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wundayatta's avatar

What standard of proof of "facts" should be used in political speech?

Asked by wundayatta (58706points) August 17th, 2012

In courts, we require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, for example. In physical sciences, there are other standards of proof. But in politics, what constitutes “proof” of a “fact?”

We have organizations like “” and apparently there are Republican backed competitors because they don’t like the way checks facts.

Is it even possible to have a “fact” in politics? Or can we only see the world through an ideological lens (liberal, conservative, non-aligned, etc)?

I’ve worked the bulk of my career in a think tank, writing policy papers and doing research on a wide number of issues. We always tried to make our work transparent, so that if you didn’t like an assumption, you could change it and our analysis would spew out a new number. But these days it seems that doesn’t matter. Transparency is just as bogus as being a hardened political hack spewing catch phrases.

How did this happen? Is there any way to agree on what a fact is, in politics?

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31 Answers

fremen_warrior's avatar

Be honest and you are easier to attack, paradoxically. But were you to stick to actual facts, I would say analyses done by independent experts are required. Problem is most think tanks lean left or right, or in a whole new different direction, truth is biased and facts are hard to discern. Hard to say really. Great question though.

Linda_Owl's avatar

Probably not, at least not in today’s ideological opposite political parties. A fact should be just that, a fact – but it all depends upon each party’s interpretation of the ‘fact’. If the Republicans & Democrats would work together for the benefit of the average American, they could accomplish a great deal, but they seem to be either unwilling or unable to do this.

woodcutter's avatar

We still haven’t gotten to the bottom of the meaning of “is” yet, have we? Once we get that one figured out we can move on to the big things.

josie's avatar

You will not get anywhere asking politicians to be truthful. Bullshit is their game. Everybody, no matter which side of the fence they sit, will get along better if they realize that politicians are the problem, not each of us. I recommend we ALL do ourselves a favor. Simply accept that they are telling you what you want to hear, assume it is very likely bullshit, and then do our best to live our lives in spite of them.

ETpro's avatar

@josie It really isn’t that hard to find out what is true and what is a bold-faced lie. I reckon if we refuse to bother with that, support a press that shuns it, and listen to politicians when they are just “telling us what we want to hear.” then it isn’t really the politicians that are the problem, it is us. Sometimes you don’t get what you want, you get what you deserve.

flutherother's avatar

Government departments are constantly producing facts about all sorts of things. The information is there but politicians like to use data selectively to suit their own agenda. They will show us the elephant’s tail and say this is what an elephant is like. The opposing party point to the elephant’s ears and says you are wrong this is what the elephant is like. That is why a free media is vital in a free country to show us the wider picture as good decisions can’t come from bad facts.

Thammuz's avatar

Personally, i uphold the scientific standard, which in this case means using actual statistics and the use of rigorous methods to establish correlations, causations and so on.

It’s honestly not that hard, and it would easily shut up people like the NRA, were they smart enough to actually interpret the data.

dabbler's avatar

The press is expected to keep them in line, but these days all the media are owned by the same parasite-class corporatists who own the politicians.

bolwerk's avatar

I don’t see why facts in politics need to be any less rigorous than in, say, academic study. This isn’t a scientific level of rigor per se, but it requires citing sources, weighing probability that something is true, etc.. It’s something we all do in day to day life to some extent.

But facts aren’t enough to draw political conclusions. Ideology matters too. @Thammuz mentions the NRA, presumably referring to their less-than-factual approach to gun safety (e.g., it’s hard to make cases like guns make society safer or crime goes down as gun use goes up). However, there is nothing intellectually dishonest about thinking guns should be easily available while accepting that low barriers to gun availability probably encourage, to some extent, more gun violence.

In the U.S., though, there is this need – it’s almost like a collective cognitive distortion – to treat everything in politics as “balanced,” as if there are always just two sides and both have equal claim to the truth. So political reporting ends up with the proverbial headline that goes something like “GOP says Earth flat; Dems disagree.” We are seeing this phenomenon playing out rather starkly after Romney picked Paul Ryan; anyone who pays enough attention can see Ryan is a bit of a dimwit with a poor grasp of numbers, but the mass media is playing him up as a really clever “conservative” wonk. In this case, it’s not even because of the usual media bias that favors the Republikans; they are simply trying to make it seem like both the Obama ticket and Romney ticket are “equal” in matters of intellectual rigor.

Thammuz's avatar

@bolwerk In the U.S., though, there is this need – it’s almost like a collective cognitive distortion – to treat everything in politics as “balanced,” as if there are always just two sides and both have equal claim to the truth.

oh, so i’m not the only one seeing it!

