What is the Washington Post doing?

Most Mexicans are Catholic. The earth orbits the sun. The Cowboys are 13–3. Miracle Whip sucks.

Four statements: three facts, and one subjective judgment/opinion. I’m sure you know which are which.

I think it’s extremely important that we retain our ability to distinguish facts from non-facts: values, judgments, and opinions. My scientific work has focused on how politically-biased social scientists sometimes fail to keep the distinction, and the bogus findings that are published as a result. Modern American politics disturbs me for a few reasons, but the thing that spooks me most right now is how it’s eating away at our basic cognitive faculties. We all know that our ideologies can erode our integrity — we’re motivated to deny facts that threaten our political worldviews. Even worse would be to lose our understanding of what a fact is, and that’s what I’m seeing — people are losing their grasp of facts as a category.

I first saw this when I stumbled on some of the scams that present themselves as “fact checkers”. An example that still stands out was back in 2012 when Mitt Romney said the US Navy was smaller than it had been since 1917 (in fleet size).

This was true, and has been true for a few years. The fleet has shrunk in half since the 1980s, and has hovered in the 270s-280s range since 2005 (it fluctuates in that range from year-to-year, for a variety of reasons— Romney didn’t cite a year for the modern era, but it hasn’t moved out of that range since 2005). The Navy hasn’t had fewer than 300 ships since 1917, so any recent year satisfies the claim. (Good framing numbers: the post-Vietnam peak was 594 ships in 1987, before Vietnam it was in the 800–1100 range, and during WWII the Navy had over 6,000 ships).

A self-described fact-checking outfit called Politifact couldn’t successfully navigate this most basic of fact-checking duties—a numerical truth that only required them to check historical tables of the fleet. Instead, they called Romney a liar for his mundane factual statement (a “Pants on Fire” lie, no less). They danced around the truth of his claim by arguing against his metric (fleet size), tried to bring in complex judgments and opinions on technology and strategy (over which experts will heartily disagree), and even called Romney’s statement “meaningless”. In short, these “fact-checkers” were spouting lots of opinions, and critically, did not seem to understand what facts are.

Politifact turned out to be a partisan scam whose staff seemed to lack the training and integrity to be reliable fact-checkers. This was most evident in the loaded question they sent to experts when “researching” Romney’s claim: “What context does this ignore (changing/more lethal technology, changed geopolitical needs, etc)?”

I was so disappointed — I hate it when authorities and institutions that are tasked with soberly disseminating objective knowledge betray us by promoting their politics under the banner of science or fact-checking. We’re trying to have a civilization here people.

Now to the Washington Post. They recently rolled out a Chrome browser extension that offers to fact-check Donald Trump’s tweets. Okay, now I know a lot of you are manning your battle stations and bracing for a fight. Relax, please. Every four years we have these crazy elections and Americans become incredibly vicious and tribal. It’s so depressing. I don’t think my political views should matter for the points I’m about to make, but it might be helpful to know that I didn’t vote for Trump.

Let’s look at our first example of the Post’s fact-checking.

In this tweet, Trump expresses: 1) his appraisal of the media, and 2) his opinion that his move to the White House is not complex (as it pertains to his business).

There is nothing here for a fact-checker. Whether someone’s business-related loose ends are “complex” or not is a subjective appraisal — an opinion. Complex is hopelessly vague and won’t mean the same thing to everyone — no one is obligated to define it the way the Post does. And while Trump’s judgment of the media’s coverage can in theory be reduced to checkable factual claims, it’s too vague to be adjudicated by armchair fact-checkers. For starters, we don’t even know which media outlets Trump was referring to — we’d have to ask him, and checking the media’s motives would be difficult.

Yet the Post branded the tweet “incorrect or false”. That’s so strange. How can we tag someone’s appraisal of an aspect of their own lives as false? For example, maybe you think your marriage is complex, or not complex — in what sense could anyone say that your appraisal of the complexity of your life was false?

Next, the Post elaborates by claiming that Trump’s own advisors have said his move to the White House is complex. If we click on their [LEARN MORE] invitation, we get a Post article titled: The gigantic mess of conflicts for Donald Trump that sits half a mile from the White House

What a strange title for a newspaper or fact-checker. The article reports that Trump’s company recently opened a hotel in DC, which is housed in an old building leased from the US government. The writer, Philip Bump, evidently sees this hotel as presenting “gigantic” conflicts of interest for Mr. Trump: 1) the conflict of presiding over the US government when his firm is leasing a building from said government, and 2) the conflict of foreign diplomats staying in the hotel, which would result in money — hotel charges — flowing from foreign governments to Mr. Trump’s firm. (This seems trivial compared to the conflicts we often deal with in government— do we normally care about stuff like this? The lease is a contract, so it’s not like he can dish more federal dollars to his company through it, which he’d never get away with anyway.)

