Monday, February 20, 2017

PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter": Floor wax, or dessert topping?

The different messages coming from PolitiFact founder Bill Adair and current PolitiFact managing editor Amy Hollyfield in recent interviews reminded me of a classic Saturday Night Live sketch.

In one interview (Pacific Standard), Adair said deciding PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" ratings was "entirely subjective."

In the other interview (The Politic), Hollyfield gave a different impression:
There are six gradations on our [Truth-O-Meter] scale, and I think someone who’s not familiar with it might think it’s hard to sort out, but for people who’ve been at it for so long, we’ve done over 13,000 fact checks. To have participated in thousands of those, we all have a pretty good understanding of what the lines are between “true” and “mostly true,” or “false” and “pants on fire.”
If PolitiFact's "star chamber" of editors has a good understand of the lines of demarcation between each of the ratings, that suggests objectivity, right?

Reconciling these statements about the "Truth-O-Meter" seems about as easy as reconciling New Shimmer's dual purposes as a floor wax and a dessert topping. Subjective and objective are polar opposites, perhaps even more so than floor wax and dessert topping.

If, as Hollyfield appears to claim, PolitiFact editors have objective criteria to rely on in deciding on "Truth-O-Meter" ratings, then what business does Adair have claiming the ratings are subjective?

Can both Adair and Hollyfield be right? Does New Shimmer's exclusive formula prevent yellowing and taste great on pumpkin pie?

Sorry, we're not buying it. We consider PolitiFact's messaging about its rating system another example of PolitiFact's flimflammery.

We think Adair must be right that the Truth-O-Meter is primarily subjective. The line between "False" and "Pants on Fire" as described by Hollyfield appears to support Adair's position:
“False” is simply inaccurate—it’s not true. The difference between that and “pants on fire” is that “pants on fire” is something that is utterly, ridiculously false. So it’s not just wrong, but almost like it’s egregiously wrong. It’s purposely wrong. Sometimes people just make mistakes, but sometimes they’re just off the deep end. That’s sort of where we are with “pants on fire.”
Got it? It's "almost like" and "sort of where we are" with the rating. Or, as another PolitiFact editor from the "star chamber" (Angie Drobnic Holan) memorably put it: "Sometimes we decide one way and sometimes decide the other."


Though PolitiFact has over the years routinely denied that it accuses people of lying, Hollyfield appears to have wandered off the reservation with her statement that "Pants on Fire" falsehoods on the "Truth-O-Meter" are "purposely wrong." A purposely wrong falsehood would count as a lie in its strong traditional sense: A falsehood intended to deceive the audience. But if that truly is part of the line of demarcation between "False" and "Pants on Fire," then why has it never appeared that way in PolitiFact's statement of principles?

Perhaps that criterion exists only (subjectively) in Hollyfield's mind?

Update Feb. 20, 2017: Removed an unneeded "the" from the second paragraph

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Power Line: "Trump 4, PolitiFact 1"

John Hinderaker, writing for the Power Line blog, does a quick rundown of five PolitiFact fact checks of President Donald Trump. Hinderaker scores the series 4-1 for Trump.

Read it through for the specifics.

Our favorite part occurs at the end:
We could go through this exercise multiple times every day. Correcting the Democratic Party “fact checkers” would be a full-time job that I don’t plan to undertake. Suffice it to say that Trump is more often right than are the press’s purported fact checkers who pretend to correct him.
We continue to marvel at PolitiFact's supernatural ability to ignore substantive criticism. How often does it answer charges that it has done its job poorly?

If PolitiFact is an honest and transparent attempt at objective fact-checking, then we think PolitiFact should aggressively defend itself against such charges, or else change its articles accordingly.

On the other hand, if PolitiFact is a sham attempt at objective fact-checking, maybe it's smart to ignore criticism, trusting that its readers will conclude the criticisms did not deserve an answer.

Maybe there's an explanation that splits the difference?

