How PolitiFact Turned 40 Percent Into a 'Majority'

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PolitiFact is taking heat again after proving that Senator Marco Rubio's claim that "the majority of Americans are conservative" isn't really correct ... but giving his statement a passing grade on their "Truth-O-Meter" anyway.

During the CPAC conference last week, the Florida  Senator stated flatly that conservatives are a "majority." So PolitiFact dug up a a well-regarded Gallup Poll that asks Americans that very question and found that in the most recent version, 40 percent self-identified as conservative, 35 percent said moderate and 21 percent said liberal. Seems pretty straight forward, right? So how to explain this conclusion to PolitiFact's evaluation:

Rubio said that the majority of Americans are conservative. A respected ongoing poll from Gallup shows that conservatives are the largest ideological group, but they don’t cross the 50 percent threshold. So we rate his statement Mostly True.

Huh? Their own research says that it's not even a little bit true. PolitiFact states earlier in their piece that "Technically, he would be more accurate if he said a plurality of Americans are conservative," except that you can't really be "more accurate" when the original statement is not accurate at all. Plurality and majority are two distinct concepts, not different shades of the same meaning. Naturally, the silent "majority" (or minority?) jumped all over this, most especially Rachel Maddow, who called PolitiFact a disaster. This isn't the first time they've felt that heat, either. Remember when PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" declaration that turned out to probably not be a lie at all?

PoltifFact responded by saying, "Our goal at PolitiFact is to use the Truth-O-Meter to show the relative accuracy of a political claim." and that not every one will "agree with every ruling we make." In its own way, that defense underscores the entire problem with PoltiFact and its brethren: When you're talking about facts, there is no such thing as "relative accuracy." Verifiable statements should not be "mostly true" or mostly false." A fact is either correct, or it isn't. The rest is just opinion, conjecture, or wishful thinking.

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If you want to give Rubio credit for his shades of meaning — the rest of his speech indicates that what he was really trying to say is that most people aren't liberal — then that's a different project. If the real goal is to eliminate spin, it doesn't help to engage in your own brand of it. As The Huffington Post points out PolitiFact has previously used the the same criteria (less than 50% isn't a majority) to declare an earlier Ron Paul statement totally false, suggesting that in the world of professional debunking, the truth is what you make of it.


This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.