I’ve thoroughly detested the phenomenon of so-called “fact-checking” from the moment it jumped the shark from websites likes Snopes and Hoax-Slayer debunking urban legends and internet rumours, and smarmy new sites like Politifact and FactCheck barged in on the scene, loudly declaiming that they were bringing the methodology of the “fact-check” website to bear on the world of politics.
Politics is by nature a more touchy area than, say, Walt Disney’s allegedly frozen corpse, or the thousands of bizarre rumours Snopes dubs “Coke-lore”, so the venture is inherently fraught with controversy (I’ll examine Snopes’ own, disastrous, venture into political “fact-checking” another time). Even more, because politics, more than any other endeavour except maybe religion, almost inevitably brings out our own biases, conscious or not.
So it is that political “fact-checking” websites, for all their self-proclaimed neutrality, in reality have been, in the words of Mark Hemingway of the Weekly Standard, “less often a referee than a fan with a rooting interest”.
There are other, insurmountable, problems with the whole political “fact-checking” phenomenon that, frankly, make the whole project worth than useless.
Politics is rarely about hard-and-fast “facts”. Apart from purely mundane facts, such as whether or not a certain piece of legislation was passed on a certain date, for instance, the bulk of political argument is opinion. For instance, a politician accuses their opponent of being one of the most reckless spending in history. That’s impossible to quantify, because it’s an opinion, not a fact, such as claiming that a government had spent more than any other in history. Those are two quite different claims.
Moreover, it’s obvious that the first is rhetorical hyperbole. No-one listening is going to mistake it for anything else. Just as if a politician accused their opponent of being the greatest liar to ever disgrace the parliament. No-one seriously believes that there is some ledger of political untruths kept somewhere (not least because no library would be big enough to hold it). We all understand that it’s an exaggeration used for effect.
However, when a “fact-checker” runs with what is clearly an opinion and produces a quantified score of “Pinocchios”, “pants-on-fires”, or something equally puerile, it has falsely transmuted that into a quantifiable fact. Purely subjective opinion becomes apparently objective “fact”, as if by magic.
Almost invariably, this is done by means of what is called the “straw-man” fallacy, where “fact-checkers” take a politician’s claim, then either reframe it, or substitute it with a subtly different claim, and respond to that instead. Thus, they give the appearance of having “fact-checked” a politician’s claim and successfully called them out as a liar, when all they’ve really done is made up something that the politician didn’t say at all, and called that a lie, instead.
So while they may have truthfully pointed out a falsehood, it’s quite often actually not something that the politician in question really even said.
Pauline Hanson: Thoughtcriminal
Like most logical fallacies, it’s best explained by example, and we’ve seen a cavalcade of them flatulating from the keyboards of the chin-stroking set in the wake of Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech to the Australian Senate.
Now, it irks me no end to defend Hanson in any way. I no doubt that she is a genuine racist, but at the same time, as Hitchens said of Margaret Thatcher, the rodent gnawing at the viscera is “the uneasy but unbanishable feeling that on some essential matters she might be right”. Hanson is Australia’s manifestation of Sam Harris’ warning that, by assiduously refusing to say anything honest or sensible about the threat of Islamic extremism, the centre-right and the Left have risked abandoning the field to the far-right.
Be that as it may, Hanson has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity which has seen not just herself, but a total of four senators elected under the banner of her One Nation party. Needless to say, that has set the great and good of the Twitter and ABC set into a lather of self-righteous indignation. Her maiden speech to the Senate was therefore naturally an occasion of drooling anticipation. Like a pinch-mouthed Mary Whitehouse fan in the 70s watching an episode of Number 96 gimlet-eyed for a flash of boob, the Greens-voting hipsterati were all agog, thumbs poised, ready to spit their kale chips and skinny soy lattes from Fitzroy to Darlinghurst.
Needless to say, they came out Tweeting, and one of their favourite tactics was to “fact-check” Hanson’s speech – because if there’s one belief your bien pensant Green-left Twitter-bully clings to as an article of faith, it’s that they and their goodthinking pals are the sole practitioners of “evidence-based” discourse. Ergo, the most direct way to out Hanson as a thoughtcriminal is to prove that she is guilty of uttering false facts.
The “fact-checks” in question are grimly typical in trotting out the sort of logical sleight-of-hand described above.
For instance, The Age’s Daniel Fitton claimed that one of Hanson’s “howlers” was when she said, “My pride and patriotism were instilled in me from an early age when I watched the Australian flag raised every morning at school and sang the national anthem”.