Jaxk's avatar

It’s a difficult question. Too many of our issues revolve around subjective measures (pay your fair share) or survey data that has inherent flaws. And statistics are funny things. They can prove or disprove any theory depending on which statistics you use.

For instance, one Democrats claim that Clinton was the greatest job creator of all time. While Republicans claim Reagan was. If you look at the job creation numbers for each president, Clinton created over 20 million jobs, while Reagan only created 17 million. These are from the Department of labor (DLS) and seem fairly solid. Of course the data is collected via surveys from a few thousand businesses. Now if you look at the workforce participation rate, you’ll see that Reagan increased the percentage of working age adults by 3% while Clinton only increased it by 1%. Numbers are also from the DLS and seem fairly solid as well. More Americans got jobs under Reagan. So who’s lying? Did Clinton just created a lot of jobs that never got filled?

I’m not trying to start another flame war here which is why I stayed away from any Obama numbers. Just trying to point out that facts are elusive when your dealing with surveys and even more elusive when trying to determine root causes.

mazingerz88's avatar

Standard of proof? The “man in the ticket line” could be it. From Annie Hall actually. A guy challenges Woody Allen’s opinion on a certain writer’s work(?) but then the actual writer shows up and sides with Woody! Bang. Down. Owned. Oh, if only…

bolwerk's avatar

@Jaxk: Neither is right because neither claim makes sense. In fact, the criteria make no sense on so many levels that either of those claims could almost be called bunkum. What can be said with a fair degree of confidence is that Clinton never dealt with an economy quite as sluggish as the one Reagan dealt with, and that Clinton had the Internet boom more or less at his back. Meanwhile, Reagan’s policies accelerated the flight of industrial jobs and later capital flight that are to a large extent responsible for many of our present economic woes, and for all intents and purposes practically ended forward mobility for the lower classes. So, in the end, Reagan’s bumblefuck economic policies probably accelerated American job loss.

And either way, unemployment only says so much. Once you’re unemployed for too long, for all intents and purposes, you stop counting.

Jaxk's avatar


I see you lost all pretense of facts to back you up.

bolwerk's avatar

@Jaxk: you’re the one who drew the unsubstantiated connection between Reagan/Clinton and jobs. I didn’t think it took lot of imagination to see how Reagan’s policy to concentrate wealth for the rich made the outsourcing of industrial activities and later even financial capital desirable. Whoops, the tax code doesn’t even bother to address that. Ever wonder why? Or are you just going to blame Black Bush?

If Clinton deserves blame, it’s for not stopping it either.

wundayatta's avatar

I think @Jaxk raises an interesting issue. If we use statistics as a standard of proof for facts, then how can people who aren’t statisticians evaluate statistical claims? They are left in the position that @Jaxk seems to be in, of being unable to evaluate competing statistical claims.

Who created more jobs, Clinton or Reagan? By analogy, who creates more jobs: Democrats or Republicans. Of course, can the job creation even be linked back to public policy? How much lag time is there between the implementation of a policy and the results? If there is a correlation between public policy and job creation, can we even say that the policy caused the job creation?

These things are exceedingly difficult to prove and yet people bandy around these so-called “statistics” as if they are proof of one point of view or another. In social science, it is extremely difficult to prove causation.

In fact, I think most statistical claims are bullshit in public policy. This is because most people talk as if the statistics support a causal claim, when, in fact, no such claim is being made and indeed, if someone in academia tried to make it, they’d be laughed off campus.

I don’t really believe in “facts” as far as politics is concerned. Rather, I think we have competing stories, and we are all trying to establish greater “truthiness” for our stories. We’ll quote stats and maybe get them right (it is a fact that this study says that), but then we veer off into what it means, and that’s where things get so fuzzy.

Let’s say that 42% of all lives are meaningful. Back in George Washington’s regime, 73% of all lives were meaningful. This means that we need greater job creation programs. George Washington allowed unfettered access to this country for immigrants. It is this that led to meaningfulness.

I mean, that’s a completely bogus argument, and yet I bet I could sell it to at least a few people. It happens all the time, it seems to me. Politicians are selling stories. And people are buying. And it has little to do with facts. So a fight over facts will probably miss the point.

How do we sell stories? How do we get people to believe one story over another, if it isn’t by proving facts?

bkcunningham's avatar

Cognitive Dissonance.

