Thursday, April 9, 2015

It's tweezers for Senator Paul

Tweezers or tongs?

Will PolitiFact take just part of a statement into account (tweezers), or will it focus on the whole of the statement (tongs)?

PolitiFact fact checked a statement from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.)

Here's Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) announcing his bid for the presidency:
It seems to me that both parties and the entire political system are to blame.

Big government and debt doubled under a Republican administration.

And it’s now tripling under Barack Obama’s watch. President Obama is on course to add more debt than all of the previous presidents combined.
Paul's first sentence in the above quotation looks like opinion. That leaves three great potential fact checks. First, that the debt doubled under "a Republican administration" (George W. Bush). Second, the debt is now tripling under President Barack Obama. Third, Obama is on course to add more debt than all of the previous presidents combined.

PolitiFact feints as though it will cover the two claims about multiplying the debt. But the "Half True" rating suggests that PolitiFact only rated the claim about Obama tripling the debt. PolitiFact concludes:
Paul said, "Debt doubled" under Bush "and now it’s tripling under Barack Obama’s watch."

This statement is confusing. A person could easily interpret it to mean that debt has tripled since Obama took office -- which would be incorrect. Paul, on the other hand, said that it means debt today, under Obama, is triple what it was when Bush’s term started. 


From one not-so-obvious angle, Paul's numbers are correct. But because the statement could so easily be interpreted in another, less accurate way, we rate it Half True.
PolitiFact found Paul was accurate about the doubling of the debt under a Republican administration. So if his statement about the debt tripling under Obama was completely false, combining the true and false statements averages out to "Half True." But PolitiFact doesn't say Paul was wrong about the tripling of the debt, only that it was wrong if taken in the supposedly obvious way, that the debt tripled starting from the time Obama took office. So why isn't Paul's claim "Mostly True"?

Spoiler: PolitiFact rigs the game.

The "Half True" rating doesn't fit. The context of Paul's statement makes clear he's criticizing Democrats and Republicans. But the clincher is Paul's claim that Obama is on course to add more debt than all previous presidents combined.

Looked at in the simplest way, the way people are likely to understand it, the debt from year to year represents the debt of all previous presidents combined. Most added debt, but a few, like Calvin Coolidge, produced a surplus.

If Obama had nearly tripled the debt since he took office then he's not "on course" to add more debt than all previous presidents combined. He'd have done it once already with a good shot at doing it a second time.

Taken properly in context, the only sensible meaning of Paul's statement is the one he gave: He was talking about Obama tripling the debt in the sense of taking the next step past Bush's doubling of the debt.

PolitiFact, unsurprisingly, did not quote Paul's statement about Obama adding more debt than all the presidents preceding him combined. Leaving out important context helps PolitiFact apply its tweezers treatment.

Fact checkers shouldn't blame politicians when people interpret their statements incorrectly or stupidly. Fact checkers should explain the correct or most sensible interpretation to help those people understand it correctly.

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