Fitton argues that the current anthem, Advance Australia Fair, wasn’t adopted until after Hanson left school, and the anthem at the time, God Save The Queen, “doesn’t actually mention Australia”. But … so what? She never said it did. All Hanson said was that she sang the national anthem and that it instilled pride and patriotism in her.
Fitton also displays a distinct lack of investigative journalistic curiosity or skill when he rubbishes Hanson’s claim that the head of Australia Post – cited as an example of overpaid public servants – is paid $4.8 million per year. Fitton claims that Australia Post won’t disclose his salary, that it is “likely closer to $2.1 million” (oh, is that all?), and that Hanson merely pulled the figure from an anonymous source.
Yet, if he’d done two minute’s worth of actual fact-checking, he could have turned up a bunch of sources, including his own Fairfax papers, which confirm that Hanson is most likely correct. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “Fahour is the federal government’s best-paid employee. In the year to June 2013, his remuneration was almost $4.8 million … [i]n 2014, he pocketed $4.6 million”. The Herald-Sun backed the figures up: “the $4.8 million salary that Mr Fahour was paid in the 2012-2013 financial year”.
Fitton also tries this: “Any guesses why Senator Hanson would single out Ahmed Fahour? Could it possibly be because he is Australia’s highest profile Muslim business leader?” Quite possibly (indeed, I would agree, almost certainly) it is, but again … so what?
This is a case of what is called the motive fallacy: attempting to disprove someone’s argument on the grounds of their supposed bias. But whatever Hanson’s bias, the fact of Fahour’s salary doesn’t change: it’s either $4.8 million, or it’s not. In this case, numerous sources all agree that it is. So Hanson is correct, even if she is (certainly) biased.
There is more, of course, but these samples more than serve to give the gist.
SBS Feeds Us Garbage
SBS’ The Feed did little better with their “10 times Pauline Hanson got the facts wrong in her maiden speech” article.
The Feed’s entire article is an example of misleading “framing” – the way in which journalists define a story for their readers by signalling certain themes, especially in headlines and images. In this case, “10 times Pauline Hanson got the facts wrong” distorts the content of the actual story – which checks 19 facts. So, even without analysing The Feed’s checking, we know right away that Hanson scored nearly 50% right. Nonetheless, The Feed leads the article with a huge image of Hanson, stamped “FALSE”, implying that she got every fact that they checked wrong. This is blatantly misleading, even on their own analysis.
But, let’s examine The Feed’s “fact-checking”:
Australia is being swamped by Muslims
The Feed rates this “false”, citing that Muslims make up only 2.2% of the Australian population. This is a classic example of a “fact-checking” straw-man, which particularly ignores the broader context of what the speaker has actually said.
In her speech, Hanson specifically qualified her remark as referring to her opinion that there is a danger of Australian society being “changed too rapidly due to migrants … who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own”. This is an arguable point, which can have little to do with raw numbers. After all, Buddhists make up a similar proportion of the Australian population, but it doesn’t seem credible to argue that they have had as proportionate an impact on Australian society, one way or the other, as Muslims have had in recent years. To use the same argument, the British population of Australia in 1788 was less than 0.02%, so apparently Aboriginal Australians were in no danger of being swamped by Europeans! This is patently absurd, of course – but the point is that simple numbers are no guide to the cultural impact one group may or may not have on another.
Hanson’s is an obvious hyperbole that is simply unprovable, either way.
The Feed would have been far better served to simply note that Hanson had made the same argument about Asians, in the 90s, and left it for viewers to judge for themselves whether that argument had had any merit.
Crime has increased in Australia
This is rated “false”, because, “according to the Australian Institute of Criminology there has been no noticeable increase in overall crime rates”. Another straw-man, and a classic case of “lies, damned lies, and statistics”.
Firstly, as one of my old logic teachers drummed into me, when analysing an opponent’s argument, one has to give a bit of latitude, and where meaning is unclear, allow the most generous interpretation. In this case, it is not clear that Hanson means “overall crime rates, everywhere”; indeed, she qualifies her statement with, “too many Australians are afraid to walk alone at night in their neighbourhoods,” which would be generously interpreted as, “crime has increased in certain areas”. Following the exploits of, say, the Apex gang, or the spate of gun crimes in Western Sydney, this is, prima facie, a not-unreasonable claim.
Further, the data cited by The Feed only extends to 2013: Hanson is almost certainly referring to cases like the above, which have erupted in just the last few years, in which case a possible spike in overall crime would not be shown.
