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Subjective Terminology

There is no truth so clear that it cannot be distorted in the telling.

I learned this from the controversy over Politifact’s 2011 Lie of the Year. Representative Paul Ryan’s budget proposal, passed by the House in April, included sweeping changes for Medicare in an attempt to curb the budget defecit. Democratic politicians and activist groups claimed that the bill would harm seniors and would eliminate Medicare within a decade. Politifact lists nine such claims by eight groups or individuals in its Lie of the Year article.

The full text of the bill can be found at OpenCongress, and there are any number of statements on record from both Representative Ryan and the bill’s critics to check up on. Helpful explanations can be found online for laypeople like myself, such as an April article at The Christian Science Monitor or one at the New York Times. In theory, any claim about the bill could be fact-checked with just a bit of research.

A little examination shows that this isn’t the case. Glancing over the headlines presented at Politifact, most of the Democratic claims about the budget seem falsifiable, if a bit strong. Would the budget proposal “eliminat[e] Medicare” within 10 years, as Vice President Joe Biden claims? The answer is not a simple yes or no as one might believe, and Biden himself illustrates why. “Paul Ryan laid out [the Republicans'] budget. Their budget eviscerates – it eliminates Medicare. They say it doesn’t. It makes it a voucher program. I call that eliminating Medicare in the next 10 years.(Emphasis added.)

The dispute lies not in the facts of the bill, but in their interpretation. Vice President Biden’s claims are true if one assumes his language is correctly applied, and therein lies the problem. Unlike simple facts, subjective definitions cannot be searched up with a few keystrokes. They must be painstakingly laid out and agreed to by all parties. The difference between Biden’s definition of “eliminating Medicare”—changing it from its current structure—and a more general definition—cutting the program entirely—cannot be reconciled without careful use of the language on all sides of the debate.

Politifact’s article says as much, calling out Biden for referring to “Medicare” rather than “Medicare as we know it” or a similarly qualified term. This forms the basis of Politifact’s “False” rating for Biden’s statement, and similar logic underlies the site’s rebuttals of other Democratic claims about the budget plan, with a few exceptions for more serious errors. Politifact’s basic dispute with the Democrats lies in phrasing and presentation, not in direct claims.

Paul Krugman’s article at The New York Times from December 20th shows just the kind of rifts that can spring up over terminology. In it he denounces Politifact for naming “a statement that happens to be true” as its Lie of the Year. He explains: “Republicans voted to replace Medicare with a voucher system to buy private insurance. [...] The new scheme would still be called ‘Medicare’, but it would bear little resemblance to the current system, which guarantees essential care to all seniors. [...] How is this not an end to Medicare?” Again, the argument boils down to definition, and as long as Krugman’s definition of the end of Medicare remains unchanged, neither will his opinion of Politifact.

I have had little experience with Politifact in the past, but the centrality in this instance of disputed terminology over disputed fact leads me to be wary regarding claims of Politifact’s bias. Much of the controversy appears to stem from a study showing that 74 of the 98 statements that Politifact reported as false between January 2010 and January 2011 were made by Republicans, in contrast to only 22 false statements made by Democrats. Paul Krugman sees this as confirmation that “there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other”, with 2011’s Lie of the Year as a damaging ploy by Politifacts to avoid seeming partisan. Commentators on the right point to the same disparity as proof of Politifact’s Democratic bias, with the Lie of the Year a rare and possibly calculated exception.

Definite, if not unilateral, truths exist regarding both the nature of Politifact’s coverage and the veracity of the statements it evaluates. Subjective terminology, however, makes the finding of these truths all the more complicated. Seeing how so much of the recent controversy hinged on the difference between “Medicare” and “Medicare as we know it”, I am curious as to how many other proclamations of “false” are due to something so simple. How many statements did Politifact dismiss as groundless hyperbole compared to the number deemed factual errors? Would removing stretched definitions from the equation change perceptions of Politifact’s bias? It seems that the claims of bias cannot be evaluated without establishing a few concrete definitions, and so I will reserve my judgment for another time.

That leads me back to the quote that began the post. No matter the truth of an issue, its presentation can be altered simply by stretching a definition. In some cases these definitions are clear oversteps, but at times the difference between an impassioned turn of phrase and a gross exaggeration can be all that stands in the way of a meaningful discussion. Think carefully when public discourse devolves into bickering over terminology rather than facts. It’s a sign that the true problem lies elsewhere.

 
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Posted by on December 24, 2011 in Fact-Checking, Philosophy

 

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