Saturday, September 20, 2014

PolitiMath at PolitiFact New Hampshire

PolitiFact New Hampshire provides us an example of PolitiMath with its Sept. 19, 2014 rating of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen's ad attacking Republican challenger Scott Brown.

The ad claims Brown ranked first in receiving donations from "Wall Street," to the tune of $5.3 million.

PolitiFact New Hampshire pegged the reasonably "Wall Street" figure lower than $5.3 million:
Brown’s total haul from these six categories was about $4.2 million, or about one-fifth lower than what the ad said.
Note that national PolitiFact's Louis Jacobson, writing for PolitiFact New Hampshire, figures the difference between the two figures with the errant figure as the baseline. That method sends the message that Shaheen's ad was off on the number by about one-fifth, or in error by about 20 percent. Calculated properly, the figure in Shaheen's ad represents an exaggeration (that is, error) of 26 percent.

Curiously, PolitiFact doesn't bother reaching a conclusion on whether it's true that Brown ranks number one in terms of Wall Street giving. Jacobson says Brown led in four of the six categories he classified as Wall Street, but kept mum about where Brown ranked with the figures added up.

That makes it difficult to judge whether the 26 percent error implied by PolitiFact New Hampshire's $4.2 million figure accounts for the "Mostly True" rating all by itself.

Capricious.

For comparison, we have a rating of President Obama where the PolitiFact team made a similar mistake, calculating the error as a percentage of the errant number. In that case, Obama gave a figure that was off by 27 percent and received a rating of "Mostly True."


Afters

After a little searching we found a "Mostly True" rating of a conservative where the speaker used the wrong figure. Conservative pundit Bill Kristol said around 40 percent of union members voted for the Republican presidential candidate in 2008. The actual number was 37 percent. Kristol was off by about 8 percent. So "Mostly True."

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

PunditFact and the disingenuous disclaimer

Since PunditFact brings up its network scorecards yet again, it's worth repeating our observation that PunditFact speaks out of both sides of its mouth on the issue of scorecards/report cards.

This corner:
The network scorecards were designed to provide you a way to measure the relative truth of statements made on a particular network.
The other corner:
We avoid comparisons between the networks.
PunditFact breaks down its data to enable its readers to "measure the relative truth of statements made on a particular network."

At the same time, PunditFact tells its readers that it's not comparing the networks.

We're still trying to figure out a way these claims can reconcile without contradiction and/or excusing PolitiFact from the charge of deliberately misleading its readers.

If the scorecards provide readers with a legitimate tool for judging the relative truth of statements made on a particular network, then why would PunditFact avoid comparisons between the networks? And how can PunditFact even claim to avoid making comparisons between the networks when its scorecards avowedly serve the purpose of leading readers to make those comparisons?

If this paradox doesn't indicate simple ignorance on PunditFact's part, it indicates a disturbingly disingenuous approach to its subject matter.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Quality at PolitiFact New Hampshire


Let's just say consistency isn't PolitiFact's strong suit.

PolitiFact Wisconsin serves up more baloney on Obama cutting the deficit in half

PolitiFact defines its "True" rating as "The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing."

Thus we greet with derisive laughter PolitiFact's Sept. 5, 2014 bestowal of a "True" rating on President Obama's declaration "We cut our deficits by more than half."

Curious about what "we" cut the deficits? PolitiFact Wisconsin is here to help:

"We" is "he": Obama (image from PolitiFact.com)
"We" is "he." Obama did it. Obama cut the national deficit in half. The statement is accurate and there's nothing significant missing. Right?

Well, no. It's a load of hooey that PolitiFact has consistently helped Obama sell.

Here are some insignificant things PolitiFact Wisconsin found:
  1. "When you use Obama's methodology to compare the deficit Obama inherited -- the 2009 result minus the stimulus package to that in 2013 --  the drop in the deficit is slightly under half, at 48%."
  2.  "'The economic recovery, wind-down of stimulus, reversal of TARP/Fannie transactions, and lower interest rates are really what has caused our deficit to fall so much,' Goldwein told us. He mentioned cuts in discretionary spending as well."
  3.  "(Ellis) and Goldwein emphasized that while the deficit has been halved, it’s been halved from a skyscraping peak."
The second point is significant because TARP and other bailout spending was heavily focused on FY2009. As that money is repaid, it counts as lower spending ("negative spending"). The government has turned a profit on the TARP bailouts, so a fair bit of the "skyscraping peak" came right back to the government, making its later spending appear lower.