In any case, how does this article back the “incorrect or false” fact-check of Trump’s opinions? Recall that the fact-check blurb said that Trump’s advisors “have said that it is complex”, and backed the claim by linking to this article. However, no Trump advisors are quoted or paraphrased in the article, on any topic. The word “complex” does not appear anywhere. In fact, the article doesn’t include anyone’s appraisal of the complexity (or non-complexity) of Trump’s transition to the White House, as it pertains to his businesses or anything else.

In this example, we have a bogus “fact-check” of someone’s subjective judgments and opinions, followed by apparently made-up claims. (Note also that it wouldn’t have mattered if one or a dozen of Trump’s advisors said that his business transition was complex, so the Post’s elaboration was irrelevant. Trump said that he didn’t think it was complex. That’s his judgment of an aspect of his life — it can’t be logically refuted by other people’s opinions, even his advisors’.)

Example 2: The Switcheroo

Trump claims that Evancho’s album sales have skyrocketed since the announcement. What does the Post give us? Not album sales. Instead of addressing what Trump is talking about, the Post simply switched to a different variable that tells us nothing about the claim. Note that moving from #2 to #1 on the classical chart is compatible with any sales trend, including skyrocketing sales or a nosedive. It tells us nothing about sales, except relative to other albums. It’s not clear why the Post thinks this is important and “missing” context. Same drill with being #93 on the Top 200, which was particularly strange of the Post to cite. It’s only one data point and therefore couldn’t describe a trend anyway, even on irrelevant variables — we’d need to know her ranking the week before.

Well, the Post failed to mention that Evancho’s album was #183 on the Billboard 200 the week before — its first week on the chart — and thus climbed 90 spots in one week. That disclosure would clearly have destroyed the impression the Post was trying to give its readers, and they withheld it— this is a disturbing degree of deception for a news organization.

Let me pause here to note that I’m amazed we’re having this conversation. Why is the media trying to deceive the public on someone’s album sales? Is it controversial or surprising that a singer’s sales would jump after being booked for a major event? Does every damned thing have to be political in this country?

In any case, Trump was truthful — if a 94 percent increase satisfies our definition of “skyrocket”. Sales of Evancho’s latest album Someday at Christmas increased 94 percent the week after the announcement, while Billboard reports that the typical jump for a Christmas album is only 21 percent.

I don’t pretend to know what caused the jump in sales — the media has feigned a disturbing certainty of the causes and non-causes, without any evidence, and has been somewhat vicious in its handling of this story. The Boston Globe has gone as far as lying to its readers — a fascinating choice for a newspaper — by claiming that Evancho’s album sales are “not up much”. Given the 94 percent figure, and assuming a base-10 number system and contemporary patterns of American English, the Globe’s claim could only be truthful if we substantially redefined the words not, up, or much.

Example 3 — Reading Minds

Here we have:

  1. A claim that Boeing is building a new Air Force One. This is true (more precisely, they’re slated to build two of them, based on the 747–8, over the next few years).
  2. An opinion that costs are out of control. This can’t be adjudicated by fact-checkers — it’s a subjective (and potentially complex) judgment, and can rest on vastly different personal yardsticks for what such aircraft should reasonably cost, among other things.
  3. An estimate of the cost: $4 billion. This is fact-checkable (though there might be several different estimates out there, and identifying the most accurate estimate is likely to be difficult, if not impossible).
  4. An injunction to cancel the order. This can’t be adjudicated by fact-checkers, since it’s an injunction — a position on the best course of action. (I’m also not sure it was meant as any sort of final position on the issue — I don’t think we need to be picking apart tweets as settled policy positions. Trump might just be negotiating to drive down the price, an approach DC insiders may be unfamiliar with.)

What does the Post offer us here? Well, they don’t even attempt a fact-check. Under a label of Just so you know, they claim to know Trump’s motives for this tweet. This is getting weirder and weirder. These fact-checkers are now reading minds.