Friday, February 17, 2017

PolitiFact: That was then, this is now

Now (2017)

PolitiFact is independent! That means nobody chooses for PolitiFact what stories PolitiFact will cover. PolitiFact made that clear with its recent appeal for financial support though its "Truth Squad" members--persons who contribute financially to PolitiFact (bold emphasis added):
Our independence is incredibly valuable to us, and we don't let anyone — not politicians, not grant-making groups, not anyone — tell us what to fact-check or what our Truth-O-Meter rulings should be. At PolitiFact, those decisions are made solely by journalists. With your help, they always will be.
Got it? Story selection is done solely by PolitiFact journalists. That's independence.

Then (2015)

In early 2015, PolitiFact started its exploration of public funding with a Kickstarter program geared toward funding its live fact checks of the 2015 State of the Union address.

Supporters donating $100 or more got to choose what PolitiFact would fact check. Seriously. That's what PolitiFact offered:

Pledge $100 or more

Pick the fact-check. We’ll send you a list of four fact-checks we’re thinking of working on. You decide which one we do. Plus the coffee mug, the shout out and the mail.
We at PolitiFact Bias saw this scam for what it was back then: It was either a breach of journalistic ethics in selling its editorial discretion, or else a misleading offer making donors believe they were choosing the fact check when in reality the editorial discretion was kept in-house by the PolitiFact editors.

Either way, PolitiFact acted unethically. And if Angie Drobnic Holan is telling the truth that PolitiFact always has its editorial decisions made by journalists, then we can rest assured that PolitiFact brazenly misled people in advertising its 2015 Kickstarter campaign.

Clarification Feb. 18, 2017: Belatedly added the promised bold emphasis in the first quotation of PolitiFact.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

PolitiFact California "fact": Undocumented immigrants count as Americans

The secret formula for finding PolitiFact mistakes: Just look at what fact PolitiFact is checking, try to imagine how a biased liberal would flub the fact check, then look to see if that mistake occurred.

PolitiFact California makes this technique work like magic. Case in point:

We wondered if PolitiFact California and Gov. Brown count undocumented immigrants as "Californians." We wondered if PolitiFact California would even concern itself over who counts as a "Californian."

The answer? No. And PolitiFact California made its mistake even more fundamental by putting a twist on what Gov. Brown claimed. This was the statement Brown made from his 2017 state of the state address:
This is California, the sixth most powerful economy in the world. One out of every eight Americans lives right here and 27 percent – almost eleven million – were born in a foreign land.
Brown did not say 27 percent of "Californians" are foreign-born. In context, he said 27 percent of the Americans (U.S citizens) in California are foreign born. If Brown had referred to "Californians," the dictionary would have given him some cover. A resident of California can qualify as a "Californian."

But Merriam-Webster provides no such cover for the definition of "American":

Only one of the four definitions fits the context of Brown's claim. That is definition No. 3.

The problem for Brown and PolitiFact California? Both relied on Census Bureau data. The Census Bureau counts citizens and non-citizens in its population survey. About 3 million of California's population  (Kaiser Family Foundation estimates about 5 million) do not hold American citizenship and do not count as "American" by definition No. 3. Subtract 3 million from the number PolitiFact California used as the number of Californians, and subtract 3 million from the number of foreign-born California residents, and the percentage of foreign-born Americans in California (definition No. 3) comes up as 22 percent, not 27 percent.

If the true number of undocumented Californians is 5 million then the percentage drops below 18 percent.

Gov. Brown's figure is off by at least 5 percentage points, representing a percentage error of almost 23 percent. And PolitiFact California found it completely true:
Gov. Jerry Brown claimed in his State of the State Address that 27 percent of Californians, almost 11 million, "were born in a foreign land."

A 2015 American Community Survey by the U.S. Census Bureau verifies that statistic. Additionally, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California, which studies the state’s immigration and demographic patterns, confirmed the census report is the best authority on California’s foreign born population.

We rate Brown's claim True.

TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
To us, this looks like a classic case of a journalist's liberal bias damping proper skepticism. This type of mistake was predictable. We predicted it. And PolitiFact California delivered it.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

PolitiFact misleads its "Truth Squad"

PolitiFact is in the midst of conducting a successful campaign for raising financial support from its readers.

