Friday, February 20, 2015

Hot Air: "PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year of 2014 falls apart only two months later"

Noah Rothman of the conservative site Hot Air offers a reminder that PolitiFact's 2014 "Lie of the Year" was a train wreck:
Just about two months later, PolitiFact’s LOTY imploded.

“A team of prominent researchers suggested Thursday that limited airborne transmission of the Ebola virus is ‘very likely,’” The Washington Post reported on Thursday, “a hypothesis that could reignite the debate that started last fall after one of the scientists offered the same opinion.”
PolitiFact, remember, bundled all the supposed misinformation about Ebola into one giant and ambiguous "Lie of the Year." George Will's claim that some scientists believe Ebola may pass via a sneeze or a cough was the centerpiece of PolitiFact's award.

In truth, Will's statement was never worthy of a bad rating, let alone inclusion in a group "Lie of the Year" award. We noted at the time PolitiFact's rating relied on playing games with Will's choice of words.

Read the whole of Rothman's latest evaluation, including mentions of blogger Ace and the clip at the end of Will reminding everyone back in October that "settled science" is rarely settled.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

PolitiFact's latest survey on Rush Limbaugh

We've long criticized PolitiFact's habit of presenting its "report cards" summing up its findings on political personalities and the like. Of course the report cards are non-scientific and should not be used to generalize about those personalities.

Yet PolitiFact continues to publish them. Apparently they can't resist throwing out this type of click bait.

Screen capture cropped from from's Facebook page

Of Rush Limbaugh, PolitiFact says "He has yet to receive a rating of True."

So what?

If the scorecard featured a randomized set of fact checks, then it might mean something about Limbaugh that he hasn't received a "True" rating from PolitiFact. But lacking any such randomization, the results say something about PolitiFact, not Limbaugh. And it's the predictable results of publishing these silly scorecard stories that makes the practice particularly wrong:

Screen capture cropped from

It's a survey! You know, like a scientific survey using a randomized population of fact checks. Except it's not.

Allen Clifton at "Forward Progressives" foreshadowed PolitiFact's hightlighting of Limbaugh's record. More than a coincidence?

The folks at PolitiFact have to know that people get misled by these scorecards. Yet they keep highlighting them anyway, often with no warning about the unscientific nature of the [ahem] survey.

What does that say about PolitiFact?

Fifty shades of "Half True"

PolitiFact's founding editor, Bill Adair, has said the truth is often not black and white, but gray:
Our Truth-O-Meter is based on the concept that the truth in politics is often not black and white, but shades of gray.
With this post we'll look at an example of PolitiFact shading the truth with its middle-ground "Half True" rating.

Justice Roy Moore, conservative: "Half True"

The first example comes from Feb. 13, 2015. Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore said Alabama hadn't changed its mind about gay marriage since passing a law in 2007 defining marriage in heterosexual terms. Moore was answering a claim from CNN host Chris Cuomo that people in Alabama had changed their views on gay marriage. PolitiFact reported the key exchange:
"Times have changed as they did with slavery," Cuomo said Feb. 12 on New Day. "The population no longer feels the same way. And even in your state, people no longer feel the same way."

Moore held firm that marriage was defined as between a man and a woman, and said, "81 percent as recently as 2006 said it was the definition. They haven’t changed their opinion."
PolitiFact framed its fact check in terms of a contest between the statements from Cuomo and Moore. If support for gay marriage had changed in Alabama, then Moore's claim was not plainly true.

PolitiFact flubbed its interpretation of Moore's response. Moore was not arguing that no change had occurred in opinion polls. Moore referred to the percentage of Alabama voters who approved the heterosexual marriage definition in 2006. The voters had not changed their minds in that the people of Alabama had not moved to change the law they overwhelmingly approved. PolitiFact noted that Moore was referring to that vote, but somehow failed to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Moore's Truth-O-Meter rating: "Half True."

Even if PolitiFact's wrong interpretation was correct, Moore would be off by a scant 14 percent. Democrat Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse once received a "Mostly True" rating for a claim that was off by 27 percent.

Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.): "Half True"

Our second example comes from a PolitiFact fact check published on Feb. 17, 2015. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) blamed genetically modified crops for the impending extinction of the monarch butterfly.

PolitiFact quotes DeFazio:
"We certainly know there is going to be secondary harm to the environment," he said. "In fact, monarch butterflies are becoming extinct because of this sort of dumping, (the) huge increase in pesticides’ use because of these modified organisms."
DeFazio got a thing or two wrong. Monarch butterflies aren't going extinct. The causal connection between the increased use of herbicides and the decreased wintering population of monarch butterflies has not yet been scientifically established. And, though PolitiFact kindly ignored this mistake, DeFazio referred to "pesticides" instead of "herbicides."  Update Aug. 17, 2018: In fact "pesticides" can encompass plant pests as well as animal pests./update The expert PolitiFact cited mentioned the effects of herbicides on the monarch caterpillar's favored food, milkweed. PolitiFact apparently didn't investigate the effect of pesticide dumping on monarch butterfly populations.

