Context-Free Facts

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

The vacuous nature of most political discussions in the U.S. has led many people to call for more fact-checking, and for other methods to restrict politicians and their surrogates from simply making things up.  Certainly, anyone watching the Romney/Ryan campaign is left gasping for air, agape at the lack of concern for the truth that the Republican ticket has shown.

Our first line of defense, of course, should be a free press.  But as nearly everyone has now noticed, even the supposedly liberal "mainstream media" is committed to a form of inane even-handedness that simply boils down to uncritically reporting what the two parties say.  "Naturally, both sides disagree."

After the press failed in its primary duty to sort truth from lies, a cottage industry of "truth squads" and fact-checkers arose, specifically to address political controversies.  In short order, however, it became clear that the fact-checkers themselves (who are, after all, mostly journalists who learned the same rules that have neutered standard journalism in this regard) were falling into the "balance" trap.  One of the "Public Editors" for the New York Times -- a relatively recent innovation, by which the Times tried to show that it was open to correcting any claims of (liberal) bias in its coverage -- happily described one of his weekly columns as containing "one for the left, one for the right, and one down the center."  The idea, in other words, was that he had chosen to discuss three controversies, and his judgments on them showed that he was unbiased by virtue of his not saying that one side is right more often than the other.

Similarly, the on-line operations that have come into being over the last few years to call liars to account have also bent themselves out of shape to say some truly odd things.  One group even declared that a simply true statement -- Democrats' claim that Paul Ryan's plan, which was twice unanimously endorsed by Republicans in House votes, would "end Medicare" (which Ryan's supporters had also proudly claimed the plan would do) -- was its "lie of the year."  And since then, this same fact-checking group has decided to label facts as "partially true," on the basis that President Obama stated the facts in a possibly self-serving way.

Of course, there is often a good reason to go beyond the strict truth of a statement, given the context. For example, there is an old scam in which a con man bets a sucker that he (the con man) can "tell you the score in tonight's Giants/Cardinals game before it begins."  After the sucker agrees to the bet, the con man says, "Zero to zero, before the game begins!"  Did the con man lie?  What should a fact-checker do?  The law, in most statutes relating to fraud and perjury, includes something along the lines of "intention to mislead."  There is, therefore, good reason to think that simple fact-checking is not actually all that simple.  But that only leads us back to where we began, hoping that there are people who will make dispassionate judgments and let the chips fall where they may -- which is exactly what the modern U.S. press simply refuses to do, lest they find themselves stating the obvious truth that one party is much less connected to the truth than the other party is.

If we cannot even trust the truth-checkers, then what can we do?  One answer is simply to "give the people more information, and let them decide for themselves."  Again, this is what the press was supposed to do.  That is, while my professional training allows me to find publicly-available information on economic and tax law matters, most citizens could never find that information on their own (and would not have the time to spend doing so, even if they knew where to start).  The press is supposed to do that job for the people.

What about simply providing raw facts and data, without commentary?  The allure of such an approach fades quickly, when one considers just how easy it is to tell a story while apparently relying only on a few facts.  The "Harper's Index" has been around for decades, and each month it provides a fascinating list of statistics that, without apparent editorial content, tell a story.  Sometimes the facts are offered in isolation, yet they will obviously feed into a narrative that nearly everyone will understand.

For example, in this month's issue, the final line of the Index reads: "Portion of Americans who don't walk for at least ten continuous minutes at any point in an average week: 2/5."  That is not a fact in isolation, but rather a fact that is obviously about the obesity crisis in the U.S.  In the same issue, three facts are offered one after another: "Percentage change since 1988 in U.S. teen pregnancy rates: -36," "In abstinence rates among white teens: +31," "Among black teens: +56."  This also tells a story, suggesting that the usual narrative about black teenagers' irresponsible parenting is wrong (or less right than it used to be).

As a liberal, I appreciated the attempt to "set the facts straight" about the racialized story that too many Americans believe about poverty and child-bearing.  Yet these facts do not actually tell us what they would seem to tell us, because we do not know the relative sizes of the two populations, nor the starting points from which the two populations were measured.  (Starting from a lower number, for example, makes it easier to have a larger growth rate.  Adding one dollar to two dollars is a 50% increase, while adding one dollar to one hundred dollars is a 1% increase.)

Therefore, as much as I appreciate the appeal of these factoids, it is essential to keep them in perspective, and to understand that "simple facts" can be manipulated.  (For other reasons, I continue to believe that the standard narrative on urban poverty is wrong.)  Even so, one cannot help but enjoy reading the Harper's Index, in part because it so often brings out truly amazing stats (such as this set of polling results: "Percentage of Ohio Republicans who say Obama is more responsible than Romney for the death of Osama bin Laden: 38," "Who say Romney is more responsible than Obama: 15," "Who say they aren't sure which man is more responsible: 47").

In early 2011, I wrote a blog post about an effort to present people with "simple facts" about the federal budget.  The problem there, as elsewhere, is that the presentation of facts would be necessarily incomplete, which gives the presenter of the facts a great deal of largely-invisible power over the impact that the facts would have on the readers.  Calling for "more facts," however, simply moves us back in the direction of leaving people with more facts than they can reasonably collect and process.

As I have argued many times, on this blog and elsewhere, there is often objective truth at stake in political debates.  It is not true that there are always two sides to every story.  It is a lie that Romney has announced a plan that would achieve the combination of goals that he claims.  It is, in fact, a lie that Romney has announced a plan at all.  (He has announced, at best, half a plan, accompanied by steadfast refusals to reveal the rest.)  But calling him on those lies cannot be done simply by reporting numbers.  It requires judgment, which is what everyone is so frantically trying to avoid.

Even so, I will close by acknowledging that facts are sometimes simply fun.  In that spirit, I note that my university recently announced a public-spirited website called "Face the Facts USA," which attempts to provide interesting and useful facts that are relevant to public policy debates.  Even a mild perusal of the entries so far will make it clear that the site is very much offering commentary, even as it purports to be non-judgmental.  (Look at many of the entries on debt and deficits, for example.) Nevertheless, one cannot help but be surprised by, for example, Fact 79: "U.S. Spends More Rebuilding Iraq, Afghanistan than Post-WWII Germany," and the explanation that goes with that fact.  Who knows what that really means?  But it's a fact!