Thursday, October 08, 2009

Who Fact Checks The Fact Checkers?

Well, according to PolitFact, an arm of the St. Petersburg Times which is being touted by the DNC as being damn near the Gospel, they don't need no stinking fact checkers. They are honest because they say they are honest. Really, the question is "How do we know that PolitFact is honest in its appraisals and approaches?"

Here is how PolitFact dodges the question:

As we've gained new readers since the election, every now and then we get e-mails that ask, "Who's paying for this Web site? Who's putting out this information?"

The short answer is this: PolitiFact is a project of the St. Petersburg Times to help you find the truth in American politics....

Yeah, yeah, you say. But who owns the Times?

Who gives a crap? Finding out who owns a news gathering organization doesn't prove the honesty of said organization. The question remains, how do we know you, regardless of who owns you, are honest?

But when it comes to the question of "Who is PolitiFact?" or "Who pays for PolitiFact?", we can assure you that no one is behind the scenes telling us what to write for someone else's benefit.

Even if this is true, and I'm assuming it is though I have no way of knowing that for sure, the question remains: "Why should I trust you?"

Their answer? "Because we say so!"

We are an independent, nonpartisan news organization. We are not beholden to any government, political party or corporate interest. We are proud to be able to say that we are independent journalists.

I'm sorry but it is possible for people to be corrupted by their own personal ideological motives. In fact, self-interest is kinda the number one way in which truth gets perverted. Now we know from surveys of the profession that self-identifying left leaning journalists outnumber right leaning journalists by almost two to one (see here and here) and are way out of proportion when compared to the American population as a whole. This being true, why is it safe for me as a reader to just assume the bunch of journalists at PolitiFact are playing it straight? The fact is it isn't safe.

I pulled a couple of their stories to check on the fair-mindedness of PolitiFact, and, lets just say I've found them wanting. For example, in this post concerning H. Leighton Steward we read the following: is skeptical. The organization, which is still awaiting its nonprofit status, is the brainchild of Leighton Steward, a self-described geologist, environmentalist, author, and retired energy industry executive.[emphasis added]

The implication of the wording "self-described geologist" is clear. We are supposed to believe that Steward isn't an actual geologist, only a "self-described" one.

Well, it turns out that is wrong and PolitiFact lied (or "purposely misled", if that makes you feel better.) Steward in fact has an MS degree in Geology granted by SMU in 1959, and used that degree in the oil and gas fields for at least the period 1962-1997 (cite). But, hey, according to PolitiFact he's only a make believe geologist.

But, now that PolitiFact has gotten through impugning the man's academic credentials and three decades of work experience, let's see how they do with the issue:

The Web site is chock-full of links to papers, videos and other evidence that more carbon dioxide is actually good for the environment.

"Far from being a pollutant, rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations will never directly harm human health, but will indirectly benefit humans in a number of ways," according to the site....

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency disagrees.

On April 17, 2009, the agency said that thorough scientific review proved that carbon dioxide, along with several other greenhouse gases, are pollutants that threaten human health; it is taking steps to regulate the gases under the Clean Air Act, a law typically reserved for monitoring traditional pollutants including ozone and sulfur dioxide.

Ah, so PolitiFact has discovered a new way to solve scientific arguments; namely by calling upon the authority of the Federal government! Aren't we lucky to have this organ for solving all scientific conflicts at our fingertips?!?!

Funny thing is... being a Political Scientist by profession - or am I??? Maybe PolitiFact can invalidate my three degrees in the field and University teaching experience as well - I'm prone to thinking of the Federal government not as a neutral arbiter on any dispute, but the venue wherein ideological battle get fought and the prize being fought over. Last time I checked, Democrats and Republican still had different ideological visions, and still sought to impose those visions upon the Federal government through winning elections. (Maybe we stopped doing this and no one told us Political Scientists?)

So, I wonder.... was CO2 classified as a pollutant back in 2008? No, it wasn't. Hmmm... what about 2007? Nope. 2006? Sorry. But, it was designated as a pollutant by the Federal government, for the first time, in 2009.

Gee, what is different about the Federal government in 2009 from the Federal government in 2008? PolitiFact would have you believe nothing.

What this boils down to is PolitiFact is making a pronouncement on a point of public controversy (i.e. whether a naturally occurring molecule like CO2 can be legitimately classified as a man made pollutant), and saying, "Because the Democrats now control the Federal government, the controversy is over." And if you persist in trying to make your case, you are a liar.

That is, of course, nonsense. (Laughable nonsense, really.)

