Friday, July 22, 2016

Volokh Fact-Checks Politifact's Fact-Checking of Trump on Violent Crime Stats

   Well this is disturbing.
   I mean, it's disturbing that violent crime is on the rise...but I'm not talking about that right now. I've been puzzled by Trump's claims, so I finally went and checked them out, and came across the Volokh piece.
   Et tu, Politifact?
   I've run across some things in Politifact before that caused me to raise an eyebrow and wonder whether leftish bias was in play there, as in so many other places... I think Volokh is right, and that the PolitiFact post on this issue is wrong, and avoidably so.


Blogger The Mystic said...

Ehhhh... I'll disagree on this one. I, myself, have called out Politifact on what I thought were incorrect analyses, but this doesn't seem to be one of them to me.

It seems to me that Trump clearly claimed broadly that "Crime is rising," and he used it as part of a rhetorical series of assertions designed to indicate that Obama's presidency has observed this trend and been incapable of stopping it.

Politifact therefore analyzed crime data and showed that, broadly, crime has been on a downward trend for 25 years.

Volokh responds by pointing out that some preliminary data seems to indicate what may be an anomalous rise in the subset of crime that is violent in the last half-year.

Does that seem like a fair summary of what just happened?

If so...does that seem like a reasonable critique of Politifact? Is it reasonable to defend a broad rhetorical statement, clearly intended to indicate that crime is generally on the rise and has been throughout Obama's presidency, with some preliminary data suggesting that perhaps a subset of crime is on the rise in the last few months while even admitting that this may well not indicate any sort of significant deviation from the quarter-century declining trend?

Seems like an obvious "no" to me..

9:56 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

That seems reasonable...but what about the "Pants on fire" rating? I mean, it kinda seems to me like Trump even has a defense against a straightforward *false* rating... I can see a good argument for *mostly false*...and even one for *false*...but *Pants On Fire*?

Now I'm pretty unsure and would have to put more thought into this than I'd like to put into it...

10:05 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

Well, Politifact says that rating is reserved for false statements which make ridiculous claims, so their argument is:

1) It is false that "Crime is rising."
2) It is ridiculous to claim that crime in America is on the rise because of Obama. For, not only is Obama not responsible for a rise in crime, but there is no evidence for a trend-reversing rise in crime for which to be responsible.

This is at least cogent and respectable. It does seem that they are correct regarding (1) as America continues to experience a downward trend in criminal activity, so far spanning a quarter-century, and regarding (2) it seems that Trump is indeed asserting that crime is on the rise thanks to Obama:

"Hard to imagine what's happened to our country. America is being taken apart piece by piece, auctioned off and just rapidly, auctioned off to the highest bidder. We're broke. We're broke. We are $19 trillion, going quickly to $21 trillion. Our infrastructure is a disaster. Our schools are failing. Crime is rising. People are scared. The last thing we need is Hillary Clinton in the White House or an extension of the Obama disaster."

Seems pretty ridiculous to me. Trump knows he's lying, but he knows this is what his voting base believes, so he'll say it again and again. I think the only way to defend Trump from the rating is to be extremely, atypically charitable and point out that it's possible Trump was referring to the recent uptick in crime and some non-statistical (seemingly entirely non-data-driven, really) personal hypothesis that it is representative of a trend which was caused by Obama and which will continue...

But there's no reason to believe that's what's happening here, and even if it were, it would still be a yet-unproven hypothesis, devoid of any truth value whatsoever, pitched rhetorically as though it were a factual claim. At best, it seems to me, Trump knows crime is on a long-term downward trend and he's taking an opportunity to jump on what may well be a statistical bump in the road as soon as it's available. He is intentionally using that bump to deceive the American people into a false sense of alarm.

Pants. On. Fire.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Ok, I feel ya.

But what about the defense that Trump merely asserts that (1) *crime is rising,* not (2) *crime is rising because of Obama*?

Also, doesn't Politifact say that it's evaluating (1), not (2)?

Even if this is right, it doesn't really engage with the core of your argument, though.

10:33 AM  
Blogger Aa said...

Here are some stats:

Drum has also mentioned stats like this many times. I've found both Talkingpoints and Drum to be honest (they'll correct themselves and admit the error)

10:44 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

If we constrain our operation to scrutiny of the claim "crime is rising," we have to take it as a general claim and scrutinize it in general terms.

If Trump had said "Preliminary data shows a dramatic uptick in violent crime over this past year," that'd be a true assertion. But that's not what he did. Instead, he made a broad, general claim, and in a broad, general sense, the claim is absolutely inaccurate. Again, it's possible to defend him by narrowing his claim for him, but that's clearly not the rhetorical intent of his claim, so doing that would, I think, simply be misrepresenting the nature of the claim in order to make it more plausible.

Politifact defends their analysis thusly:

'Trump’s statement was broad, without qualifiers, and it came amid comments that painted an overarching image of a nation in decline. Trump didn’t say that crime was rising "recently" or "in recent months" or "over the past year" or "in some places."

'Ultimately, we find that Trump’s sweeping rhetoric about a nation in decline and beset by crime ignores the overall trend of violent and property crime rates over the past 25 years, which is that they have fallen, consistently and significantly. We stand by our rating of Pants on Fire.'

I agree with what they're saying. In fact, they also make the same points I just made (independently of reading their defense, I might add). This seems like downright responsible journalism on behalf of Politifact, to me. I'm glad they even had the integrity to address a prominent critique of their analysis with this concise, eminently reasonable response. It doesn't seem like the kind of response I'm used to reading in journalism in which they feebly and retroactively grasp at some justification which they did not consider when they wrote the article. Rather, they seem to be reporting their engagement in a sound rational process which resulted in their position by which they stand as a result.

While I would've leveraged the rhetorical blame for Obama's administration in a non-existent uptick in crime to justify a pants-on-fire rating, myself, I don't think it's necessary. They accurately characterize his claim as describing a nation facing a crime crisis and they show that this is a total fabrication.

10:57 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...


Ok...I'm starting to think that you guys are right and I'm wrong. Also Volokh.

I'm not 100% down with "Pants On Fire"...but his drawers are smoldering a bit, at least.

2:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

IMO, the Politifact v. Volokh disagreement--and the discussion here--is a sign of good health in that part of the political world.

4:42 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Yeah, we could do a lot worse than we've been doing here.

8:37 PM  

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