Sunday, November 29, 2015

PolitiFact-induced heartburn

Back in May 2015, PolitiFact ruled "False" Speaker of the House John Boehner's claim that Americans spend more on antacids than on politics.

We stumbled across this older item while updating our research on PolitiFact's bias in applying its "Pants on Fire" rating. We mention this to emphasize that we don't exhaustively review PolitiFact's fact checks searching out mistakes. It's easier to find material to write about than it is to find the time to do the writing.

But back to PolitiFact and the "False" rating it gave to Boehner.

Sometimes a PolitiFact fact check doesn't look at all suspicious until one starts checking the backing data. PolitiFact found Americans spend $3.7 billion on federal politics and only about $2 billion on antacids. But when we looked at the source data, we found PolitiFact had only looked at over-the-counter antacids.

Do prescription antacids not count?

We looked at Boehner's statement for context. He did not restrict his mention of antacids to over-the-counter varieties.

We sent an email addressed to the writer and the editor of the PolitiFact item. The editor, Aaron Sharockman, responded quickly but only to wish us a happy Thanksgiving.

What's an antacid?

Technically speaking, antacids are chemicals one ingests to neutralize excess stomach acid. But the term also serves as a catch-all for medications used to treat heartburn and acid reflux. Proton-pump inhibitors serve as one example. Proton-pump inhibitors limit acid production instead of chemically neutralizing existing stomach acid. The data PolitiFact used to justify the "False" rating it gave to Boehner included sales statistics for over-the-counter proton-pump inhibitors.  This suggests PolitiFact committed an oversight by omitting sales totals for prescription drugs used to treat heartburn and acid reflux.

What's Nexium?

Nexium is a prescription proton-pump inhibitor. It's a very popular prescription medication. U.S. sales in 2013 reached nearly $6 billion. Another source shows the company responsible for Nexium, the U.K firm AstraZeneca, brought in $3.6 billion from sales of the drug.

Do we spend more on antacids than on politics?

It seems very likely we spend more on antacids than on politics, if we count prescription drugs used to treat heartburn and acid reflux.

PolitiFact estimated $3.8 billion spent on national elections in 2014 and another $3 billion spent on governor's races. But it's worth noting, though PolitiFact did not, that election spending varies considerably year by year. Presidential election years result in the highest political spending. During odd years, when few elections take place, that number drops.

Perhaps during a presidential election year political spending spikes higher than spending on antacids. Averaging the spending over the past 10 years or so may well give antacids the edge.

Our table below offers estimated revenue from some of the top proton pump inhibitors.

2013 Sales
Prevacid SoluTab
Omeprazole/sodium bicarbonate
Pantoprazole sodium

Note that the total, about $8.4 billion, easily outstrips PolitiFact's highest estimate for political spending in 2014. Bear in mind also that political spending in 2013 was likely far lower. Spending on proton pump inhibitors probably did not drop much, if at all, in 2014. Finally, note that there are two more classes of prescription drugs used to treat stomach acid disorders.

The Boehner rating was another PolitiFlub

All of this spells big trouble for the "False" rating PolitiFact gave Boehner. If anything's certain, it's that PolitiFact's effort to check Boehner's claim was inadequate.

We look forward, of course, to the response from the PolitiFact team of Jon Greenberg and Aaron Sharockman.

Happy Thanksgiving, PolitiFact.

Correction, Nov. 29, 2015
We misreported the publishing date of PolitiFact's fact check of Boehner. Our article, relying on memory, said January 2015. The correct month was May 2015.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Hoystory: 'The Hacks at PolitiFact'

We're delighted to point readers toward a new(ish) critique of PolitiFact by Matthew Hoy, one of the critics who saw PolitiFact for what it was very early in the game.

Hoy takes a look at PolitiFact Texas' gnat-straining rating of Ted Cruz's claim the Democratic Party is shrinking. Then Hoy contrasts PolitiFact's treatment of Cruz with the national PolitiFact's kid gloves treatment of President Obama's claim of having contained ISIS (ISIL).

As we said, it did not take Hoy long to see PolitiFact's true face:
They are not fact-checkers, they’re political operatives with bylines.
Please visit Hoystory and read it all.

Lauren Carroll cannot contain herself

PolitiFact/PunditFact writer Lauren Carroll couldn't resist pushing back against criticism she received on her story looking at the containment of ISIS.

