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This post was originally published at Malark-O-Meter, which statistically analyzes fact checker rulings to make comparative judgments about the factuality of politicians, and measures our uncertainty in those judgments.

There's a lot of talk this week about Marco Rubio, who is already being vetted as a possible front runner in the 2016 presidential 2012...right after the 2012 presidential campaign. In answer to the conservatives' giddiness about the Senator from Florida, liberals have been looking for ways to steal Rubio' clouds on the horizon that could lead to potential thunder maybe in a few years? I dunno. Anyway, one example of this odd little skirmish involves a comment that Senator Rubio made in answer to a GQ interviewers' question about the age of the Earth:

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?

Marco Rubio: I'm not a scientist, man. I can tell you what recorded history says, I can tell you what the Bible says, but I think that's a dispute amongst theologians and I think it has nothing to do with the gross domestic product or economic growth of the United States. I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow. I'm not a scientist. I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there on how the universe was created and I think this is a country where people should have the opportunity to teach them all. I think parents should be able to teach their kids what their faith says, what science says. Whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries. [emphasis added]

 Gotcha!" say my fellow liberals (and I). Ross Douthat, conservative blogger at the New York Times (among other places), argues convincingly that it was a "politician's answer" to a politically contentious question, but rightly asks why Rubio answered in a way that fuels the "conservatives vs. science" trope that Douthat admits has basis in reality. Douthat writes that Rubio could have said instead:
I’m not a scientist, but I respect the scientific consensus that says that the earth is — what, something like a few billions of years old, right? I don’t have any trouble reconciling that consensus with my faith. I don’t think the 7 days in Genesis have to be literal 24-hour days. I don’t have strong opinions about the specifics of how to teach these issues — that’s for school boards to decide, and I’m not running for school board — but I think religion and science can be conversation partners, and I think kids can benefit from that conversation.

So why didn't Rubio say that instead of suggesting wrongly, and at odds with overwhelming scientific consensus, that the age of the Earth is one of the greatest mysteries?

An issue more relevant to the fact checking industry that Malark-O-Meter studies and draws on to measure politicians' factuality is this: Why aren't statements like this featured in fact checking reports? The answer probably has something to do with one issue Rubio raised in his answer to GQ, and something that pops up in Douthat's wishful revision.

  • "I think the age of the universe has zero to do with how our economy is going to grow." (Rubio)
  • "...I'm not running for school board..." (Douthat)

You can easily associate these statements with a key constraint of the fact checking industry. As Glenn Kessler stated in a recent panel discussion about the fact checking industry, fact checkers are biased toward newsworthy claims that have broad appeal (PolitiFact's growing state-level fact checking effort notwithstanding). Most Americans care about the economy right now, and few Americans have ever thought scientific literacy was the most important political issue. Fact checkers play to the audience on what most people think are the most important issues of the day. I could not find one fact checked statement that a politician made about evolution or climate change that wasn't either a track record of Obama's campaign promises, or an assessment of how well a politicians' statements and actions adhere to their previous positions on these issues.

What does the fact checker bias toward newsworthiness mean for Malark-O-Meter's statistical analyses of politicians' factuality? Because fact checkers aren't that interested in politicians' statements about things like biology and cosmology, the malarkey score isn't going to tell you much about how well politicians adhere to the facts on those issues. Does that mean biology, cosmology, and other sciences aren't important? Does that mean that a politicians' scientific literacy doesn't impact the soundness of their legislation?


The scientific literacy of politicians is salient to whether they support particular policies on greenhouse gas reduction, or stem cell research, or education, or, yes, the economy. After all, although economics is a soft science, it's still a science. And if you watched the recent extended debate between Rubio and Jon Stewart on the Daily Show, and you also read the Congressional Research Report that debunks the trickle down hypothesis, and you've read the evidence that we'd need a lot of economic growth to solve the debt problem, you'd recognize that some of Rubio's positions on how to solve our country's economic problems do not align well with the empirical evidence.

But does that mean that Rubio is full of malarkey? According to his Truth-O-Meter report card alone, no. The mean of his simulated malarkey score distribution is 45, and we can be 95% certain that, if we sampled another incomplete report card with the same number of Marco Rubio's statements, his measured malarkey score would be between 35 and 56. Not bad. By comparison, Obama, the least full of malarkey among the 2012 presidential candidates, has a simulated malarkey score based on his Truth-O-Meter report card of 44 and is 95% likely to fall between 41 and 47. The odds that Rubio's malarkey score is greater than Obama's are only 3 to 2, and the difference between their malarkey score distributions averages only one percentage point.

How would a more exhaustive fact checking of Rubio's scientifically relevant statements influence his malarkey score? I don't know. Is this an indictment of truthfulness metrics like the ones that Malark-O-Meter calculates? Not necessarily. It does suggest, however, that Malark-O-Meter should look for ways to modify its methods to account for the newsworthiness bias of fact checkers.

