Idiotic Moments In ‘Fact-Checking’
June 5, 2011 3 Comments
I’m not a big fan of “Mitt” Romney or anything, but this ‘fact check’ quasi-news article is an embarrassment to its author and anyone else involved: FACT CHECK: Romney miscasts economy in GOP debut
How did Romney ‘miscast the economy’, and what ‘fact’ did the intrepid reporter ‘check’?
ROMNEY: “When he took office, the economy was in recession. He made it worse. And he made it last longer.”
Simple grade-school parsing of this English sentence, which the AP reporter is apparently incapable of, reveals that two and only two claims are in evidence here:
1. Obama made the recession worse
2. Obama made the recession last longer
Now right away there’s a problem. Whether you agree with those statements or not, they aren’t ‘facts’ that can be ‘checked’. They are just not that sort of claim. They are, instead, counterfactual claims about what the economy would have been like had not Obama been elected or done whatever stuff. You might agree with those claims, disagree with them, be agnostic about them, but you CANNOT look up any ‘facts’ to bring to bear on the question. You’d have to consult a few alternative universes to see how they’ve turned out with President McCain. But that is not possible. So there’s nothing to ‘check’ here, there are only arguments to make and honest disagreements to be had.
This doesn’t stop the dumb reporter from trying, of course – after all, he’s got a ‘fact check’ assignment to fulfill, and presumably water to carry for his side! – so he proceeds to rebut Romney’s (un-fact-checkable) claim by pointing to….GDP:
The gross domestic product, the prime measure of economic strength, shrank by a severe 6.8 percent annual rate before Obama became president. The declines eased after he took office and economic growth, however modest, resumed.
What does this even mean, or have to do with Romney’s claim? Implicitly, the reporter is saying:
1. How ‘The Economy’ is doing depends solely on a single metric: GDP. You can never claim the economy is worse at time T2 than T1 if GDP went up between those two times.
2. GDP shrank a lot before Obama took office
3. The shrinkage slowed down after he took office
4. Then it started growing again
There are many problems with this argument. First, the idea of GDP as the sole barometer of ‘The Economy’ is just stupid. Second, even if you bought into it, the reporter never actually gets around to making the case he’s trying to make. Claims 2-4, put together, don’t actually tell us whether GDP – supposedly the barometer of the economy, and the ‘fact check’ disproof of Romney’s statement – is higher now than in January 2009. (It is, I think, but I had to look it up myself elsewhere.) The reporter speaks of growth and shrinkage and turnaround but he doesn’t actually speak about the actual level. This sort of sleight of hand is typical of propaganda artists who don’t actually have facts on their side and know it.
It’s as if he doesn’t understand the difference between a function and its first derivative. Reading this ‘fact check’, for all I knew, GDP (to make up numbers) could have been 15 the year before Obama took office, shrank to 10 by the time Obama took office, shrank further to 8, and then climbed up to 9. That would be perfectly consistent with what is written, and yet it would add up to an economy that got worse (=shrank from 10 to 9) under Obama.
Ironically, the reporter actually seems to realize how idiotic he’s being, by backpedaling again by the end of the blurb:
A case can be made for and against the idea that Obama’s policies made the economy worse than it needed to be and that the recession lasted longer than it might have under another president. Such arguments are at the core of political debate.
Quite. Of course, that’s not what made the headline of the story, is it? Having fulfilled his headline propaganda purposes, he can freely bury the actual logic and truth in the body of the article, giving himself plausible deniability.
Then there is the larger issue of whether President Obama, or any President, can ‘make the economy better’ or ‘worse’ in the first place, but that shall have to wait for another post, because both Romney and his would-be ‘fact-checker’ are guilty of that particular form of idiocy.