Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ramesh Ponnuru: "PolitiFact vs. Senator Cruz"

Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review takes note of a recent PolitiFact (Texas) flub:
At CPAC, Senator Cruz (who is, I should note, a friend) said that Democrats had told the Catholic Church, “Change your religious beliefs or we’ll use our power in the federal government to shut down your charities and your hospitals.” PolitiFact Texas is on the case, and it finds that in fact Democrats never used those exact words to describe the import of their policies. Its ruling: Cruz’s statement is “incorrect and ridiculous” and therefore merits a “Pants on Fire” rating.
 Ponnuru explains that Sen. Cruz was correct:
The administration’s policy gives these institutions — that is, tells them they have — two choices. They can comply, even if they think doing so violates their consciences (and they are, presumably, the right judges of that question). Or they can refuse to comply and be driven out of operation.
PolitiFact Texas admitted the possibility that the federal government would levy stiff fines that might make it impossible/impractical for various religious entities and businesses to continue operation.  But supposedly found no evidence of a threat to the Roman Catholic Church:
The Catholic bishops have said that potential accumulated fines resulting from refusals to carry out the contraception mandate will cause some institutions to shut down.

Perhaps. However, such prospects do not reflect a direct threat from Democrats or the government. To the contrary, the administration has moved to widen the mandate’s exemption for religious employers and provide a workaround for those who act as their own insurance providers -- with the goal of allowing affected parties to continue their work without violating or changing their beliefs.
Ponnuru likewise points out the trouble with this line of reasoning from PolitiFact.  Visit National Review Online for the rest of the story.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

PolitiFact's partisan poll position

If one aspires to check facts, it doesn't hurt to have some command of logic and an application of logic to poll data.

PolitiFact, unfortunately, provides us a prime example of partisan poll interpretation with a pair of relatively recent fact checks.  Within the past week, PolitiFact ruled President Obama "Mostly True" on the claim that his position on the budget deficit negotiations--using a mix of spending cuts and tax increases to address the problem--has popular support.  In February 2012, PolitiFact revised a ruling on Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) from "Mostly True" to "Half True."  Rubio claimed a conservative majority in the United States.

PolitiFact's rulings serve as a useful case study showing the pitfalls of misusing poll data.

Where did PolitiFact go wrong on majority support for the president's "balanced approach"?

PolitiFact fell for a fairly obvious piece of misdirection from the White House.

President Obama wants it to look like the public supports his position compared to that of his Republican opposition.  To accomplish that, he gives a murky description.  His actual position would try to address the budget deficit by using spending cuts and "increased revenues" (read as "tax increases") in roughly equal measure.  To the general public, Mr. Obama proclaims he is simply in favor of a "balanced approach," which he hints is defined as a combination of spending cuts and "increased revenues."

The president's rhetoric draws an imbalanced line between his position and the Republican position.

The Republicans originally were unwilling to go along with tax increases.  Increased revenues were fine so long as they occurred because of increased economic activity instead of by changing the tax code.  When the Republicans fared poorly in the 2012 election they adopted a compromise position.  They would go along with increased revenues through the closing of tax loopholes.  When a deal on the "fiscal cliff" was finally struck, the Republicans compromised further, allowing tax rates to increase on the wealthy by allowing some of the Bush tax cuts to lapse in addition to a graduated phase-out of tax deductions.

The Republicans, then, compromised their position and allowed for increased revenues in the form of higher taxes.  But in 2013 the president has continued to say the Repubicans are unwilling to compromise on increased revenues because they will not compromise a second time on increased revenues.  The president identifies the Republican position as refusing all revenue increases.

In reality, the Democratic Party position consists of the approximately 1:1 ratio between spending cuts and revenue increases.  The real-world Republican position has allowed some revenue increases via higher taxation, but refuses a second compromise.

Now suppose we have a person who wants $4 in spending cuts for every $1 increase in revenue.  Does that person agree with the Republicans or with the president?  President Obama's rhetoric suggests the answer:  One agrees with the Republicans if one wants only cuts in spending.  Everyone in the middle ground between only cuts to spending and a 1:1 ratio between spending cuts favors the president's position.  And that's just the way PolitiFact does its fact check.

Where did PolitiFact go wrong on Marco Rubio's conservative majority?

During a Feb. 2012 speech, Rubio said he knew America had a conservative majority because people don't like to wear the label "liberal."

To some extent, Rubio was doing the same thing we looked at just above.  He was defining two groups in a way that would bolster his claim that most Americans are conservative.

In this case, PolitiFact never bothered to use the speaker's measuring stick.  PolitiFact chose its own:  If a person self-identified as a conservative then the person was a conservative.  Not otherwise.  PolitiFact simply ignored Rubio's attempt to claim an expanded middle ground and chose its own measure.

Rubio tried to make the point that conservatives could win elections by appealing to moderates who will not take accept the "liberal" label.  To measure his accuracy, one needs to pressure the moderates to make a choice between liberal and conservative.  Liberal writer Kevin Drum did just that (I've addressed this topic before at Sublime Bloviations).


Straw men on the loose

Addressing and defeating a weak version of a person's argument instead of a better version counts as a straw man fallacy.

