Wednesday, January 18, 2012

A PolitiFact Example

So yesterday I got an email from Louis Jacobson of PolitiFact. It said:
Good morning,

Hope all is well! I wanted to throw a new military-related PolitiFact fact-check your way.

In last night's South Carolina debate, Mitt Romney said, "Our navy is smaller than it's been since 1917. Our air force is smaller and older than any time since 1947."

(1) Is this technically true, and if so, by what metrics?

(2) What context does this ignore (changing/more lethal technology, changed geopolitical needs, etc)?

Thanks so much!

All best,
Lou J.
Here is what I wrote back:
Lou,

1. On the Navy question, Romney appears to be accurate using the standard Navy metric, which is number of active ships. In 2003, the US Navy dropped below 300 active ships, and is currently at about 285. The last time the number was below 300 at the end of the year was 1916, when it was at 245. By the end of 1917, the number was 342. An excellent source is the Naval Historical Office, here: http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/org9-4.htm

I suppose you could ding Romney for personnel numbers, which were lower in the 1930s than they are now, but navies usually are judged by ship totals. See here: http://www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq65-1.htm

As for the Air Force, that one is trickier, because I cannot find a good single source to point the way. That said, the Air Force has a large statistical collection at this page: http://www.afhso.af.mil/usafstatistics/index.asp

It appear that the figure is accurate personnel-wise. The current force has about 332,000 active duty, and the last time it was that low was in 1947, when the number was 305,000. As for numbers and ages of aircraft, the numbers vary based on active duty or counting reserves, but generally it appears that aircraft were slightly fewer and a bit older in the mid 2005-2008 range. I am not a statistician, but the specific numbers seem a bit more complicated than the statement from Romney implies. Then again, the overall statement appears to be accurate about the trend--the Air Force is older and smaller than it has been for almost its entire history.

2. As for the issue of context, it cuts both ways. Certainly the Navy had to deal with rivals of varying strength and compositions throughout the era from 1917 to now, much as the Air Force was dealing with a peer competitor in the Soviet Union for most of its history. Likewise, newer technologies for the Navy and Air Force are probably more lethal, both absolutely and relative to most competitors, than they were in the past. So, given the geopolitical situation and the state of technology, it seems that the Navy and Air Force can stand to be smaller than they have been in the past. But there is a key contextual difference. Because the forces are so reliant on a small number of expensive and highly sophisticated ships and aircraft to to the job of large numbers of less sophisticated technologies in the past, the current technologies are more valuable and the overall system is more fragile.

If the Navy loses one carrier to enemy action, for any reason, that loss would be catastrophic in a way such a loss would not have been in the past. Likewise, the Air Force cannot afford to lose even small numbers of the highly sophisticated airframes of today. An additional contextual difference is that the U.S. military used to prepare during peacetime to mass produce weapons and material in the event of war. That is not the case today. For better or worse, the military is stuck with what it has for a long time once war begins, and regardless of losses (e.g.: the delay in producing up-armored Humvees and MRAPS for Iraq). In that sense, the small but sophisticated military is also risky.

Sorry for going on so long. I hope this helps.

All best,

Tom Bruscino
The final article is here. Jacobson's Truth-O-Meter conclusion, which is based on much more than just my response, is "Pants on Fire," because while the numbers are basically accurate, the context makes his claim a lie. Jacobson writes:
Our ruling

This is a great example of a politician using more or less accurate statistics to make a meaningless claim. Judging by the numbers alone, Romney was close to accurate. In recent years, the number of Navy and Air Force assets has sunk to levels not seen in decades, although the number of ships has risen slightly under Obama.

However, a wide range of experts told us it’s wrong to assume that a decline in the number of ships or aircraft automatically means a weaker military. Quite the contrary: The United States is the world’s unquestioned military leader today, not just because of the number of ships and aircraft in its arsenal but also because each is stocked with top-of-the-line technology and highly trained personnel.

Thanks to the development of everything from nuclear weapons to drones, comparing today’s military to that of 60 to 100 years ago presents an egregious comparison of apples and oranges. Today’s military and political leaders face real challenges in determining the right mix of assets to deal with current and future threats, but Romney’s glib suggestion that today’s military posture is in any way similar to that of its predecessors in 1917 or 1947 is preposterous.

In addition, Romney appears to be using the statistic as a critique of the current administration, while experts tell us that both draw-downs and buildups of military equipment occur over long periods of time and can't be pegged to one president. Put it all together and you have a statement that, despite being close to accurate in its numbers, uses those numbers in service of a ridiculous point. Pants on Fire.

