Monday, July 3, 2017

Counting Lies

As a follow-up to What's Wrong With Calling Trump a Liar and posts about the problems with fact checking( here and here) , let's review the NYT Graphic in the Opinion category counting Trump's Lies.

What is the purpose exactly of this exercise? Many of us, likely a majority, already believe that Trump lies endless without inhibition. A lie count does not add value in support of that belief based on objective experience. Now, maybe if Trump suddenly stopped lying and started telling the truth all the time. Not sure how that would work at this point because, well, telling the truth would mean he would have to admit to prior lies and, if committed to full disclosure, would need to explain why he lied so much. No, not gonna happen.

Is the lie count intended to sway the Trump faithful? In case they missed it? Really? Of course not. If they did not believe he lies all the time, providing a lie count will not change any minds.

Maybe the "newspaper of record" believes that the lie count is necessary as public record. An objective record would survive as historical artifact of the Liar in Chief. But no. A public record would require an objective count of lies and NYT admits that they consider the lie count to be opinion, not news reporting.

So the intent is not clear.

I put the lie count in the category of fact checking. A tool, but one which does not tackle the core issues.

The lie count is almost a meta-factchecking or a fact checking squared.

Trump is a liar, maybe a pathological liar. Or at least a serial liar. That's a serious charge. Let's fact check that. So fact check each statement he has made since becoming president, whether or not the statement was significant and isolate the untruthful statements, then collect them in one place.
Source: nytco

But context matters too. David Leonhardt, in The Trump Lies Project: Next Steps, asking readers for advice on where to take this project, notes that:

"As for the project’s next stage: Some of the president’s defenders have argued on social media that his penchant for lying is no different than other recent presidents. We are skeptical of that notion, but we’re also open to evidence."

So, despite the overwhelming evidence of the current U.S. president representing an extreme case of behavior that many if not a majority of Americans find dangerous and much of it reprehensible, we should fact check his defenders by making comparisons with other recent presidents - as if the individuals raising that concern are really going to be swayed by the evidence suggested by a lie count.

Leonhardt's next reaction illustrates the problem:

"So if you can recall falsehoods that Presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush told, send us an email with them. Documentation is ideal, but not necessary. (No need to email us about Obama telling people they could keep their health insurance or Bush claiming that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction; we’re aware of those claims.)"

The idea is that we need to go back in time according to this way of looking at the world. Yes, this is the fair and balanced approach. He said/she said journalism at the extreme. Pretend you have no prior knowledge or understanding. The only way to understand Trump is to look at him in the context of George Bush and Barack Obama, compile a list of lies without context. Are we supposed to count up the lies and compare totals?

If we need to relitigate the Bush and Obama administrations to start understanding Trump we are in big trouble.

Actually, when it comes to the Trump Lie Count, I would say it makes sense to leave it in the Opinion section where it resides and for those who disagree or want to count up what they claim are Obama lies (not expecting these folks to count up Bush lies) and leave it at that.

For the Trump lies, a better next step would be to put these in context - categorize the lies, don't count them. And, instead of checking all his public statements, focus on those that help tell an accurate story - what is he up to? Is he out of his mind? Suppose he is demented. Does counting statements by Obama or Bush that fall short on truthfulness help us decide if Trump is demented? Would it prove he is not in the pocket of Russia? Or that he is? No, of course not. Many of the Trump statements fall into the category of narcissistic personality disorder. Some of those statements are outright lies, but many might be rejected by Leonhardt's lie-counting machine. Let's check that.

Or let's go back to Trump's great defender, Vice President Pence, who spent the better part of last year's VP debate claiming that none of Trump's statements were lies. Maybe he can explain what he meant by that, because he did not adequately explain his reasoning in that debate.

Facts without context are not useful. Counting lies misses the point. And, not to belabor this point too much, but to take it from another angle, some of Trump's statements during the campaign that were called out by mainstream media as lies were not necessarily, in my opinion, definitive lies.

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