In our first example, the president used a straw man version of support for Republicans on deficit reduction.  PolitiFact, in testing his claim, bought it.  People only agree with Republicans on deficit reduction if they will not allow for a dime of new revenue.  Otherwise they support the president's "balanced approach."

In the second example, PolitiFact came up with its own straw man version of Rubio's argument.  Rubio said he knew that most Americans are conservatives because they don't like the label "liberal."  PolitiFact did not measure conservatives by dislike of the "liberal" label but by preference for the label "conservative."

Does PolitiFact mislead its readers on purpose?  Probably not.  But the end result is the same either way.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Rand Paul Filibuster: You Should Have Chosen a More Responsible Fact Checker

PolitiFact's partisan posturing is pretzel-like. In this case, Robert Gibbs said something, PolitiFact confirmed he said it, then gave Rand Paul a Half-True for claiming Gibbs said it.  

This so-called fact check illustrates PolitiFacter Louis Jacobson's ability to acknowledge facts, confirm them, then completely ignore them. We've commented that PolitiFact is often an opinion site masquerading as objective fact checkers, but this rating is the stuff of propaganda.

The dust up comes when Paul says he's offended by Gibbs' comments regarding the death of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, son of terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki. Both were American citizens, and both are dead. The government has confirmed killing one and is suspected of killing the other. Here's Rand Paul's claim (made during his marathon filibuster):
"When the president's spokesperson [Gibbs] was asked about al-Awlaki's son, you know what his response was? This I find particularly callous and particularly troubling. The president's response to the killing of al-Awlaki's son -- he said he should have chosen a more responsible father."
PolitiFact confirmed what Paul said about the incident, quoting Gibbs:
"I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children."
Most rational people with a functioning auditory system or basic reading comprehension would immediately recognize Paul's assertion as beyond dispute. PolitiFact, on the other hand, defines this as "some support for his claim."

So what are the dastardly details that made Paul so dishonest? PolitiFact explains:
Gibbs did not go out of his way to make this comment; it was elicited by an activist group...
A-HA! You see, Gibbs didn't say what he said because he said it after someone asked him a question! (They always get you that way, don't they?) And the people who asked him had some nefarious motivation behind the question! So, clearly, it's not fair to blame Robert Gibbs for the words that were forcibly extricated from his own mouth. After all, Gibbs is merely a professional spokesman, hand-selected by the president to present Obama's views to the public. How can we expect him to deal with things like "questions"? No True for you, Senator Paul!

PolitiFact goes on to weave a tale of woe for Gibbs, not to mention building a Strawqua Buddah in Paul's honor:
Gibbs did say essentially that. But Paul’s use of Gibbs’ comment leaves out some important context. It was not a carefully crafted statement of White House policy. Rather, it came at the tail end of a contentious exchange with representatives of an activist group, a line of questioning that Gibbs repeatedly tried to brush off.
When did Paul claim (or even suggest) it was a "carefully crafted statement of White House policy"? He didn't. It's fiction invented by PolitiFact. And since when does answering questions "at the end of a contentious exchange" absolve a speaker of his responses? That's hogwash.

But congrats are in order for at least one thing: PolitiFact's invention of the new standard that a speaker is not responsible for his own words if he "repeatedly tries to brush off" a question. Apparently, politicians or spokesmen are no longer accountable for their responses if they try to avoid the topic in the first place. This is what PolitiFact calls "sorting out the truth"?

The final paragraph takes the cake:
So while Paul is correct to say that Gibbs expressed that sentiment, the senator suggests that it’s more of an expression of White House policy...
Paul is correct, but SQUIRREL!

Paul never suggested it was "White House policy," and PolitiFact is being obscenely dishonest by claiming otherwise.

Additional reading: This isn't the first time PolitiFact has burned Paul on a perfectly accurate claim because of what they think he was suggesting. Remember this beauty?

Bryan adds:  

I have some sympathy with PolitiFact drawing a distinction between a statement from Gibbs and a statement from the president.  Paul's full statement equivocates a bit on that point, and Paul's concern about Gibbs' statement is expressed as a concern about the administration.

On the other hand, PolitiFact explains the distinction poorly and puts the "Half True" rating right next to a quotation of Paul that is perfectly accurate.  It's no excuse for Gibbs if he was hounded by journalists.  It isn't truly relevant.

Moreover, if Gibbs gets a break for dealing with hectoring journalists, why doesn't Paul get a break for speaking for hours on end with no prepared script?  Apparently PF didn't even care to investigate the conditions of Paul's speech, if we use its reporting as our gauge.

Jeff responds: Bryan and I went back and forth on this. I think he has a reasonable point that Paul didn't fully distinguish between Gibbs and Obama. I'd be more inclined to accept it if not for a few mitigating factors: 1) Gibbs' professional position as Obama's spokesman 2) The context immediately preceding the conflation ("When the president's spokesperson...") and 3) In the past, PolitiFact has held politicians responsible for claims made by their spokesmen. Why not now?

Regardless, conflating Gibbs and Obama hardly reaches the level of "suggesting" an "expression of White House policy." That's pure fantasy.