Here are some insignificant missing things PolitiFact Wisconsin didn't bother to mention:
  1. PolitiFact claims it takes credit and blame into account. But Obama carries little (if any) personal responsibility for reducing the deficit by half.
  2. Remember those obstructionist Republicans who block the Democrats' every attempt to pass jobs bills and keep critically important entitlement benefits flowing?
  3. PolitiFact's expert, Goldwein, mentioned cuts in discretionary spending. Way to go, Obama! Oh, wait, that was largely a result of the sequestration that the president blames on Republicans.
So, yeah, the deficit was cut in half. But given the nature of the FY2009 deficit spike, cutting the deficit in half by the end of Obama's first term in office should have been a layup. It wasn't a layup because the economy stayed bad. Democrats would have continued spending investing in jobs and education if Republicans hadn't gained control of the House of Representatives in 2010.

Obama tries to take this set of circumstances largely beyond his control to fashion a feather for his own cap.

To PolitiFact Wisconsin, none of that is significant. What a joke.


Afters

For more on Obama's effect on the deficit and debt, see the following Zebra Fact Check articles:

FactCheck.org says federal spending has increased ‘far more slowly’ under Obama than under Bush

Is the federal deficit ‘falling at fastest rate in 60 years’?

Sunshine State News: 'Charlie Can't Even Get a 'Pants on Fire' for the Phony Rothstein Connection?'

On the Sunshine State News website, opinion writer Nancy Smith asks what party-switching Democratic gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist needs to do to earn a "Pants on Fire" rating from PolitiFact:
The Crist ad that claims  the governor "teamed up with a felon convicted of running a Ponzi scheme to smear Charlie Crist" is grudgingly rated "false." 

What does this new Democratic Party darling have to do to show he's not only rewriting his own life as he goes along, but he's making up Rick Scott's, too?
Smith's criticism of this Crist rating from PolitiFact Florida quickly widens in scope:
I often feel my temperature rise reading the Times-Herald because these folks never admit to bias and probably never will. But by no means am I the only one to cite PolitiFact for "ranting and rating." The Internet is alight with websites trying hard to tell the real story and keep the Tampa Bay newspaper (now the Times-Herald) honest.

Check out Politifactbias.com. It claims to be the work of "independent bloggers who share a sense of outrage that PolitiFact often peddles outrageous slant as objective news."
We thank Smith for noticing our work, and Jeff appreciates the likely hat tip to his classic work "Ranting and Rating: Why PolitiFact's Numbers Don't Add Up."

Yes, it's hard, though not impossible, for a Democrat to earn a "Pants on Fire" rating from PolitiFact Florida. Charlie Crist got one when he was a Republican, back in 2009, and he got another the next year after switching to Independent. But since turning Democrat in 2012 the "False" rating Smith notes is Crist's worst run-in with Florida's journalistic arbiters of truth.

That's to be expected, of course, when combining an ideological slant with a subjective rating system. The difference between a "False" and a "Pants on Fire" on PolitiFact's scale consists of the judgment that the latter claims are "ridiculous."

How PolitiFact objectively measures ridiculousness is anyone's guess. And until PolitiFact announces its objective criteria for utilizing the rating, we'll go right on using it as one measure of PolitiFact's ideological bias.

Friday, September 5, 2014

PunditFact vs. Larry Elder

Have we mentioned lately that PolitiFact/PunditFact is a sorry excuse for a fact-checking organization?

A supposed fact check by PunditFact of conservative radio show host and CNN guest Larry Elder exemplifies the criticism.

Elder mixed it up with Marc Lamont Hill on CNN over Ferguson, Missouri and associated issues. Elder insisted that a focus on supposed racism distracted from more pressing problems.

During the course of the discussion, Elder illustrated the progress of blacks in the United States by saying if American blacks were a country they'd be the 15th wealthiest.

PunditFact decided to rate that claim from Elder (PunditFact also rated a statement from Hill made during the exchange).

Two Faults?


PunditFact found experts who faulted Elder on two points.

First, the experts said, Elder used a figure for black income and compared that to GDP figures for a list of nations. That's an apples-to-oranges comparison. PunditFact did a poor job, however, of explaining that differences between the two measures would relatively underestimate the collective economic power of American blacks. Elder, in effect, underestimated the collective economic power of American blacks.

Second, the experts said GDP was a poor measure for the average economic well-being of American blacks.

To which we reply: Who says Elder was trying to offer a measure of the average well-being of American blacks?

PunditFact is allowing the experts to play pundit. PunditFact should restrict its use of expert testimony to subjects where the expert possesses relevant expertise.

Elder has a valid point if he's talking about collective wealth. Black America would rank close to 15th or perhaps higher on an apples-to-apples comparison of collective personal wealth with other nations. PolitiFact normally looks kindly on inaccuracies that weaken the speaker's point. President Obama, for example, received a "Mostly True" for a substantial underestimation of the number of states with miscegenation laws on the books in 1961.

Elder, for his closer estimate, received a "False" rating.

