Monday, November 21, 2016

Great Moments in the Annals of Subjectivity (Updated)

Did Republican Donald Trump win the electoral college in a landslide?

We typically think of a "landslide" as an overwhelming victory, and there's certainly doubt whether Trump's margin of victory in the electoral college unequivocally counts as overwhelming.

"Overwhelming" itself is hard to pin down in objective terms.

So that's why we have PolitiFact, the group of liberal bloggers that puts "fact" in its name and then proceeds to publish "fact check journalism" based on subjective "Truth-O-Meter" judgments.

When RNC Chairman Reince Priebus (and Trump's pick for his chief of staff) called Trump's electoral college victory a "landslide," PolitiFact Wisconsin's liberal bloggers sprang into action to do their thing (bold emphasis added):
Landslide, of course, is not technically defined. When we asked for information to back Priebus’ claim, the Republican National Committee merely recited the electoral figures and repeated that it was a landslide.
If "landslide" is not technically defined then what fact is PolitiFact Wisconsin checking? Is "landslide" non-technically defined to the point one can judge it true or false?

PolitiFact Wisconsin follows typical PolitiFact procedure in collecting expert opinions about whether Priebus' use of "landslide" matches its non-technical definition. One of the 10 experts PolitiFact consulted said Trump's margin was "close" to a landslide. PolitiFact said the other nine said it fell short, so PolitiFact ruled Priebus' claim "False."
Priebus said Trump’s win was "an electoral landslide."

But aside from the fact Trump lost the popular vote, his margin in the Electoral College isn’t all that high, either. None of the 10 experts we contacted said Trump’s win crosses that threshold.

We rate Priebus’ claim False.
One has to marvel at expertise sufficient to say whether the use of a term meets a non-technical definition.

One has to marvel all the more at fact checkers who concede that a term has a mushy definition ("not technically defined") and then declare that some use of the term fails to cross "that threshold."

What threshold?

One of the election experts said if Trump won by a landslide then Obama won by an even greater landslide.

RollCall, 2015:
In 2006, Democrats won back the House; two years later, President Barack Obama won by a landslide.
LA Times, 2012:
Obama officially wins in electoral vote landslide.
NPR, 2015:
President Obama won in a landslide.
NYU Journalism, 2008:
Obama Wins Landslide Victory, Charts New Course for United States.
Since Obama did not win by a landslide, therefore one cannot claim Trump won by a landslide? Is that it?

It is folly for fact checkers to try to judge the truth of ambiguous claims. PolitiFact often pursues that folly, of course, and in the end simply underscores what it occasionally admits: The ratings are subjective.

Finding experts willing to participate in the folly does not reduce the magnitude of the folly. This would have been a good subject for PolitiFact to use in continuing its Voxification trend. PolitiFact might have produced an "In context" article to talk about electoral landslides and how experts view the matter. But trying to corral the use of a term that is traditionally hard to tame simply makes a mockery of fact-checking.


Jeff Adds (Dec. 1, 2016):

Add this to a long list of opinions that PolitiFact treats as verifiable facts, including these two gems:

- Radio host John DePetro opined that the Boston Marathon bomber was buried "not far" from President John Kennedy. PolitiFact used their magical powers of objective divinity to determine the unarguable demarcation of "not far."

- Rush Limbaugh claimed "some of the wealthiest American's are African-Americans now." Using the divine wizardry of the nonpartisan Truth-O-Meter, PolitiFact's highly trained social scientists were able to conjure up a determinant definition of what "wealthiest" means, and specifically which people were included in the list.

Reasonable people may discount Trump's claim of a "landslide" victory assuming the conventional use of the term, but it's not a verifiable fact that can be confirmed or dismissed with evidence. It's an opinion.

The reality is that the charlatans at PolitiFact masquerade as truthsayers when they do little more than contribute to the supposed fake news epidemic by shilling their own opinions as unarguable fact. They're dangerous frauds whose declaration of objectivity doesn't withstand the slightest scrutiny.

3 comments:

  1. I agree that "landslide" is a poor choice of a "fact" to fact-check, but there is no way in which 303 electoral votes can be considered a landslide. It is the 2nd lowest winning count in the last 9 elections, and 5th lowest in last 15 elections. The average electoral win is 338 for the last 4 elections before this one, 382 for last 8, and 389 for the last 14 (going back to 1960). 306 out of 538 is 57% of the votes. So its one of the narrower victories in recent history and is not even 60% of the votes.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yeah, what Jeff said.

      As we wrote in the original post, there's certainly doubt Trump won by a "landslide" as the term is normally understood. We'd have been fine with PolitiFact doing a PolitiSplainer about how experts typically classify landslide elections. Thus our focus fell on PolitiFact's silly attempts to rule the statement "false" while lacking any firm basis for its judgment. I think you understood that point. And we understand yours.

      Delete
  2. Those are persuasive and, in my view, damning arguments against Preibus's claim. (Bryan and I both noted in the post that the claim is on shaky ground.) But it's not a fact.

    Perhaps you could provide us with the universally accepted and unarguable figure for a landslide victory? Is it a 75% margin of victory? 65.3%?

    We'll be happy to update the post when you get back to us.

    ReplyDelete