Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The epistemology of Bill Adair's birthday sermon

This post echos the title and content of Joseph E. Uscinski's (and Ryden W. Butler's) "The Epistemology of Fact Checking" as it points to the continued poor approaches fact checkers use toward epistemology.

As I read the birthday wishes Duke University Professor Bill Adair wrote for PolitiFact, the fact-checking enterprise he helped create, I was floored by its spurious reasoning. Adair looked to validate his creation by telling readers how it has met its primary goal:
The mission of fact-checking has always been to inform, not to change behavior. And by that measurement, fact-checking this year is a smashing success. There is more fact-checking than ever — more than 100 sites around the world, according to the latest tally by the Duke Reporters’ Lab. That’s up more than 60 percent in the last year.

Indeed, the fact that we know the politicians are using so many falsehoods is actually proof that fact-checking is working. In debates and interviews, the candidates are being questioned about the claims the fact-checkers have found were untrue.
What's wrong with Adair's reasoning? I shall explain in a moment, but whether I end up informing anybody about Adair's mistake will depend on my audience.

Consider that foreshadowing.

When Adair considers the purpose of fact-checking (informing readers), he chooses a poor means of measuring whether readers are informed. Adair proposes measuring the degree to which readers are informed based on the number of fact-checking websites.

After telling readers that the aim of fact-checking is not merely to change behavior, Adair offered readers a metric that amounts to a change in behavior. Journalists in the media changed their behavior by producing 60 percent more fact-checking sites this year than last. And by asking politicians about fact checked claims.

Were people successfully informed though that increase in fact-checking sites? Maybe. But confirming that would take, for example, a scientific survey of readers that would measure the effects of fact-checking. It does not automatically follow that an increase in the number of fact-checking sites leads to a more informed public. And it should concern us that a principal figure in the fact-checking movement makes an argument that misses that fact.

Adair segues from this stinker of an argument to a second one: He says "The fact that we know politicians are using so many falsehoods is actually proof that fact-checking is working." Adair has simply assumed what he wants to prove. He offers not a shred of evidence that "we know politicians are using so many falsehoods." If Adair tried to offer evidence in support of his claim, it would probably rely on the findings of fact-checkers. Using the findings of fact-checkers to confirm that people informed by the fact-checkers know the truth assumes what Adair seeks to prove.

If readers learn the truth from fact checks, let us see that outcome in the form of hard data. Instead, Adair commits the fallacy of begging the question.

For fact checkers to successfully inform their readers of the truth, the fact checkers have to have a message capable of communicating the truth (unproven) as well as an audience that successfully receives that message (also unproven).

Yet here we have Bill Adair, fact checker, telling people, despite the lack of evidence, that fact-checking is working to inform people.

Adair's argument is naive and this naive approach to knowledge broadly infects Adair's fact-checking movement.

Here's one more plug for Uscinski & Butler's "The Epistemology of Fact Checking," which makes the case that fact-checkers take a naive approach to epistemology.

Update Aug. 23, 2016:

PolitiFact highlighted Adair's birthday gloat, using one of the statements we criticized as the pull quote.

Self-validation the easy way!

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Hoystory: "PolitiFact California is Stupid ..."

Reformed California journalist Matthew Hoy chimes in agreeing with our "Is PolitiFact California stupid?" post before sharing his experience with PolitiFact that expands on the point.

Hoy notes that PolitiFact California is stupid "…and dishonest. And not transparent. And thin-skinned."

It's another account of PolitiFact resisting correction and hiding or downplaying evidence of its misdeeds. Hoy was trying to hold PolitiFact to account for its support of a false claim spread by Democrat Gavin Newsom. Newsom tweeted that it's easier to buy a gun in California than a Happy Meal. PolitiFact retweeted it. Hoy wrote about it.

Read both of Hoy's posts to get a picture of how the top-flight journalists at PolitiFact take the low road.

Correction Aug. 23, 2016: Our title omitted mention of "California," amounting to a misquote of the title of Hoy's article. We apologize for the mistake.

Universal health plans that aren't

From time to time we remind our readers that only the lack of time keeps us from finding many more examples of PolitiFact's bias and incompetence.

Here's one we missed from 2012, involving then-San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro:

As the captured image shows, Castro said Seven U.S. presidents had tried to expand health care to all Americans. PolitiFact rated the claim "Mostly True," but based on very questionable evidence.

