Truth-o-meter

In the NYT’s article yesterday about the White House’s new war on Fox News, it mentioned that the White House cites favorably the St. Petersburg Times’s Truth-o-meter. Specifically, the White House mentions a Truth-o-meter purported debunking of a statement Glenn Beck made about “a White House staffer”. The White House was not specific as to which staffer, but the Truth-o-meter conveniently collects all its Glenn Beck evaluations on one page. Let’s take a look.

ASIDE: I have never watched Glenn Beck, other than a few clips that have gone around the internet, so I have no opinion about his general truthfulness. In fact, I never even heard of Glenn Beck before a few weeks ago. However, I do have an opinion of the general truthfulness of the White House, so I did have some idea what I might find.

I’ll assume that the St. Petersburg Times can be trusted to quote Beck accurately and in context, which might or might not be justified.¬†I’ll set two statements aside because I’m not familiar with the facts. The others are:

  • Beck says that 45% of doctors say they will quit if health care reform passes. This is not quite true. In fact, 45% of doctors say they will consider quitting, which is an important distinction. The Truth-o-meter calls the statement false, which of course it is. They would seem to be right in this case, until you note that the Truth-o-meter uses a whole spectrum for its evaluations, not simple binary. In light of that, they should have said something to the effect of “not quite true”. (They also raise issues with the IBD/TIPP poll’s methodology. Those issues seem far-fetched — TIPP is a well-established scientific poller — but in any case, it’s hardly fair to park such issues at Glenn Beck’s door.)
  • Beck says that Van Jones, the former White House green jobs czar, is a self-avowed communist. He certainly used to be. But the Truth-o-meter calls the statement “barely true“. Why? Because he didn’t prove that Van Jones is still a communist, and has spoken favorably about exploiting the business world. Here, the Truth-o-meter has ventured into the realm of opinion. In my book, if you publicly call yourself a communist, a nazi, or an Islamist, we are justified in assuming you still are unless and until you publicly disavow those views. The Truth-o-meter makes no suggestion that he has.
  • Beck says that Van Jones signed a truther petition. This is entirely true. The Truth-o-meter calls it half true, because the petition’s most incendiary claims were made by insinuation rather than outright, and one sentence taken from Beck’s discussion suggests that its claims were made definitively.
  • Beck claims that John Holdren, the White House science czar, proposed forced abortions and sterilization to control population. I guess it depends on what you mean by “proposed”. In his book he discusses those schemes, among others (such as an armed world government to enforce population¬†limits). Some schemes get his nod of approval and some do not. According to the Truth-o-meter, the abortion and sterilization schemes did not get the nod of approval, and on that basis, they call Beck’s statement not only false, but “pants on fire“. Apparently, the Truth-o-meter is so confident that “propose” means “advocate” and not merely “consider” that they move this statement from true all the way past technically false to outright lie. The New Oxford American Dictionary disagrees; it defines “propose” to mean “put forward (an idea or plan) for consideration or discussion by others”, which is exactly what Holdren did.

To summarize, of the four Glenn Beck statements, one is slightly wrong and the other three are true. The Truth-o-meter rates them “false”, “barely true”, “half true”, and “pants on fire”. Clearly, the Truth-o-meter is useless. No wonder the White House likes it.

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