If my dreams for Malark-O-Meter ever come to fruition, I'd like it to be at the forefront of the following changes to the fact checker industry:

  1. Measure the size and direction of association between the topics that fact checkers cover, the issues that Americans currently think are most important, and the stuff that politicians say.
  2. Develop a factuality metric for each topic (this would require us to identify the topic(s) relevant to a particular statement).
  3. Incorporate (and create) more fact checker sites that provide information about a politicians' positions on topics that are underrepresented by the fact checker industry. For example, one could use a Truth-O-Meter-like scale to rate the positions that individuals have on scientific topics, which are often available at sites like

So it isn't that problems like these bring the whole idea of factuality metrics into question. It's just that the limitations of the fact checker data instruct us about how we might correct for them with statistical methods, and with new fact checking methods. Follow Malark-O-Meter and tell all your friends about it so that maybe we can one day aid that process.

Originally posted to Malark-O-Meter on Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 09:29 PM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Man Oh Man, Dolphin99, CherryTheTart

    Brash Equilibrium /brASH ēkwəˈLIBrēəm/ Noun: a state in which the opposing forces of snark and information are balanced

    by Brash Equilibrium on Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 06:47:12 PM PST

  •  Rubio who™? n/t (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Jack K, CherryTheTart, skohayes

    Float like a manhole cover, sting like a sash weight! Clean Coal Is A Clinker!

    by JeffW on Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 06:54:44 PM PST

    •  Why do you mean, nice try? (0+ / 0-)

      It better not be some kind of accusation that I'm some Marco Rubio fanboy plant. I will get seriously pissed off if that is the case.

      Brash Equilibrium /brASH ēkwəˈLIBrēəm/ Noun: a state in which the opposing forces of snark and information are balanced

      by Brash Equilibrium on Wed Nov 21, 2012 at 03:34:45 AM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  I don't think Rubio will give up his Senate seat (0+ / 0-)

    to run in 2016.

    "let's talk about that"

    by VClib on Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 06:59:06 PM PST

    •  Why would he have to? (0+ / 0-)
      •  doc - can you run for Pres and Senator (0+ / 0-)

        at the same time in Florida? Rubio was elected in 2010 and his first term will be up in 2016. I tried to find in the Florida election laws if you could run for Senator and President at the same time, but couldn't find anything directly on point. Hopefully someone who knows Florida election law can help us on this issue. While some states, like Wisconsin (Ryan) and Connecticut (Lieberman), allow a candidate to run for Congress and President or VP, not all states allow it.

        "let's talk about that"

        by VClib on Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 07:38:23 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  I live in FL but I don't know. (0+ / 0-)

          In any event, there's nothing that would prevent him from running in the GOP presidential primary. And if he became the nominee, I'm sure he'd trade in his senate seat for that if he had to. Most any politician would trade his current job for the opportunity of having the nomination, especially when there is no incumbent running.

          •  doc - but isn't the FL Senate primary (0+ / 0-)

            at the same time as the Presidential primary? He could run in the earlier Presidential primaries but I doubt the view will be clear enough for him to keep both options open, unless it's legal in FL.

            "let's talk about that"

            by VClib on Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 08:07:32 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

            •  Google works for me: (3+ / 0-)

              from Florida Statutes Title IX Chapter 99:

              99.012 Restrictions on individuals qualifying for public office...
              (2) No person may qualify as a candidate for more than one public office, whether federal, state, district, county, or municipal, if the terms or any part thereof run concurrently with each other.

              I'm not a Florida resident, so I don't have experience with these statues the way I do with Orygun Revised Statutes, but that's what a few seconds of googling led me to...

              "In a nation ruled by swine, all pigs are upward mobile..." - Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

              by Jack K on Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 10:02:47 PM PST

              [ Parent ]

            •  The senate primaries are after (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              the presidential are done, so no issue.

  •  The vast majority of Americans (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Utahrd, Brash Equilibrium

    believe in life after death. And a majority of Americans believe that there is a God that knows their thoughts. So we might sit here in our elite liberal educated community and marvel at how stupid people like Rubio are, but we shouldn't forget that what he said is no crazier than the kinds of religious things most Americans believe.

    •  I agree. (0+ / 0-)

      This makes the goal of Malark-O-Meter all the more difficult. That's why, if Malark-O-Meter grows into something bigger, I want it to add to the efforts of fact checkers like, which try to inform people about how to tell when people are trying to deceive them. If it became an academically rigorous fact checker in addition to a creator of factuality metrics, I envision that Malark-O-Meter will fill the gap left by most of the fact checking industry, which does not consider how its rulings on statements and sets of statements influence public opinion about individual politicians and political groups that actually make the statements.

      Specifically pertaining to the fact that a lot of Americans are massively uninformed, all I can say is that I hope I'm right in  detecting the signal that we're going in a direction in which the country is more engaged and more informed. The long term trends in opinions on the supernatural seem to suggest that. But...there's a lot of evidence that suggests otherwise, as well!

      Brash Equilibrium /brASH ēkwəˈLIBrēəm/ Noun: a state in which the opposing forces of snark and information are balanced

      by Brash Equilibrium on Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 08:56:02 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

    •  You refer to (0+ / 0-)

      out president when you state that you know? Tolerant much?