Muslim leaders failed to condemn terror attacks in Australia or express sympathy
Another straw-man: not only did Hanson not say “all Muslim leaders”, but specifically cited the Grand Mufti – and she was arguably correct: the Grand Mufti was notably silent for a week after the murder of Curtis Cheng. Moreover, as has been pointed out, the Mufti has a disturbing track record of making yeah-but-no-but-yeah-but statements “condemning” terrorism, but “on the other hand” suggesting that non-Muslims are to blame for terrorism by inflaming Muslim passions, by criticising them for such things as, oh, preaching death to homosexuals.
There are more Australian Muslims volunteering for ISIS than there are in the Australian Defence Force
The Feed chose to label this “debatable”, when their own figures show unequivocally that it is correct: 151 Regular and Active Reservist members of the ADF who identify as Muslim, and 300 volunteering (actively fighting or fundraising) for ISIS – add to that, another 200 who have been prevented from travelling overseas to join ISIS. So this is not “debatable” at all – it’s clear-cut. The only thing that’s questionable is Hanson’s claim of 509 terror suspects being monitored – but even without those in the mix, there are still more Muslims volunteering for ISIS than are in the ADF, so her claim is still correct.
Immigrants have stopped Christmas carols from being celebrated in schools
Like Daniel Fitton, the kiddies at The Feed show an alarming lack of investigative skills – or a single-minded dedication to their peculiar brand of sophistry. They argue that Hanson’s claim likely originated from an Australian article, which, they say, “said did not ban Christmas carols”. This is a spectacularly mendacious bit of sophistry: in the case cited, the Victorian government guidelines in question were notorious for their ambiguity, because while they allowed “Christmas carols”, they also banned “religious songs”. That seems quite the Kafka-esque regulation.
More to the point, there’s no indication that that’s what Hanson was talking about, anyway.
Instead, there are concrete examples of schools outright banning Christmas carols, and stripping Christmas celebrations of religious themes, substituting shepherds and magi with clowns and jugglers. As it happened, though, the Sydney Montessori school cited Jewish and Hindu students as their “Happy Holidays” motivation. So unless there are other schools that I’m unaware of, Hanson is correct that Christmas carols have been stopped in some schools, but has unfairly blamed Muslims.
So she’s sort-of half-right on this, but still falsely blaming Muslims. It might have been far more effective for The Feed to have noted Hanson’s over-eagerness to pin everything on Muslims.
Political Correctness has seen Bibles removed from most hospitals
This is an interesting one. I would be tempted to say The Feed are correct to rate this one “false”, but for this: “bibles are available on request in most public hospitals in [Queensland]”. This is a curious thing to say: it implies that the old Gideon’s are not routinely available in bedside drawers as they used to be (Hunter S. Thompson would be furious). The article says that the Gideons are distributing them, but are hospitals routinely putting them out like they used to?
A proper investigative journalist would be on to this like a fly on the proverbial.
Still, I’ll let them have this one.
You can wear a burqa or niqab when you get a driver’s licence
The Feed at least got this one right. However, it might also have behooved them to note that Hanson may have been confused with recent, high-profile cases such as that of Carnita Matthews, who was at the centre of several legal battles over her refusal to remove her burqa when stopped by police for not displaying P-plates in 2010. A good example of how genuine cases become urban legends, become causes célèbre for the likes of Hanson.
There are prayer rooms in public areas for Muslims
This is an interesting one, because even though The Feed (correctly) rates Hanson’s claim as “true”, in doing so it tells a slight porkie of its own: “Multi-faith rooms are available in universities, hospitals, schools, airports and shopping centres to allow for observance of the Islamic faith, and other faiths”. This is almost always untrue: while multi-faith rooms are available for the use of many other faiths, Muslim prayer rooms are almost always exclusive to Muslims. This is because the onerous specifications of Muslim prayer rooms make multi-faith rooms simply unworkable.
Sharia law is harsh and incompatible with Australian law
Once again, The Feed straw-mans Hanson, avoiding answering what she specifically says, and instead answering a suite of questions of their own choosing (with often questionable answers anyway, as we shall see). So let’s look at what Hanson did say:
“Muslims want to see sharia law introduced in Australia”: Hanson didn’t quantify her claim, as in “most Muslims”, or “50% of Muslims”. Hanson should have made her claim more explicit: did she mean all Muslims, some Muslims, or a specific percentage? If so, what is the source for her claim?
In fact, I am unable to find a specific source – poll, for instance – citing what, if any, percentage of Australian Muslims might wish to see sharia law introduced in Australia. A Pew survey does not include Australia, so there’s simply no way of knowing. One local organisation at least, the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, has openly called for the “principles of sharia law” to be adopted in Australian law.
The Feed‘s expert also claims, “most Muslims live according to Sharia every day of their lives”, and that “ Muslim leaders have called for Australia to embrace ‘legal pluralism’.”