Their explanatory link takes us to a Post article titled: Did Donald Trump tank Boeing’s stock because he was mad about a news article? In the article, Bump speculates that Trump tweeted about the Air Force One contract because he was upset by comments that Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg made at a conference (as reported in Robert Reed’s Chicago Tribune column). From Bump’s article:

“Last year, we delivered 495 737s from our factory in Renton, Wash., to customers around the world,” Muilenberg continued, noting that a third of the planes were sent to China. “This phenomenon would have been unimaginable when I started at the company in 1985.”
Those are pointed comments. It was Trump, of course, who robustly criticized free trade during the general election. And it is Trump who, this week, seemed to threaten a trade war with China.

I think I have a different definition of “pointed comments” than Bump, which is fine. I agree more with Reed, the original source, who called Muilenberg’s comments “measured”. It’s fine for Bump to disagree with the whole world on the pointedness of these comments. What’s not fine is claiming to know that: 1) Trump read this article, 2) Trump was offended by Muilenberg’s comments, and 3) Trump tweeted his misgivings about the Air Force One program’s costs because it was Boeing’s CEO who made those comments and Air Force One is a Boeing program.

The Post should not be trying to pass off this mind-reading nonsense as fact-checking, or even as journalism. Near the end of his article, Bump says the obvious: “ We don’t know that Trump was responding to the Tribune story.”

If that’s the case, then why is the Post claiming that “this tweet appears to have been sent in response to a speech the CEO of Boeing gave in which he tacitly criticized Trump’s policies on trade”? What are they doing?

I don’t see the tacit criticism they see, but the attribution of motives without any evidence whatsoever is just confusing given what I understood the Washington Post to be — a moderately biased but credible newspaper with a storied history of fantastic journalism.

Example 4: He watches TV

Here we have Trump’s opinion that NBC Nightly News and CNN are biased and inaccurate. Such appraisals can be very complex, and rest on different datasets, memories, and ideological perspectives from person to person. We can measure media bias, and there are some ways to convert Trump’s appraisals to checkable claims, but to do that we’d need to talk to him to get more details about what he’s referring to.

The Post skips all that seriousness, and makes the trenchant point that “Trump regularly watches — and complains about — television shows.”

Well… thanks for the heads-up there WaPo. I wish we’d known this before the election. Does he also regularly eat cereal for breakfast? Does he regularly watch — and complain about — the NHL?

At this point, we’ve seen enough examples — the Washington Post’s “fact-checking” collapses here into naked malice and pettiness. This is not the kind of political bias I’m used to seeing in the media — this is vicious nonsense. What is the Washington Post doing, exactly? What is this? What do we call it? I’m pretty sure this doesn’t satisfy anyone’s standards for journalism.

Until now, I thought the Washington Post was a good newspaper. Woodward and Bernstein, man. I knew the Post had a leftist bias, but I never understood it to be an extreme bias. I saw them as less biased than the New York Times, and with better journalistic talent than deliberately conservative efforts like the Washington Times.

If the Post is the Weekly World News now, that’s sad. If they’re not, then they need to correct this nonsense and reacquire their professional and ethical standards. They list Philip Bump, the key staffer behind these “fact-checks”, as “Reporter — New York”. Yeah… So that’s what they’re calling it now? If this guy’s a reporter, I’m an Irish housewife. This is a political partisan who is collecting a paycheck at the Post to be a political partisan and do petty partisan things, reporting not among them.

I wasn’t aware that the Post funded this sort of thing, and I’m struggling to understand what they’re doing. If we’re going to have a serious civilization, we need to keep our grip on what facts are. I think it’s incredibly dangerous to go down the road the Post is taking us. Turning fact-checking into a scam could destroy whatever confidence people still have in the news media. At some point we may desperately need the public to believe true things, and they won’t because of all the times they’ve been lied to by politically-driven scientists and fact-checkers. I don’t like this one bit.

Afterword: Does anyone know if the Post has hired any non-leftists for its fact-checking efforts? I mean in the last few years, and anyone who is currently at the Post. As far as I know, they only hire leftists for their fact-checking. If that’s the case, then this should never have been taken seriously — unless you have some kind of advanced bias-correction training (which I’m not sure exists), you’re not going to get clean fact-checking from a team that consists entirely of partisans on the same side.

José L. Duarte recently earned a PhD in Social Psychology at Arizona State University, and is about to launch the Valid Science Center. You can email him at jose.duarte@asu.edu.

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