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Jon Cassidy has just written a piece for Human Events that takes issue with a blog post of mine and a related article by Chris Mooney that contend conservatives have a bigger problem with factual accuracy. The piece, meant to defend conservatives against the charge of having little concern for reality, is called: "€œPolitiFact bias: Does the GOP tell nine times more lies than left? Really?"€

Does PolitiFact say Republicans lie nine times more? Really?


No, but I'€™ll come back to that. I'€™m not going to delve into his assertion Michelle Bachman'€™s "€œdeath panels"€ claim has merit, or that Obama robbed Medicare. Dozens of people have written about those examples, and Cassidy writes nothing to progress the argument. What makes Cassidy'€™s critique worth commenting on is it is a rare case in which both left and right should agree on the basic facts.

The complaint people like me have had with the current state of our political discourse is that ideally we ought to all be able to agree on the facts but differ on how we respond in terms of policy. Here is a place where we should both agree: fact-checkers find conservatives more wrong, more often. Where we differ is in our interpretations: Cassidy sees this as proof of liberal bias, whereas I see it as evidence conservatives are more wrong, more often.

Even more interesting, this is a rare instance in which our "€œconfirmation bias"€ ought to push us both in the same direction: Cassidy wants data showing bias, and I want data showing Republicans are wrong. So it is instructive to see how left and right deal with the same facts when our ideological "€œneeds"€ are in sync.

One piece of evidence Mooney uses in his piece for The Nation, "€œReality Bites Republicans"€, is a study by the University of Minnesota'€™s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The study found that from January 2010 through January 2011:


[W]hile the site fact-checked roughly as many statements by current or former Democratic elected officials as current or former Republican officeholders during this period (179 versus 191, respectively), Republicans were overwhelmingly more likely to draw a "false"€ or even "€œpants on fire"€ rating (the worst of all). Out of the ninety-eight politicians'€™ statements that received these dismal ratings, seventy-four were made by Republicans €”or 76 percent. Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann fared worst, with eight and seven PolitiFact slams, respectively.

Cassidy cites the study, too, but only in passing. What he chooses to focus on instead is a study by PolitiFactBias, a blog run by "€œindependent bloggers who share a sense of outrage that PolitiFact often peddles outrageous slant as objective news,"€ Jeff Dyberg and Bryan White. This is how Cassidy presents their study:


By one count, from the end of that partnership to the end of 2011, the national PolitiFact operation has issued 119 Pants on Fire ratings for Republican or conservative claims, and only 13 for liberal or Democratic claims.

In another tally, just of claims made by elected officials, Republicans lose 64-10 over the same three-year period.

Those numbers were compiled by Bryan White, who co-founded PolitiFactBias, a blog dedicated to chronicling examples of what he considers poor reasoning, sloppy research, or bias by the PolitiFact.

It is those numbers Cassidy relies on for the title and entire thrust of the piece.“ PolitiFact finds Republicans wrong nine times more often than Democrats! I'€™d love to say that, too, but those numbers don'€™t even pass the smell test. UM'€™s 76% is startling enough, but Cassidy has to go for the nine times.

There'€™s nothing wrong with what the guys at PolitiFactBias are doing. I write for blogs and am not above performing a little research of my own, but White'€™s research, no matter how well intentioned, is not peer reviewed. It is not a legitimate study by academics. It is compiled by a person for the explicit purpose of discrediting PolitiFact. And White is under no illusions. In an email, he wrote, "€œmy research approach is ridiculously easy, so duplicating my results would be simple for virtually anyone."€

The study provides graphs of his results. In the description of his methodology White claims to throw out "€œpotentially ambiguous"€ categories and party-on-party claims "reasoning that a contest between two Republicans or two Democrats makes the dilemma for biased journalists more complicated and thus less useful as a measurement of partisan bias."€ He acknowledges "€œPolitiFact journalists may realize what the rating data say about their bias and make allowances to appear more fair."€ In short, he displays the sort of approach I would expect from an intellectually honest person.

But nowhere in the study could I find where PolitiFact finds Republicans wrong nine times more often. I asked White if he had any idea where the number comes from. He writes:


That 9x figure had me puzzled for a bit as well, since it is not a figure anywhere emphasized in my study.  But I think I have the answer you're looking for.  Cassidy looked purely at the disparity between the total number of supposed "Pants on Fire" statements in my "C" group since the end of the partnership with Congressional Quarterly€¦ That was the group I hypothesized probably represented an exaggerated measure of bias since it includes email claims (predominantly from conservatives and predominantly far-fetched). I think the best way to look at the disparities is to examine them as a percentage of the total number of false statements by party. If you read the study, as you appear to have done, you'll know why.

White sent me his data, and the numbers do appear to match with the numbers for chain emails alone. Needless to say, Cassidy does not tell his readers about this selective number, but presents it as Pants on Fire ratings for Republican or conservative claims versus liberal or Democratic claims, period.

Here'€™s the thing. Cassidy didn'€™t need the nine times figure. He could have stuck with the UM study but it wasn'€™t sexy enough. He chose to highlight, instead, the research of a blog to get more extreme numbers. Finding those numbers not extreme enough, he selectively cherry-picked data to the point the study'€™s own author didn'€™t recognize them.