We found it interesting and ironic that PolitiFact is using a misleading appeal toward that end:
As readers have cheered us on, plenty of politicians have actively rooted against us. At the 2012 Republican National Convention, journalists challenged Mitt Romney’s campaign team about an ad that falsely claimed Barack Obama was ending work requirements for welfare. Romney pollster Neil Newhouse responded by saying, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."
Problem one: So far as we can tell, the fact checkers never responded to vigorous criticisms of their ruling on President Barack Obama's welfare work requirement tweak. That's despite basing the ruling essentially on Obama administration claims about what it was trying to accomplish with its Welfare requirement waiver provision.

Problem two: PolitiFact is taking the statement from Neil Newhouse out of context. And all the mainstream (left-leaning) fact checkers seem to enjoy doing that to enhance the popular view of their work.

I exposed that deception with an article at Zebra Fact Check:
What was Newhouse saying? We think the context makes clear Newhouse was not expressing a disdain for facts but instead expressing his distrust of fact checkers. The ABC News report makes that clear with its paraphrase of Newhouse: “Newhouse suggested the problem was with the fact-checkers, not the facts themselves.”

We’ll see that all three of the major fact checkers ignored the meaning ABC News identified for Newhouse’s statement and replaced it with a meaning that better served their purposes.
The fact checkers, including PolitiFact, misleadingly use Newhouse's statement as evidence campaigns do not care about the truth, and that, in turn, helps justify their own existence. And apparently the fact checkers themselves are perfectly willing to twist the truth to achieve that noble (selfish) end.

PolitiFact's "Truth Squad" is likely to end up as a left-leaning mob interested primarily in supporting journalism that attacks Republicans, conservatives and President Trump in particular.

Edit: A draft version of a Jeff Adds section was published today in error. We have since removed the section. Prior to removal we saved a version of this page that included the section. That can be found at Internet Archive
-Jeff 1619PST 2/10/2017

Sunday, January 29, 2017

PolitiFact continues its campaign of misinformation on waterboarding

Amazing. Simply amazing.

PolitiFact Bias co-editor Jeff D. caught PolitiFact continuing its tendency to misinform its readers about waterboarding in a Jan 29, 2017 tweet:
PolitiFact's claim was untrue, as I demonstrated in a May 30, 2016 article at Zebra Fact Check, "Torture narrative trumps facts at PolitiFact."

Though PolitiFact claims scientific research shows waterboarding doesn't work, the only "scientific evidence in the linked article concerns the related conditions of hypoxia (low oxygen) and hypercapnia (excess carbon dioxide). PolitiFact reasoned that because science shows that hypoxia and hypercapnia inhibit memory, therefore waterboarding would not work as a means of gaining meaningful intelligence.

The obvious problem with that line of evidence?

Waterboarding as practiced by the CIA takes mere seconds. Journalist Christopher Hitchens had himself waterboarded and broke, saying he would tell whatever he knew, after about 18 seconds.  Memos released by the Obama administration revealed that a continuous waterboarding treatment could last a maximum 40 seconds.

Prisoners could be subjected to waterboarding during one 30 day period

Maximum five treatment days per 30 days

Maximum two waterboarding sessions per treatment day
Max 2 hours per session (the length of time the prisoner is strapped down)
Maximum 40 seconds of continuous water application

Maximum six water applications over 10 seconds long per session
Maximum 240 seconds (four minutes) of waterboarding per session from applications over 10 seconds long
Maximum total of 12 minutes of treatment with water over any 24 hour period
Applications under 10 seconds long could make up a maximum 8 minutes on top of the four mentioned above

While it is worth noting that reports indicate the CIA exceeded these guidelines in the case of al Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, these limits are not conducive to creating significant conditions of hypoxia or hypercapnia.

The typical person can hold their breath for 40 seconds without too much difficulty or distress. The CIA's waterboarding was designed to bring about the sensation of drowning, not the literal effects of drowning (hypoxia, hypercapnia, aspiration and swallowing of water). That is why the techniques often break prisoners in about 10 seconds.

And the other problem?