Carroll suggested on Twitter that's John Nolte had not read her fact check. The evidence?
1) I am the only byline on the story 2) I fact-checked Ben Rhodes, not Obama. @NolteNC— Lauren Carroll (@LaurenFCarroll) November 16, 2015
The fact is that PunditFact gave Carroll's story more than one presentation.

In one of the presentations, a version of Carroll's story was combined with another story from a Sunday morning news show. That second version of the story has Linda Qiu listed on the byline. So Carroll's claim she's the only one on the byline rates a "Half True" on the Hack-O-Meter. Combined with her whinge about fact-checking Obama proxy (deputy national security advisor) Ben Rhodes instead of President Obama, Carroll provides an astonishingly thin defense of her work.

The critiques from and the Washington Examiner both made the point that Obama was answering a question about ISIS' strength, not the range of its geographical control. Carroll completely accepted Rhodes' spin and ignored the point of the question Obama was asked.

Where's Carroll's explanation of her central error? It's certainly not in her clumsy jabs at John Nolte.

Friday, November 20, 2015

PolitiFact gives Bernie Sanders "Mostly True" rating for false statement

When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said more than half of America's working blacks receive less than $15 per hour, PolitiFact investigated.

It turns out less than half of America's working blacks make less than $15 per hour:
(H)alf of African-American workers earned less than $15.60. So Sanders was close on this but exaggerated slightly. His claim is off by a little more than 4 percent.
PolitiFact found that half of African-American workers earned more than $15 per hour. That makes Sanders' claim false. PolitiFact said Sanders "exaggerated slightly." PolitiFact said he was "off by a little more than four percent." PolitiFact said he was "not far off."

Euphemisms aside, Sanders was wrong. But PolitiFact gave Sanders a "Mostly True" rating for his claim.

Here's a reminder of PolitiFact's definition for its "Mostly True" rating:
Mostly True – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
Sanders' statement wasn't accurate. So how does it even begin to qualify for the "Mostly True" rating the way PolitiFact defines it?

The answer, dear reader, is that PolitiFact's definitions don't really mean anything. PolitiFact's "Star Chamber" panel of editors gives the rating they see fit to give. If the definitions conflict with that ruling then the definitions bend to the will of the editors.


Update 22:25 11/23/15: Added link to PF article in 4th graph - Jeff

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

ISIS "contained"?

When President Obama called ISIS ("ISIL") "contained" in a televised interview on Nov. 12, 2015, other politicians, including at least one Democrat, gave him some grief over the statement.

Mainstream fact checker PunditFact came to the president's defense. PunditFact said Obama was just talking about territorial expansion, so what he said was correct.

Conservative media objected.

John Nolte from
PolitiFact’s transparent sleight-of-hand comes from basing its “True” rating — not on the question Obama is asked — but how the President chose to answer it.

Stephanopoulos asks, “But ISIS is gaining strength aren’t they?”
T. Becket Adams from the Washington Examiner:
PunditFact has rated the Obama administration's claim that the Islamic State has been "contained" as "true," even after a recent series of ISIS-sponsored events around the world have claimed the lives of hundreds of civilians.

For the fact-checker, the White House's doesn't believe ISIS is no longer a global threat, as fatal attacks last week in Beirut and Paris would show. The president and his team merely believe that the insurgent terrorist group controls a smaller portion of the Middle East today than it did a few months ago.
We think PunditFact has a bit of a point when it claims the president's remarks are taken out of context. But as Nolte and Adams point out, the specific context of the Obama interview was the strength of ISIS, not its territorial expansion.

If the president was saying that containing ISIL's geographic control equates with containing its strength, then PunditFact ends up taking the president out of context to justify claiming the president was taken out of context.

There's something not quite right about that.

Clarification Dec. 10, 2015: Changed "wasn't" to "was" in the next-to-last paragraph

Thursday, November 12, 2015

PolitiFact turns liberal blogger into Obamacare expert (Updated)

"We go to original sources to verify the claims. We look for original government reports rather than news stories. We interview impartial experts."
--About PolitiFact

PolitiFact claims it interviews impartial experts. But is that the whole truth?

What if PolitiFact also interviewed partial experts, such as figures with a history of donating to one party or the other?

Or worse, what if PolitiFact arrogated to itself the privilege of elevating a liberal blogger to the status of trusted expert?

Would any conflict with PolitiFact's statement of its fact-checking procedure result?

Let's talk about Charles Gaba.

