Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Thinking Lessons

Our post "Google Doesn't Love Us Anymore" prompted a response from the pseudonymous "Jobman."

Nonsensical comments are normally best left unanswered unless they are used for instruction. We'll use "Jobman's" comments to help teach others not to make similar mistakes.

"Jobman" charged that our post misled readers in two ways. In his first reply "Jobman" offer this explanation of the first of those two allegedly misleading features:

This post is misleading for two reasons, 1. Because it implies that google is specifically down-ranking your website. (Yes, it still does, even if your little blurb at the bottom tries to tell otherwise. "One of the reasons we started out with and stuck with a Blogger blog for so long has to do with Google's past tendency to give priority to its own." and "But we surmise that some time near the 2016 election Google tweaked its algorithms in a way that seriously eroded our traffic" Prove this point)
We answered that "Jobman" contradicted his claim with his evidence.

Lesson One: Avoid the Non Sequitur

"Jobman" asserts that our post implies Google specifically downranked the "PolitiFact Bias" website. The first evidence he offers is our statement that in the past Google gave priority to its own. Google owns Blogger and could be depended on to rank a Blogger blog fairly quickly. What does that have to do with specifically downranking the (Blogger) website "PolitiFact Bias"? Nothing. We offered it only as a reason we chose and continued with Blogger. Offering evidence that doesn't support a claim is a classic example of a non sequitur.
  • Good arguments use evidence that supports the argument, avoiding non sequiturs.

Lesson Two: Looking Up Words You May Not Understand Can Help Avoid Non Sequiturs

"Jobman" offered a second piece of evidence that likewise counted as a non sequitur. We think "Jobman" doesn't know what the term "surmise" means. Not realizing that "surmise" means coming to a conclusion based on reasoning short of proof might lead a person to claim that one who claims to have surmised something needs to provide proof of that thing. But that's an obvious non sequitur for a person who understands that saying one "surmised" communicates the idea that no proof is offered or implied.
  • Make sure you understand the other person's argument before trying to answer or rebut it. 

Lesson Three: Understand the Burden of Proof

In debate, the burden of proof belongs on the person asserting something. In non-debate contexts, the burden of proof belongs on anyone who wants another person to accept what they say.  In the present case, "Jobman" asserted, without elaborating, that two parts of our post sent the message that Google deliberately downranked "PolitiFact Bias." It turns out he was wrong, as we showed above. But "Jobman" showed little understanding of the burden of proof concept with his second reply:
The evidence that I point to doesn't contradict what I say. Yes, that's my rebuttal. You haven't proven that It does contradict what I say. Maybe try again later?
Who is responsible for showing that what we wrote doesn't mean whatever "Jobman" thinks it means? "Jobman" thinks we are responsible. If "Jobman" thinks what we wrote means X then it means X unless we can show otherwise. That's a classic case of the fallacy of shifting the burden of proof. The critic is responsible for supporting his own case before his target needs to respond.

Jobman added another example of this fallacy in his second reply:
Your title, "Google doesn't love us anymore" and contents of your post prove that you believe that Google somehow wants to push your content lower, yet you give no evidence for this.
"Jobman" says "Google doesn't love us anymore" means X (Google somehow wants to push our content lower). And "Jobman" thinks the burden rightly falls on us to show that "Google doesn't love us anymore" means ~X, such as simply saying Google downranked the site. "Jobman" thinks we are responsible for proving that Google somehow wants to push our content lower even if we already said that we did not think that is what Google did.

That's a criminal misunderstanding of the burden of proof.
  • Making a good argument involves understanding who bears the burden of proof.

Lesson Four: Strive For Coherence & Lesson Five: Avoid Creating Straw Men

In his second reply "Jobman" suggested that we brushed off our lack of evidence (lack of evidence supporting the point we were not making!) by with our claim we were not making the point we were not making.
Then, since you don't have any evidence, you try to brush it off and say "This post isn't about google targeting us" When every part of your post says otherwise.
With that last line we think perhaps "Jobman" meant to say "every part of your post says otherwise except for the part that doesn't." Though "Jobman" obviously overestimates the part that says otherwise.

His incoherence is palpable, and given that we specifically said that we were not saying Google specifically targeted the PolitiFact Bias site a critic needs an incredibly good argument to claim that we were arguing the opposite of what we argued. "Jobman" does not have that. He has a straw man fallacy supported only by his own non sequiturs.
  • It's a good idea to review your argument to makes sure you don't contradict yourself.
  • Resist the temptation to argue against a distortion of the other person's argument. That path leads to the straw man fallacy.