The second story I looked at was PolitiFact calling Michele Bachman a liar for raising concerns about the beliefs of Obama medical adviser Ezekiel Emanuel. Here is what Bachman said (quote from PolitiFact):

"The president's adviser, Dr. Emanuel, believes communitarianism should guide decisions on who gets care. He says medical care should be reserved for the non disabled. So watch out if you're disabled."

How does PolitiFact go about "debunking" this? Why they ask an Obama spokesman of course.

So the question is, is Emanuel saying that he thinks health services ought not to be guaranteed to patients [for example] with dementia?

No, said Kenneth Baer, a spokesman for the White House Office of Budget and Management. "He just unequivocally doesn't believe that."

There are two things wrong here. One, the method PolitiFact employs to "debunk" this is simply stupid. Here you have a matter of controversy which you will solve by taking the word of one of the disputants as if they were impartial. [And, yes, since Emanuel has a role in the administration it cannot reasonably present itself as an impartial outsider.] The question, after all, is not what Emanuel says now his words are causing controversy, but what he said.

And, did he say what Bachman said he said? Yes, he did.

In the piece in question, which is all of three pages but still taxed the PolitiFact researcher beyond the point of their endurance, Emanuel is concerned about the lack of universal health care in the United States. Emanuel thinks he knows the reason why this is so:

Underlying the repeated failure of attempts to
provide universal health care coverage in the United
States is the failure to develop a principled mechanism
for characterizing basic health services. Americans
fear that if society guarantees certain services
as "basic," the range of services guaranteed will expand
to include all-or almost all-available services
(except for cosmetic surgery and therapies not
yet proven effective or proven ineffective). So rather
than risk the bankruptcy of having nearly every
medical service socially guaranteed to all citizens,
Americans have been willing to tolerate a system in
which the well insured receive a wide range of medical
services with some apparently basic services uncovered;
Medicare beneficiaries receive fewer services
with some discretionary services covered and
some services that intuitively seem basic uncovered;
Medicaid beneficiaries and uninsured persons receive
far fewer services.

Notice, because this dates from the days of the failed Clinton health care proposals of the 1990's, the concerns are not exactly the same as we hear today, but that is irrelevant for our purposes. We are only interested in what Emanuel advocates for, which he conveniently tell us:

On this view, the reason the United States has
failed to enact universal health coverage is not primarily
political or economic; the real reason is ethical-
it is a failure to provide a philosophically defensible
and practical mechanism to distinguish basic
from discretionary health care services.

This "ethical failure" results, so Emanuel tells us, from a mistaken belief that defining such an ethics would merely be the imposition of one vision of the good upon those who define the good differently. Emanuel believe this is wrong, and spells out his alternative:

Fortunately, many, including many liberals, have
come to view as mistaken a liberalism with such a
strong principle of neutrality and avoidance of public
discussion of the good. Some think the change
a result of the critique provided by communitarianism;
others see it as a clarification of basic liberal
philosophy. Regardless, a refined view has emerged
that begins to create an overlap between liberalism
and communitarianism. This overlap inspires hope
for making progress on the just allocation of health
care resources. This refined view distinguishes issues
within the political sphere into four types: (1) issues
related to constitutional rights and liberties; (2) issues
related to opportunities, including health care
and education; (3) issues related to the distribution
of wealth such as tax policies; and (4) other political
matters that may not be matters of justice but are
matters of the common good, such as environmental
policies and defense policies. While there still
may be disagreement about the need for a neutral
justification for rights and liberties, there is consensus
between communitarians and liberals that policies
regarding opportunities, wealth, and matters of
the common good can only be justified by appeal
to a particular conception of the good.

That vision of the good to be adopted he defines as follows:

We may go even further. Without overstating it
(and without fully defending it) not only is there a
consensus about the need for a conception of the
good, there may even be a consensus about the particular
conception of the good that should inform
policies on these nonconstitutional political issues.
Communitarians endorse civic republicanism and a
growing number of liberals endorse some version
of deliberative democracy. Both envision a need for
citizens who are independent and responsibile and
for public forums that present citizens with opportunities
to enter into public deliberations on social

Now, this is the point at which the PolitiFact argument falls flat on its face. Here is what the PolitiFact article says:

Baer said, is that Emanuel was exploring different views of political theory as they apply to health care decisions and following one school of thought through to the point where he notes that it would lead to "potentially disturbing types of policy ramifications."