The CIA did not interrogate prisoners while waterboarding them. Nor did the CIA use the technique to obtain confessions under duress. Waterboarding was used to make prisoners more amenable to conventional forms of interrogation.

None of this information is difficult to find.

Why do the fact checkers at PolitiFact (not to mention elsewhere) have such a tough time figuring this stuff out?

There likely isn't any significant scientific evidence either for or against the effectiveness of waterboarding. PolitiFact pretending there is does not make it so.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Hans Bader: "The Strange Ignorance of PolitiFact"

Hans Bader, writing at Liberty Unyielding, points out a Jan. 19, 2017 fact-checking train wreck from PolitiFact Pennsylvania. PolitiFact Pennsylvania looked at a claim Sen. Bob Casey (D-Penn.) used to try to discredit President-elect Donald Trump's nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

Bader's article initially emphasized PolitiFact Pennsylvania's apparent ignorance of the "reasonable doubt" standard in United States criminal cases:
In an error-filled January 19 “fact-check,” PolitiFact’s Anna Orso wrote about “the ‘clear and convincing’ standard used in criminal trials.”  The clear and convincing evidence standard is not used in criminal trials. Even my 9-year old daughter knows that the correct standard is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
By the time we started looking at this one, PolitiFact Pennsylvania had started trying to spackle over its faults. The record (at the Internet Archive) makes clear that PolitiFact's changes to its text got ahead of its policy of announcing corrections or updates.

Eventually, PolitiFact continued its redefinition of the word "transparency" with this vague description of its corrections:
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized the standard of evidence used in criminal convictions.
Though PolitiFact Pennsylvania corrected the most obvious and embarrassing problem with its fact check, other problems Bader pointed out still remain, such as its questionable characterization of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's civil rights stance as "controversial."

For our part, we question PolitiFact Pennsylvania for apparently uncritically accepting a key premise connected to the statement it claimed to fact check:
Specifically, Casey said the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education supports a bill that "would change the standard of evidence." He said the group is in favor of ditching the "preponderance of the evidence" standard most commonly used in Title IX investigations on college campuses and instead using the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard used in criminal cases.
PolitiFact claimed to simply fact check whether DeVos had contributed to FIRE. But without the implication that FIRE is some kind of far-outside-the-mainstream group, who cares?

We say that given PolitiFact Pennsylvania's explanation of Casey's attack on DeVos, a fact checker needs to investigate whether FIRE supported a bill that would change the standard of evidence.

PolitiFact Pennsylvania offers its readers no evidence at all regarding any such bill. If there is no bill as Casey described, then PolitiFact Pennsylvania's "Mostly True" rating serves to buoy a false charge against DeVos (and FIRE).

Ultimately, PolitiFact Pennsylvania fails to coherently explain the point of contention. The Obama administration tried to restrict schools from using the "clear and convincing" standard.
Thus, in order for a school’s grievance procedures to be consistent with Title IX standards, the school must use a preponderance of the evidence standard (i.e., it is more likely than not that sexual harassment or violence occurred). The “clear and convincing” standard (i.e., it is highly probable or reasonably certain that the sexual harassment or violence occurred), currently used by some schools, is a higher standard of proof. Grievance procedures that use this higher standard are inconsistent with the standard of proof established for violations of the civil rights laws, and are thus not equitable under Title IX. Therefore, preponderance of the evidence is the appropriate standard for investigating allegations of sexual harassment or violence.
FIRE objected to that. But objecting to that move from the Obama administration does not mean FIRE advocated using the "beyond a reasonable doubt" (how PolitiFact's story reads now) standard. That also goes for the "clear and convincing" standard mentioned in the original version.

PolitiFact Pennsylvania simply skipped out on investigating the linchpin of Casey's argument.

There's more hole than story to this PolitiFact Pennsylvania fact check.

Be sure to read Bader's article for more.

Update Jan 21, 2017: Added link to the Department of Education's April 4, 2011 "Dear Colleague" letter
Update Jan 24, 2017: Added a proper ending to the second sentence in the third-to-last paragraph 
Update Feb. 2, 2017: Added "article" after "Bader's" in the second paragraph to make the sentence more sensible