Fact checkers perform a vital public service. The truth, however, is contentious. So fact checkers take criticism from all sides. Sometimes, they deserve it. For example, Greg Marx wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review,
But here’s where the fact-checkers find themselves in a box. They’ve reached for the clear language of truth and falsehood as a moral weapon, a way to invoke ideas of journalists as almost scientific fact-finders. And for some of the statements they scrutinize, those bright-line categories work fine.

A project that involves patrolling public discourse, though, will inevitably involve judgments not only about truth, but about what attacks are fair, what arguments are reasonable, what language is appropriate. And one of the maddening things about the fact-checkers is their unwillingness to acknowledge that many of these decisions—including just what constitutes “civil discourse”—are contestable and, at times, irresolvable.
Whether or not fact checkers wield it as a "moral weapon", they certainly use the "language of truth and falsehood", and some of them attempt to define "bright-line categories". This is most true for PolitiFact and The Fact Checker, which give clear cut, categorical rulings to the statements that they cover, and whose rulings currently form the basis of Malark-O-Meter's malarkey score, which rates the average factuality of individuals and groups. 

The language of truth and falsehood does "invoke ideas of journalists as almost scientific fact-finders." But it isn't just the language of truth and falsehood that bestows upon the art of fact checking an air of science. Journalists who specialize in fact checking do many things that scientists do (but not always). They usually cover falsifiable claims, flicking a wink into Karl Popper's posthumous cup of tiddlies. They always formulate questions and hypotheses about the factuality of the claims that they cover. They usually test their hypotheses against empirical evidence rather than unsubstantiated opinion.

Yet Fact checkers ignore a lot of the scientific method. For instance, they don't replicate (then again, neither do many scientists). Moreover, fact checkers like PolitiFact and The Fact Checker use rating scales that link only indirectly and quite incompletely to the logic of a claim. To illustrate, observe PolitiFact's description of its Truth-O-Meter scale.
True – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.

Mostly True – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.

Half True – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

Mostly False – The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

False – The statement is not accurate.

Pants on Fire – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim. [Malark-O-Meter note: Remember that the malarkey score treats "False" and "Pants on Fire" statements the same.]
Sometimes, fact checkers specify in the essay component of their coverage the logical fallacies that a claim perpetrates. Yet neither the Truth-O-Meter scale nor The Fact Checker's Pinocchio scale specify which logical fallacies were committed or how many. Instead, PolitiFact and The Fact Checker use a discrete, ordinal scale that combines accuracy in the sense of correctness with completeness in the sense of clarity. 

By obscuring the reasons why something is false, these ruling scales make it easy to derive factuality metrics like the malarkey score, but difficult to interpret what those metrics mean. More importantly, PolitiFact and The Fact Checker make themselves vulnerable to the criticism that their truth ratings are subject to ideological biases because...well...because they are. Their apparent vagueness makes them so. Does this make the Truth-O-Meter and Pinocchio scales worthless? Probably not. But we can do better. Here's how.

When evaluating an argument (all claims are arguments, even if they are political sound bites), determine if it is sound. To be sound, all of an argument's premises must be true, and the argument must be valid. To be true, a premise must adhere to the empirical evidence. To be valid, an argument must commit no logical fallacies. The problem is that the ruling scales of fact checkers conflate soundness and validity. The solution is to stop doing that.

When and if Malark-O-Meter grows into a fact checking entity, it will experiment with rating scales that specify and enumerate logical fallacies. It will assess both the soundness and the validity of an argument. I have an idea of how to implement this on the web that is so good, I don't want to give it away just yet.

There are thousands of years of formal logic research that stretch into the modern age. Hell, philosophy PhD Gary N. Curtis publishes an annotated and interactive taxonomic tree of logical fallacies on the web.

Stay tuned to Malark-O-Meter, where I'm staging a fact check revolution.
 


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    about

    Malark-O-blog published news and commentary about the statistical analysis of the comparative truthfulness of the 2012 presidential and vice presidential candidates. It has since closed down while its author makes bigger plans.

    author

    Brash Equilibrium is an evolutionary anthropologist and writer. His real name is Benjamin Chabot-Hanowell. His wife calls him Babe. His daughter calls him Papa.

    what is malarkey?

    It's a polite word for bullshit. Here, it's a measure of falsehood. 0 means you're truthful on average. 100 means you're 100% full of malarkey. Details.

    what is simulated malarkey?