Jaxk's avatar


If you are running a science experiment you hold all things constant except the one variable you want to measure. If you can do that, it is a fairly good assumption that the one you varied caused the change in output. When you look at the economy, jobs, and outsourcing, there are too many variables. Too many things changing at the same time and you have to account for the psychology of the population as well. To prove your story, or causation, you can use facts but you also need a bit of faith.

@bolwerk‘s post is a good example. He/she blames Reagan for the outsourcing problem and eludes to certain facts not in evidence. But there were many things changing at the same time. Unions were at their peak in the 60’s and began (with government help) to overreach making manufacturing jobs expensive. During the 70s regulation began in earnest. Things like the Clean Air and Water Acts increased the cost of manufacturing dramatically. The peak for manufacturing jobs actually occurred in the late 70s before Reagan took office. But it did decline during the 80s which gives rise to the claim that Reagan caused it. If I recall, during the 60s and 70s there was a huge rise in Japanese manufacturing for most of the cheaper goods sold in the US. The phrase ‘Cheap Jap Junk’ was coined to reflect that change.

The facts used to prove your point are not the problem but rather the facts you choose to leave out.

wundayatta's avatar

@Jaxk Exactly! This is why it is story telling that matters in politics, not facts. We can all pick and choose facts that help us tell the story we want to tell. Can we pick facts to tell a story that will convince someone who does not see things as we do? I doubt it.

bolwerk's avatar

@wundayatta: I don’t know about most people, but I have a reasonable enough background in statistics where I can more or less evaluate claims, or at least know when not to draw a conclusion. But to answer your question, firms create jobs, not Democrats and Republikans. Public policy can push economic activity in certain directions, but it doesn’t simply create jobs, a point that seems to have flown over Jaxk’s head. The idea that Clinton created a lot of jobs is almost as laughable as the ideas that Reagan did – Clinton literally had one of the biggest economic expansions in history at his back, and in a really ironic way Al Gore might have had more to do with it than Clinton. The only economic matter that maybe Clinton can get some credit for is, unlike Reagan and Clinton’s successor, Clinton probably didn’t make things economically worse.

For that matter, why would anyone pretend Republikans are all about job creation? Encouraging job creation would discourage concentration of wealth, the primary modus operandi of the Republikan Party.

@Jaxk: To put it very simply: say you own a conglomerate based in the U.S.. Your company pays modestly high taxes on U.S. and worldwide income alike, and low taxes on capital gains. What’s the smart thing to do? Move it to a tax haven, have it pay low taxes on foreign income, the same corporate taxes on U.S. income it always did, and pay low taxes on your dividends and capital gains. This is exactly what is happening, no faith required. This is Reagan’s legacy. Well, that and a huge national debt. Simply put, if he was a “job creator,” he was a job creator for China and India, not the USA.

Speaking of eluding [sic] “to facts not in evidence,” it’s rather funny that you’d pick Japan as an example of what happens when unions get too powerful. Their unions have always been more powerful than U.S. unions. So have German unions. Manufacturing has declined as a percentage of the economy in both these places, which is to be expected in a service economy, but but both have maintained rather strong manufacturing sectors to this day. What does your faith tell you is the reason?

Actually, while I’m at it, your faith that environmental regulations are oh-so-devastating is bizarre too. They’re also similar in most of the developed world. If anything, the U.S. is more lenient than other places. Where they mainly negatively impact the U.S. is in public investment. Long story short, they’re onerous when dealing with public investment in infrastructure. This is one of the reasons Europe has a modern high-speed rail system while the USA has little more than Amtrak, a clogged rail freight system, and a crumbling highway infrastructure. It’s also partly why, besides some legit union corruption, subways cost an order of magnitude more in New York City than in Tokyo or Berlin.

bolwerk's avatar

More going to the OP’s description, Arthur S. Brisbane, public editor of the The New York Times and professional dick, somewhat tackled this question a few months ago. It lists attempts at fact checking in major news organizations, which usually seems to entail empirical verification whether a claim being made is true or false.

Jaxk's avatar


The whole point seems to have flown over your head. This is an argument I’d enjoy having but hardly the topic for this thread. My points on Reagan vs Clinton were merely to show the conflicting facts not to push either one. It’s definitely ironic that you push the point that government doesn’t create jobs (which I agree with) then push the old Gore created the Internet argument. Now that’s funny.

