Tuesday, August 26, 2014

David Friedman: "Problems with 'Fact Checking'"

Academic David Friedman, on his personal blog "Ideas," fired off a Sunday salvo aimed at PunditFact, the wing of PolitiFact that fact checks pundits.

Friedman has plenty to say and says it well, so we'll just tease our readers with his first paragraph and provide our usual encouragement to click the link and read the whole thing:
I recently came across a link on Facebook to a claim that "Over Half of all Statements Made on Fox News are False," based on a story in the Tampa Bay Times' PunditFact. My first reaction was that I had no more reason to trust the Tampa Bay Times than to trust Fox, making the story pure partisan assertion, so I followed the link to see what support it offered. To their credit, they listed the statements on Fox that they based their claim on and provided the basis for their conclusions. But looking at them in detail, their evaluation was clearly biased in favor of what they wanted to believe.
We never tire of highlighting good criticism of PolitiFact. If only there were more hours in the day.

Marc Lamont Hill and PolitiMath

A PunditFact rating of CNN pundit Marc Lamont Hill drew our attention today for its PolitiMath content.

PolitiMath takes place when math calculations appear to bear on whether a figure receives one "Truth-O-Meter" rating instead of another.  In this case, Hill received a "False" rating for claiming an unarmed black person is  shot by a cop every 28 hours.

PunditFact found Hill reached his conclusion using the numbers for black persons armed or unarmed. The total figure for both was 313. The figure for unarmed black people was 136.  The calculation is uncomplicated. Taking the number of hours in a 365-day year, we get 8760. Divide 8760 by 313 and we get Hill's 28-hour figure. Use what PunditFact said was the correct figure and we get 64 hours (8760/136).

Hill exaggerated the frequency of a unarmed black person dying from a police shooting by 124 percent.

We're certainly not saying that PolitiFact is in any way consistent with how it classifies errors by percentage, but for comparison Florida lawmaker Will Weatherford made a statistical claim that was off by about 49 percent and received a "False" rating. Democrat Gerry Connolly, on the other hand, managed to wring a "Mostly False" rating out of a statistic that was off by about 45 percent.

Perhaps this is just science at work. Given reality's liberal bias, it may make sense to grade errors of the same percentage more harshly where they affect liberally-biased truths. Fact checkers could be guilty of false equivalency by acting as though the truth is simply objective.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Unearthing a truth PolitiFact buried,

2009

We've often reminded readers that we only scratch the surface of PolitiFact's mountain of journalistic malfeasance. Reminding us of that point, we have an item from way back on Sept 15, 2009, when PolitiFact was still connected to Congressional Quarterly.

The issue? Economist Thomas Sowell wrote that President Obama let the economic stimulus bill sit on Obama's desk for three days before the president signed it.

PolitiFact:
In a recent column in Investor's Business Daily, economist and political commentator Thomas Sowell said that President Barack Obama was trying to rush his health care bill through Congress. Sowell cited the quick passage of the economic stimulus bill in February 2009 as proof that Obama is too hasty in passing major legislation.

Sowell wrote that "the administration was successful in rushing a massive spending bill through Congress in just two days — after which it sat on the president's desk for three days, while he was away on vacation."
In truth, Sowell wasn't trying to prove Obama was too hasty in passing major legislation. He was arguing Obama passes legislation hastily when there's no apparent reason to rush the legislation.

"Allow five days of public comment before signing bills"


A PolitiFact item from earlier that same year, on January 29, 2009, helps provide some context for Sowell's complaint:
"Too often bills are rushed through Congress and to the president before the public has the opportunity to review them," Obama's campaign Web site states . "As president, Obama will not sign any nonemergency bill without giving the American public an opportunity to review and comment on the White House Web site for five days."

But the first bill Obama signed into law as president — the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — got no such vetting.
So, Obama promised he would wait at least five days before signing non-emergency legislation.  The three-day wait for the stimulus bill implies it qualified as an emergency bill. But not such an emergency that Obama couldn't wait a few days before signing it.

