Monday, June 30, 2014

Real Science: 'My Rebuttal to PolitiFact'

A climate science blogger who writes under the pseudonym Steven Goddard, sent out a blistering response to last week's PunditFact piece on Fox News Channel show host Stephen Doocy.

Goddard made public the email he sent to PolitiFact writer Jon Greenberg.  Here's the first part:
Politifact accused Steve Doocy of being a liar,  for accurately reporting on a blog post made on my blog ( which showed how NASA has altered the US temperature record over time.

Politifact’s claim is the result of a failure to understand the topic, for the following reasons.
Sour grapes, right?

Not so fast.  It appears PunditFact conflated two different issues, and one of the persons quoted going against Goddard's conclusions, Anthony Watts, has since reversed himself.  Plus the basic criticism, that NASA has adjusted the temperature record, isn't contested despite the "Pants on Fire" rating.  Read Goddard's letter for the details.

Clearly, it's appropriate for PunditFact to revisit the issue and amend its fact check.  The question is whether PunditFact will bother.

Place us firmly in the skeptics' camp on that one.

Jeff Adds:

It's worth noting Watt's reversal was unequivocal (emphasis in original):
All of that added up to a big heap of confirmation bias, I was so used to Goddard being wrong, I expected it again, but this time Steve Goddard was right and my confirmation bias prevented me from seeing that there was in fact a real issue in the data and that NCDC has dead stations that are reporting data that isn’t real: mea culpa.
It's dishonest for PolitiFact to present Watt's original position without updating their story to reflect his further investigation into the matter. It would be reasonable to expect an update from an outfit that claims to help you "sort out the truth" of an issue. But PolitiFact appears to have less interest in uncovering the truth than they do in advancing an agenda.

Update July 3, 2014
PunditFact responds, sort of, and we clear away PolitiFact's smoke.

Clarification 4:02 a.m. EDT, July 1, 2014:  Substituted "an update" for "that" in the last paragraph.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The clueless guru?

Late last month, we published a limited study on PolitiFact's execution of a simple math problem: calculating percentage error.  Using search parameters that suitably simulate randomness, we found 14 cases where PolitiFact explicitly or implicitly performed a percentage error equation.  PolitiFact used the wrong equation an astounding nine times.  Two of the cases were ambiguous.  Those two we gave the benefit of the doubt.

We tweaked PolitiFact over this failure on June 14 after Neil Brown, editor and vice president of PolitiFact's parent the Tampa Bay Times, called PolitiFact editor Angie Holan a "guru of best practices" in a June 9 tweet.  We said a guru of best practices would do percent error calculations the right way.

On Friday, June 27, 2014, PolitiFact doubled down on its methods in a fact check of President Obama.  President Obama said child care costs more than college tuition in 31 states.  PolitiFact, with veteran staffers Louis Jacobson writing and Holan editing, said the president was cherry picking and eventually gave him a "Mostly True" rating.

PolitiFact's explanation of Obama's cherry-picking caught our attention:
It’s worth noting some clarifying language in the report --"for an infant in center-based care" -- that is absent from Obama’s statement. This is actually the highest-cost example of the four cases the report looked at.

If you look at the cost for a 4-year-old in center-based care -- rather than an infant -- it costs more than in-state college tuition and fees in 19 states. That’s 39 percent fewer states compared with statistics for infant care. (Generally, care for infants is more intensive, so costs tend to go down as children get older.)

The report also looked at costs for home-based care, which is often a less expensive option for parents. For infants, the cost of home-based care is higher than college costs in 14 states. That’s a 55 percent reduction in states compared to Obama’s 31.

And for 4-year-olds, the cost of home-based care is higher than college in 10 states. That’s a 68 percent reduction in states compared to Obama’s 31.
What's the problem?  One could argue there's no right figure here to use as a baseline for a percent error calculation, except the same principle holds true for calculating a percentage change from a baseline.  And in this fact check we've got a charge of cherry-picking.  Cherry-picking creates a favorable impression compared to alternative baselines.  Calculating the exaggeration above the baseline is exactly like calculating the percentage error.