I do not have a dog in this hunt. I am ambivalent about Romney and his candidacy, and I think the issue of defense spending is enormously complicated. I did not watch the debate, and I have not read the entire transcript. So, like Jacobson, my focus is entirely on the question of the relative size of the U.S. Air Force and Navy.

Jacobson did a remarkable bit of research in a very short period of time. However, I did think his questions to me were leading. Remember, Mr. Jacobson asked "(2) What context does this ignore (changing/more lethal technology, changed geopolitical needs, etc)?," which both assumes and implies to the interviewees that Romney ignored those specific contexts.

Additionally, in his final few paragraphs, Jacobson refers to Romney's statements as "meaningless," "glib," "preposterous," and "ridiculous." To be frank, I'm a little surprised by that wording, especially in writing for a site that strives for objectivity.

My opinion, for what it is worth, is that since Romney's base statement was factually accurate when it came to most numerical metrics, it would seem that he could be given credit for a half-truth, even if the context complicates the matter.

In any event, that is how PolitiFact worked in this case. Just in case you are interested.

18 comments:

Timothy Holmes said...

I'm afraid you have been missled and your fine reasearch has been used to advance a political agenda. Mr. Jacobson's personal opinions are completely transparent in

what is supposed to be an objective conclusion. His use of derogatory descriptors, as you point out, is an unfortunate slip of opinion.

Additionally, Jacobson managed to contradict himself. In apparent defense of the Obama administration, he says, "...the number of [Navy] ships has risen slightly under Obama." He then proceeds to make that observation irrelevant by one of his closing statements: "... draw-downs and buildups ... can't be pegged to one president."

So what, I ask, is the purpose of his article? Is it to make sure a politician is using 'facts' (as opposed to 'lies') to his agenda? Or is Mr. Jacobson using his 'Fact-Checker' clout to selectively attack an individual politician for his agenda, despite the use of factual data. Jacobson offered you a statement without context. The statement being mostly factual didn't seem to matter, leading one to understand that Jacobson was predisposed to call Romney a 'lier'.

I'm neither a fan of Romney, nor Obamma, but I am a fan of objective and neutral journalism (and fact-checking). If PolitiFact hopes to maintain a positive reputation, they're going to have to reign in their writers' opinions.

Timothy Holmes said...

OK, I don't mean to spam you, but after criticizing Mr. Jacobson, I decided I ought to actually read his article. And yes, it gets worse.

In his article, Jacobson provides the Romney quote that includes the two facts about the Navy and Air Force. However, the quote continues to Romney's conclusion: "We simply cannot continue to cut our Department of Defense budget if we are going to remain the hope of the Earth. And I will fight to make sure America retains military superiority."

Then, in a miraculous feat of objectivity, Jacobson decided to redefine Romney's message by writing, "His [Romney's] underlying point: The U.S. military has been seriously weakened compared to what it was many decades ago."

Jacobson actually bothered to quote Romney (in context) before proudly taking Romney out of context.

Dustin said...

Politifact has never had much objectivity. Their purpose is to elect democrats.

Sure, they will work that purpose with a little game theory... build up some credibility with low infos by trashing a few democrats mildly or in ways that don't matter. Then they will spend that credibility to tilt the argument.

Is their mission to determine whether facts presented by politicians are accurate? That's only what their name suggests. If that were their mission, they would have explained that Romney's facts were accurate and left it at that. Let the other politicians explain why it's OK to have a tiny and old navy while Obama proposes a reduction in capability.

But Politifact wants to spin the debate, not evaluate accuracy of claims. This is as good a proof as I've seen, but hardly isolated.

Paul said...

You guys were just linked on one of my favorite blogs "Ace of Spades." Awesome!

Jay said...

You're getting lots of linkage today. Nice job!

As someone has already said, Politifact exists to elect Democrats, and to give them the "Politifact said you were lying" line.

The fact that they include "context" gives them something malleable they can use to come to whatever conclusion suits them. Which is what they have done here.

Alec Rawls said...

"Politifact" says that Romney was lying because a smaller military does not imply a weaker military. But Romney never said it did. He said it was a smaller and older military.

Nachum said...

Both of his questions were leading. Note that in the first, he only allows it to be "technically" true.

Brennan said...

Start with Lou's interpretation of Romney's comments.

