Wednesday, November 20, 2019

PolitiFact as Rumpelstiltskin.

“Round about, round about,
Lo and behold!
Reel away, reel away,
Straw into gold!”

PolitiFact's Nov. 19, 2019 fact check of something President Donald Trump said on the Dan Bongino Show gives us yet another example of a classic fact checker error, the mistake of interpreting ambiguous statements as clear statements.

Here's PolitiFact's presentation of a statement it found worthy of a fact check:
In an interview with conservative show host Dan Bongino, Trump said a false rendition of that call by House Intelligence chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., forced him to release the readout of that call.

"They never thought, Dan, that I was going to release that call, and I really had no choice because Adam Schiff made up a call," Trump said Nov. 15. "He said the president said this, and then he made up a call."

The problem with Trump’s statement is that Schiff spoke after the White House released the memo of the phone call, not before.
 Note that PolitiFact finds a timeline problem with Trump's claim.

But also note that Trump makes no clear statement regarding a timeline. If Trump said "I released the transcript after Schiff did his 'parody' version of the telephone call," then he would have established an order of events. Trump's words imply an order of events, but it is not a hard logical implication (A, therefore B).

PolitiFact treats the case exactly like a hard implication.

Here's why that's the wrong approach.

First, significant ambiguity should always slow a fact-checker's progress toward an interpretation.

Second, Trump gave a speech on Sept 24, 2019 that announced the impending release of the transcript (memorandum of telephone conversation). The "transcript" was released on Sept. 25. Schiff gave his "parody" account of the call the next day, on Sept. 26.  And Trump responded to Schiff's "parody" version of his call on Sept. 30 during an event honoring the late Justice Antonin Scalia:
Adam Schiff — representative, congressman — made up what I said.  He actually took words and made it up.  The reason is, when he saw my call to the President of Ukraine, it was so good that he couldn’t quote from it because it — there was nothing done wrong.  It was perfect.
PolitiFact's interpretation asks us to believe that Trump either forgot what he said on Sept. 30 or else deliberately decided to reverse the chronology.

What motive would support that decision? Is one version more politically useful than the other?

It's not uncommon for people to speak of "having no choice" based on an event subsequent to that choice. The speaker means that the choice would have had to take place eventually.

When a source makes two claims touching the same subject and differ in content, the following rule applies: Use the more clear statement to make sense of the less clear statement.

Fact checkers who manufacture certitudes out of equivocal language give fact-checking a bad name.

They are Rumpelstiltskins, trying to spin straw into gold.


We would draw attention to a parallel highlighted at (Bryan's) Zebra Fact Check last month.

During a podcast interview Hillary Clinton used equivocal language in saying "they" were grooming Democratic Party presidential hopeful Tulsi Gabbard as a third-party candidate to enhance Trump's chances of winning the 2020 election.

No fact checker picked out Clinton's claim for a fact check. And that's appropriate, because the identity of "they" was never perfectly clear. Clinton probably meant the Russians, but "probably" doesn't make it a fact.

In that case, the fact checkers picked on those who interpreted Clinton to mean the Russians were grooming Gabbard (implicitly finding that Clinton's ambiguity clearly meant "Republicans").

Fact checkers have no business doing such things.

Until fact checkers can settle on a consistent approach to their craft, we justifiably view it as a largely subjective enterprise.

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