    Fact checkers only rate a small sample of the statements that politicians make. How uncertain are we about the real truthfulness of politicians? To find out, treat fact checker report cards like an experiment, and use random number generators to repeat that experiment a lot of times to see all the possible outcomes. Details.

    malark-O-glimpse

    Can you tell the difference between the 2012 presidential election tickets from just a glimpse at their simulated malarkey score distributions?

    Picture
    dark = pres, light = vp
    (Click for larger image.)

    fuzzy portraits of malarkey

    Simulated distributions of malarkey for each 2012 presidential candidate with 95% confidence interval on either side of the simulated average malarkey score. White line at half truthful. (Rounded to nearest whole number.)

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    • 87% certain Obama is less than half full of malarkey.
    • 100% certain Romney is more than half full of malarkey.
    • 66% certain Biden is more than half full of malarkey.
    • 70% certain Ryan is more than half full of malarkey.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    fuzzy portraits of ticket malarkey

    Simulated distributions of collated and average malarkey for each 2012 presidential election ticket, with 95% confidence interval labeled on either side of the simulated malarkey score. White line at half truthful. (Rounded to nearest whole number.)

    malarkometer fuzzy ticket portraits 2012-10-16 2012 election
    (Click for larger image.)
    • 81% certain Obama/Biden's collective statements are less than half full of malarkey.
    • 100% certain Romney/Ryan's collective statements are more than half full of malarkey.
    • 51% certain the Democratic candidates are less than half full of malarkey.
    • 97% certain the Republican candidates are on average more than half full of malarkey.
    • 95% certain the candidates' statements are on average more than half full of malarkey.
    • 93% certain the candidates themselves are on average more than half full of malarkey.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    Comparisons

    Simulated probability distributions of the difference the malarkey scores of one 2012 presidential candidate or party and another, with 95% confidence interval labeled on either side of simulated mean malarkey. Blue bars are when Democrats spew more malarkey, red when Republicans do. White line and purple bar at equal malarkey. (Rounded to nearest hundredth.)

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    • 100% certain Romney spews more malarkey than Obama.
    • 55% certain Ryan spews more malarkey than Biden.
    • 100% certain Romney/Ryan collectively spew more malarkey than Obama/Biden.
    • 94% certain the Republican candidates spew more malarkey on average than the Democratic candidates.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    2012 prez debates

    presidential debates

    Simulated probability distribution of the malarkey spewed by individual 2012 presidential candidates during debates, with 95% confidence interval labeled on either side of simulated mean malarkey. White line at half truthful. (Rounded to nearest whole number.)

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    (Click for larger image.)
    • 66% certain Obama was more than half full of malarkey during the 1st debate.
    • 81% certain Obama was less than half full of malarkey during the 2nd debate.
    • 60% certain Obama was less than half full of malarkey during the 3rd debate.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    Picture
    (Click for larger image.)
    • 78% certain Romney was more than half full of malarkey during the 1st debate.
    • 80% certain Romney was less than half full of malarkey during the 2nd debate.
    • 66% certain Romney was more than half full of malarkey during the 3rd debate.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    aggregate 2012 prez debate

    Distributions of malarkey for collated 2012 presidential debate report cards and the average presidential debate malarkey score.
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    • 68% certain Obama's collective debate statements were less than half full of malarkey.
    • 68% certain Obama was less than half full of malarkey during the average debate.
    • 67% certain Romney's collective debate statements were more than half full of malarkey.
    • 57% certain Romney was more than half full of malarkey during the average debate.
     (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    2012 vice presidential debate

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    • 60% certain Biden was less than half full of malarkey during the vice presidential debate.
    • 89% certain Ryan was more than half full of malarkey during the vice presidential debate.
    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    overall 2012 debate performance

    Malarkey score from collated report card comprising all debates, and malarkey score averaged over candidates on each party's ticket.
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    • 72% certain Obama/Biden's collective statements during the debates were less than half full of malarkey.
    • 67% certain the average Democratic ticket member was less than half full of malarkey during the debates.
    • 87% certain Romney/Ryan's collective statements during the debates were more than half full of malarkey.
    • 88% certain the average Republican ticket member was more than half full of malarkey during the debates.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    2012 debate self comparisons

