Just the facts, ma’am.

Mythbusters, factcheck.org, and Snopes have become sources of a special kind of truth for people around the world. Dedicated to undoing legend and independently analyzing political or other rhetoric, these and other sites, as well as various news segments and print media spots, are to be commended for their efforts to turn down the BS meter, which all agree has been running on high ever since the old days, when there was no BS at all.

(Which, of course, is an urban myth.)

However, what you may not know is that these sites are not necessarily politically neutral, can be quite biased (in non-political ways) about certain issues, and can be annoyingly FOS all on their own.


Snopes is especially annoying to me for two reasons. First, they seem to be politically biased in ways that are a bit subtle …. this is mainly a gut feeling for me, and don’t even ask me to document it. I just think it is true, and don’t care to prove it to you. The second reason is much easier to document and is very clearly true. Snopes has a particular credulity bias. While Snopes seems to try to prove or disprove, using valid evidence, the claims that they address, it is often the case that proof positive is unavailable. In these cases, Snopes often decides if something is likely true or likely untrue using an implicit credulity test. Unfortunately, this credulity test is culturally biased and often misinformed.

In once instance, Snopes made an absolutely firm claim about a ‘belief’ said to be held by people of certain areas of Africa. Snopes decided that it did not believe that anyone could possibly believe this belief, and declared it to be untrue. But they were dead wrong. The belief in question absolutely is held by a number of people, and this can be documented and understood in the local cultural context as a reasonable (if also untrue) belief. However, Snopes saw belief in this belief as racist or patronizing. I appreciate Snopes’ concern about racism and the pervasive Western sense of superiority over other cultures. However, if this belief is examined in the real cultural and historical context in which it is found, there is not an issue of race or cultural bias to be concerned with. If anything, the situation is quite the opposite.

I sent Snopes a clearly stated correction with the proper contextual framework so that any westerner could come to an understanding of what is going on. My comments went unacknowledged, though the web page has been updated to exclude specific aspects of the discussion … in other words, Snopes changed the description of the ‘legend” in such a way that their debunking of it was less inaccurate. (But it is still wrong.)

Our local news station has a guy that comes out and tells us the truth about a current news story. It seems to me that he is expected to come up with such a story (always about politics) a certain number of times a week. Therefore, he sometimes has to make up what is wrong or overstate the ‘truth’ in order to meet his obligation. That the production … the medium … takes over the message is utterly obvious in this case. He needs to stop doing this.

I’ve never watched Myth Busters so I have no comment on that. But given the overall pattern I would not be surprised if some of the myths are not busted in a purely objective factual way.

The most recent high profile destroyer of belief is Factcheck.org, which has been doing a pretty good job of monitoring the debates, various ads, and so on in the current US presidential election. But even this new fangled, reasonably well done effort can become entangled with unreality now and the. Here are a few examples:


McCain repeated his overstated claim that the U.S. pays $700 billion a year for oil to hostile nations. Imports are running at about $536 billion this year, and a third of it comes from Canada, Mexico and the U.K.

vs

Palin said, “We’re circulating about $700 billion a year into foreign countries” for imported oil, repeating an outdated figure often used by McCain. At oil prices current as of Sept. 30, imports are running at a rate of about $493 billion per year.

What is true? These numbers are all topsy turvy.


Here, Factcheck.org asks us to buy into comparing apples and oranges:

Obama said 95 percent of “the American people” would see a tax cut under his proposal. The actual figure is 81 percent of households.


At one point on the factcheck.org website, it says:

The candidates were not 100 percent accurate. To say the least.

That second phrase is not a sentence, yet it starts with an upper case letter and ends in period. WTF, Factcheck.org?


In a discussion of who is to blame for the current economic crisis, Factcheck.org says:

The U.S. economy is enormously complicated. Screwing it up takes a great deal of cooperation. Claiming that a single piece of legislation was responsible for (or could have averted) the crisis is just political grandstanding.

That is absurd. No one wanted to screw up the economy. There was no cooperation. This is a serious misstatement.


Now, I know a couple of these checks-on-factcheck are tongue in cheek, but they are meant to illustrate the illusory nature of reality. The statement that “it takes a great deal of cooperation” to screw up the economy is in the same family as statements like “the truth is somewhere in the middle” or “there is always a kernel of truth behind any myth.” These two bits of inanity are the root of plenty of myths or mis beliefs.

Factcheck.org should be more careful.

Finally, I have the impression that Factcheck.org does try to post, on each of their web pages concerning the two tickets, a roughly equal number of items per candidate, even though we know the Republicans are lying constantly and the Democrats are trying their best to tell the truth. Am I right?

Comments

  1. #1 Joel
    October 4, 2008

    A WTF moment if I ever saw one.

    The Jackson County School Board has taken action against a teacher who apparently made racial commentary on presidential candidate Barack Obama.

    According to parents and students in Greg Howard’s seventh-grade social studies class, Howard on Friday, Sept. 26 asked the class a question regarding Obama’s call for change, and proceeded to write out what the letters C-H-A-N-G-E stood for.

    “She told me that he wrote on the board ‘Can You Help A (expletive) Get Elected, and then laughed about it,” said Shelia Christian, a mother of one of Howard’s students.

    http://www.jcfloridan.com/jcf/news/local/article/marianna_teacher_told_students_what_change_stood_for/39223

    The expletive was apparently the “N” word.

