David R. Henderson  

Facts

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One of my pet peeves is people latching on to alleged facts and then running with them even when there is doubt about whether they are true. These "facts" then get repeated so often that many people form an emotional attachment to them. As a result, it is difficult, even when you give them evidence, to get them to reexamine their "facts." They seem to hold on even more tightly.

Although I am a partisan, my upset is not based on partisanship. It's based more simply: on my respect for truth. Indeed, I think you will quickly see that. I despise the two Presidents whom I'm about to defend, and I think both of them, not just one of them, should have been impeached.

I'll give two examples from the last 20 years and then a more-recent example that I think might turn into a "fact" even though there should be strong doubts. By the way, this post is motivated by my co-blogger Scott Sumner's quote from George Soros. Soros presents a "fact" that might not be one: that's the more-recent example I refer to in this paragraph.

1. Bill Clinton's famous: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

I can't count the number of people who say that and guffaw, as if Clinton was making something up. While I think Clinton was a congenital liar, this was not a lie. When I read it in context, it made perfect sense to me. Here's the whole quote:

"It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. If the--if he--if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not--that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement....Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."

Timothy Noah, writing on Slate at the time, wrote:
Years from now, when we look back on Bill Clinton's presidency, its defining moment may well be Clinton's rationalization to the grand jury about why he wasn't lying when he said to his top aides that with respect to Monica Lewinsky, "there's nothing going on between us."

Of course, it is possible that Clinton was lying because it's possible that he was still having an affair with Monica Lewinsky. So then he's just a straight liar. But if indeed, the affair was over, he was telling the truth and those aides, had they wanted to know the whole truth, should have asked him a more carefully worded question.

2. George W. Bush's famous "Mission Accomplished" banner.

In early May 2003, George W. Bush landed on the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln, and was greeted by a large banner that said "Mission Accomplished." Many critics and opponents of the war on Iraq later jumped on that, arguing that Bush's crowing about victory in Iraq was premature.

But the banner was not his or the White House's idea. It was entirely the idea of the officers of the ship.

I teach military officers and the plurality, and typically the majority, of them are U.S. Navy officers. About a year after this event, I had a student who was a junior officer on the USS Abraham Lincoln at the time. What had happened, he said, was that the carrier had been on a 10-month deployment, which is a long time, and, according to Wikipedia, was the longest time such a ship had been deployed since the Vietnam war. So when the White House told them that they should suggest words for a banner when the President arrived, they met in the ward room and came up with these two words. Then the White House had the sign made. End of story.

3. The snipers in Ukraine.

In the recent post by Scott Sumner on George Soros, Scott quotes the following:

Contrary to all rational expectations, a group of citizens armed with not much more than sticks and shields made of cardboard boxes and metal garbage can lids overwhelmed a police force firing live ammunition.

My impression is that the group of citizens was armed with far more than "sticks and shields," but put that aside. Maybe he's right. Here's the controversial one: "police firing live ammunition." If Soros is referring to snipers, which I think he is, then he is completely accepting of one side's statement on this. It turns out that there's a lot of doubt, even by those who are not on the side of the previous government. Check out the conversation between European Union Foreign Affairs Chief Catherine Ashton and Estonian Foreign Affairs Minister Urmas Paet, reported on here.


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CATEGORIES: Economic Methods



COMMENTS (24 to date)
Steve Horwitz writes:

Another example David is the fun poked at Donald Rumsfeld's line: "there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know."

People ridiculed him for a TOTALLY reasonable set of distinctions, not mention the most Austrian line ever uttered by a government official!

adbge writes:

Steve points out a great example, which I'm now sort of jealous for not thinking of. Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns is a great cognitive tool!

Similarly, there's the whole "someone sued McDonald's over hot coffee" meme which is trotted out as an example of America's trigger happy sue-at-will culture, but was entirely justified. The McDonald's in question had been overheating the coffee so that it would last longer, and this wasn't the first time they'd seriously injured someone. (Hey, maybe that's why whenever I get Starbucks it's so damn hot...)