Just a couple of corrections. I didn’t say anything happens when unions get too powerful I said when they overreach. And what does Germany have to do with this? We aren’t outsourcing jobs to Germany. And we still have a fairly strong manufacturing base as well. Just not as strong as it used to be. Finally, regulation may have very significant benefits to the environment but there is no question that it makes things more expensive. There is a trade-off. You may well think the trade off is worth it but that doesn’t mean the downside doesn’t exist. And the down side is that jobs get lost.

bolwerk's avatar

@Jaxk: Jesus, am I in some strange backward dimension? What exactly has flown over my head? Your “point,” if you want to call it that, on Reagan vs. Clinton is not a question of facts. It’s a question of petty political narrative. Maybe Gore overreached when he said he “took initiative in creating the Internet,” but the verifiable truth is that Gore did actually take some initiative on the matter. Clinton didn’t even do that. Clinton wasn’t a national politician at the time, of course, but one way or another he didn’t do it. At least in some small way, legislation Gore pushed laid the groundwork for the first Internet boom.

Just a couple of corrections to your “corrections”:

∙ You said, “Unions were at their peak in the 60’s and began (with government help) to overreach making manufacturing jobs expensive.” Later you said, ” I didn’t say anything happens when unions get too powerful I said when they overreach.” Jobs getting expensive isn’t something that happens? Are you even reading what you’re saying to me before?

∙ Germany and Japan were used as examples of countries that didn’t see the devastating economic upheaval much of the traditional American manufacturing world saw. Nothing more. I can cite some reasons for that, if you care, but unless you don’t believe me that both places have stronger unions and environmental regs, I think we can safely dispense with those two factors as primary cause for American manufacturing and capital flight.

Jaxk's avatar


Yes, apparently you are. Petty political narrative is what much of this question is about and the facts used to back it up. The fact is that a lot of jobs were created during Reagan’s term. It is also a fact that a lot of jobs were created under Clinton’s term. The petty political narrative that Clinton created more jobs or Reagan created more jobs ignores a lot of facts that would contradict those claims. Including the idea that a president creates jobs at all.

As for your Germany and Japan examples, I can’t see how you get from here to there. Whether they have stronger unions or more environmental regulation says nothing about ours. I can create a very strict regulation that has very little cost or create similar regulation with enormous cost. And how much impact it had on thier manufacturing isn’t clear. During the 50s we were the manufacturing giant in the world. The rest of the world was still rebuilding and we were the only game in town. We created fully half of the entire worlds Gross Product. Of course we lost more manufacturing than they did. You’re comparing apples and oranges.

bolwerk's avatar

@Jaxk: So now you’re catching on to what I said in the first place? That is, “Neither is right because neither claim makes sense. In fact, the criteria make no sense on so many levels that either of those claims could almost be called bunkum.” This doesn’t mean you can’t credit Reagan for helping to encourage the replacement of well-paying manufacturing jobs with low-paying positions as service functionaries. Reagan didn’t entirely cause this by himself, but he did nothing to prevent it or find a better solution. Clinton merely rode an opportune economic upswing in the 1990s. The Reagan tax code, a backdoor tax increase, incentivized wealth accumulation, not spending.

As for your non-sequitur history lesson, no shit comparisons between the USA and 1950s Germany and Japan are irrelevant. What isn’t irrelevant is 1980s/1990s/2000s Germany and Japan, which are advanced postindustrial economies that more or less subject to the same economic strengths, weaknesses, and threats as the USA. You’re making claims that the USA was not able to overcome the burden of unions and economic regulations, while ignoring similarly sophisticated economies that more or less were. Is the USA just stupid or do you think there may be some other factor at work?

Jaxk's avatar


I can see you blame Reagan for all this (I don’t agree) but you totally discount the idea that regulation and wages played a role. That seems very narrow-minded. Federal regulation alone adds $1.75 trillion to the cost of goods and services in the US annually. The bulk of this cost is in manufacturing. I’ve seen studies for California that would more than double that cost figure. The vast majority or most costly regulation started in the 70s. That would put the reaction to these costs into the 80s. A correlation that is hard for me to ignore.

I have no comparable data for Germany or Japan. You may believe whatever you choose but a simple statement that they have more regulation doesn’t show anything let alone prove your point.

The reason that the 50 are significant in all this is because that was our peak of manufacturing domination. Europe and Japan were building thier capacity and began competing with us. It was easy for them to grow since they were starting with very little. While were crippling our auto industry with things like ‘Cafe Standards’ Japan was able to move in and take a huge chunk of the market. Japan built plants over here and we built plants overseas as well. The difference is we called it outsourcing and corporate greed, while they called it smart.

bolwerk's avatar

@Jaxk: You are changing goalposts on me. Before you were talking about environmental regulation, which is what I referred to in reference to Japan and Germany. Yes, they basically have more.