  •  38% of Democrats fail the Malarkymeter (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Brash Equilibrium, CherryTheTart
    •  That's a very good point. (0+ / 0-)

      And one of the things that Malark-O-Meter finds, assuming that fact checker centrist and partisan bias doesn't completely swamp out true signals, is that Democrats and Republicans are more similar than the frothy-mouthed partisans on either side would have us belief. I qualify that statement by noting that Malark-O-Meter hasn't yet examined all statements made by all individuals. Instead, it's focused on the 2012 presidential election. I need to either get access to or build a full dataset of fact checker statements. Both of those options will take time. One or both will take capital.

      Brash Equilibrium /brASH ēkwəˈLIBrēəm/ Noun: a state in which the opposing forces of snark and information are balanced

      by Brash Equilibrium on Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 08:59:22 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  It's Religious Literacy Not Science Literacy. (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    tardis10, Jack K, skohayes

    Rubio's 2 scenarios are 2 different religious creation stories. As he said, it's a matter for theologians to decide which way God created the universe.

    It isn't a scientific matter for him or some 35-40% of voters.

    We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy.... --ML King "Beyond Vietnam"

    by Gooserock on Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 07:29:57 PM PST

    •  But it is a scientific matter... (0+ / 0-)

      How old the world is and how the world came to be is something that is open to scientific inquiry. Malark-O-Meter doesn't care about public opinion. It cares about facts and how well politicians' statements adhere to them.

      Brash Equilibrium /brASH ēkwəˈLIBrēəm/ Noun: a state in which the opposing forces of snark and information are balanced

      by Brash Equilibrium on Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 09:00:45 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

      •  It appears, then, that Malark-O-Meter isn't a (0+ / 0-)

        particularly useful tool in navigating the political world.  While the age of the world may be an interesting point of scientific inquiry, it doesn't provide any particularly helpful guidance in trying to seek compromise on a host of pressing national issues with those whose personal beliefs you openly express as malarkey...

        "In a nation ruled by swine, all pigs are upward mobile..." - Dr. Hunter S. Thompson

        by Jack K on Tue Nov 20, 2012 at 10:13:23 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  You need to... (0+ / 0-)

          ...check your assumptions.

          Malark-O-Meter, as it currently works, uses PolitiFact and The Fact Checker report cards to derive its malarkey score, which it then statistically analyzes using statistical simulations.

          So if you're right, and science literacy doesn't matter, then the weakness you identify doesn't exist in Malark-O-Meter at all.

          As I implied in the post, I do not believe that ignoring science literacy completely invalidates PolitiFact or The Fact Checker; so I do not believe that ignoring it invalidates Malark-O-Meter. I do, however, believe that we should better incorporate a politicians' positions on scientific issues that are relevant to policies like how to deal with climate change and what kinds of science should be funded. Do you seriously disagree with that? Because that's all I'm saying.

          Brash Equilibrium /brASH ēkwəˈLIBrēəm/ Noun: a state in which the opposing forces of snark and information are balanced

          by Brash Equilibrium on Wed Nov 21, 2012 at 03:41:38 AM PST

          [ Parent ]

  •  oh good grief... (0+ / 0-)

    has it come to this? That ANY answer that can possibly be twisted into a goctha on politics, science or Religion is fair game?

    Who said this:

    Q: Senator, if one of your daughters asked you—and maybe they already have—“Daddy, did god really create the world in 6 days?,” what would you say?

    A: What I’ve said to them is that I believe that God created the universe and that the six days in the Bible may not be six days as we understand it … it may not be 24-hour days, and that’s what I believe. I know there’s always a debate between those who read the Bible literally and those who don’t, and I think it’s a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I’m a part. My belief is that the story that the Bible tells about God creating this magnificent Earth on which we live—that is essentially true, that is fundamentally true. Now, whether it happened exactly as we might understand it reading the text of the Bible: That, I don’t presume to know.

    So unless that statement is to be "fact checked" and used against our President let's lay off people for trying to be tolerant with their statements.
    •  yes.. SIX days--not 7. eom. (0+ / 0-)
    •  ? (0+ / 0-)

      The post wasn't a gotcha on Marco Rubio. It used the whole Marco Rubio science literacy debate as lense through which to glimpse a potential issue with Malark-O-Meter's methods for evaluating the factuality of politicians. I say factuality instead of truthfulness because people tend to oppose truthfulness with deceit. When I say factuality, I mean, "How much do the words that are coming out of a politician's mouth adhere to the facts?"

      As for the quote you posted above: point to me where Obama says something as egregious as the age of the Earth being a *mystery*. Obama's beliefs about the origins of the universe are problematic to an atheist like me. Definitely not as problematic as what Rubio said. The two statements are similar only in that you could qualify them as problematic to an atheist like myself. Other than that, they are worlds apart.

      Brash Equilibrium /brASH ēkwəˈLIBrēəm/ Noun: (1) a state in which the opposing forces of snark and information are balanced. (2) a statistician of truthiness at Malark-O-Meter.

      by Brash Equilibrium on Wed Nov 21, 2012 at 03:23:18 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

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