Thursday, July 3, 2014

PolitiFact's Subjective-O-Meter

PolitiFact Florida provides us with yet another sterling example of subjective "Truth-O-Meter" ratings.  PolitiFact "uses" the "Truth-O-Meter" to find the truth in politics.  Translated, that means PolitiFact does its version of fact checking and then picks one of the available "Truth-O-Meter" ratings, ranging from "Pants on Fire" to "True."

PolitiFact Florida gave DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz a "Mostly True" rating for her June 30 claim that nearly 60 percent of women who use birth control use it for purposes other than contraception.  That's supposed to remind us of the awful effect on women from the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision.

Wasserman Schultz's claim is false, as I show with an item at Zebra Fact Check.  But there's another aspect to this case that serves especially well to show the subjectivity of PolitiFact's trademarked "Truth-O-Meter."

PolitiFact rated "Half True" a very similar claim from Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).  We took note of that rating with an item of our own here at PolitiFact Bias.  And PolitiFact Florida noted the Boxer rating as well when it fact checked Wasserman Schultz:
Previously, we fact-checked a similar claim based on the same report. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said on MSNBC in March that "it’s important to note that women take birth control, more than half of them, as a medication for other conditions, so it is an attack on women."

We rated that claim Half True because it required additional clarification about the type of birth control and the survey results. Wasserman Schultz's statement was somewhat more carefully worded.
In what way was Wasserman Schultz's claim more carefully worded?  PolitiFact Florida doesn't say.  But it's true that PolitiFact rated Boxer "Half True" owing to the need for clarification about the type of birth control and the survey results:
Boxer said more than half of women use birth control  "as a medication for other conditions." She was referring specifically to the pill. Guttmacher says 58 percent of women on the pill take it for noncontraceptive reasons. But that number drops to 14 percent if you look at women who take the pill only for noncontraceptive reasons.

Her claim is based in fact, but requires additional clarification about the type of birth control and the survey results. We rate it Half True.
Both of these fact checks by PolitiFact are ridiculously generous, but let's focus on the differences between the Boxer rating and the one for Wasserman Schultz.  The fact is, there's not much of a difference:
Wasserman Schultz said that "nearly 60 percent of women who use birth control do so for more than just family planning."

This claim gets support from a Guttmacher Institute report that found 58 percent of pill users citing at least one non-contraceptive reason. However, Wasserman Schultz’s comment glosses over two important caveats.
Both Boxer and Wasserman Schultz said "birth control" while referring to data on birth control pills.  That accounts for PolitiFact's "clarification about the type of birth control."

The clarification about "survey results" from the Boxer fact check appears to match the second caveat in the Wasserman Schultz fact check.  Both fact checks point out the number of women in the survey who used the pill only for non-contraceptive purposes.

The stated reasons for the ratings are effectively identical, yet the ratings are different.

So let's return to the lone difference PolitiFact identifies, however unclearly: "Wasserman Schultz's statement was somewhat more carefully worded."

We can identify one respect in which Wasserman Schultz was more accurate than Boxer.  Boxer's wording strongly suggested women were using birth control pills for clinical non-contraceptive reasons.  Wasserman Schultz did the same thing, but with greater subtlety.   It's not much of a difference when it comes to justifying a "Mostly True" rating as opposed to a "Half True" rating, especially when the statement is obviously literally false.

It's another case that helps confirm that the "Truth-O-Meter" is subjective.

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