Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The burden of the burden of proof

Often we have criticized PolitiFact for employing a potentially fallacious criterion among its principles (emphasis added):
Burden of proof -- People who make factual claims are accountable for their words and should be able to provide evidence to back them up. We will try to verify their statements, but we believe the burden of proof is on the person making the statement.
In practice this often means that if a person makes a statement and has no evidence to back it up, as with Harry Reid claiming that Mitt Romney paid no income taxes for 10 consecutive years by the account of an anonymous friend, then Harry Reid receives a rating along the lines of "Pants on Fire."

While it was extremely unlikely that Romney escaped income taxes for 10 straight years, part of the reasoning PolitiFact used in its judgment comes from the burden of proof fallacy (bold emphasis added):
Burden of Proof is a fallacy in which the burden of proof is placed on the wrong side. Another version occurs when a lack of evidence for side A is taken to be evidence for side B in cases in which the burden of proof actually rests on side B.
Which brings us to PolitiFact's latest bending of its own rules.  In rating a claim by Vice President Joe Biden, PolitiFact removed the burden of proof from Biden and placed it on Biden's target, Mitt Romney:
Biden said that under Romney’s tax plan "the average senior would have to pay $460 a year more in tax for their Social Security."

That figure is just one way to fill in the blanks in Romney’s largely unexplained tax proposal. It’s an average of a hypothetical, and it’s at odds with what Romney has said he’ll do, which is to protect deductions for the middle class and not raise taxes.
When Biden moves to "fill in the blanks" he's making stuff up.  Otherwise there's no blank to fill.  Romney is not obligated to fill in the blanks, yet PolitiFact lets Biden skate essentially because Romney's failure to provide detail supposedly provides some justification for Biden making stuff up.

That's not fact checking, and it does not represent consistent adherence to PolitiFact's statement of principles.  It adds another brick to the edifice indicating a liberal bias at PolitiFact.


  1. Wow... Please explain to me how this is a 'liberal leaning' if they rated biden's statement as MOSTLY FALSE!? And it IS mostly false! This is really confusing what you said above Here is the whole quote:

    "That figure [Biden's fabricated figure from one version of Romney's evasive tax 'plan'] is just one way to fill in the blanks in Romney’s largely unexplained tax proposal. It’s an average of a hypothetical, and it’s at odds with what Romney has said he’ll do, which is to protect deductions for the middle class and not raise taxes.

    Biden’s comment leaps to several conclusions to arrive at the dollar figure he cites. We rate it Mostly False."

    Explain how this is liberal again? They are actually defending Romney! This blog is a disgrace to thinking conservatives.

  2. Hi, Kayella.

    The fact check has an evidence of PolitiFact's liberal leaning because PolitiFact ignored one of its principles in a way that was of benefit to Biden. It's explained in the text of the post, I believe.

    Don't be misled by the fact that Biden received a "Mostly False" rating. It could have been worse and probably would have been worse if Biden was a Republican. The variation comes from PolitiFact's inconsistent application of its standards.

  3. Hello Kayella,

    At first glance it may not appear to be evidence of *liberal* bias, but we've covered this ground before. In a June, 2011 review, we explained how a rating doesn't have to directly benefit a liberal in order to show flaws with PolitiFact's system. I wrote:

    "Readers may wonder why we highlighted this post from Hoy. As the subjects of the two ratings are both Republicans, it hardly qualifies as an obvious example of PolitiFact's liberal bias.

    However, the incomprehensible inconsistency between the two ratings provides evidence that PolitiFact arrives at their conclusions by whim and the subjective opinion of their staff rather than by objective standards and verifiable facts.

    It's exactly this type of inconsistent formula that allows the personal ideology of the writers to determine the outcome of PolitiFact's ratings. That lack of objective standards has overwhelmingly harmed Republicans more often than Democrats."

    You can read that post here:


    Some of that inconsistency I spoke of is evident in the portion we quoted from PolitiFact in their defense of Biden's claim: "It’s an average of a hypothetical..." PolitiFact claims they only rate a claim if it's a "statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable." I'm not sure how you get from "hypothetical average" to verifiable fact and still call yourself a serious fact checker.

    And finally, PolitiFact's Mostly False rating is defined as containing "an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression." I'm not sure what the "element of truth" they were able to pull out of Biden's claim, but I'd say "ignoring critical facts" is an awfully charitable way to say "making things up out of thin air.

    Thanks for leaving a comment.


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