I also recently find myself bothered by the argument "right to free speech is only protection from the government," which while technically true, is often used as a justification of why it ought to be morally justifiable for the majority to silence the few -- the most disgusting type of populism. A moment's reflection should reveal that the law does not have a perfect correspondence between right and wrong, and sometimes not even a very good correspondence. Any post-enlightenment society should be pushing idea tolerance as a virtue.

Or Palin never said anything about seeing Russia from her house. That was Tina Fey mocking her for an entirely true statement: "They're our next-door neighbors, and you can actually see Russia from land here in Alaska, from an island in Alaska."

Steve Horwitz writes:

I almost posted the Palin/Fey example too. Another perfect one.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks, Steve Horwitz and adage, for the Rumsfeld and Palin examples. I don’t see what is wrong with the McDonald’s example, though. After all, someone DID sue McDonald’s over their hot coffee.

Michael F. Cannon writes:

They asked Clinton for the whole truth when they put him under oath, and he swore to provide the whole truth when he took the oath.

That's why they began the post-dress deposition by asking Clinton what the oath meant to him.

Michael F. Cannon writes:

Also, shortly before Palin said, "death panel," the White House had drafted legislative language that would have let Medicare do what she claimed.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Michael F. Cannon,
Thanks on both. Yes, your “whole truth” point is a good one, and one that moderates my point. Even here, though, I think it’s sometimes ambiguous what the “whole truth” is. I don’t see any obligation on someone in a legal case to stretch to come up with what a prosecuting attorney should have asked but neglected to.

Glen Raphael writes:

I don't think you've made the case on either #1 or #2.

On #1, the larger context is that Clinton had previously invented his own private definition of "sexual relationship" such that he could say he hadn't had one with Lewinsky. Then when further pressed he seems to have come up with the phrasing "there IS no..." to disguise the fact that there "HAD BEEN a"...whatever was being asked about.

Prior to the hearing, anybody who was sufficiently cynical and disrespectful to the office of the presidency could see how he was lying and/or evading the question - writers for _Liberty_ and _Slate_ picked up on the use of "is" right away and knew what it meant. But those who were insufficiently cynical were misled, which was Clinton's intent. He knew what question was being asked and deliberately answered a different one.

So even if quibbling over the meaning of "is" sounds fine in the specific exchange quoted, Clinton did it in defense of EARLIER statements of his that HAD been deliberately misleading. Saying "it depends on what the meaning of 'is' is" was a confirmation that the cynics previously had been right to doubt his past statements. Hence, the scoffing seems appropriate, no?

On #2, you first say "But the banner was not his or the White House's idea", but in the next paragraph you say the White House *asked* for a banner, solicited suggestions for a banner and "had the banner made". How does that make it not the White House's idea? If the White House hadn't asked for the banner or hadn't "had it made" that'd be one thing. Since they did, it seems reasonable to hold them responsible for the apparent message being sent by it. Doesn't it?

Although both of those seem like poor examples, I can give a better one. The NYT's claim that Bush "had never seen a supermarket checkout scanner" is completely bogus but people are unreasonably attached to it. Snopes covers that one here: http://archive.today/REsO

MikeP writes:

I was going to comment on the Rumsfeld quote, but I see it was picked up in comment number one.

What strikes me most about Rumsfeld's perceptive and critically meaningful distinction is how journalists as a class think it was a display of idiocy. This is about as damning an exhibit of the utter failure of journalism to comprehend principles and probabilities as can be made.

Yet journalists to this day still imply "har har, what an oaf" when they cite this quote. Viz.,

One of the most cited of Rumsfeld’s Humpty Dumpty–esque non sequiturs...

...it’s the perfect title for Morris’ project.

Tim D B writes:

Ukrainian sniper rumor was denied by the Estonian minister later. More importantly, this rumor was denied by his source, who says the Estonian misunderstood her:
http://australia.isidewith.com/news/article/photos-link-yanukovychs-troops-to-maidan-massacre

blink writes:

You mislead. You claim a pet peeve about false "facts" but your examples are about interpretation only. Was Clinton misquoted? No. Was the Bush photo doctored? Again, no. The facts are not in dispute; only their interpretation. Your argument is bait-and-switch.

stubydoo writes:

Regarding the Rumsfeld one: none of the people ridiculing his line are doing so on the basis of it being incorrect - they do so because is was colossally unresponsive to the question he was asked. If you had been one of the people who actually wanted to know what was going on, you would have been equally infuriated.