Two U.S. presidents tried to provide health care for all Americans. A few others tried to expand the provision of health care to more Americans. In fact, PolitiFact used something like the latter wording to paraphrase Castro, perhaps reasoning that changing what Castro said would make the evidence stack up better in his favor (bold emphasis added):
President Barack Obama’s health care law has been one of the most polarizing aspects of his presidency, with Republicans criticizing it at every turn. But the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, didn’t run from it. He applauded Obama for pursuing expanded health care -- and succeeding where his predecessors had failed.
Castro mentioned expanding health care to "all Americans," not the bar-lowering "expanded health care" offered by PolitiFact. By replacing Castro's actual words, PolitiFact avoided the embarrassment of admitting that Castro was wrong when he went on to say Obama succeeded in providing health care to "all Americans." The Affordable Care Act succeeded in growing the number of Americans who have some type of insurance--often Medicaid--but the ACA did not achieve universal coverage.

It takes universal coverage to bring health care to "all Americans."

Fact-checking is great, right?

The Ultimate List of non-Universal Universal Health Care Plans


Thursday, August 18, 2016

PolitiFact says Democrat's statement is misleading and so rates it "True"

It's really a very small wonder that PolitiFact remains so popular with the many Democrats who comment on PolitiFact's Facebook page. PolitiFact is good to Democrats. Often it's hard to see why without seeing the benevolence as a sign of PolitiFact's liberal bias.

Take the case of PolitiFact Texas and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro.

Castro, appearing at the Texas Democratic Party's state convention, implied California's economy was outperforming that of Texas. PolitiFact sourced its quotation of Castro to the Dallas Morning News:
“Today, California is kicking our butt, creating more jobs and more economic growth than Texas,” he said. “Maybe what we need to do is trade in [California] Gov. Jerry Brown for Gov. Greg Abbott and get better results.”
PolitiFact ruled Castro's claim "True," defined as "The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing."

With PolitiFact's help, Democrats like Castro seem to have a knack for saying true things that have nothing significant missing even when something significant is missing.

We don't have to do any digging of our own to find the misleading part of Castro's claim. Tara Sinclair, one of the experts PolitiFact Texas interviewed, points it out:
Tara Sinclair, chief economist for Indeed, a job-posting service, pointed out by email that Texas has long enjoyed a lower unemployment rate--a facet Castro didn’t mention.


 All in all, Sinclair said by email, "focusing on the total number of people employed is misleading due to the different population sizes of the two states. By both the unemployment rate (a standard measure of labor market health) as well as the employment to population ratio, Texas's labor market actually looks healthier than California's."
This bit of information Castro left out was so unimportant PolitiFact metnioned it again in its conclusion (bold emphasis added):
Castro said that "today," California is "creating more jobs and more economic growth than Texas."

These fightin’ words hold up based on recent jobs growth and relative changes in GDP and personal income. Still (just a tad whiney here) would it hurt to acknowledge that Texas continues to enjoy a lower unemployment rate?

We rate this claim True.
So Castro's statement was misleading, according to the cited expert, falsely suggesting that California's labor market is healthier than Texas' labor market.

Nothing significant was left out?

We've charged that PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" grading system is hopelessly subjective, and this case helps illustrate the point. What is the objective cutoff point between leaving out something significant and leaving out something insignificant? And if PolitiFact finds something insignificant was left out, does it makes sense to point out something insignificant to its readers?

PolitiFact has never publicized any criteria that would show it bases its ratings on objective benchmarks. PolitiFact's "star chamber" of at least three editors decides what is significant and what isn't. By and large, PolitiFact's readers will know nothing about what was discussed by the "star chamber." Nor will PolitiFact's readers know how the editors voted. And here's a fact: Not one single member of PolitiFact's Supreme Court was picked by a Republican president.

That's one way to institutionalize bias ...

Saturday, August 13, 2016

PolitiFact does history

The folks at PolitiFact must be awfully busy. So busy that they rush their work and have too little time to run correction notices.

A PolitiFact video explaining President Bill Clinton's role in signing NAFTA informs viewers that President George H. W. Bush negotiated the treaty. And shows an image of Jeb Bush and President George W. Bush together, waving.

James Skoog appears to have noticed it first.

Maybe PolitiFact found a picture of George W. and Jeb waving at George H. W. as the latter negotiated NAFTA?

Layers of editors ...

Friday, August 5, 2016

PolitiFact's laughable neutrality

What can we learn about foreign affairs from the expert journalists at PolitiFact?

Let's look at an example, specifically the existence of ISIS.

Who is to blame for ISIS?

Vice President Dick Cheney was partly responsible for ISIS:

Maybe climate change played a role in creating ISIS. PolitiFact at least accepts that climate change worsens terrorism (FactCheck.org would not go that far).

Actually, climate change definitely helped create ISIS:

Hillary Rodham Clinton, the U.S. secretary of state while ISIS grew in power and controlled large parts of Syria and Iraq? And the U.S. Senator who voted to authorize military intervention and then voted against the surge in Iraq? She had nothing to do with it:

Inside Baseball Stuff

The "False" rating Trump received interested us because the text looks like it leads toward a "Mostly False" ruling. The last two lines pass for a surprise ending.

