Just the (numerical) facts. No innumeracy, please.

PolitiFact started as a good idea — fact-checking campaign ads and speeches.

Although reporters can simply include a discussion about whether these were accurate, a free-standing fact check operation provides a locale for citizens to visit and retrieve compiled evaluations.

In my view, fact-checking should be incorporated into news stories, although some of these analyses would benefit from using simple graphics, like a little box accompanying the story to lay out the challenged statements and assessments. It would be even better if this was done on a regular basis and compiled fact-checks were also readily available on a web site.

One sort of fact-check involves numbers. Unfortunately, too often reporters suffer from innumeracy, a lack of understanding about what numbers do and don’t mean.

I’ve written about innumeracy before and looked at a Maine example. In that case, the Maine Heritage Policy Center improperly understood “millionaire” and “billionaire” as referring to specific amounts of wealth, rather than ranges of wealth.

But it’s truly, truly sad to see the national Politifact make an error, showing innumeracy over a very simple matter. Yes, the most prominent fact-checking organization has trouble with basic math terms.

Politifact checked a statement made by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. Rubio said that “a majority” of Americans are conservative.

A majority means more than half. Pretty basic, eh?

So if Politifact finds that less than half of Americans are conservative, then Rubio is wrong and that’s what they should say.

Unfortunately, no. Politifact found a poll that showed,”the largest group of Americans identify as conservative, at 40 percent.”

Forty percent is less than half, so Rubio’s statement is clearly untrue.

But somehow Politifact ends up fudging a simple numerical fact.

They rank the statement as Mostly True, while stating, Rubio “would be more accurate if he said a plurality of Americans are conservative.”

A plurality is not a majority. This is an embarrassment for Politifact and undermines their credibility.

No innumeracy, please.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.