Fact-checking and reality-testing

Glenn Kessler gives Obama “Three Pinocchios” on background checks. I give Kessler three “Benjy Compsons.”

So the WaPo fact-checker decides to award Barack Obama Three Pinocchios – that is, call him a liar – for saying that “as many as” or “nearly” 40 percent of gun transactions now avoid background checks, based on the most recent study of the question, because the most recent study is old and had a small sample and the true number – unknown – might be less than 40%.

As the Phil Cook and Jens Ludwig, the authors of that study, had already pointed out, we already know that something like 80% of crime guns were acquired outside the background-check system. That already gives us an estimate of the benefit of tightening availability; the total number of unchecked sales helps us estimate the cost, with more sales outside the current system implying a higher cost of changing the rules.

So the President is guilty, at worst, of quoting the wrong statistic, not of making up numbers to support his case. The abuse of fact-checking, and especially the elision of the line between questions of interpretation and questions of deliberate deception that would justify the use of the term “lie” or the cutesy “Pinocchio” system, would be a disgrace to journalism, if the editorial page of the Washington Post were still considered a journalistic enterprise.

I understand that the persistent lying of Republicans puts honest fact-checkers in a bind; if they call the balls and strikes accurately, they wind up looking like partisan Democrats. Under the circumstances, I suppose it makes sense that Glenn Kessler decided that being an honest fact-checker wasn’t worth the hassle, and decided to take up an alternative line of work.

But the RBC hereby awards Kessler three “Benjy Compsons” for not checking with, or even Googling, Cook and Ludwig to actually understand the issue before calling the President a liar.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

11 thoughts on “Fact-checking and reality-testing”

  1. I’m not sure all this dedicated fact-checking is getting us anywhere. It seems like for every step forward, there’s a step backwards. There are just so many problems in the way it’s done.

  2. Going on to read what the “fact-checker” had to say, I find the complaints very substantive.

    Point 1 alone merits 3 Pinocchios barring exculpatory factors: That the number dates from a study whose sample largely predates the effective date of the Brady bill. Meaning, before federal law REQUIRED background checks! You really want to claim a law mandating background checks had no influence on the proportion of firearms sales that involved background checks? Is that what Obama is supposedly claiming? That suddenly requiring licensed dealers to do background checks didn’t increase the proportion of background checks?

    Point 2: Survey sample was pathetically small, and had a low response rate to boot. AND was twenty years ago, so how in hell is he entitled to use the present tense?

    It’s true that he didn’t “make up” the number, aside from rounding it up. Citing an irrelevant and dated statistic is still dishonest.

    In short, it’s no different than, were I arguing for lowering the speed limit on a street to 25mph, I cited a study to the effect that 40% of the cars on that road went 50mph or above, and neglected to mention that was two decades ago before the speed limit was reduced from 55 to 35!

    The bigger problem with “fact checking” is that it’s virtually never objective, generally involves a huge degree of thumb on the scale. Somebody who liked Obama would reason like Mark, and score it “true”, and never mention the problems. Somebody who doesn’t like you would have found the rounding up enough to declare him a liar even if the study had been current and on point. The practice is just an excuse, IMO, to move editorializing onto the news pages. Just an exercise in propaganda, most of the time.

  3. And I guess I have to assign you at least one Pinocchio yourself, or just wonder if you read your own links:

    You: “But the RBC hereby awards Kessler three “Benjy Compsons” for not checking with, or even Googling, Cook and Ludwig to actually understand the issue before calling the President a liar.”

    The Washington Post fact checker: “The Police Foundation report did not break out gun purchases, so in January we asked Ludwig to rerun the data, just looking at guns purchased in the secondary market. The result, depending on the definition, was 14 percent to 22 percent. “

    1. See, that’s what’s wrong with this whole approach. Brett calls me a (quarter of a) liar, because you misread what I wrote. Yes, Kessler asked Ludwig to re-run the data. But he doesn’t seem to have bothered to look at Ludwig’s explanation of what the data mean.

      1. It seems to me there is very little Ludwig could say to change the fundamental point that the study was 20 years ago, and collected data prior to the Brady bill taking effect, and yet Obama cited it as though it somehow there were reason to believe the number were still accurate, in fact as though it were a current number.

        But, yes, this exchange does demonstrate the basic issue with “fact-checking”: The subjectivity of it, making “allowances” and appreciating “nuance” if we want to support somebody, being nitpicky if we don’t. It is editorializing in the guise of objectivity.

        On your other point about what Ludwig said, I will manfully resist comment, as it lacks relevance to fact checking. It could be entirely true, and still not be relevant to the WaPo’s complaints.

      2. And, I suppose you’ve got some excuse for Obama just last night claiming that Newtown was perpetrated with a machinegun? Actually ‘correcting’ himself to claim it was a machine gun, after initially getting it right!

        Fact is, politicians on all sides are, at best, sloppy with the truth, and they’re sloppy with it because we give them a pass when they lie. Which is why I find nit-picking in ‘fact checking’ less objectionable than all the excuses for NOT identifying things as lies. It’s not as though we’re holding politicians to a stringent standard of truth telling to begin with.

        No, Obama earned all three of those Pinocchios, and shame on you for trying to pretend otherwise.

        1. Only gun-obsessed militarists really care about the semantic difference between a machine gun and a high-capacity semiautomatic assault rifle. They are both designed to inflict mass human casualties in record time (and, in the case of Newtown, to murder classrooms of six year olds in under five minutes.) No, the president did not lie, he simply doesn’t have the same weird obsession with instruments of death that too many people in this country do. Nor the patience or stomach to lower himself to the level of those who seem to fixate on nomenclature rather that demonstrating empathy.

          I wish, in my lifetime, that I never had to know the difference between a machine gun and a high-capacity semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle. But mass murders force us to know. With every mass murder, we learn new words. With every one of these crimes, enabled by the NRA and the gun lobby, we’re forced to learn a bit more about this death-hungry subculture.

          1. Oh, no, no, no, gun obsessed gun controllers care very much about the distinction, lying to people about what they’re trying to ban is a key tactic they employ, and if Obama didn’t care about the distinction, he would have gone with his initial, accurate utterance, instead of amending it into a lie.

            No, you’re just illustrating again one of the fundamental failures of ‘fact checking’, the tendency to find some excuse for lies perpetrated by your own side.

          2. Or it could have just been a slip of the tongue, similar to when Diane Feinstein mentioned “bazookas” in her response to the detestable Sen. Cruz.

            But, no, your paranoid, conspiracy-based conclusion is probably the correct one.

          3. He got it right the first time, and then amended his statement to get it wrong. That’s not a slip of the tongue.

            We’ve only got two options here, IMO: Either he lied, or he doesn’t know the difference between semi-automatic and fully automatic rifles. Considering that deliberately making people think that semi-automatic firearms you want to ban are fully automatic is a tactic gun controllers have been consciously employing for a couple decades now, (Josh Sugarman of the VPC thought it so clever he bragged about doing it.) and it’s not exactly a subtle point, I’m going with lie.

            Certainly, if he doesn’t even understand the difference between semi and fully automatic, he’s got no business opining on firearms policy.

            But refusing to admit these kinds of falsehoods ought to be dinged by fact checkers is central to Mark claiming that honest fact checking would have to make Republicans look a lot worse than Democrats.

  4. “a disgrace to journalism, if the editorial page of the Washington Post were still considered a journalistic enterprise”

    Sad but true. They are hacktacular.

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