    Simulated probability distributions of the difference in malarkey that a 2012 presidential candidate spews normally compared to how much they spewed during a debate (or aggregate debate), with 95% confidence interval labeled on either side of the simulated mean difference. Light bars mean less malarkey was spewed during the debate than usual. Dark bars less. White bar at equal malarkey. (Rounded to nearest hundredth.)

    individual 2012 presidential debates

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    • 80% certain Obama spewed more malarkey during the 1st debate than he usually does.
    • 84% certain Obama spewed less malarkey during the 2nd debate than he usually does.
    • 52% certain Obama spewed more malarkey during the 3rd debate than he usually does.
    Picture
    (Click for larger image.)
    • 51% certain Romney spewed more malarkey during the 1st debate than he usually does.
    • 98% certain Romney spewed less malarkey during the 2nd debate than he usually does.
    • 68% certain Romney spewed less malarkey during the 3rd debate than he usually does.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    aggregate 2012 presidential debate

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    (Click for larger image.)
    • 58% certain Obama's statements during the debates were more full of malarkey than they usually are.
    • 56% certain Obama spewed more malarkey than he usually does during the average debate.
    • 73% certain Romney's statements during the debates were less full of malarkey than they usually are.
    • 86% certain Romney spewed less malarkey than he usually does during the average debate.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    vice presidential debate

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    • 70% certain Biden spewed less malarkey during the vice presidential debate than he usually does.
    • 86% certain Ryan spewed more malarkey during the vice presdiential debate than he usually does.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    2012 opponent comparisons

    Simulated probability distributions of the difference in malarkey between the Republican candidate and the Democratic candidate during a debate, with 95% confidence interval labeled on either side of simulated mean comparison. Blue bars are when Democrats spew more malarkey, red when Republicans do. White bar at equal malarkey. (Rounded to nearest hundredth.)

    individual 2012 presidential debates

    Picture
    (Click for larger image.)
    • 60% certain Romney spewed more malarkey during the 1st debate than Obama.
    • 49% certain Romney spewed more malarkey during the 2nd debate than Obama.
    • 72% certain Romney spewed more malarkey during the 3rd debate than Obama.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    aggregate 2012 presidential debate

    Picture
    (Click for larger image.)
    • 74% certain Romney's statements during the debates were more full of malarkey than Obama's.
    • 67% certain Romney was more full of malarkey than Obama during the average debate.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    vice presidential debate

    • 92% certain Ryan spewed more malarkey than Biden during the vice presidential debate.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    overall 2012 debate comparison

    Party comparison of 2012 presidential ticket members' collective and individual average malarkey scores during debates.
    • 88% certain that Republican ticket members' collective statements were more full of malarkey than Democratic ticket members'.
    • 86% certain that the average Republican candidate spewed more malarkey during the average debate than the average Democratic candidate.

    (Probabilities rounded to nearest percent.)

    observe & report

    Below are the observed malarkey scores and comparisons form the  malarkey scores of the 2012 presidential candidates.

    2012 prez candidates

    Truth-O-Meter only (observed)

    candidate malarkey
    Obama 44
    Biden 48
    Romney 55
    Ryan 58

    The Fact Checker only (observed)

    candidate malarkey
    Obama 53
    Biden 58
    Romney 60
    Ryan 47

    Averaged over fact checkers

    candidate malarkey
    Obama 48
    Biden 53
    Romney 58
    Ryan 52

    2012 Red prez vs. Blue prez

    Collated bullpucky

    ticket malarkey
    Obama/Biden 46
    Romney/Ryan 56

    Average bullpucky

    ticket malarkey
    Obama/Biden 48
    Romney/Ryan 58

    2012 prez debates

    1st presidential debate

    opponent malarkey
    Romney 61
    Obama 56

    2nd presidential debate (town hall)

    opponent malarkey
    Romney 31
    Obama 33

    3rd presidential debate

    opponent malarkey
    Romney 57
    Obama 46

    collated presidential debates

    opponent malarkey
    Romney 54
    Obama 46

    average presidential debate

    opponent malarkey
    Romney 61
    Obama 56

    vice presidential debate

    opponent malarkey
    Ryan 68
    Biden 44

    collated debates overall

    ticket malarkey
    Romney/Ryan 57
    Obama/Biden 46

    average debate overall

    ticket malarkey
    Romney/Ryan 61
    Obama/Biden 56

    the raw deal

    You've come this far. Why not just check out the raw data Maslark-O-Meter is using? I promise you: it is as riveting as a phone book.

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