The key to PolitiFact's argument? The ultra-literal reading of "sat on the president's desk." In PolitiFact's judgment, since the bill wasn't literally sitting on the desk waiting for the president's signature therefore the case won't support Sowell's point.

Sowell expresses his point:
The only reasonable alternative seems to be that he wanted to get this massive government takeover of medical care passed into law before the public understood what was in it.

Moreover, he wanted to get re-elected in 2012 before the public experienced what its actual consequences would be.

Unfortunately, this way of doing things is all too typical of the way this administration has acted on a wide range of issues.
The example using the stimulus bill followed. Sowell points out spending from the stimulus bill took place over an extended period, making a joke of the notion the stimulus was intended as a strong short-term Keynesian stimulus.

Sowell's point with his example remains: If the stimulus bill was an emergency, then why not sign it as soon as possible?

How did PolitiFact miss Sowell's point? Maybe PolitiFact wasn't interested in Sowell's point. How did PolitiFact miss the context of President Obama ignoring his broken pledge of transparency on legislative action? Maybe PolitiFact wasn't interested in that context.


Correction 8-25-2014:  Referred to the Affordable Care Act in one instance where the stimulus bill was intended.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Missed opportunity?


Now they tell us.

PolitiFact's pundit-checking operation, PunditFact, reveals on Aug. 24, 2014 that the Obama administration originally planned to leave 10,000 U.S. troops in Iraq as part of a status of forces agreement.

Let's imagine an alternative universe in which PolitiFact could have done this fact check during a presidential election after President Obama appeared to deny he wanted a status of forces agreement that would have kept troops in Iraq.  Via NPR:
MR. ROMNEY: Excuse me. It's a geopolitical foe. And I said in the same — in the same paragraph, I said, and Iran is the greatest national security threat we face. Russia does continue to battle us in the U.N. time and time again. I have clear eyes on this. I'm not going to wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to Russia or Mr. Putin, and I'm certainly not going to say to him, I'll give you more flexibility after the election. After the election he'll get more backbone.
Number two, with regards to Iraq, you and I agreed, I believe, that there should have been a status of forces agreement. Did you —

PRESIDENT OBAMA: That's not true.

MR. ROMNEY: Oh, you didn't — you didn't want a status of forces agreement?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: No, but what I — what I would not have done is left 10,000 troops in Iraq that would tie us down. That certainly would not help us in the Middle East.

Just another in a long line of missed opportunities for PolitiFact.

PolitiFact offers Christmas miracle

We so often ding PolitiFact for its lack of consistency that we have to count it a miracle that PolitiFact ruled consistently on similar claims by Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and President Barack Obama.

Both men, one a Republican and one a Democrat, said Congress was on "vacation" when there were important things to do.

PolitiFact gave both the same rating, "Mostly False."

Knock us over with a feather.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Nothing To See Here: CNN anchor buys automatic weapon (Updatted)

With hat tips to Hot Air and Twitchy, here's a layup for PunditFact featuring CNN anchor Don Lemon:
Don Lemon: What do you mean anyone can’t wa— Listen, during the theater shooting in Colorado, I was able to go and buy an automatic weapon, and I, you know, have maybe shot a gun, three, four times in my life. I don’t even live in Colorado. I think most people can go out and buy an automatic weapon. I don’t understand your argument there.
In reality, it's not so easy to run out and buy an automatic weapon.

Nothing to see here? We'll see.

Update 8-26-2014

PunditFact published a rating of Lemon today, rating his statement "False."

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Nothing To See Here: Grimes outs sexist McConnell?

Does Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell want women to receive less pay for the same work as men?  McConnell's Democratic Party challenger for his senate seat, Alison Lundergan Grimes, wants people to think so (Cincinnati.com):
"When you finally see Sen. McConnell and I on the same stage, you realize only one of us believes women deserve equal pay for equal work. If Mitch McConnell were a TV show, he'd be "Mad Men," treating women unfairly, stuck in 1968 and ending this season." -- Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, Democrat
Maybe PolitiFact would be interested in this?

But hasn't PolitiFact been tough enough on Grimes already? And this item was from Aug. 4.  Surely if it was important then PolitiFact would already have rated it.

Nothing to see here.