Lesson Three Review: Understand the Burden of Proof

The burden of proof falls on the one claiming something in the debate context, or on anyone who wants somebody else to believe something in everyday life.
When you claim that Google has made changes that have negatively impacted your website, you DO have to prove that. For now, I'll just dismiss your claim entirely until you provide evidence that google has made these changes, and that your website was previously ranked on the top of the list.
We said we surmised that Google's tweaking of its algorithms resulted in the downranking. As noted earlier, "Jobman" apparently thinks that claiming something while admitting it isn't proven obligates the claimant to prove the claim. Claiming to have proof carries with it the natural expectation that one may obtain that proof by asking. Recognizing when proof is claimed and when it isn't helps prevent mistakes in assigning the burden of proof.

In fact, the PFB post does offer evidence short of proof in the form of screenshots showing top-ranked searches from Bing and DuckDuckGo along with a much lower ranking from Google. Specific evidence of the Google downranking comes from reported evidence of past observations of a consistent top ranking. Evidence of Google tweaking its algorithms is not hard to find, so the argument in our post counted that as common knowledge for which the average reader would require no proof. And others we could expect to research the issue if they questioned it.

As for the promise to dismiss our claims for lack of proof, that is the prerogative of every reader no matter the literature. Readers who trust us will tend to accept our claims about our Google rank. Others can judge based on our accuracy with other matters. Others will use the "Jobman" method. That's up to the reader. And that's fine with us.

Lesson Five Review: Avoid Creating Straw Men

It was news to us that we posted the Bing and DuckDuckGo search results to prove Google is specifically biased against the PolitiFact Bias website. We thought we were showing that we rank No. 1 on Bing and DuckDuckGo while ranking much lower on Google.

We suppose "Jobman" will never buy that explanation:

Every single web indexing website in the history of the internet has had the purpose of putting forth the most relevant search results. You could prove that by literally googling anything, then saying "'X' Irrelevant thing didn't show up on the search results", but you compared search results of google and other search engines In order to convey the theme that google is somehow biased in their web searches because your website isn't at the top for theirs.
All search engines are biased toward their managers' vision of relevant search results. The bias at Bing and DuckDuckGo is friendlier to the PolitiFact Bias website than the bias at Google.

"Jobman" finished his second reply by telling us about ways we could improve our website's page rank without blaming Google for it. If that part of his comment was supposed to imply that we blame our website traffic on Google, that's misleading. 

Obviously, though, it's true that if Google gave us the same rank we get from Bing and DuckDuckGo we would probably enjoy healthier traffic. The bulk of our traffic comes from Google referrals, and we would expect a higher ranking to result in more of those referrals.

Like we said in the earlier PFB post, it comes down to Google's vision of what constitutes relevance. And clearly that vision, as the algorithm expresses it, is not identical to the ones expressed in the Bing and DuckDuckGo algorithms.

We did not and do not argue that Google targeted "PolitiFact Bias" specifically for downranking. Saying otherwise results in the creation of a straw man fallacy.

Note: "Jobman" has exhausted his reply privileges with the second reply that we quoted extensively above. He can take up the above argument using a verifiable identify if he wishes, and we will host comments (under other posts) he submits under a different pseudonym. Within limits.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Google doesn't love us anymore

One of the reasons we started out with and stuck with a Blogger blog for so long has to do with Google's past tendency to give priority to its own.

It took us very little time to make it to the top of Google's search results for Web surfers using the terms "PolitiFact" and "bias."

But we surmise that some time near the 2016 election Google tweaked its algorithms in a way that seriously eroded our traffic. That was good news for PolitiFact, whose fact checking efforts we criticize and Google tries to promote.

And perhaps "eroded" isn't the right word. Our traffic pretty much fell off a cliff between the time Trump won election and the time Trump took office. And it coincided with the Google downranking that occurred while the site was enjoying its peak traffic.

We've found it interesting over the past couple of years to see how different search engines treated a search for "PolitiFact bias." Today's result from Microsoft's Bing search engine was a pleasant surprise. Our website was the top result and our site was highlighted with an informational window.

The search result even calls the site "Official Site." We're humbled. Seriously.

What does the same search look like on Google today?


"Media Bias Fact Check"? Seriously?

Dan flippin' Bongino? Seriously?

A "PolitiFact" information box to the upper right?

The hit for our site is No. 7.

It's fair to charge that we're not SEO geniuses. But on the other hand we provide excellent content about "PolitiFact" and "bias." We daresay nobody has done it better on a more consistent basis.