Gobbledegook + PPP=Gobbledegook

After faulting Elder for using an apples-to-oranges comparison in his effort to downplay the importance of racism in America, PunditFact proceeds to use the same apples-to-oranges comparison in per-capita form, with purchasing power parity added, to rate Elder on a claim he didn't make:
We took Clementi's suggestion and divided the most recent estimate of black earned income, $1 trillion, by the Census Bureau estimate of 44.5 million African-Americans. That would create a per capita buying power of around $23,000 a year, which would translate to around 34th around the world on the International Monetary Fund’s list of countries by GDP per capita (between the Bahamas and Malta).

But $23,000 doesn’t go as far in the United States as, say, in Lithuania. Economists multiply GDP per capita by a conversion factor called purchasing power parity to account for the different values of goods and services in different countries. If you apply these factors, the African-American population’s $23,000 a year ranks 44th (between Portugal and Lithuania).
PunditFact takes a measure of American blacks' after-tax income and compares it on a per-capita basis to the per-capita GDP of a list of nations, adjusted by purchasing power parity. This move accomplishes two things. First, it ignores Elder's stated argument and replaces it with an argument chosen by PunditFact. Second, it sustains one of the two errors PunditFact charged to Elder. Combining these two mistakes results in a faux trouncing of the straw-man claim PunditFact attributes to Elder.

Racism "not a problem"?


In PunditFact's conclusion we find yet another problem.

Not content to rate its straw man version of Elder's claim "False," PunditFact also tries to create the impression Elder said racism isn't a problem in the United States.

Note PunditFact's conclusion:
Arguing that racism is "not a problem," Elder said that "if black America were a country, it would be the 15th wealthiest in the world."
 The problem? Elder didn't say racism isn't a problem. He said it isn't "a major problem."



We emailed the writer and editor of the PunditFact story, Derek Tsang and Aaron Sharockman, respectively, asking about the source of the quotation in PunditFact's conclusion. We'll update this item if we receive a reply.

Our view? A fact-checker should not misquote and misrepresent the persons it fact checks.

Yet another PolitiFact train wreck

We think it's a major problem when a mainstream fact checker alters the claims of the subjects it fact checks, applies standards inconsistently and uses inaccurate quotations.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Lairs of editors at PolitiFact Florida

 2010

With this item we go back a few years into PolitiFact Florida's history to remind us of the extent to which fact checkers will allow inaccuracies to go into print or onto the Internet.

PolitiFact will sometimes pick on the accuracy of somebody else's headline. PolitiFact Florida's headline on a fact check of Gov. Rick Scott is a doozy:



The problem is obvious just from the image capture, but we'll explain it just in case it's not obvious to somebody.

The headline says Scott claimed Thomas Jefferson called regulations an "endemic weakness," which, by standard norms of interpretation, means Scott is saying Jefferson used the term "endemic weakness" in describing government regulations.

But the section above quoting Scott doesn't jibe with PolitiFact Florida's headline. It's Scott using the term "endemic weakness" and saying Jefferson's complaints against the King of England as expressed in the Declaration of Independence serve as a vintage example.

PolitiFact Florida's fact check never makes the case that "endemic weakness" was attributed to Jefferson.

Making matters worse, Scott didn't even imply that Jefferson was complaining in principle that regulations make up an endemic weakness of government. He just used Jefferson's complaint as one example supporting his own point.

PolitiFact ignores Scott's real point and fact checks a tangent:
Scott quotes Jefferson correctly. But we wondered, what did Jefferson mean when he wrote that line? Did he think regulations are an endemic weakness in government?
Poor PolitiFact Florida! Its fact check assumes it matters whether Jefferson was saying regulations were an endemic weakness of government! It doesn't matter. Was Scott using a solid example of a proliferation of government regulations? Not really. But that doesn't mean Scott was saying Jefferson called government relations an "endemic weakness."

How does this type of colossal blunder make it past layers of editors? Why is PolitiFact's cure for Scott's inaccuracy worse than the disease?

It's makes us think perhaps PolitiFact uses lairs of editors instead of layers of editors. Perhaps layers of lairs of editors.

With a hat tip to the old "Batman" television series, our conception of a PolitiFact lair of editors:



Afters

Another year has come around, and finds us still blessed with peace and friendship abroad; law, order, and religion at home; good affection and harmony with our Indian neighbors; our burthens lightened, yet our income sufficient for the public wants, and the produce of the year great beyond example. These, fellow-citizens, are the circumstances under which we meet, and we remark with special satisfaction those which under the smiles of Providence result from the skill, industry, and order of our citizens, managing their own affairs in their own way and for their own use, unembarrassed by too much regulation, unoppressed by fiscal exactions.
 --Thomas Jefferson, Second Annual Message to Congress, December 15, 1802
The natural progress of things is for liberty to yeild, and government to gain ground.
 --Thomas Jefferson to Edward Carrington, Paris, May 27, 1788