  2. #2 Rob
    October 4, 2008

    I have to say that Mythbusters is actually pretty good about NOT busting myths that cannot explicitly be disproved. They have 3 categories: busted- there is simply no way that would have worked; confirmed- I’ll be damned, it really worked; and plausible- we can neither prove nor disprove this myth, it seems like it might be possible under certain circumstances that we cannot replicate. That being said, the myths that they work with are urban myths or movie myths about physical events, e.g., does vodka help jellyfish stings, can soda remove blood stains, can an abnormally large and vicious great white shark pull a trawler fast enough to crash waves over the stern. And if it doesn’t involve something eventually breaking or exploding, they probably won’t get to that particular myth.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    October 4, 2008

    The one I did see (on Youtube) was about mice scaring elephants. They had a mouse pop out from a bucket or something when an elephant walked by, and indeed, the elephant got scared (apparently). They then decided that they had to rule out that the bucket was scaring the elephant, and did a test with the bucket but no mouse. The elephant was not scared.

    Elephants are actually ‘scared’ of mice. Though maybe we need to examine what we mean by ‘scared.’

  4. #4 simba
    October 4, 2008

    No, that proved that one particular elephant is scared of mice.

  5. #5 Ian
    October 4, 2008

    They nay not always get it right, but I’m pretty impressed with MythBusters. I haven’t seen the elephant one, but when it comes down to it, that’s probably a question that isn’t well suited to their methodology…they do their best to employ the scientific method – their experimental design may not always be perfect, and that, of course, might lead to problems of interpretation. But I think they’re fundamentally different from Snopes.

  6. #6 Greg (tembo) Laden
    October 4, 2008

    Simba: Good point, but I think there were multiple elephants.

    But still, that this particular culture (of elephant) acted is a manner that could be interpreted by some humans as being “scared”).

    And it wasn’t really mice, but some other convenient rodent, most likely.

  7. #7 Stephanie Z
    October 4, 2008

    FactCheck is obviously working for balance, although if you count the items on each debate page, Republicans are slightly dominant (as liars), more so if you count only the headlined items instead of adding the “oh, and also” stuff at the bottom.

    There are two things FactCheck does that obscure clarity more when they take this approach. First, the long text format makes comparison more difficult than necessary. Second, they don’t categorize their problems into, say, misstatement, misrepresentation, and lie (i.e., we’ve mentioned this before, so they have no business repeating it). They need to add a summary table with the candidates shown side by side and the degree of each problem noted graphically.

  8. #8 Phil
    October 4, 2008

    Mythbusters does a very good job of testing. They have episodes online so please watch before criticizing. The show is great fun. They have tested the Hindenburg flammable skin, firewalking and whether diving underwater will protect you from bullets. Fun for the whole family.

  9. #9 alfred glenstein
    October 4, 2008

    Wow, I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who thinks this. Specifically, with a site like Factcheck.org, they take it upon themselves to be non-partisan, the implication being that they will fact check all sides equally, because that’s what any neutral institution does.

    But that whole outlook is very compatible with false equivalencies, and there is no inherent reason why, for example, Obama makes just as many misstatements as McCain or vice versa.

    So, you end up with articles, where this counts as a “fact-check”

    Obama has committed his share of energy-related misleads, too. In July, we caught him saying that his plan will “fast track alternatives” to imported oil. In reality, Obama’s offers a 10-year research and development fund, which doesn’t sound all that “fast” to us.

    For god sake. Reasonable people can differ on what “fast tracking” is, and to stand that side by side with, say, Palin’s “Bridge to Nowhere” claims as though they are equal is just misleading.

  10. #10 alfred glenstein
    October 4, 2008

    Wow, I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one who thinks this. Specifically, with a site like Factcheck.org, they take it upon themselves to be non-partisan, the implication being that they will fact check all sides equally, because that’s what any neutral institution does.

    But that whole outlook is very compatible with false equivalencies, and there is no inherent reason why, for example, Obama makes just as many misstatements as McCain or vice versa.

    So, you end up with articles, where this counts as a “fact-check”

    Obama has committed his share of energy-related misleads, too. In July, we caught him saying that his plan will “fast track alternatives” to imported oil. In reality, Obama’s offers a 10-year research and development fund, which doesn’t sound all that “fast” to us.

    For god sake, this is a fact check?. Reasonable people can differ on what “fast tracking” is, and to stand that side by side with, say, Palin’s “Bridge to Nowhere” claims as though they are equal is just as hideously rotten as any modern he-said she-said article on politics.

  11. #11 alfred glenstein
    October 4, 2008

    sorry about the double-post

  12. #12 Alan Kellogg
    October 4, 2008

    On Elephants and Mice

    In this particular case it sounds more like a startle response. Elephants, for all their size, are prey animals, and wary of things popping up out of ambush (so to speak). They’re also fairly intelligent and prone to overactive imaginations. Then again, considering what all can pop-up under their feet, there are times when an elephant is wise to move with alacrity. No sense in being too calm and collected.

  13. #13 Roman Werpachowski
    October 5, 2008

    @Greg

    You criticize Snopes but don’t document your criticism either ;-)

  14. #14 mark
    October 5, 2008

    Only a day or two ago I read that factcheck made an erroneous claim. The source was Media Matters. Now, who’s fact-checking Media Matters?

  15. #15 greg laden
    October 5, 2008

    Roman: You are right. But it was beyond the scope of the post. I will write about this at some point.

  16. #16 jeffk
    October 5, 2008

    But that whole outlook is very compatible with false equivalencies, and there is no inherent reason why, for example, Obama makes just as many misstatements as McCain or vice versa.

    This is exactly right. I’m convinced that most of our problems are to blame on this very thing. Rather than trying to measure objective reality, we mold it into a way that’s “balanced”. You have present the same number of lies from each candidate, even if one is lying ten times as much… you have to interview people with both opinions, even though one is supported by evidence and one is not… it goes on and on. Nobody cares about reality anymore. We all just make up our minds with no evidence, and then decide that the middle, wherever that turns out to be, is the “unbiased” position.

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