And guess what?  PolitiFact consistently performs the calculation incorrectly in a way that makes Obama look better.
  1. For the 4-year-old group, PolitiFact said the cost was higher for child care in 19 states, 39 percent fewer than the figure Obama used:  31.  Do the calculation using 19 as the baseline and the result tells the effect of Obama's cherry-picking.  The real exaggeration Obama achieves is 63 percent.  PolitiFact's method underestimates the exaggeration by 38 percent (24 percentage points).
  2. For home-based care of an infant, the result follows the same pattern.  PolitiFact said the difference was a 55 percent reduction.  In truth, Obama's cherry-picking inflated the number of states by 121 percent.  PolitiFact's calculation reduced Obama's exaggeration by about 55 percent.
  3. For home-based care of 4-year-olds we see the same story again.  PolitiFact called the difference "a 68 percent reduction."  Using the cost of home-based care for 4-year-olds as the baseline, we find Obama's cherry-picking exaggerates the number of states by 210 percent.  PolitiFact reduces Obama's exaggeration in this case by 68 percent.
The group Obama chose to cherry-pick provided by far the largest group of states.  Any averaging with the other figures from PolitiFact's source, Child Care Aware of America, will lower the figure, especially if we also consider the school-age category that PolitiFact fails to mention.  The costs for that group were lower than for infants and 4-year-olds.

The percentage figures PolitiFact provides do nothing to explain the effects of Obama's cherry-picking.  Instead, they arbitrarily tell the relationship in size between two numbers, doing it in a way that ultimately misleads readers.

It's easy to see what happened with Obama's misstatement.  Obama's figure matches exactly the figure Child Care Aware of America published for four-year-olds receiving child-care services at a center.  Except Obama described the figure incorrectly.  An average for all three groups, considering both center-care and home-care, would render Obama's statement literally false.  He'd be just another politician who described a study using the wrong words, except PolitiFact goes easier on some than it does on others.  Obama's statement is literally false (off by no less than 63 percent).  It misleads his audience.  He gets a "Mostly True" from PolitiFact.

If these are its best practices then PolitiFact needs a new guru.

Farewell PolitiFact New Jersey

It appears the Star-Ledger has ended its partnership with PolitiFact, thus ending for now the existence of PolitiFact New Jersey.  "New Jersey" no longer appears on the roster of state operations, joining PolitiFact Tennessee and PolitiFact Ohio in their absence.

One can still find the old stories from PolitiFact New Jersey on the main PolitiFact website, but not so easily as before.

A Jan. 14 fact check of Chris Christie looks like the last item from PolitiFact New Jersey.

PolitiFact now lists eight state franchises on its roster.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Nothing To See Here: Crist campaign connects Rick Scott to "shady group"

We've found a good fact check item for PolitiFact Florida to ignore.

Former Republican Charlie Crist has already served as governor of Florida. Now he's running as a Democrat against his successor, Republican incumbent Rick Scott.

The problem?  The shadowy group "Progressive Choice" has been running ads attacking Crist.  The Crist campaign calls the ads "disgusting and shameless."  And the Crist campaign is fundraising based on the attacks.  Crist's communications director, Brendan Gilfillan sent out this email message:
A shadowy group called Progressive Choice has taken this race to a whole new level of nasty.

They're running radio ads against Charlie that independent journalists have called "race-baiting" -- the spots are disgusting and shameless.

We're calling on Rick Scott to demand that this shady group take down the ads. Add your name if you agree that this kind of despicable behavior has no place in this election.

Progressive Choice is exploiting the history of slavery to purposefully anger the African American community.

This kind of behavior puts Scott and his allies in a category with some of the most dishonorable politicians in history.