This is the reverse of DH's two examples of statements being (allegedly) rescued by their context. Here, something which sounds like honest sagacity in isolation, turns out to be deliberately obfuscatory nonsense when viewed in context.

Tom West writes:

Unfortunately, a good (and convenient) narrative beats pesky facts 9 times in 10. I suspect it's simply the way the human brain is wired. In fact, we're pretty good at getting some facts, building a narrative, and then modifying our memory of the facts to fit the narrative.

Something I, in fact, learned from a paper by IBM on technical documentation. I was horrified when I found out is applied to just about everything...

blink, your point is pedantic at best. The interpretation *is* the story, and in the cases he gives, the interpretation that's generally known is pretty much at odds with the interpretation according to the participants.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Glen Raphael,
Then when further pressed he seems to have come up with the phrasing "there IS no..." to disguise the fact that there "HAD BEEN a"...whatever was being asked about.
Of course he disguised. I’m simply making the point that he answered the question asked.
He knew what question was being asked and deliberately answered a different one.
No, that’s wrong. He knew the question being asked and he answered it rather than the “different one” they meant to ask.
Since they did, it seems reasonable to hold them responsible for the apparent message being sent by it. Doesn't it?
No. The message on the banner was entirely up to the officers in the ward room.
I can give a better one. The NYT's claim that Bush "had never seen a supermarket checkout scanner" is completely bogus but people are unreasonably attached to it.
I don’t think it’s better but it is a good one.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tim D B,
Ukrainian sniper rumor was denied by the Estonian minister later. More importantly, this rumor was denied by his source, who says the Estonian misunderstood her.
Thanks.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Michael F. Cannon,
Also, shortly before Palin said, "death panel," the White House had drafted legislative language that would have let Medicare do what she claimed.
Please clear that up for me, Michael. Did she claim that there would be panels making decisions for Medicare not to pay for expensive treatments? If that was what she was claiming, then she was correct, and, in my view, this was the best part of ObamaCare.
Or was Palin claiming that once Medicare had decided not to pay, people would not be allowed to get such treatments even if they were willing to pay out of their own pockets or their own Medigap insurance? If the latter, then this would have really been a death panel and this would have been a horrible part of ObamaCare. But I don’t think it was or is part of ObamaCare.

Glen Raphael writes:

That Clinton "answered the question asked" is completely irrelevant to the narrative about that answer.

Clinton's *first* weaseling was to say things to his supporters like "I did not have sex with that woman", which he internally justified with the reasoning that a blowjob doesn't really constitute "having sex". When people started to suspect that one, he came up with the dodge involving tenses, the "I DO NOT" phrasing...and managed to fool a lot of people.

Yes, in the immediate context where he said the 'what "is" is' statement it was directly responsive to the question asked at that time. But you need to ask yourself why that particular question was being asked. In the larger context, it was the last nail in the coffin.

It's Clinton's supporters that that statement most resonated with at the time, when they realized they'd been had. Here's a representative Slate article written at the time: Bill Clinton and the meaning of is

The message on the banner was entirely up to the officers in the ward room.
Perhaps, but the existence of the banner was entirely up to the White House, which had it constructed for the occasion. Are we to believe they made this massive banner without reading it first? And if so, wouldn't that seem to broadcast incompetence and failure of oversight even more than the traditional account?

[broken url and incorrect html fixed.--Econlib Ed.]

David R. Henderson writes:

@Glen Raphael,
Yes, in the immediate context where he said the 'what "is" is' statement it was directly responsive to the question asked at that time.
Good. Then we’re agreed. You need not try to convince me that Clinton is a lying snake. I already believe it.
Are we to believe they made this massive banner without reading it first?
No. Nor did I suggest that.

MikeP writes:

If you had been one of the people who actually wanted to know what was going on, you would have been equally infuriated.

The Rumsfeld transcript is quoted below. Any intelligent person should see in this that he knows no direct evidence of the connection between Iraq's (presumed) chemical weapons and terrorists, but that -- from the context of the rest of the transcript -- everything about Iraq concerns him as Secretary of Defense.