Cassidy was happy to let his readers assume he was referring to PolitiFact findings as a whole, when in fact White found PolitiFact issued "€œPants on Fire"€ ratings for conservative falsehoods 74% more often. In other words, 2% below the UM study (White thinks it'€™s a coincidence because they measure different things: "€œPerhaps the numbers match because the degree of bias is similar, but it's probably a stretch to credit me with accuracy based on the similarity of the numbers."€)

When Cassidy and I write about PolitiFact'€™s skew, I chose to reference the scholarly study. Cassidy preferred the study of a blog with an agenda similar to his own, and then misled his readers as to what the study actually said. Then there is the other conservative White who, though a simple blogger doing his own research, has shown himself in this case to be more intellectually honest than the esteemed Human Events.

It is not the conservatives like White I have a problem with, but Cassidy who represents all the personality traits that support my thesis PolitiFact€'s findings have more to do with the modern right'€™s uncomfortable relationship with facts than PolitiFact'€™s political leanings.

This also illustrates why I don't think one needs to show liberals are less prone to confirmation bias than Republicans to explain the right'€™s embrace of wacko theories ranging from Obama'€™s birth certificate to climate denial. We are all biased. The difference is the left puts its faith in the scientific process that works precisely because it corrects for those tendencies. We prefer non-affiliated outlets tasked with analyzing rather than partisan outfits with a mission of pushing a particular agenda. Because we are more comfortable with ambiguity, we are content to make our case with a mere 76% without having to manufacture nine times to make it more black and white.

Cross-posted at Skepticism Examiner

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Comment Preferences

  •  AARGG (0+ / 0-)

    Is it just my computer?  All of those little squares at every apostrophe and quote make this very difficult to read.

    “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Thomas Jefferson

    by markdd on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 11:44:44 AM PDT

  •  That is how unpersuasive people persuade (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Tonedevil, DRo, memekiller, avsp

    This sort of thing is seen all the time. A perfectly reasonable and persuasive argument is ruined by going to rhetorical extremes.

    Don't hit your thumb with a hammer because that will hurt.

    Me: Good advice.

    Don't hit your thumb with a hammer because then the terrorists win.

    Me: WTF?

    Sounds like you and Mr White avoid that trap. Thanks for the nice diary.

  •  So embarassing (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    memekiller

    when someone who purports to be crusading against the bias of allegedly-objective fact checkers, declines to model the type of objectivity he purports to be crusading for.

    Meanwhile, the assumption that higher falsity ratings against Republicans indicates bias against Republicans, is jaw-droppingly stupid under the circumstances.  

    "The extinction of the human race will come from its inability to EMOTIONALLY comprehend the exponential function." -- Edward Teller

    by lgmcp on Tue Sep 04, 2012 at 12:37:40 PM PDT

  •  A bias that can easily (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    memekiller, elmo

    occur is in the choice of what statements to fact-check.

    Which each side making thousands of statement, only a tiny proportion end up being checked.

    I could run a site that finds 100% of democratic statements false and 100% of republican statements true just by the statements i choose to review.

    •  This is an excellent point. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      memekiller

      Let me say that I do totally believe the finding that the GOP statements are more often false than the Dem.  The studies that FOX news is more inaccurate than other news outlets seems to lend a sniff of credence to the meme.

      But there is just one fly in the ointment.  It isnt clear (though some fact checkers do state) how the various statements are chosen for fact checking. I would like to think there is rhyme and reason behind it.  Maybe it is on policy statements alone, or perhaps statements made on campaign stumps.  Does anyone now how this decision is made for main fact checkers out there?  I mean, does the "I ran a four minute mile in a marathon" lie count the same as the "Obama closed this plant" lie?  Ryan seems to be pathological about it, so if you stick to him, you could get a nearly 100% lie rating.  (Of course I simply dont understand this.  When you are speaking to your base, they eat anything up you offer.  They are going to love you no matter what.  So why lie?)  But this is beside the point.  My guess is that Boehner truly does try to miss the big lies - though sometimes he does seem to have missed the memo.  So which one you pick and on which day and which statement will make a difference in small (100's) numbers.

      Of course it would be nice if they all tried to avoid the gratuitous lie.  But this may be hoping for too much.  So generally, I tend to look at the positions they have fought for over the years.   Do the GOPers want to cut S.S. and Medicare - well they have tried it time and again.  Do the Democrats really want to do away with Medicare - hum, they have been fighting for years to keep it alive.  My guess is no.  So I went through and looked at the main party positions and compared to what is promised on the stump.  I do realize that the politician is not necessarily beholden to what the party platform is - but just for giggles.  A direct comparison between the Romney-Ryan speeches, and the actual GOP plank ( as best I can discern it) - shows about a 75% discrepancy!  Not too far off from what is reported above.  Now I am definitely biased.  And I did try to take this into account as much as possible.  But on the points in which a specific proposal was made, about 75% of the time one could find a speech or interview giving a different point of view AT ODDs with what was stated as the political goal.  The Dems are still at it with their convention, so I had to go back and piece together the plank and position statements as well as individual statements.  I used the same policy points.  They were at about 50% the last time I looked.

      just sayin'  

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