Charles Gaba

We ran across Gaba's blog quite some time ago. Gaba wrote blog posts claiming to represent the facts on the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as ObamaCare. We found Gaba's approach to his subject matter nakedly partisan, starting with the ObamaCare signup widget in the upper right hand corner of his blog. A Washington Post Wonkblog profile confirmed Gaba's personal partisanship:
He admits that he does have a rooting interest in seeing the law succeed – he’s a volunteer for the local Democratic Party. Still, he says he is just trying to figure out whether the law is working.

“I do think the good outweighs the bad, but I don’t think [Obamacare] is the greatest thing in the world," he said. "I’m a single-payer guy."
So basically neutral, right?

PolitiFact started to cite Gaba as an expert in February 2014:
Charles Gaba, a website developer and blogger in Michigan, has been tracking enrollment figures at his site. His most recent estimate from late February shows 2.6 million Medicaid sign-ups once you subtract those falling into three categories -- those who signed up in states that didn’t expand Medicaid, those who were previously eligible and who "came out of the woodwork" to sign up, and an estimate of the typical "churn" for Medicaid sign-ups in those states.
In March 2014, April 2014 and November 2014 PolitiFact listed interviews with Gaba for stories on the ACA but did not quote him.

An October 2015 PolitiFact fact check of Donald Trump finally quoted Gaba:
"Yes, some people in some plans through some carriers in some states are, indeed, looking at rate hikes of ‘35 to 50 percent’ if they stick with those plans in 2016," said Charles Gaba, who runs the popular blog, which tracks Obamacare enrollment.
To be fair, the expert quoted in PolitiFact's following paragraph, Gail Wilensky, was part of the President George H.W. Bush administration. On the other hand, PolitiFact mentions that in the story. Gaba's apparently just one of those "impartial experts" PolitiFact says it interviews.

Perhaps nobody objected, or perhaps Gaba did nothing to jeopardize his status as an impartial expert, so PolitiFact went to him again in November 2015:
Here are some of the provisions of the law and estimates of how many people have benefited from each. The estimates are from Charles Gaba, who has spent several years crunching the numbers for usage of the law at the blog
Is Gaba active in the Democratic Party and in favor of a national single-payer system? Sure. Though the Washington Post says he's "not a political operative" in the same article where it mentions the other facts. Credit to Newsbusters and P. J. Gladnick for highlighting that discrepancy back on March 20, 2014.

Our congratulations to Mr. Gaba for making the jump from liberal blogger to impartial expert.

We have PolitiFact to thank.

Update Nov. 20, 2015

Who can blame ActBlue for moving to support Gaba's supposedly non-partisan work documenting the truth about the Affordable Care Act?

Charles’s “ACA Signups” series was an incredible and hugely time-intensive undertaking that, as he explained in a recent diary, put a major strain on his life outside of Daily Kos:
“I'm absolutely swamped right now. … [K]eeping the site up to date has literally taken over my life. My business is suffering; my clients are losing patience; my family is starting to get concerned.” - Brainwrap, March 24
We don’t normally do this at Daily Kos, but Charles’s months-long contribution to the fight against right-wing lies about Obamacare was above and beyond. That’s why we’re asking Daily Kos readers to chip in as a way of thanking him for his work and to help him continue his “ACA Signups” series.
Kos diarist and PolitiFact's impartial expert. Nice work if you can get it.

Rubio wrong about welders and philosophers?

Republican presidential contender Marco Rubio made a stir with his debate-night claim that welders make more than philosophers.

A number of sources (Forbes and VOX, for example) have weighed in against Rubio on that claim.

PolitiFact joined the chorus with a fact check calling Rubio's claim "False":
Neither salary nor labor statistics back up Rubio’s claim. Statistically, philosophy majors make more money than welders -- with much more room to significantly increase pay throughout their careers.
We found Rubio's claim interesting from a fact-checking perspective before seeing PolitiFact's version of the story. We wondered if anyone who has a degree in philosophy counts as a philosopher. After all, a person could have a degree in philosophy yet work as a welder. Is that person a philosopher or a welder? The same goes for philosophy professors. Are philosophy professors paid for philosophizing or teaching?

We found a post at the conservative blog Power Line that expressed the argument nicely:
Polifact’s analysis is flawed. One doesn’t become a philosopher by majoring philosophy. John and I both so majored and we don’t claim ever to have been philosophers.

We became lawyers. Our pay reflected what lawyers, not what philosophers, make.
How would PolitiFact have evaluated the issue if Rubio's statement had come from a Democrat, we wonder?