This is simply false. Any cursory reading of the original article would have made that perfectly clear. PolitiFact simply takes the word of the Obama spokesman at face value. (Gee, I wonder why.) The notion that Emanuel simply put this view out there in a discussion of many different alternatives, and Bachman is pulling it out of context to embarrass Emanuel is a lie.

This civic republican or deliberative democratic
conception of the good provides both procedural
and substantive insights for developing a just allocation
of health care resources. Procedurally, it suggests
the need for public forums to deliberate about
which health services should be considered basic
and should be socially guaranteed. Substantively, it
suggests services that promote the continuation of
the polity-those that ensure healthy future generations,
ensure development of practical reasoning
skills, and ensure full and active participation by citizens
in public deliberations-are to be socially guaranteed
as basic.

Notice, at no time does Emanuel qualify these statements to indicate they belong to anyone other than himself and fellow travellers who also believe it is "fortunate" that liberalism and communitarianism have found one another. (How touching.) So, when Emanuel follows the logic of his reasoning and states...

Conversely, services provided to individuals
who are irreversibly prevented from being
or becoming participating citizens are not basic and
should not be guaranteed. An obvious example is
not guaranteeing health services to patients with dementia.

...we have no reason to believe he doesn't mean it, or that he is talking about someone else. Indeed, based upon what Emanuel is arguing here it is clear that denying health services to people with dementia is merely an example. Presumably, their would be other examples. Indeed, it is easy to come up with other examples of human beings who fail the Emanuel's test because of disabilities that prohibit them from developing "practical reasoning skills [to] ensure full and active participation by citizens."

Not content with merely lying about what Bachman did and what Emanuel wrote, PolitiFact goes on to enagage in a little non sequitar action. Once again, parroting the Obama spokesman, PolitiFact adds:

Furthermore, he said, you need to balance McCaughey's claim against Emanuel's 25-year record of caring for very sick people, and specifically providing quality care to very ill patients at the end of their life.

Does he also help little old ladies across the street and buy Girl Scout cookies? That's all very nice, and totally irrelevant. (But isn't it a wonder?) But, hey, whats a little misdirection when you are PolitiFact?!

"He's a little surprised at how his record is being twisted and turned," Baer said. "It is preposterous that Ezekiel Emanuel would deny care to someone who needed it, or that he believes we should be making the sort of horrific medical decisions he's been accused of."

The poor dear. The problem is he proposes such things routinely. In this paper, for example, looking at the allocation of scarce medical resources (who gets a vaccine in short supply, or a transplant, etc.), Emanuel proposes the following under his scheme "The Complete Lives System":

Because none of the currently used systems satisfy all
ethical requirements for just allocation, we propose an
alternative: the complete lives system. This system
incorporates five principles: youngest-first,
prognosis, save the most lives, lottery, and instrumental
value. As such, it prioritises younger people who have not
yet lived a complete life and will be unlikely to do so
without aid. Many thinkers have accepted complete lives
as the appropriate focus of distributive justice: “individual
human lives, rather than individual experiences, [are] the
units over which any distributive principle should
operate.” Although there are important differences
between these thinkers, they share a core commitment to
consider entire lives rather than events or episodes, which
is also the defining feature of the complete lives system.
Consideration of the importance of complete lives also
supports modifying the youngest-first principle by
prioritising adolescents and young adults over infants.
Adolescents have received substantial education
and parental care, investments that will be wasted without
a complete life. Infants, by contrast, have not yet received
these investments. Similarly, adolescence brings with it a
developed personality capable of forming and valuing
long-term plans whose fulfilment requires a complete

Notice, Emanuel is absolutely arguing for denying care to infants in a situation of scarce medical resources, in favor of older children who have had more "invested" in them. Whether the patient "needed" the the treatment is not our jumping off point here, thus Emanuel is most assuredly talking about denying care to those who would need it, particularly the oldest and the youngest among us. How it would work in practice is, of course, wishy-washy (much of Emanuel's work shares that as a basic characteristic), but it is an open question as to what would happen in the event of a catastrophic flu outbreak. Would Emanuel support diverting scarce vaccine away from older Americans and infants who might be more vulnerable to the disease, in favor of the younger and stronger just because we have not gotten the "return on our investment" yet? I don't know. But it is a valid question.

Now, I'm not saying it is illegitimate to have these types of discussions, and to pose these types of hypotheticals, but that does not mean Emanuel gets a "Get Out Of Public Controversey Free" card because he's an academic. It also doesn't mean you get to call Michele Bachman a liar when she calls him on it.

No comments: