Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Problem of Subjective Facts

Politifact has a problem: It doesn't believe in facts.  It's a fact checking site, yet on some of the key issues of the day, if there's a difference of opinion on what the facts are, they get all squishy and start insisting that facts are subjective and perception is more important than reality.  And if there's a dispute over a fact, they'll not only refuse to settle the dispute, but they'll insist that anyone who considers it to be a settled is wrong and will use their "fact check" to declare that person wrong.

Needless to say, you can't have a difference of opinion on facts, which makes it so many of their "fact" checking pieces are beyond useless and we'd all have been better off if they said nothing.

And so I just read this "fact checking" piece they did on Jon Stewart's claim that Fox News viewers are the least informed of news viewers.  According to their "analysis" this claim is false.  Their evidence?  Three studies by Pew Research Center which show that Fox News viewers rated consistently low when asked questions about who the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is and other relatively meaningless questions.  And then there were two studies asking meaningful policy questions, which Fox viewers did the worst on.

And that's it.  Three studies showing Fox News doing poorly, and two showing they did the worst.  So how, might you ask, did they rate Stewart's claim to be false if Fox did so poorly?  You see, while they did poor on the Pew studies, they weren't the worst.  And on the two studies they did the worst on, Politifact didn't like the questions because they saw them as being subjective because some people might disagree on the facts.  Huh?

As they say:
Meanwhile, the other set of knowledge surveys, from, offer mixed support for Stewart. The 2003 survey strikes us as pretty solid, but the 2010 survey has been critiqued for its methodology.
Ah, well then.  If someone critiqued that study, then it must not be a good one.  After all, no one would have disagreed with it if it were good, right?

Objective-Objective Questions v. Subjective-Objective Questions

You see, when you ask a relatively meaningless question like "Who is the president of Russia?" there's no subjective angle to it so it's entirely safe; even if it has little importance to what's going on around us.  But when you ask questions like
"Is it your impression that most economists who have studied it estimate that the stimulus has created (a) saved or created several million jobs, (b) saved or created a few jobs, or (c) caused job losses."
"Do you think now that the American economy is (a) starting to recover, or (b) still getting worse?"
These questions don't count, because some people's perceptions might disagree with the facts.  And because their perceptions differ, we must pretend that these objective questions are subjective, even though they have definite answers that informed people should be aware of.

As Politifact explains, that last question is no good because:
However, given the phrasing of the question, a respondent might think the question was asking for a personal opinion of how the recovery was going, rather than what the official statistics say.
And so we're not allowed to declare someone to be misinformed even if the facts and experts show they're misinformed.  Right.

And this is where Politifact can get all tangled up, because they just don't like controversy.  That's why in this very piece, they identify Fox News by saying they're "widely perceived as a conservative-leaning network," as if there was any doubt about that.  I mean, come on!  Saying that Fox is perceived as conservative-leaning is like saying that NBA players are perceived as tall.  Yes, everything's relative at a certain level, but even Fox doesn't really pretend to be balanced anymore.

Curiously, later on in the piece, they describe MSNBC as "a liberal counterpoint to Fox," as if that's undisputed fact.  So...MSNBC is a counterpoint to Fox, yet Fox can't be accurately described as conservative.  Of course.  How squishy of them.

But thus is the world of Politifact.  When a fact isn't disputed, they'll proudly denounce any who get it wrong, but as soon as you get to an issue that might piss off Republicans, even facts aren't good enough anymore.

1 comment:

makeinu said...

There are few things in this world that I hate more than the viewpoint that "perception is more important than reality", because it's patently provably wrong!

Reality is where you live. It is what it is, and nothing more. Just because you don't understand the whole picture does not mean that what you think you understand is more important than what is actually going on. Gravity, for example, does not care if you understand it; you still fall down and go boom. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan is famously quoted as saying:

"You are entitled to your own opinions. You are not entitled to your own facts."

Perception is nothing more than your own, likely misguided, definitely limited, understanding of what the hell is actually going on.