PolitiFact catches Fiorina using hyperbole without a license

PolitiFact's statement of principles guidelines assures readers that PolitiFact allows license for hyperbole:
Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable? We don’t check opinions, and we recognize that in the world of speechmaking and political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole. 
In practice, however, it's very difficult to uncover evidence that PolitiFact is able to identify hyperbole. The latest example involves GOP presidential candidate Carly Fiorina (bold emphasis added):
The Affordable Care Act -- Obamacare to some -- is a perennial target of Republicans. But at the GOP presidential debate in Milwaukee, Carly Fiorina made a particularly strong statement about the law’s ineffectiveness.

"Look, I'm a cancer survivor, okay?" Fiorina told moderator Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network. "I understand that you cannot have someone who's battled cancer just become known as a pre-existing condition. I understand that you cannot allow families to go bankrupt if they truly need help. But, I also understand that Obamacare isn't helping anyone."
 So PolitiFact fact checks the last sentence and rules it "Pants on Fire." No, we're not kidding.

We say it is odd PolitiFact can hear Fiorina's statement affirming two positive aspects of the Affordable Care Act yet fail to interpret her last statement (denying positive effects) as hyperbole.

Once again, PolitiFact catches a Republican using hyperbole without a license. Those lawless Republicans!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

PolitiFact inconsistent (again)

The fact checkers at PolitiFact exhibit a marvelous degree of inconsistency in their rulings.

Today's example comes from a fact check of GOP presidential contender Ben Carson.

Carson tried to address his lack of political experience by claiming none of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had previous political experience. The Washington Post Fact Checker tackled that claim and gave it four "Pinocchios."

PolitiFact was a little late in the game, and after the Johnny-come-latelys had started their fact check, Carson had amended the Facebook post that had drawn fact checkers' attention. It now read that none of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had federal elected office experience at the time.

PolitiFact went ahead with a two-pronged fact check, looking Carson's original claim and then evaluating the altered claim.

We find two types of inconsistency in this example.

First, if Carson is making the point that lack of political experience shouldn't overly concern voters, then it's particularly relevant which signers of the Declaration of Independence lacked political experience. PolitiFact focused purely on those who had political experience and ignored Carson's underlying point in the original claim.

Second, PolitiFact switched its focus to Carson's underlying argument for the altered version of his claim. It's beyond question that Carson is correct that none of the signers of the Declaration of Independence had experience in federal elective office. PolitiFact included quotations from experts affirming as much, like the following:
"It does not make sense to use the term ‘federal’ when no federal government existed," agreed Danielle Allen, a political theorist and author of Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality. "The signers of the declaration very often had leading political experience in their colony or, as they called them, in their ‘countries.’"
While it doesn't make sense as a support for Carson's underlying argument, the statement is at the same time undeniably true.

Consider what PolitiFact is doing, here. In one prong of its fact check it puts all its focus on the literal truth of Carson's statement and rates it "Pants on Fire." Yet if some of the signers of the Declaration of Independence lacked political experience Carson has some support for his underlying point. In the second prong of its fact check, PolitiFact sets aside the unequivocal truth of what Carson wrote and awards another "Pants on Fire" based entirely on the underlying argument.

Carson's argument from federal elected office experience is approximately as ridiculous as using the raw gender pay gap to argue for laws protecting against discrimination. Neither argument really makes sense. Yet PolitiFact won't rate that obviously flawed gender pay gap argument any lower than "Half True" since it's based on a legitimate statistic.

PolitiFact's inconsistent standards of judgment make pirates look principled by comparison.

Welcome aboard PolitiFact's Black Pearl, Dr. Carson.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The "not a lot of reader confusion" update

PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan insists there's "not a lot of reader confusion" about the meaning of its report cards. People supposedly understand that PolitiFact's sample of statements is non-representative and therefore cannot support conclusions drawn about the candidates based on candidate "report cards."

We say Holan is either fooling herself or lying.

The blog Patheos provides yet another recent example:
Politifact maintains a database on the truthfulness of politicians. Politifact evaluates statements made by politicians for truthfulness. And while not every statement a politician makes is evaluated, any statement that is called into to question is examined from a nonpartisan position and that statement is given a rating from “True” to “Pants on Fire.”

This may not come as a surprise to some, but even the most honest Republican candidate has just barely told the truth more than 50% of the time in statements evaluated by Politifact. The two front-runners in the GOP race have unbelievably high untruthfulness ratings.
Not a lot of confusion.

Right. Sure.

What would surprise us? If PolitiFact suddenly decided to do an occasional article disputing the use of its data for these types of conclusions.