make that judgment.

Despite Nyhan's acknowledgment of increased rationing, he counts it as a misperception when poll respondents indicate that they believe the government will choose not to treat some people.
I compare misperceptions about the Clinton plan to those about the Obama plan using the following question from a CNN/ORC poll in September of 2009 (2009):
Based on what you have read or heard about (Barack) Obama’s health care plan, please tell me whether you think each of the following would or would not happen if that plan became law....If Obama’s plan became law, do you think senior citizens or seriously-ill patients would die because government panels would prevent them from getting the medical treatment they needed?
41% of respondents said government panels would withhold medical treatment, 57% said it would not happen, and 2% had no opinion.
Based on Nyhan's admission, doesn't it seem that the 57 percent are the ones probably carrying the misperception?

Not only does Nyhan change the definition of "death panel" midstream, he magically transforms a reasonable expectation into a "misperception."

Nyhan explicitly disavows the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc but can't seem to resist invoking it in practically the next sentence:
(T)he likelihood of support for Obama’s plan decreased from 72% among Americans who did not believe the “death panel” claim in 2009 to 20% among those who did. As noted above, these differences, which hold even among non-Republicans, were not necessarily caused by misinformation, but they do suggest its potential importance for public opinion.

Implications and Conclusions

The evidence presented in this article suggests that misinformation played an important role in the two most recent debates over health care reform.
The supposed suggestion relies on the post hoc ergo propter hoc inference, though Nyhan doesn't even provide before-and-after survey data that would support the assertion that attitudes changed after the "death panel" myth took flight.  Perhaps, as with the 2009 stimulus bill, we can measure the effect of the misinformation by how much better the surveys would have looked without the existence of the death panel myth.

 I find it very difficult to be impressed by Nyhan's paper.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

"PolitiFact Bias"

Rather than duplicate one another's effort in compiling sources critical of PolitiFact, JD of Bewz, Newz 'n' Vewz and I have collaborated to launch the blog "PolitiFact Bias." 

"PolitiFact" bias will solely occupy the "More on PolitiFact" section in the sidebar.  At least until I change my mind.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The difference is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean?

Though PolitiFact has determined that Social Security financing is definitely not a "Ponzi scheme," apparently the pay-as-you go retirement programs in southern Europe are Ponzi schemes:
(E)xperts warn of a looming demographic disaster in Southern Europe, which has among the lowest birth rates in the Western world. With pensioners living longer and young people entering the work force later — and paying less in taxes because their salaries are so low — it is only a matter of time before state coffers run dry.

“What we have is a Ponzi scheme,” said Laurence J. Kotlikoff, an economist at Boston University and an expert in fiscal policy.
(New York Times)
I don't get it.  Gov. Rick Perry says that Social Security's pay-as-you-go system is a Ponzi scheme and receives a "False" rating from PolitiFact.  Then "expert in fiscal policy" Laurence J. Kotlikoff says the same thing of a parallel system in Europe and the New York Times treats him as though he's some sort of expert?

Bring on PolitiFact Massachusetts!

Sunday, January 02, 2011

NFL playoff-team-in-waiting: the Buccaneers

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took care of business, winning their 1 p.m. game in the Superdome against the New Orleans Saints.

Now the Bucs play a waiting game.  Wait for the outcome of the Bears-Packers game.  Wait for the outcome of the Giants-Redskins game.  If the Packers and the Giants lose, then the Bucs make the playoffs.  If either the Packers or Giants win, then the Bucs wait until next year for a crack at the playoffs.

That the Bucs remain in the playoff hunt this late in the season stands as a credit to the entire Buccaneers' organization.  The team has suffered season-ending injuries to a slew of starters, including early-round 2010 draft picks Brian Price and Gerald McCoy.  Also lost were star corner Aquib Talib, center Jeff Faine, right guard Davin Joseph, and sam linebacker Quincy Black.  As if that wasn't enough, the team lost rookie starting safety Cody Grimm, who was filling in for one of the Bucs' best players in the secondary, Tanard Jackson, who was lost to a year-long league suspension.

The front office did a great job of finding players to replace those lost to injury.  The coaches did a great job preparing those players to compete on Sunday.  And the players, for the most part have delivered.

The FOX broadcast pointed out that the Bucs are the only team to start 10 rookies and finish with a winning record.  Tampa Bay has a 10-6 record.

Go Bears.  Go Redskins.