So DeFazio got nothing right, but PolitiFact accepted his extinction claim as a mere exaggeration of the declining wintering population of monarch butterflies. The final ruling: "Half True."

It almost takes a masochist to read PolitiFact's fifty shades of gray.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Courting the journo-lobbyist

PolitiFact, the hapless fact checkers/liberal bloggers with whom we find fault almost daily, has a history going back to 2007 of inviting readers to steer their "independent" fact checking.
What should we check? Our story about the Obama chain e-mail was suggested by a PolitiFact reader. If you have a suggestion for facts or chain e-mails we should check, click here to email us.
We noted long ago that such practices encourage people, including political activists, to try to influence PolitiFact's choice of stories.

PolitiFact created a Twitter hashtag intended to encourage story ideas from readers: #politifactthis.

We're not surprised that one doesn't get used so much. Political activists don't want broad publicity for their efforts to drive the news. It's best done behind the scenes and anonymously.

This week we found out PolitiFact is going that extra mile for its journo-lobbyists by creating a PolitiFact browser plug-in. Users will be able to use the plug-in to suggest fact check material to PolitiFact. Users will reportedly even have the privilege of voting for and commenting on specific story ideas:
Designing a fact-checking plug-in for Web browsers that will allow people to request a fact-check of Internet content from PolitiFact staff; users will be able to vote on fact-check requests and make comments on flagged content
You're doing a really fine job of maintaining your independence, PolitiFact.

Seriously, why do they not see that they're encouraging the practice of journo-lobbying? Or do they see it and just not care?

If PolitiFact views this as a problem, expect to see the plug-in disclose the identity of people who suggest, vote for or comment on fact check ideas.

We're betting it'll be anonymous. It wouldn't do to waste that $35,000 in Knight Foundation grant money on a browser plug-in that hardly anybody uses.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Justin Katz: 'Friday Fun: “PolitiFact Can”'

We've shared material from Rhode Island's Justin Katz with our readers before, but today we're honored to share Katz's parody of PolitiFact through the classic song "The Candyman."

This is just a teaser, so click on the link at the bottom to appreciate every tuneful word.
Who could take a true thing
Sprinkle it with spin
Cover it with context ’till the truth is wearing thin?
PolitiFact.  PolitiFact can.
Friday Fun: “PolitiFact Can”

Don't forget to read Katz's short description of the fact check that moved him to post the parody. It serves as yet another piece of evidence helping to show PolitiFact's tilt to the left.

Bravo, Justin Katz. Good laughs making a good point.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

PunditFact amends pundit's claim about amendments

We've pointed out before how PolitiFact will fault statements made on Twitter for lacking context despite the 140-character limit Twitter imposes.

This week PunditFact played that game with the following tweet from conservative pundit Phil Kerpen:
PunditFact found that the new Republican-controlled Senate has already voted on more amendments in 2015 than Reid allowed in the Democrat-controlled Senate for all of 2014: "On the numbers, that is right."

But PunditFact went on to find fault with Kerpen for leaving out needed context:
On the numbers, that is right. But experts cautioned us that the claim falls more in the interesting factoid category than a sign of a different or more cooperative Senate leadership.

The statement is accurate but needs clarification and additional information. That meets our definition of Mostly True.
We'll spell out the obvious problem with PunditFact's rating: Kerpen's tweet doesn't say anything about different or more cooperative Senate leadership. If Kerpen's not making that argument (we found no evidence he was), then it makes no sense at all to charge him with leaving out information. In effect, PunditFact is amending Kerpen's tweet, giving it context that doesn't exist in the original. Kerpen's statement doesn't need clarification or additional information to qualify as simply "True."

PunditFact's rating offers us a perfect opportunity to point out that if Kerpen's statement isn't simply "True" then there's probably no political claim anywhere that's immune to the type of objection PunditFact used to justify its "Mostly True" rating of Kerpen. A politician could claim the sky is blue and the fact checker could reply that yes, the sky is blue but no thanks to the policies of that politician's party! There are endless ways to rationalize withholding a "True" rating.

This rating convinces us that it would be productive to look at the breakdown between "True" and "Mostly True" ratings to look for a partisan bias. Since there's always context missing from political claims, drawing that line between "True" and "Mostly True" may prove no more objective than the line between "False" and "Pants on Fire."