Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Refuting PolitiFact on mismatch theory

Back on Dec. 11, 2015, PolitiFact published a fact check of a statement by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Scalia told his courtroom audience of a brief that said most black scientists do not come from top-flight schools for which they may not be academically prepared. Scalia was alluding to "mismatch" theory. As Scalia put it, "They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them."

Mismatch theory is the idea that if students aren't academically prepared to go to a higher-level school, the student is better off going to a school better suited to their level of preparation.

PolitiFact rated Scalia's claim "Half True." Scalia, PolitiFact said, was accurate that most black scientists come from lesser schools, but the statistic doesn't stem directly from academic mismatch.

But what really caught our eye about the PolitiFact fact check was this (bold emphasis added):
Regarding the larger point — that black students fare better at "lesser" schools because their academic credentials are better matched to the curriculum — the evidence is mired in controversy. There is some scholarly research that backs up this point, but there is also scholarly research that refutes it.
It's not uncommon to see the word "refutes" misused this way, improperly substituting it for a word like "rebuts." An argument that is refuted is a defeated argument. An argument that receives a rebuttal is contested. PolitiFact's choice of words was poor, biased or both.

We were reminded of PolitiFact's skim-the-surface treatment of Scalia's remarks by a much better treatment by Conor Friedersdorf in The Atlantic. This portion we found striking:
I’m baffled that any journalists are treating it as settled, even as tenured social-scientists at top-tier universities declare that it deserves to be taken seriously. No one, it seems, can yet provide a precise answer to the question, “at what point do disparities in GPA, SAT score, or high-school quality start to matter,” even though everyone surely agrees that they matter at some inflection point.
While PolitiFact stops short of claiming the issue is settled against mismatch theory, its treatment is decidedly more negative than the one at The Atlantic.

And since when is it a proper fact check of Scalia without specifically referencing the brief to which he referred?

PolitiFact points toward this brief as the likely source of Scalia's statement, but the fact check provides no link (whether by error or not). We can't find the document linked by PolitiFact and we don't see a clear connection between Scalia's remarks and the document PolitiFact pointed toward.

Moreover, as Alison Somin points out, the mainstream media narrative in which PolitiFact wallows skipped over the fact that justices routinely ask attorneys questions based on briefs they do not necessarily agree with. PolitiFact glossed over that context.

Critics have not refuted mismatch theory. It's fair game for Scalia to bring up that theory using words from an amicus brief. It's notable that the attorney in question did not respond as pedantically as did the mainstream media.

Matching Scalia's questioning to the right brief--that would be fact-checking. What PolitiFact did--not so much. PolitiFact's "fact check" was an op-ed about mismatch theory slanted against Scalia and mismatch theory.

Edit: Added link to PF story at "Half True" text- Jeff 12/23/2015 1508PST

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