Seriously, Why Be So Obvious About It?

My last post used the word "lie" somewhat loosely because the person I was discussing in the post frequently accuses people of fraud/lying with the flimsiest of bases. Given such a person was simply making things up, I thought worrying about the exact nuances of what a "lie" is was unnecessary.

However, the person I criticized has continued to behave in a similar manner as before, again saying things which were not only untrue, but untrue in a blatant fashion. Given that, I'd like to spend a little time looking into just what constitutes a lie. Not because what Duarte said or did is that important, but because of a simple question which haunts me: "If a person were going to tell a lie, would they really be so obvious about it?"

I'll begin with a short summary of the last post. In January of this year, a man named José Duarte wrote an article criticizing "fact checking" efforts by the Associated Press. In his article, he accused the AP of bias and claimed to provide evidence proving his accusation. However, his article contained a number of bizarre falsehoods. I took note of one where he claimed an AP article fact checking a tweet by President Trump:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, or CFPB, has been a total disaster as run by the previous Administrations pick. Financial Institutions have been devastated and unable to properly serve the public. We will bring it back to life!

Didn't even talk about the CFPB which Trump was tweeting about:

This is odd. Trump was talking about CFPB’s impact on financial institutions — presumably those institutions that have tangled with it (see below). AP responds with various aggregate statistics for the banking sector. They’ve gone off on a tangent that has nothing to do with Trump’s claim. In fact, in their entire 216-word write-up, they never mention the CFPB at all. It’s as though they didn’t even Google it, and might not have any idea what Trump was talking about.

I took note of this falsehood because it was so blatant. The article Duarte was criticizing began:

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — President Donald Trump's accusation that a federal watchdog has devastated the financial industry is unsupported by the evidence that banks like best: profits.

Trump's weekend tweet was aimed against the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, little known by most people until it became the center of a struggle over who's in charge — a Trump-named acting director or a deputy who was given the same title by a departing chief from the Obama era.

And further discussed the CFPB, referring to it as the "bureau":

That capital essentially is held in reserves that would help the companies weather a future crisis like the 2008 financial meltdown that prompted the bureau's creation in 2011 and other steps to overhaul the financial sector....

The Trump administration has argued that the bureau has blocked people's access to loans and credit, although surveys by the Federal Reserve do not find that to be so.

In fact, the AP had referred to the CFPB in four of the six paragraphs it wrote in its article. Duarte's claim the AP "never mention the CFPB at all" was simply bizarre. It would be impossible to read the AP article and reach that conclusion. Does that amount to a lie, though? Maybe Duarte didn't bother to read the article before he criticized it. But isn't that a lie? Isn't it lying to act as though you know the contents of something when you know you don't know them?

It's difficult to know just where to draw the line to say one thing is a lie and another thing is not. Suppose we don't label that a lie. What about Duarte's June 12th response to me pointing out his error (on June 11th):

Brandon, they added that after I published my report. AP made a number of changes to the piece after I exposed them, including “Critics of the bureau say it is overbearing.”

They also include token links to their “fact checks” now after I called them out for never linking to sources.

Assume that I’m rigorous. I usually am.

There was absolutely no basis for Duarte to claim the AP had secretly changed their article. Take note of how he even provided a direct quotation he claims was added to the article. That exact phrase was always in the original article. How could Duarte possibly believe secret changes were made? The slightest attempt to find out if that were true would have shown it wasn't. It took me all of a minute to find an archived version of the article which disproved everything he claimed.

So was Duarte lying there? He fabricated a story about secret changes made to discredit him which had no basis at all. He provided an exact quote of words he said had been added to an article even though an archived version of the article showed they were there all along. He claimed links were added to articles in order to defend his claim the AP never linked to any sources, but again, that was untrue. Duarte created an entire narrative of surreptitious behavior by the people he criticized out of thin air. Was that lying?

Hours after Duarte posted his fabricated narrative, I responded to demonstrate what he said was false. I provided clear and compelling evidence. Duarte never responded. Was he willfully ignoring my correction in order to hide from his errors? If so, would that be lying?

Months after that exchange, I saw Duarte tweet about his article and responded by pointing out it contained untruths. After reading the post I wrote about the issue, Duarte changed his article and added this notice:

UPDATE 2018–09–03: On June 27, 2018, I posted an update saying AP had silently modified some of its fact checks after I debunked them. I was wrong about that. The Internet Wayback Machine contradicts my memory, and I think in any contest between my memory and the Wayback Machine, we have to go with the Wayback Machine. I was also wrong in claiming that the AP Fact Check never mentioned the CFPB (in the body of their fact check, called The Facts) — they mention it as “the bureau”. The core of my report there stands. AP never fact-checked Trump’s claim — they just go off on a tangent about the banking sector.

Notice the misdirection here. Duarte doesn't simply say he was "wrong in claiming that the AP Fact Check never mentioned the CFPB." Instead, he adds the caveate "in the body of their fact check, called The Facts." At no point in Duarte's article did he ever limit his claim in this way. What he said was clear and absolute:

n fact, in their entire 216-word write-up, they never mention the CFPB at all.

