Tuesday, May 10, 2016

What is 'empirical evidence" to PolitiFact?

At Stanford University, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton claimed some things aren't working in the war on terror. Clinton named torture among them:

Enter PolitiFact:

PolitiFact Clinton claims empirical evidence shows torture does not work

PolitiFact thus endorses Clinton's claim that empirical evidence shows torture does not work.

Do the people at PolitiFact understand the concept of "empirical evidence"?

It's striking that PolitiFact finds Clinton's statement "True" despite not supplying a single shred of evidence supporting Clinton's claim.

PolitiFact correctly notes the difficulty with the scientific study of torture:
Because nobody's going to volunteer to be part of a scientific study where you might get tortured — ethics review boards might be apoplectic about such a proposal — the only way to examine the issue is through case studies.
Game over. Case studies provide a type of empirical evidence, but anecdotal evidence, being anecdotal, does not lend itself to generalizations. Therefore, case studies do not empirically support the broad generalization that torture does not work. That goes double for case studies not specifically geared toward answering the issue scientifically.

The entire exercise, parading under the banner of "fact-checking," at best substitutes the opinions of experts for empirical data. And it is worth emphasizing that the experts' opinions have no firm basis in empirical data--only case studies.

At worst, the fact check treats congressional reports as proof.

PolitiFact's summary, even as it gives Clinton a "True" rating, implicitly confesses its failure:
Clinton said that when it comes to fighting terrorism, "Another thing we know that does not work, based on lots of empirical evidence, is torture."

When it comes to the real goal of getting useful intelligence, the preponderance of the evidence shows that the details interrogators will get from a detainee can typically be acquired without torture. When torture is used, the "information" extracted is likely to be fiction created by a prisoner who will say anything to get the punishment to stop.

All ethical issues aside, the experts say, it doesn't work because it is extremely inefficient and, in many ways, counterproductive.
PolitiFact says "the preponderance of evidence" shows information obtained through torture might be obtained without torture. But Clinton said we know, thanks to empirical evidence, that torture simply does not work. She calls it a "fact." The second paragraph in PolitiFact's summary does not support Clinton's claim, despite PolitiFact using it as justification. Compare PolitiFact's approach to the claim it is "clear" Clinton broke the law with her handling of top secret information. It's a different standard.

PolitiFact's experts say that torture does not work because it is extremely inefficient. But a thing that works inefficiently works, albeit inefficiently. It clouds the issue to claim something doesn't work because it works inefficiently.

PolitiFact's fact check clouds the issue on torture. We do not possess enough empirical data to know torture does not work. Giving Clinton a "True" rating makes a total mockery of journalistic objectivity.

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