We want to stay focused on the issues. Scott and his secretive friends want to drag down the conversation.

Add your name to demand an end to the nastiness:
Note the comment "This kind of behavior puts Scott and his allies in a category with some of the most dishonorable politicians in history."

What is Scott's connection to "Progressive Choice"?

Apparently none.  The left-leaning Talking Points Memo had a look at it:
TPM got in touch this week with the woman running Progressive Choice. She said the group was a "real deal progressive organization."

"We are currently working in a number of states - most active today in Florida - but folks will be hearing a lot from us in Maryland and Texas, for instance, in the near future," Progressive Choice chair Jamie Fontaine-Gansell wrote in an email. "We are a national organization and will look for opportunities to engage and have an impact across the country."
TPM went on to report Fontaine-Gansell has a history of working for pro-left causes.

There is a tiny bit of evidence connecting Scott to Progressive Choice, however.  After all, PolitiFact Florida partner the Miami Herald has reported it is "widely believed" that Progressive Choice is a front for right wingers.

There's some news you can use.

Meanwhile, the Herald also reports Progressive Choice has released an ad earlier this week saying Crist and Scott are essentially the same.  The diabolically clever Scott is attacking himself to hide the fact that he is behind the attack ads.

Here's betting PolitiFact will find a way to spin this in Democrats' favor if they don't choose the "ignore" option.

Because nothing to see here.

Correction June 28, 2014:  Corrected quotation used in the title: The Crist campaign used the term "shady group," not "shadowy group."  Subcorrection:  Could have left it as it was:  They used both terms.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Let's play 'Ignore the Expert' again

After finding it "Barely True" that Bill and Hillary Clinton were "dead broke" when they left the White House, it's no surprise that PolitiFact similarly jumps all over hapless Vice President Joe Biden for his claim that he has no savings account and no stocks or bonds.

PolitiFact tries to make these blue-collar public servants look like Bill Gates or something.  They gave Biden a "Half True" for his claim since he has a joint savings account with his wife, Jill Biden (Mrs. Biden has a number of other savings accounts to which the vice president apparently has no access).

So Biden says he has no savings account but he has one.  So that part's false.  And he says he has no stocks or bonds.  So that part must be true, since false plus true equals "Half True"?

Which brings us to our favorite part.  PolitiFact simply ignores one of the experts it cited.  Biden admits he has a pension.  PolitiFact cites George Pennacchi, finance professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign:
(P)ension funds invest in stocks and bonds or other assets, Pennacchi said.

"Thus, it is inescapable that Mr. Biden’s wealth is both directly and indirectly linked to stock and bond investments," Pennacchi said.
So maybe it's not true that Biden has no stocks or bonds. Except PolitiFact says it's true (bold emphasis added):
Biden said, "I don't own a single stock or bond... I have no savings accounts."

Biden was wrong to say that he doesn't have a savings account because he shares one with his wife. However, he doesn't have ownership over any stocks and bonds -- those all belong to his wife. We rate his statement Half True.
Contrary to Mr. Pennacchi's claim, PolitiFact is able to escape the direct and indirect links between Biden's wealth and stock and bond investments.

Layers of editors and stuff. Take a bow, PolitiFact. Great stuff.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Nothing to See Here: U.S. has the most brutal political system?

PolitiFact is probably tired of HRC after doing a few fact check softballs dedicated to the presumptive Democratic presidential frontrunner, nonetheless Hillary Rodham's interview with Jane Pauley on "CBS Sunday" has a great candidate for our "Nothing to See Here" category.

It doesn't hurt that this one is so good CBS made sure it's absent from the story on the show's web page Quickie update: It's there, but didn't come up in search results as it should have.

"But politics is so unpredictable," Clinton said. "Whoever runs has to recognize that the American political system is probably the most difficult, even brutal, in the world."

There's really nothing to see here in terms of fact-checking, right?