As for regulation, what regulation are you bitching about? Regulations can go either way. Crumple zones on cars? Driving in the right lane? These things are a little hard to argue against and, yes, Europe and Japan have them too. But then, you get stupidity like SUVs being exempt from those standards in the USA. The fact that you can plug your laptop into any wall outlet in the USA is a regulation, too. I really don’t hear anti-regulation fappers complaining about the 4 ft 8½” railroad gauge either. But then, they also don’t pay any mind to U.S. buff strength requirements.

Using CAFE standards as a reason why the U.S. fell behind in auto manufacturing is a kind of baffling argument. The U.S. has some of the lowest fuel efficiency standards in the developed world – maybe the world period. Even China was aiming for 42.2 MPG by 2015. If anything has hurt U.S. auto exports, it’s the inability to sell our gas guzzlers in places with stricter fuel consumption regulations. For the record, Japan requires about 38MPG (possibly rising to as much as 59MPG by 2020); EU regulations are a bit more complicated, and multidimensional depending on the type of trip, but if you believe Wikipedia in the near future a fairly CAFE-analogous standard of 20 km/liter (~47MPG) is being adopted. The USA will require 35.5MPG by 2016.

Jaxk's avatar


Actually there’s nothing baffling about it. The Cafe Standards gave foriegn auto manufacturers a distinct advantage in the US market. Not strictly because of the mileage requirements but due to the way they were measured. Cafe Standards are measured across the entire fleet of cars you sell. Mileage is directly affected by weight. It’s simple physics, the heavier the car the more power it takes to push it. The smaller lighter cars had no problem meeting and exceeding the mileage standards but the larger more popular cars were in trouble. So US manufacturers were cutting costs and raising the mileage across their fleet, the Japanese moved in competing only on the low end (where mileage wasn’t an issue) and stole that market.

To make matters worse, when Nader came in with his 5 mph bumpers, the problem got worse. A bumper to stop a 5,000 lb car is much heavier than a bumper to stop a 2,000 lb car. That makes the Cafe Standard even more favorable to the smaller imports. What is amusing is that when the bumper issue was proposed the auto makers were trying to get resolution a different way. They were arguing that a simple regulation that made the bumper height standard would accomplish the same thing with very little cost. It didn’t go thier way.

The point of all this is that it doesn’t matter if they have more or less regulation per se, what matters is how it’s implemented and the cost of that regulation. We tend to go with the most costly solution and it hurts our economy.

bolwerk's avatar

@Jaxk: that doesn’t make any sense either. Nothing you mention deprived American automakers of the ability to compete with Japanese automakers by producing smaller models domestically. Foreign automakers have to meet American safety standards to sell in the USA. The only place where American automakers are at a distinct disadvantage is in the export market, where designs geared toward American tastes for heavier gas guzzlers don’t translate well to foreign markets.

I agree American regulators tend to be a bit incompetent, but they are incompetent in a way different from how you think. It may be counterintuitive, but CAFE should be more stringent to make the U.S. competitive, not less stringent.

Jaxk's avatar


American cars are doing just fine overseas. Hell the Ford Focus was the best selling car in the world 5 years running (1999 – 2004). You think I’m complaining about the mileage but you’ve missed my point entirely. You can’t apply the same standard to for a 1,500 lb subcompact that you do to a 6,000lb Fleetwood.

Maybe we should outlaw the bigger heavier cars but what would Obama ride in if he didn’t have the huge black SUV he currently uses? Would he ride in the back of a Ford Fiesta?

bolwerk's avatar

@Jaxk: I wouldn’t say they’re doing fine. They’re doing okay sometimes. Ford fared better than other U.S. automakers. I don’t particularly see any reason why most automobile users would need a 3-ton car; again, if they’re being regulated to favor such weights, that’s a problem for the U.S.. This was clear by the 1970s, yet the U.S. continues mass production of expensive gas guzzlers to this day. This has a lot to do with why G.M. went bankrupt.

I can’t imagine there is no reason to have larger cars around. Farmers and contractors have plenty of uses for pickup trucks, for instance. I presume larger SUVs have advantages for security purposes, which makes sense when transporting a president so a teabagger doesn’t cap him.

But U.S. highway economics are ass-backwards. Relatively low fuel taxes mean people over-buy in terms of size, while scarcely contributing their share to road expenses. Fix this problem, and people will probably start demanding automobiles at a saner scale, which means automakers will supply them.

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