The other part of Hanson’s claim is that sharia is incompatible with Australian law. Prima facie, as an explicitly religious legal code, sharia is therefore incompatible with Australia’s secular legal code. But The Feed’s specific rejoinder is that, “sharia law explicitly states that Muslims are obligated to ‘abide by the law of the land’.” No source is provided for this claim, and in fact, this proves to be only a half-truth, as the following quotation from British Islamic scholar Muhammad ibn Adam shows:
“It is necessary by Shariah to abide by the laws of the country one lives in, regardless of the nature of the law, as long as it does not contradict Shariah. However, if the law demands something that is against Islam & Shariah, then it will be necessary to abstain from adhering to it.” In other words, sharia requires Muslims to abide by the law of the land – only so long as the law of the land complies with sharia. Convenient.
What The Feed also assiduously avoids is the thorny point that the harsher edicts of sharia law – regarding adultery, homosexuality, apostasy, blasphemy, polygamy, child marriage, corporal punishment, etc. – are not only incompatible with Australian law, but with all the norms of civilised society.
A change to full preferential voting cost Pauline Hanson her seat in 1998
Another straw-man. She didn’t say it was the change to full preferential voting; she said it was the change to electoral boundaries, “also with the introduction of full preferential voting”. As The Feed notes, although Hanson still garnered the most first preference votes, preference flows cost her the seat. So, at most, Hanson is only half-wrong.
Globalisation, economic liberalism, free trade and immigration have caused a decline in living standards in Australia
I’m getting thoroughly sick of writing “straw-man”, but sadly, that seems to be The Feed’s stock-in-trade. Once again, they’ve made up something Hanson didn’t say, in order to knock that down, rather than tackle what she did say. What Hanson said was, “their push for globalisation, economic rationalism, free trade and ethnic diversity has seen our country’s decline”. Nowhere does this say, “living standards”, which The Feed proceeds to harp on about, pretending that they’ve delivered a knock-down blow. In fact, it’s not clear that Hanson is referring to anything specific at all, but rather claiming some kind of general national malaise.
This is disputable, naturally, but the fact remains that it is obvious that is a paradigm case of what I referred to above as rhetorical hyperbole. Just as Donald Trump is promising to “Make America great again,” and Herbert Hoover promised “a chicken in every pot,” Hanson is speechifyin’, not making an empirical claim.
Women are making frivolous claims in family court
For two reasons, The Feed had no good grounds at all for ruling this one “false”. At best, they should have called it “questionable”, or “unproven”.
Firstly, as per their standard practice, they have straw-manned Hanson badly: “There is currently no Australian or international research to support the allegation that women routinely make false claims,” they say – yet, once again, this is not exactly what Hanson said. “Children are used as pawns in custody battles where women make frivolous claims and believe they have the sole right to the children.” Maybe Hanson meant “routinely”, maybe she didn’t, but she certainly didn’t say “routinely”. So, in fairness, one has to assume she meant, “some women”, and no doubt some women, though one suspects (or hopes) very few, do.
Secondly, the evidence that The Feed cites as some kind of knock-down rebuttal of Hanson also doesn’t say quite what they say want to imply that it does. For a start, the comparison they cite doesn’t really tell us that much about Hanson’s claim. The study itself, far from “proving” anything, warns that the issue is “tremendously complex”, and that its modest sample size and study scope impose severe limitations on the conclusions that can be safely drawn.
So, the “10 times Pauline Hanson got the facts wrong”, should actually be “2 times Pauline Hanson got the facts wrong – plus 11 times she got the facts essentially right, 3 times she got them mostly right, 1 time she was possibly right, and 3 things she said that are unprovable”.
Somehow, though, I don’t think that’s the sort of thing that would satisfy the audience of The Feed, anxious as they no doubt are to indulge their groupthink, and vindicate their conviction that Pauline Hanson Is A Bad Person. Maybe she is – I’m no fan, that’s for sure – but the point is that tribalist hatreds are no excuse for wanton indulgence in poor journalism and laughably fallacious arguments.
Trying to prove Hanson “wrong” on trivial points where’s she’s mostly right, or by straw-manning her, is only going to make her and her followers feel vindicated, after all.
Finally, as we see, “fact-checking” is mostly an exercise in bullshit and bad logic passing itself off as rigorously unbiased analysis.
As William Blake said, a truth that’s told with bad intent, beats all the lies you can invent.
Yes – I’m perfectly aware of the irony of the fact that I’ve just exhaustively fact-checked the fact-checkers. Feel free to correct any biases and faulty analyses I’ve no doubt made.