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.

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