DuckDuckGo is gaining in popularity. It's a search engine marketing itself based on not tracking users' searches. So we're No. 1 on Bing and DuckDuckGo but No. 7 on Google.

It's not that we think Google is deliberately targeting this website. Google has some kind of vision for what it wants to end up high in its rankings and designs its algorithms to reach toward that goal. Sites like this one are "collateral damage" and "disparate impact."

Thursday, September 13, 2018

PolitiFact Avoids Snarky Commentary? 2

In its statement of principles PolitiFact says it avoids snarky commentary (bold emphasis added):
We don’t lay out our personal political views on social media. We do share news stories and other journalism (especially our colleagues’ work), but we take care not to be seen as endorsing or opposing a political figure or position. We avoid snarky commentary.

These restrictions apply to both full-time staffers, correspondents and interns. We avoid doing anything that compromises PolitiFact, or our ability to do our jobs.
 Yet PolitiFact tweeted the following on Sept. 13, 2018:
We're having trouble getting that one past the definition of "snark":
: an attitude or expression of mocking irreverence and sarcasm

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

PolitiFact flubs GDP comparison between added debt and cumulative debt

Here at PolitiFact Bias we think big mistakes tell us something about PolitiFact's ideological bias.

If PolitiFact's big mistakes tend to harm Republicans and not Democrats, it's a pretty good sign that PolitiFact leans left. For that reason, much of what we do centers on documenting big mistakes.

Veteran PolitiFact fact checker Louis Jacobson gave us a whopper of a mistake this week in a Sept. 12, 2018 PunditFact fact check.

Before reading the fact check we had a pretty good idea this one was bogus. Note the caveat under the meter telling the reason why Scarborough's true numbers only get by with a "Mostly True" rating: The added debt was not purely the GOP's fault.

We easily found a parallel claim, this one from PolitiFact Virginia but with Trump as the speaker:

Trump's parallel claim was dragged down to "Half True" because there was plenty of blame to share for doubling the debt. In other words it was not purely Obama's fault.

A Meaningless Statistic?

Scarborough's statistic makes less sense than Trump's on closer examination. The point comes through clearly once we see how PolitiFact botched its analysis.

Scarborough said the GOP would create more debt in one year than was generated in America's first 200 years.

After quoting an expert who said percentage of GDP serves as a better measure than nominal dollars, PolitiFact proceeded to explain that testing Scarborough's claim using the percentage of GDP tells essentially the same story.  PolitiFact shared a chart based on data from the executive branch's Office of Management and Budget:

So far so good. The OMB is recognized as a solid source for such data. But then PolitiFact PolitiSplains (bold emphasis added):
The chart does show that, when looking at a percentage of GDP, Scarborough is correct in his comparison. Debt as a percentage of GDP in 2017 was far higher (almost 77 percent)  than it was in 1976 (about 27 percent).
Colossal Blunder Alert!

PolitiFact/PunditFact, intentionally or otherwise, pulled a bait and switch. Scarborough said the GOP would create more debt in one year than was generated in America's first 200 years. As PolitiFact recognized when comparing the nominal dollar figures, that comparison involves the cumulative deficit number for one year (which we call the debt) and comparing it to the non-cumulative deficit number for one year (which we call the deficit). It's a comparison of the debt in 1976, following PolitiFact's methodology for nominal dollars in the first part of the fact check, to the deficit for 2017.

But that's not what PolitiFact did when it tried to test Scarborough using percentage of GDP.

PolitiFact compared the debt in 1976 to the debt in 2017. That's the wrong comparison. PolitiFact needed to substitute the deficit in 2017 as a percentage of GDP for the debt in 2017 as a percentage of GDP. That substitution corresponds to Scarborough's argument.

The deficit in 2017 does not measure out to nearly 77 percent of GDP. Not even close.

The OMB reports the deficit for 2017 was 3.5 percent of GDP. That's less than 27 percent. It's also less than 77 percent.

Using the preferred measure for comparing deficit and debt numbers across time, Scarborough's claim fell flat. And PolitiFact failed to notice.

Testing Scarborough's number correctly as a percentage of GDP illustrates the worthlessless of his statistic. Instead of "Mostly True" PolitiFact could easily have issued a ruling more similar to the one it issued to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney when he correctly noted that our armed forces were shorter on ships and planes in 2012 than at times in the past.

Cheer up, PolitiFact. You'll be tarring the conservative Scarborough. So it's not a total loss.