December 23, 2011

Philosophical Issue: Dear Politifact, Please Learn the Difference Between Fact and Opinion.

As for me, all I know is that I know nothing, for when I don't know what justice is, I'll hardly know whether it is a kind of virtue or not, or whether a person who has it is happy or unhappy.

I'll start out by saying that I used to like Politifact. Liked it a lot, in fact. When polititians, political parties, and other groups make claims about legislation, about the economy, about each other, or anything else, there needs to be as many legitimate sources as possible making damn sure whether or not those claims are accurate. However, I lost a lot of respect for Politifact over their recent decision to bestow the ignoble title of 2011's "Lie of the Year" on the Democratic parties claim that "Republicans voted to end Medicare".

Let's summarize what happened here. The Democrats claimed that "Republicans voted to end Medicare" because Republicans voted to replace the current system with a very different system - referred to as the Paul Ryan plan becuase he came up with it - that would still bear the moniker of Medicare. That the Democrats used hyberbolic scare tactics in the process is undeniable. I wont get dragged into a discussion on whether or not Paul Ryan's plan is better as it is not particularly relevant.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that Politifact made the decision to label the Democrats claim as "Lie of the Year" for political expediency in order to appear more objective. Whether or not this is true is irrelevant, there is still a fundamental problem with Polifact's decision, one that I have not seen anyone else point out. The question is this: On what grounds is the Democrats claim a lie?

It goes like this. Back in first grade, one assignment I remember doing involved distinguishing between facts and opinions. Now most people I imagine can (usually) tell the difference between the two. A factual claim is one that can be verified as true or not ture. An opinion is a matter of perspective, one that is dependent upon the values, likes, and/or dislikes of the holder. One is entitled to one own's opinion but not one's own facts, as the saying goes. If one makes a factually inaccurate claim, then one is lying, but making statements of opinion cannot possibly be lies. Fair enough?

Regarding the Democrats claim that "Republicans voted to end Medicare", I think it's easy enough to see that this is an opinion, based upon how one defines Medicare. Basically, the Democrats are arguing that the Paul Ryan plan is a different system, one that has too little resemblance to Medicare to be called Medicare.

Of course, there is one possibility that would make the Democrats claim a factual one, rather than an opinion. Now what would this situation be? It comes down to the linguistic method one might use to define Medicare.

First, there are two competing theories of language. One is prescriptivism which holds that there can only be one correct use of a language. The other is descriptivism, which holds that there is no correct or incorrect use of a language, we can only talk about which uses are more popular.

Since the Paul Ryan plan that the Republicans voted to replace the current system with will still be called be called Medicare, there is a legitimate argument to be made that Paul Ryan's plan is still Medicare, so long as we are sticking to the descriptivist view of language.

However, if one subscribed to the prescriptivist view of language, then one could reasonably "fact check" the claim of "Republicans voted to end Medicare". So, how would the prescriptivist view of language go about this? Well, since originally Medicare was one system and the Paul Ryan plan is a completely different system that just happens to fill a similar purpose using a different method, then the Paul Ryan system is not Medicare.

Therefore, it would be incorrect to refer to the Paul Ryan plan as Medicare and the Democrats are factually correct in claiming that Republicans voted to end Medicare. To be fair, I am not a prescriptivist, so if someone out who is and would like to make an argument for why the Paul Ryan plan is still Medicare using the prescriptivist school of thought, then go right ahead.

In any case, what I am getting at is that, as a descriptivist, the claim that the Democrats are wrong can be considered a valid opinion, but so is the opinion that the Democrats are right. What Politifact has done here, is present a valid opinion as to why the Democrats are wrong. What the Politifact editors have failed to establish though, is why exactly they believe the Democrats are lying. In order for the Democrats to be lying, they would have to be making a claim that is factually incorrect, not merely holding an opinion to which there happens to be an equally valid counter opinion.

In a free society, in order to know the truth, we must be able to freely express our opinions and others should be able to freely express their counter opinions. I will allow Politifact the benefit of the doubt in arguing with the Democrats claim here is incorrect. Politifact has the right to claim that the Democrats are wrong, but to call a validly held opinion a lie is misleading. Worse, to engage in this type of propaganda, particularly by an organization that claims to check facts not censor opinions, should be anthema to any one who legitimately supports free speech.

In labelling the Democrats claim 2011's the "Lie of the Year", the editors at Politifact have clearly conflated fact and opinion, thereby making an already contentious debate even more inflamatory. Not to mention, in doing so they would have failed a test that any first grader should be able to pass.

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