ABC News Breaches Its Duty Not To Make The Public Stupid

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On ABC’s Sunday public affairs show “This Week,” the usually admirable Jake Tapper breached the broadcast journalist’s duty not to promote logically flawed arguments that will make the public dumber than it already is.

Debating with his guests the merits of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to severely reduce the collective bargaining rights of public unions, Tapper cited an intellectually dishonest New Republic article by Joseph McCartin which used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to make this statement:

“Contrary to Walker’s assertion, there is no direct correlation between public-sector collective bargaining and yawning state budget deficits. According to data gathered by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, while Wisconsin projects a state budget deficit of 12.8 percent for FY 2012, North Carolina, which does not allow government workers to bargain, faces a significantly higher deficit: 20 percent. Ohio, whose Republican governor John Kasich has also made clear his desire to roll back collective bargaining, has a deficit that is only about half the size of non-union North Carolina’s. Clearly, then, state budget deficits we are now witnessing are not the product of collective bargaining, but rather reflect the differential impact of the current recession on individual states, as well as the integrity of state fiscal practices (such as whether they raise enough in taxes to pay for the essential services they provide).”

What?

Let’s break down McCartin’s argument into simple terms:

State A, which has Factor X, has a budget deficit.

State B, which does not have Factor X,  has a bigger deficit.

Therefore Factor X  must not have a negative effect on State A’s budget deficit.

The last statement is not proven by the previous statements in the least. This would get any college student an F in Logic 101, yet the National Review article is being quoted all over the Web and now the network news, as if it was a decisive rebuttal to Gov. Walker’s plan. But it isn’t, because the reasoning is not only wrong, but wrong in multiple ways:

  • The fact that collective bargaining by public unions hasn’t created similar deficits in all states that have it has no bearing or probative value on whether collective bargaining has contributed to budget deficits in Wisconsin, or might contribute to it some or many states.
  • The fact that states with no collective bargaining have also run up deficits can’t possibly show, by itself, that collective bargaining wouldn’t have added to those deficits had it been allowed in those states.
  • Collective bargaining is a device to reach a result, not the result itself. States with unions that use collective bargaining responsibly, if there are any, are not comparable to states whose unions use collective bargaining to extract excessive benefits.

The statement is similar to saying (and I’ve seen this one in print, too):

  • State A bans handguns, and has X number of murders per capita.
  • State B allows handguns, and has half as many murders.
  • Therefore we know that the availability of handgun doesn’t contribute to the murder rate.

But there is no way those statistics can tell us whether removing handguns from State B wouldn’t lead to fewer murders still…until State B tries it, and even then we can’t be sure, because other factors might intervene.

Public union officials, frightened Democrats, liberal columnists and those who flunked Logic 101 can be expected to use flawed arguments like McCartin’s, but at least their arguments are flagged as likely spin because, in the case of the officials, the columnists and the Democrats, their biases and objectives are known to all, and the case of the flunkee, because he’s wearing that dunce cap. But ABC’s viewers, lord knows why, think that the network’s news anchors and hosts are trying to inform them with useful information, valid statistics, and sound analysis. Presenting a howler like this as “proof” of anything was deceptive if Tapper recognized how flawed it was, and incompetent if he didn’t.

The public can come up with terrible arguments on its own. It doesn’t need any assistance from ABC News, which is obligated to make us smarter, not dumber.

15 thoughts on “ABC News Breaches Its Duty Not To Make The Public Stupid

  1. How can ABC- or any public news source- make us “smarter” if they’re clueless themselves… or if their inherent ideology overrules their use of logic? I would suggest, given ABC’s track record, that the latter condition is in play, here.

  2. Am I missing something here?

    It strikes me that the ethical issue here is whether Gov. Walker said, implicitly or explicitly, that “we can’t afford collective bargaining.” If Walker never said that (or clearly implied that), then McMartin is constructing a straw man argument, and ought to be criticized on those grounds. But if Walker did say that, then McMartin’s argument is perfectly reasonable: that Walker is wrong in making a direct correlation between collective bargaining and budget shortfalls.

    I’ll grant that McMartin’s argument would be cleaner if he had used “solely” or some similar modifier. On the other hand, he does refer to “direct correlation.” Is there a direct correlation? No. And if Gov. Walker said there is one, then he’s the one to be criticized. That there may be an indirect correlation, that collective bargaining may be one of a number of factors which contribute to the problem: that’s possible, but irrelevant to McMartin’s argument, which is simply to argue against Walker’s presumed linkage.

    It strikes me that McMartin is saying precisely what you are: that it is impossible to determine the exact cause(s) of the problem. If there is legitimacy to the phrase “contrary to Walker’s assertion,” then I have no problem with McMartin’s analysis. He is demonstrating only that X isn’t inherently true; he’s not taking up the issue of whether not-X is.

    • But Rick—the issue of whether the unions are “responsible”/”primarily responsible”/ “directly responsible” for the deficit has been addressed in many places. True: the deficits weren’t caused by the unions, and Walker, to the extent he says otherwise, is being disingenuous. True: the benefits of some public unions are excessive, and true, there is an inherent conflict of interest when public officials who are supposed to bargain as advocates for the public instead bargain as allies of the unions, leading to bad deals. We know this.

      Nevertheless, what leads to budget problems in Ohio or North Carolina tells us absolutely nothing about Wisconsin. Thus McCartin’s article is nonsense, spin, and dishonest. Or just stupid. He doesn’t prove that “X isn’t inherently true.” It happens that it isn’t, but his method of proof is moronic.

      • The fact that an argument isn’t conclusive doesn’t mean it’s irrelevant, and it certainly doesn’t mean it’s either “dishonest” or “moronic.” I don’t think the experience of one state “tells us absolutely nothing” about another. Not a lot, perhaps, but something.

        In the handgun example you pose: let’s say State A, which has always banned handguns, legalizes them. There is an almost immediate significant decrease (or increase) in gun-related violence. No, causality hasn’t been proved. Yes, states are different. But legislators in State B would be irresponsible not to pay attention to what happened in State A. Notice I didn’t say “be bound by,” simply to consider the available evidence.

        • But the stats were presented, both on ABC and TNR, as refuting the proposition that collective bargaining unions contribute/can contribute to state deficits. There’s a yawning chasm between “isn’t irrelevant” and “proves.” I’ll stick to deceptive and/or incompetent. Ok—moronic is harsh.

  3. I think it was Mark Twain who said, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

    And don’t know the souce of this one:

    “Figures can’t lie, but liars can figure.”

  4. Pennsylvania has a legislature second to California and need s to be downsized. But they will bust the state union before they’ll bust themselves.

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