Saturday, June 14, 2014

PolitiFact in Obama's pocket

Behold as President Obama works PolitiFact like a marionette (bold emphasis added):
Hosting members of the 2013 WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx in the White House’s East Room, Obama told the crowd that the last time the team came to the White House -- in 2012, after the Lynx’s first championship season -- he predicted that they would be back before he left office.

"I just want to mention that I was right," Obama joked. "You can fact check that, PolitiFact."
PolitiFact received its orders and acted.  It fact checked Obama's statement, at least after a fashion.

PolitiFact produced a little self-promoting story.  It didn't do a full-fledged fact check of the president, though the results show Obama successfully manipulated the fact checkers.

Obama wouldn't invite a fact check of himself if there was any chance he was wrong, is there?

That seems like PolitiFact's core assumption.  Read on (bold emphasis added):
We checked and, well -- we’ll give credit where credit’s due.

On Sept. 18, 2012, the Lynx visited the White House and Obama said this:

"They’ve picked up right where they left off –- on top of the Western Conference by a wide margin. Coach (Cheryl Reeve) just told me that they’ve now secured home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. With three games to go, best record in the league. They’re leading the league in points, rebounds, assists. So you get the idea -- they’re pretty good. And I have a feeling that we might end up seeing them back here before too long."
PolitiFact was right that Obama said he predicted the Lynx would be back before he left office (bold emphasis added):
Now, in 2012, when the Lynx came here after their first title, I said I had a feeling I might see them again before I left office.  (Laughter.)  I just want to mention that I was right.  And so you can fact-check that, PolitiFact.  I got that one right.
In 2012, Obama didn't say anything about the Lynx returning before he left office.  His statement was far more vague.  He said he had a feeling the team would return to the White House "before too long."  Given the context, with Obama lauding the team's accomplishments during the 2012 WNBA season, Obama most likely meant that the Lynx would win the WNBA championship that year.  The Lynx lost that year, as PolitiFact noted, to the Indiana Fever.

Obama used one of the time-honored techniques of fortune-telling charlatans:  Keep your predictions vague.

PolitiFact bought it (bold emphasis added).
As it happened, the Lynx fell to the Indiana Fever in the 2012 finals (and the Fever received a White House invite). But the Lynx won a second title in 2013, ultimately affirming Obama’s prediction.

So, this is a win-win. Obama gets to glow in his factual accuracy, and we get to confirm that he knows our name.
What an embarrassment.  Was Obama joking?  Probably.  We'd give him the benefit of the doubt.  Regardless of whether he was joking, PolitiFact's response is an embarrassment.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Shark and Shepherd: 'Politifact misses again'

Wisconsin blogger Rick Esenberg of Shark and Shepherd returns with another apt skewering of PolitiFact Wisconsin (find the first one here).

Esenberg notes the gymnastics PolitiFact Wisconsin performs for the sake of giving Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) a "Mostly False" rating for claiming Medicare is on its way to bankruptcy and the Medicare trust fund will go bankrupt in 2026.

We'll tease readers with the Esenberg's central point, since we would not do justice to his concise and compelling reasoning by using excerpts:
At worst, Ryan has made a true statement that should be tempered by the recognition that we can fix the problem. It is, of course, silly to criticize him for that since he's been banging on about "fixing" the problem for his entire career. In other words, he has repeatedly recognized both the problem and the need for a fix.

Politifact Wisconsin takes cover in the fact that two other fact checkers have engaged in the same man[eu]vers.
We recommend reading the full version.

Before finding Esenberg's post, we had considered a post comparing the Ryan rating to PolitiFact's recent rating of Hillary Clinton.  Clinton said she and President Clinton were dead broke when they left the White House.  Clinton received a "Mostly False" rating, just like Ryan.  And, to be fair, her statement communicated something accurate about their liquid assets.  But PolitiFact had better justification for a low rating for Clinton than for Ryan.  Mrs. Clinton, after all, inked an $8 million book deal in December 2000.