His[Romney] underlying point: The U.S. military has been seriously weakened compared to what it was 50 and 100 years ago.

Is that even close to what Romney actually said?

ROMNEY: I've still got time. So as long as I still have time I just want to go back and agree with what Governor Perry said, the most extraordinary thing that's happened with this military authorization is the president is planning on cutting $1 trillion out of military spending. Our navy is smaller than it's been since 1917. Our air force is smaller and older than any time since 1947.
We are cutting our number of troops. We are not giving the veterans the care they deserve. We simply cannot continue to cut our Department of Defense budget if we are going to remain the hope of the Earth. And I will fight to make sure America retains military superiority.
[source: Council on Foreign Relations: http://www.cfr.org/us-election-2012/republican-debate-transcript-south-carolina-january-2012/p27077]

Lou has taken Mitt's facts and fabricated his own conclusion.

Jymn said...

Dustin - hilarious, considering Politifact spun a dubious Democratic quote as 'Lie of the Year'. It has subsequently been proven to be true. But that doesn't seem to matter to someone like Dustin. It's all just propaganda, no worse than that of Politifact or Ace of Spades. Thanks for the laugh. Liberal media? What a joke.

edinnj said...

Typical right wing ideologues, racing to the comment section to accuse Polifact of bias when they don't like the conclusion, but probably linked to their "Lie of the Year" when it served their anti-American purposes.

Bottom line- Politifact is a corporate media outlet, more concerned with page views and ad revenue than truth-telling. They will spin both ways, the more controversial the better, like most news shows and blogs.

Dustin said...

"Dustin - hilarious, considering Politifact spun a dubious Democratic quote as 'Lie of the Year'. It has subsequently been proven to be true. But that doesn't seem to matter to someone like Dustin. It's all just propaganda, no worse than that of Politifact or Ace of Spades. Thanks for the laugh. Liberal media? What a joke. "

Like I said, they try to build credibility by proving they are out to get democrats too.

Yet the vast majority of their work spins the claims of conservatives in a dishonest way.

Mitt didn't even say what Politifact claims was his 'real point'.

Sorry, but this incident is not isolated and it shows a severe inability to evaluate facts. It also shows a rather unprofessional need to editorialize.

BTW, no, the GOP did not vote to end Medicare. By trying to get entitlements to a more sustainable level, some conservatives are the only hope such programs have.

In fact, it's idiots who show ads of granny being murdered and politicians (like Romney) who claim Republicans want to "kill social security" who are really acting in a way that will lead to the end of these entitlements.

At some point we run out of other folks' money.

So no, you're wrong on all three counts there. Four if you include you sneering that there's no liberal media, but damn I assume you're just kidding.

Dustin said...

"racing to the comment section to accuse Polifact of bias when they don't like the conclusion, but probably linked to their "Lie of the Year" when it served their anti-American purposes."

This is stupid.

So if Politifact ever hits a democrat, they must not be biased? And anyone who disagrees with you is "anti American"?

Unreasonable from start to finish. The entire game here is to help elect democrats by creating fake credibility with weak attacks on democrats that is spend on strong attacks on republicans.

The "lie of the year" is a classic example.

paul a'barge said...

It's not called "PolitiFraud" for nothing.

he who scoffs at danger said...

i think there is something in this that corresponds to the flack politifact received from the left for their "lie of the year".

http://thinkprogress.org/health/2011/12/02/381180/politifacts-finalist-for-2011-lie-of-the-year-is-100-percent-true/

i suppose they feel like they need to force a "balance" in order to avoid receiving fatal "fair and balanced" comparisons from the left's partisan media.

Wolfmoon said...

I've seen and taken notice of the bias in "Politifact" for some time. I griped about it in my own blog a couple times. Politifact is garbage to me since I noticed the bias (in some cases, pretty damn extrme bias) and won't ever use them as a source let alone as a footnote.

meoffg said...

One point that has been overlooked is what is the relative strength of the opposition, most navies are in decline in terms of hulls on the water and therefore it is likely that the relative comparison of the USN to other powers is still in its favour.

A caution should be made though that any relative ranking of naval power based on a fixed ratio of hulls on the water can be ruinously expensive to maintain as the Germans and the British found in the period 1907-13 as described in Robert Massies book Dreadnought

vitaglubet said...

I've been watching Politifact for a while now and when I read the background argument, I can't see why they rate the item as they do. Two things: What they choose to rate and their lack of logic. Take a look for yourselves. It is pretty clear.

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