Rumsfeld was far too willing to find reason to go to war. But he is not spouting "Humpty Dumpty–esque non sequiturs" except in the eyes of a supremely incapable press.

If he had said "I don't know of any such evidence or lack of such evidence" or had said "No comment", would that have been better? He was simply offering helpful epistemological advice to a reporter who imagines he can prove a negative by induction. One would have hoped the reporter would have picked that up in journalism school, but they clearly don't teach logic -- or science, or math, or statistics, or economics, or a myriad of other useful truth-finding topics -- there.

Q: Could I follow up, Mr. Secretary, on what you just said, please? In regard to Iraq weapons of mass destruction and terrorists, is there any evidence to indicate that Iraq has attempted to or is willing to supply terrorists with weapons of mass destruction? Because there are reports that there is no evidence of a direct link between Baghdad and some of these terrorist organizations.

Rumsfeld: Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

And so people who have the omniscience that they can say with high certainty that something has not happened or is not being tried, have capabilities that are -- what was the word you used, Pam, earlier?

Q: Free associate? (laughs)

Rumsfeld: Yeah. They can -- (chuckles) -- they can do things I can't do. (laughter)

Q: Excuse me. But is this an unknown unknown?

Rumsfeld: I'm not --

Q: Because you said several unknowns, and I'm just wondering if this is an unknown unknown.

Rumsfeld: I'm not going to say which it is.

Jay writes:

@Glen Raphael

I have no doubt the White House did read and approve it first but that's irrelevant. The point of the banner was to say mission accomplished for the crew of the ship and not the war in general, period. That takes 10 seconds to explain and yet nearly every media outlet failed to do so and instead mocked him for it. The White House did fail to anticipate how the banner would be interpreted by an unfriendly media, but that is far more forgivable than saying the war was "mission accomplished".

Bryan R writes:

Perhaps a better example would be manufacturing activity. In complaining about the economy many cite the "fact" that we now manufacture nothing in this country and how we "hollowed" out manufacturing by outsourcing all our manufacturing jobs to China.

This is cited as iron-clad fact and the individual usually won't accept the reality that manufacturing output from the U.S. continues to grow and that it is automation and not another nation that took all those jobs.

ColoComment writes:

RE: Palin
"...panels making decisions for Medicare not to pay for expensive treatments?"

Yes. Gov. Palin was referring to the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB), which was created by ACA as a technocratic solution to rising health care costs.

See here, for some background:

http://www.lifenews.com/2013/11/13/democratic-senator-obamacares-ipab-death-panels-must-be-revisited/

Ben Kennedy writes:

Regarding Clinton, it's even worse that you think regarding how his words have been taken out of context.

First, it wasn't his words he was talking about. It was a statement his lawyers made.

Second, it wasn't even a statement about what Clinton supposedly said, it was a statement about how his attorneys were describing what Monica Lewinski said in her affidavit. Quote from the transcript at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/clinton/stories/bctest092198_4.htm

BY MR. WISENBERG:

Q: Mr. President, I want to, before I go into a new subject area, briefly go over something you were talking about with Mr. Bittman. The statement of your attorney, Mr. Bennett, at Paula Jones deposition, "Counsel is fully aware" – it's page 54, line 5 – "Counsel is fully aware that Ms. Lewinsky has filed, has an affidavit which they are in possession of saying that there is absolutely no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton". That statement is made by your attorney in front Judge Susan Webber Wright, correct?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: That's correct.

Q: That statement is a completely false statement.

Whether or not Mr. Bennett knew of your relationship with Ms. Lewinsky, the statement that there was "no sex of any kind in any manner, shape or form, with President Clinton," was an utterly false statement. Is that correct?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: It depends on what the meaning of the word "is" is.

Most people think that he was attempting to weasel out of something he had said in his previous deposition - the reality was that he wasn't even talking about his own words

John T. Kennedy writes:

"Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."

So Clinton could fairly have interpreted the inquiry to be about whether he was currently having sex with Lewinsky right there in the courtroom while answering the question?

Obviously if they'd had sex before he was sworn in to testify, or even if she had brought him to climax while the question was being asked, that would be in the past tense...

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