PolitiFact somehow neglected to mention the timing of the lucrative book deal in its fact check, though the article did mention royalty income of $2.84 million in 2001 from publisher Simon & Schuster.  The type of "broke" the Clintons experienced when leaving the White House was the same type of broke experienced by millions of Americans who owe more on a mortgage than they own in assets.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The London fact-checking summit

There's a fact-checking summit going on right now in London.

It's a big deal to the journalists.   Here's a Twitter pic from attendee Ivana C. Bajrovic showing PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan teaching PolitiFact's methods to others:

We're excited about the summit, too.  Maybe the fact checkers will teach each other how to establish and hew to objective standards or even how to correctly calculate percentage error.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

PolitiFact and coal-lovin' Alison Lundergan Grimes

PolitiFact's blindness to its own inconsistency continues to amaze.

This week, PolitiFact fact-checked that conservative bastion of coal-production protectionism, Alison Lundergan Grimes.  Grimes is a Democrat, running against incumbent Senator Mitch McConnell, the coal-hating Republican.

Or something like that.

The fact check deals with the following ad from Lundergan Grimes:

Grimes is primarily attacking President Obama, particularly the administration's new EPA regulations. Grimes presents herself as the defender of Kentucky's coal-mining and electric utility industries. She's telling voters she'll stand up to Obama's restrictions on coal better than Sen. McConnell.

Grimes uses a quotation of McConnell as her evidence. During an April 2014 interview, McConnell said it wasn't his job to bring jobs to Kentucky. But as PolitiFact points out, McConnell said during the same interview he would protect Kentucky's coal-mining jobs. So the Grimes campaign is presenting a comment McConnell made that includes a commitment to protect Kentucky's coal industry as evidence McConnell won't protect Kentucky coal.

PolitiFact gives Grimes a "Half True" rating:
Grimes said, "Sen. McConnell said it’s not his job to bring jobs to Kentucky." She took this comment from a brief interview McConnell gave to a small-town newspaper in April.

We have no reason to doubt the accuracy of the news report, but while the Grimes campaign has a point that McConnell used that particular phrase, they are glossing over some nuances in what he said by selectively quoting the report. McConnell also told the paper that he has a responsibility to protect jobs, and that some of his work in Congress has led to job creation in Kentucky. In addition, McConnell’s legislative record shows a concern for local employment. We rate this claim Half True.
For those of us who pay close attention to PolitiFact's shenanigans, this ruling carries an overpowering parallel to PolitiFact's ruling on Mitt Romney's 2012 Jeep ad during the presidential election.

Here's PolitiFact's summary of the Romney ruling:
The ad miscasts the government’s role in Fiat’s acquisition of Chrysler, and it misrepresents the outcome. Chrysler’s owners had been trying to sell to Italy-based Fiat before Obama took office. The ad ignores the return of American jobs to Chrysler Jeep plants in the United States, and it presents the manufacture of Jeeps in China as a threat, rather than an opportunity to sell cars made in China to Chinese consumers. It strings together facts in a way that presents an wholly inaccurate picture.

We rate the statement Pants on Fire!
These cases are far more similar than PolitiFact's summaries would suggest.

Both ads said something true.  The Grimes ad claimed McConnell said something McConnell did say.  The Romney ad accurately claimed the Obama administration sold (as a broker) Chrysler to Italian-owned Fiat.  It also rightly claimed Fiat proposed to build Jeep vehicles in China.

Both ads contained misleading elements.  The Grimes ad painted a picture of McConnell as a senator who did not care to preserve Kentucky's coal industry.  The Romney ad did not estimate the number of jobs the United States would lose as a result of manufacturing Jeeps in China, leaving the audience to assume the worst.

Both ads left out information.  The Grimes ad left out statements by McConnell that contradicted the picture it painted of McConnell.  The Romney ad, PolitiFact said, left out jobs gained by U.S. Jeep plants after the sale to Fiat.