Check it out:
There were several factors that contributed to the growing power of ISIS, but it’s misleading to pin the responsibility solely on Clinton. For starters, the roots of ISIS trace back to 2004, when Bush was president and before Clinton was Obama’s secretary of state.

She did vote to authorize force in Iraq in 2002 while a senator, but that was advocated by the Bush administration and the vast majority of senators. The intervention in Libya, which she supported, did give ISIS an opening, but Trump is overstating her role by saying she is responsible for ISIS.

This claim is inaccurate. We rate it False.
It would surprise us not at all if Linda Qiu, who wrote the fact check, recommended a "Mostly False" rating to PolitiFact's "star chamber" of editors. After which the editors decided no way was Clinton responsible. In that situation, they would have tasked Qiu with tacking on the "False" conclusion. We think the last line does not quite fit the story.

Jeff Adds:

This line struck me as bizarre:
She did vote to authorize force in Iraq in 2002 while a senator, but that was advocated by the Bush administration and the vast majority of senators.
Hillary is absolved from the consequences of her own voting record if it's what Bush wanted? It doesn't count if lots of other senators did it too?

Edit: Deleted strike-through text that was not intended for publishing in second sentence. -Jeff 1251PST 8/5/2016
Edit 8/5/2016: Supplied missing hyperlinks to O'Malley and Trump fact checks.
Edit: Added Jeff Adds section-Jeff 1436PST 8/5/2016
Edit: Added link at "star chamber" in final paragraph. -Jeff 0708PST 8/8/2016

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

PolitiFact's Subtle Smears against Skepticism

In an earlier post we covered PolitiFact California's false conclusion that Mike Pence "denied evolution." We updated that post to note and condemn the fact checkers' downgrading of that rating to "Half True," since having no evidence that Pence denied evolution does not make it half true that Pence denied evolution.

There remains a problematic part of PolitiFact California's fact check that we haven't emphasized, that being the illogical inference that skepticism in other areas of science helps support the inference that Pence rejects evolution.

I had flagged a sentence in PolitiFact California writer Chris Nichols' original rating for commentary, but it's since been scrubbed from the new "Half True" version:

Nichols reasoning is flawed. It is perfectly consistent for a person to be skeptical of the efficacy of efforts to combat climate change while simultaneously accepting the scientific realities of climate change. To the contrary, blindly accepting said measures without skepticism is by definition unscientific.

That line has been deleted in the new version of the article, but it was replaced with an example that is similarly flawed:

Being ambiguous about supporting federal funding for stem cell research is not evidence that one denies the science behind stem cell research. There are moral, political, and philosophical reasons for opposing such things that have nothing to do with science. But for PolitiFact writer Nichols it appears to be axiomatic that funding for these things is something the government should do. It doesn't occur to Nichols that there's reasons for Pence's skepticism beyond being a Bible-thumping yokel.

There is no "have-it-both-ways" about it. Pence's position on federal funding for stem cell research has nothing to do with Pence's position on evolution. The paragraph serves no purpose in the fact check other than to possibly paint Pence as the liberal caricature of a science-hating Jesus freak.

What reporting in Nichols two versions of this fact check qualifies it as an objective fact check as opposed to opinionated commentary? 

Bryan adds:

We can see PolitiFact's zeal for climate change action through its actions in dropping its burden of proof criterion for a 2014 fact check of California Governor Jerry Brown. Brown said virtually no Republican in Congress accepts climate change science. PolitiFact found only a few Republicans who explicitly accepted it and more-or-less assumed that the rest do not accept it. Brown received an absurdly generous "Mostly True" rating.

It's illogical. It's biased. It's typical PolitiFact.

Bryan adds again:

PolitiFact also screwed up the context of the second quotation Jeff used. Pence was not replying to a question about his support for federal funding of stem cell research. Chris Matthews had been asking Pence about evolution and education, then added the issues of climate change and stem cell research. Pence answered how he thought science issues should be taught in school.

PolitiFact California makes Pence look like a dope for not really answering the question about funding stem cell research. If there was any such question it was swallowed by crosstalk as Pence answered Matthews' earlier question of whether he believed in teaching evolution or creationism in schools. PolitiFact California misrepresented the context.

The real story in the exchange is how Matthews doesn't mention that he's talking about embryonic stem cell research. Pence corrects him on that point. PolitiFact repeats Matthews' error by not distinguishing ordinary stem cell research (which Republicans support) with embryonic stem cell research, which many Republicans (and some Democrats) oppose on moral grounds.

Correction Aug. 4, 2016: In the first paragraph of "Bryan adds again," added "and stem cell research to complete the intended sentence and make the plural "issues" correct.