Duarte deleted this text then made sure his update included the caveat, "in the body of their fact check, called The Facts." The effect of this was to downplay the error. Is that lying? Is it remotely conceivable Duarte made this change with any intent other than minimizing his error?

What about this peculiarity? The day after Duarte posted that update (September 4th), I mentioned on Twitter I thought it was odd he didn't bother to inform me the article had been updated, much less give me credit for finding the error. Getting credited in the article itself isn't something I expected, but since Duarte talked to me on Twitter, a tweet mentioning the change and saying something like, "Thanks for letting me know Brandon" seemed appropriate. Some time after I said this, Duarte changed his article again to say:

UPDATE 2018–09–03: On June 27, 2018, I posted an update saying AP had silently modified some of its fact checks after I debunked them. I was wrong about that. The Internet Wayback Machine contradicts my memory, and I think in any contest between my memory and the Wayback Machine, we have to go with the Wayback Machine. I was also wrong in claiming that the AP Fact Check never mentioned the CFPB (in the body of their fact check, called The Facts) — they mention it as “the bureau”. Thanks to Brandon Shollenberger for catching both errors.

The core of that section stands. AP never fact-checked Trump’s claim — they just go off on a tangent about the banking sector, which was republished by CBS, and presented as an actual fact check by Google.

Notice the update is dated September 3rd even though it was changed in response to a tweet I made on September 4th. I even made sure to make an archived copy of the article in case Duarte tried to make such a change. That archived copy was made September 4th, at about the same time I made my tweet.

This proves Duarte changed his article on the 3rd, saw something I said on the 4th then changed his article again. And instead of having two update notices, Duarte simply changed the preceding update to include his new change and left the date the same, making it appear his change predated my tweet which prompted it. Is that lying? Duarte obviously knew the difference between the 3rd and 4th.

The point of all this is not to say Duarte is a terrible human being. The point is not to say anything he did was egregious. The point isn't even to say anything he did was important. It wasn't. What it was is bizarre. My first thought upon seeing this sort of behavior is, "Nobody could be dumb enough to do this by mistake." My second thought is, "Nobody would lie in such an obvious way."

I don't know how to reconcile those two thoughts. It's a problem I've had on many occasions with many different people. I don't know how to react to it. Do I call them a liar and let them play the victim, saying I"m abusive? Do I correct their untruths like any other error, without harsh rhetoric or criticism, making their behavior seem socially acceptable? I don't know. To see what I mean, consider this paragraph by Duarte which followed the one I've focused on thus far:

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has been accused of corruption, abuse of power, and of extorting money from the financial institutions it investigates. That last issue arises because apparently the CFPB — unlike other regulatory agencies — funds itself from the fines it imposes, creating an apparent conflict of interest with respect to the resolution of its investigations.

Duarte's claim as to how the CFPB gets its funding is completely untrue. The CFPB's funding is an interesting topic as it is fairly unusual. Instead of Congress being in control of its funding directly, the CFPB receives a fixed percentage of the funding given to the Federal Reserve. This means Congress cannot cut the CFPB's funding without also cutting funding for the Federal Reserve.

This is an interesting system as it means Congress cannot threaten funding cuts when making the budget in order to pressure the CFPB. Some people think that's bad. Some people think it's good. Both views have arguments in their favor. Duarte's view does not. Duarte's view the CFPB is funded with the fines it imposes is delusional. By law, the CFPB isn't even allowed to use the money it collects from fines on itself. It can only give the money to victims of offenses it finds or spend the money on educational efforts to attempt to prevent people from being victimized in the future.

So what are we supposed to do about things like this? When a person says something so completely untrue, how should we react? Should we calmly correct them as though they made some honest mistake? Should we label them a liar? Should we ignore them and allow their falsehoods to go uncorrected?

I honestly don't know. I know one thing though. I know people should not be able to escape accusations of lying by lying (to themselves?) so much they delude themselves into believing their own lies. That isn't right.

One comment

  1. Brandon -

    I commented below before reading this post.

    Duarte deleted this text then made sure his update included the caveat, "in the body of their fact check, called The Facts." The effect of this was to downplay the error. Is that lying? Is it remotely conceivable Duarte made this change with any intent other than minimizing his error?

    I gotta say, the multiplier effect of his subsequent actions, to re-write his post so as to be misleading, is a very poor reflection on Duarte's veracity. Not sure it proves "lying" per se - especially since he acknowledged being wrong.

    I think the question of whether he is a "liar" is relatively uninteresting (and likely unprovable anyway). One thing that is more interesting for me is how someone who is very focused on discussing the impact of biases on research would have poor control for dealing with his biases.it puts his recommendation to assume rigor in a very interesting light.

    In a similar respect, the following is also interesting:

    The core of that section stands. AP never fact-checked Trump’s claim — they just go off on a tangent about the banking sector,

    As is this :

    AP’s points don’t collide with Trump’s claim at all.

    This is what is the core of his argument. IMO, it is strong evidence of a lack of rigor.

    I find this often. I don't dismiss Duarte's basic focus - the impact of bias on research. But his failure to control for his own biases diminishes the value I can see in his work on that topic.

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