Of the two, we think the Romney ad contains more truth.  Manufacturing Jeeps in China shrinks the market for Jeep vehicles built in the United States, with obvious implications for domestic production.  We're open to suggestions as to what is true about the Grimes ad other than an accurate out-of-context paraphrase of McConnell.  We can't think of anything.

We'd have little problem with PolitiFact's rating of Grimes if the rating was consistent with past ratings.  But it isn't.

And that's all too normal for PolitiFact.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Shark and Shepherd:'Pants on Fire for Politifact'

The Wisconsin blog "Shark and Shepherd" lowers the boom on a recent PolitiFact Wisonsin item on the performance of students in charter schools.

Wisconsin Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke said there was no evidence Wisconsin's charter schools improve student performance.  PolitiFact Wisconsin rated her statement "Mostly True."

Enter Shark and Shepherd's Rick Esenberg, who goes into detail to point out a slew of problems with PolitiFact's fact check.

Here's Esenberg's introduction of the topic (with minor reformatting):
Every once in a while there is a Politifact whose little emoticon (true, mostly true, pants on fire, etc.) is so gobsmackingly wrong that it leaves you speechless. Here’s the latest.

The statement to be checked is an observation by gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke that Wisconsin’s school choice program “has no research that shows its going to improve student learning.” Writing for Politifact, T[o]m Kertscher rates that the statement “mostly true.”

He’s got it completely wrong. In fact, the only evidence that exists on whether the voucher program improves student learning says that it does.
We encourage interested readers to visit Shark and Shepherd to read the rest.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

PolitiFact's layers of inaccuracy

Do mainstream media outlets ever tire of their self-serving mantra that their layers of editors give them an insurmountable edge over mere bloggers?

Puny bloggers!  Mainstream Media will SMASH!

The problem?  The mainstream media have trouble with serious self-criticism.  We'll get our example, of course, from PolitiFact's PunditFact.

On May 28, 2014, PunditFact fact-checked tea party icon Sarah Palin's claim that the federal government spent money on a plan to deal with a zombie apocalypse.  PunditFact found only a Centers for Disease Control public relations campaign that used mention of zombies to help communicate the need for disaster preparedness.  That wasn't a plan, PunditFact ruled, so Palin received a "False" rating.

However, PunditFact soon heard from people pointing out the Department of Homeland Security used a campaign similar to the CDC's.  And, more importantly, the Pentagon kept a zombie apocalypse response plan in its computer database for use in training operations.  Not for real zombies, necessarily, but just to make preparedness drills more interesting and (hopefully) facilitate effective training.  So there was a plan after all, and the government apparently spent money on it.  So PolitiFact immediately revised its rating to "Half True."  And PolitiFact stuck with its rating of "False" since the "plan" wasn't really a plan.

The fact check was an epic fail, in other words.  But PolitiFact's layers of editors and fact checkers will make sure that its misinformation spreads as much as possible.   PolitiFact Oregon writer Dana Tims does his part for Oregon Live the day after PolitiFact's update to its story:
PunditFact's check, not surprisingly, found that the government has no contingency plan to cope with an invasion of the Undead. While the Centers for Disease Control did play off the zombie apocalypse craze in 2011 "as a way to pass along real information about preparing for emergencies that don't involve zombies. They wrote up a tongue-in-cheek blog post, which successfully generated plenty of attention." Palin, for her post touching on Undeath Panels, walked away with a False rating.
 Not surprisingly, eh?  Almost sounds like a bias against Palin's claim.

Either Tims wasn't aware of the fact check's afternoon update admitting the existence of a plan to cope with a zombie apocalypse, or else he just isn't good at reporting the facts.  Either way, Tims shows us the way faux checkers of facts manufacture false legends and refuse to let facts get in the way of attacking a favorite target.