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Monday, September 15, 2008

 

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Well, I provide the statistics (kind of), the politicians provide the lies and the damned lies. I've laregly abandoned blogging since last year (real life and other hobbies put blogging on hold) but I got some inspiration for a post from this election season.

Last week, I was having a heated discussion with a friend and co-worker at lunch over the presidential candidates. I'm an Obama supporter, and my friend is a fiscal conservative who is not wild about McCain, but is still not voting for Obama. He's since been leaning towards McCain after Sarah Palin was picked as his VP, but that's not the point of this post.

When I tried to argue why McCain and Palin are less trustworthy than Obama and Biden due to the fact they've been putting out more lies and falsehoods, he countered with the assertion that all politicians lie anyway. Of course that's true, but shouldn't we look to see who's more willing to tell us complete falsehoods rather than just exagerations and shadings of the truth? As Hilzoy said recently:

When politicians lie -- and here I mean not just putting the best spin on things, but out and out lying -- they might as well walk up to each and every one of us and say: Hello! I have no respect for the value of your time! You might have other things to do -- work, playing with your kids, taking a long hike in the mountains, whatever -- but I don't care. I'm going to put you in a position where you're going to have to research everything I say, or else just give up on your civic duty. You don't get to assume that my words are, if not exactly true, at least somewhere in the general vicinity of the truth, and decide whether or not to vote for me. If you want to be an informed citizen, you'll have to become obsessive, like hilzoy.

They might as well add: I have no respect for democracy. In a democracy, citizens listen to what each side has to say and decide who to vote for. To work, it requires that what each side says bears some resemblance to the truth. If I cared about democracy, I'd respect those limits -- maybe stretching the truth every now and then, but generally maintaining some sort of relationship between what I say and reality. But guess what? I don't care about democracy! If winning requires that I make things up out of whole cloth and hope that I'm successful enough to frustrate the popular will, then that's what I'll do. Don't like it? Think democracy is a good system, one that we should cherish? That's just too bad.

Anyway, one thing my conservative friend and I have in common is that we both trust factcheck.org as an objective non-partisan website that cuts through politicians' spin and exposes exagerations, falsehoods, and lies. So I told him I'd be willing to bet that since the primary season ended in early June, the count of McCain falsehoods called out on factcheck would be at least 2 to 1 against the count of Obama falsehoods. He brushed that off and didn't take my bet, but I was curious and took a little time this weekend to count up the claims myself.

Well, I'm glad he didn't take my bet, because I was wrong. But the ratio was still lopsided. I found 30 articles discussing falsehoods attributed to McCain or the RNC, and 18 articles discussing falsehoods attributed to Obama or the DNC (I didn't include articles from unaffiliated third parties, like the false charges about Obama's birth certificate from Jerome Corsi, or the internet whisper campaign against Sarah Palin). This is a ratio of 1.67 to 1, so not quite 2 to 1, but still significant. Furthermore, if you count the individual claims mentioned in the bullet points of each article's summary, the ratio becomes 65 to 34, a ratio 1.91 to 1.

Of course, factcheck.org isn't comprehensive, and doesn't claim to have tracked every statement and ad of the campaigns. So make your own conclusion as to whether this is a representative sample. Also, it might be relevant to compare the number of falsehoods the candidates have provided to the full number of statements and ads they've produced to compute some kind of truthfulness rate. For all I know, McCain could be putting out 1.67 or 1.91 times more statements and ads during the campaign, so his truthfulness rate would be the same as Obamas. I find this possibility unlikely, but I have neither the time or inclination to collect and process each candidate's every single word. Anyone else want to take that task?

Another site that tracks politician's statements is Politifact.com. They score candidate's statements on "truth-o-meter" scale from true to half-true to false to "pants on fire" false. Their site is not comprehensive either, but they may represent a better sample since they track both true and false statements. Take a look at the candidates' truth-o-meter ratings:










ObamaMcCainBidenPalinDemocratic TicketRepublican Ticket
True39 (34%)
25 (22%)
7 (27%)
4 (50%)
46 (33%)
29 (24%)
Mostly True24 (21%)
20 (18%)
4 (15%)
1 (13%)
28 (20%)
21 (17%)
Half True21 (18%)
19 (17%)
5 (19%)
3 (38%)
26 (19%)
22 (18%)
Barely True12 (11%)
21 (19%)
4 (15%)
0 (0%)
16 (11%)
21 (17%)
False18 (16%)
22 (19%)
4 (15%)
0 (0%)
22 (16%)
22 (18%)
Pants on Fire0 (0%)
6 (5%)
2 (8%)
0 (0%)
2 (1%)
6 (5%)
Total114
113
26
8
140
121

Since both VP picks have much fewer statements, I added them with the presedential candidates to produce total scores for each ticket (the rightmost 2 columns). You can see that both with and without their VP picks, McCain's been telling more falsehoods than Obama, with 6 "pants-on-fire" rulings to Obama's 0. Biden has 2 "pants-on-fire" rulings, but one is more of an insult to President Bush than a lie, and the other is a distortion of Rudy Giuliani's record made in October of 2007, long before he was selected as VP. I didn't go through all of the individual articles for each candidate, so you be the judge whether each of the candidate has committed just lies or damned lies. Be sure to also check out Politifact's flip-o-meter to see how the candidates have flip-flopped. This looks about even for both sides.

Also see a similar analysis done by another blogger based on Politifact articles, but only focusing on each campaign starting from the beginning of August.

Finally, I was debating whether or not ot make this a blog post until I saw these two articles here and here (hat tip: Andrew Sullivan) about "Republicans fault both campaigns for negative ads." It takes real gall for Karl Rove and Rudy Giuliani to complain about the campaign's negative tone, when it's clear that the Republicans bear most of the blame. And to add insult to injury, Rove used the pants-on-fire rated charge that Obama called Sarah Palin a pig as his example from the Democratic side. Sigh.

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Comments:
This is much appreciated, although perhaps not much read. Incidentally, it also looks as though the total number of campaign statements (that have been evaluated, anyway) are about the same, so the truthfulness rate for verified statements is about the same as the count. The other thing that I'd be curious in seeing is the ratio over time - I don't know if it'll reveal anything too informative, but at least it'd be capable of verifying my suspicion that politicians lie more often closer to an election.
 
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