Saturday, November 1st, 2014

Mailbag: "It's no wonder you people are losing your jobs."

Our readers tell us what they think of our recent reports.
Our readers tell us what they think of our recent reports.

Sometimes we fact-check a statement and readers seem to yawn — we don’t hear boo. But when they disagree? They let us know.

Below is a selection of reader mail, edited for length and style. And with this latest haul of missives, I pass the mailbag baton to my colleagues. I am not losing my job, as a reader recently suggested, but starting next week, I’ll be reporting from Hays County for the Austin American-Statesman.

We will continue to appreciate your thoughts on the Truth-O-Meter — or hearing if there’s a statement you’d like fact-checked. You can email politifact@statesman.com, or find PolitiFact Texas on Facebookor Twitter.

But back to the mailbag.

Is the fluoride in Austin’s drinking water toxic waste?

We rated that claim, which appeared in a letter to the editor published in the Austin Chronicle, False. The city’s water utility buys the acid that fluoridates Austin’s drinking water from a fertilizer maker. Yet there’s no reasonable support for calling it toxic waste — it’s not poisonous at its concentration in Austin’s drinking water.

Readers weren’t convinced.

"Was there any discussion about the ethics of forced medication of the population? What choice does an individual have if they would prefer not to be medicated in this manner and perhaps an alternative to promoting their oral health or actually use fluoride but would rather be in control of the dosages they receive."

"I can't believe an organization like y’all did such a one-sided fact-check. Fluoride is a poison.  Even little-kid science books will tell you that. The main thing it does, even in minute amounts, is inhibit the thyroid function of the victim. It slows metabolism, causes endocrine and other system malfunction that includes growth in children and a host of problems in adults. There is a plethora of information out there."

Rachel Maddow on Texas and taxes

In April, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow suggested secession could hurt Texas economically because it’s among states that "routinely get a lot more federal spending than they pay in taxes." We rated that Mostly True: On an annual basis From 1981 through 2003, Texas almost always paid more in federal taxes than it got back from Uncle Sam. But since 2003 the reverse has been true, with Texas receiving more than it paid in five out of seven years.

Several readers thought we erred by excluding liabilities in our analysis.

"There is a currently a massive imbalance between what all Americans pay in taxes versus what they ‘receive.’ The difference is being financed. By your formula, all Americans, on average, get more than they pay. How can this be? It is because you failed to count liabilities. When an accountant analyzes spending and income, they count this debt on the liability side of the ledger. You leave it off entirely. Given the way you figured this, it is actually amazing (even shocking) that 100 percent of states do not ‘get more’ than they ‘pay.’ Maddow’s statement is at best a half-truth because she fails to include debt."

"You were way too kind to her, as she said they, including Texas, all routinely get a lot more federal spending than they pay in taxes.’Routinely’ is not ‘lately’ and ‘more’ is quite different from ‘a lot more.’ You have taken people to task for such overemphasis on statements that otherwise correct. Her statement seems Barely True."

"The conclusion is exceptionally misleading. This only demonstrates how much more the federal government is paying out than it receives in taxes. A fair reporting would allocate the deficit spending — probably by population — to the states as being paid out (albeit in the future or through reduced spending power) . This ‘accounting’ can be justified on many different levels.  Ignoring it can't be justified at all."

"This analysis ignores the deficit, the amount the nation borrows each year to make up the shortfall in receipts. This debt must be paid by the states, so it must be included in the analysis. Taxpayers in Texas and other states are accumulating these obligations — unless the nation declares bankruptcy and repudiates its debt. An accurate analysis would include each state’s share of the accumulated debt. To do otherwise could conceivably yield a result that all 50 states are receiving more that they put in."

"Stop the presses! Texas and 45 other states received more in federal spending than they paid in Taxes in 2009. Did you ever stop to think that since the federal government now spends hundreds of billions (and recently more than a trillion) dollars more than it takes in, it is inevitable that most states get back more in spending than they paid in income taxes? And I would be willing to bet that if federal borrowing were allocated on a per capita basis, total income taxes paid by Texas (and you should also include federal gasoline taxes) plus our share of federal borrowing (as the second most populous state)  exceeds our receipts of federal spending."

Lightning vs. Concealed Handgun License holders

We were intriguedwhen state Rep. Van Taylor said in March that "you’re more likely to get struck by lightning than to get shot by a CHL holder." We couldn’t come up with the data needed to prove or disprove his claim. While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has calculated the likelihood of being struck by lightning in a given year (one in 500,000), we lacked sufficient information to gauge the chances of being shot by a CHL holder. His statement went unrated.

Readers fired away.

"I have personally known  two people struck and killed by lightning but have never known anyone shot by a CHL holder. Not that it is a scientific finding just interesting."

"I still think that, just based on statistical arguments, that there is no way the Taylor statement can be true, even if the available data aren't detailed enough to prove it. He certainly can't prove his statement is true."

How harmful is benzene?

During an April House debate, state Rep. Rick Hardcastle brushed off a colleague’s concerns about benzene emissions — "it’s never been proven harmful," he said.

Except that it’s a proven carcinogen. We rated his claim Pants on Fire.

No one quibbled.

"How in the world would anyone ever think that benzene isn’t harmful?  I work with the stuff, and you can send Rick Hardcastle here any time he wants to play with the pure stuff."

"The reason that this statement was rated Pants on Fire is because of the guile: ‘It was never intended to be a factual statement.’"

"I watched five men die of acute leukemia from being around and in contact with benzene. They were told by top environmentalists that they were not in danger. Tell that to my brother-in-law who died in agony at 87 pounds and lost a wife and four children. Benzene kills and makes people very sick. It endangers the unborn child."

"Being a chemical engineer and having been involved in the petroleum and natural gas industries, I was interested in your article about Rick Hardcastle and benzene. I thought your analysis was good and the article well written. Of course benzene is bad stuff to breathe, and testing for it should be a given. However, the key point is that there is virtually no chance any benzene will be found around gas well drilling activities, unless it is in escaping vapor from the use of solvents containing benzene. This is easy to control.The gas itself and its containment are more critical and practices are well established for such containment. In any event, unless the well being drilled is in the school yard, it is highly unlikely there will even be any awareness of the activity at the school. Drilling for gas is good for the country, because gas is cleaner energy, reduces the exportation of our dollars, and creates jobs. The only inconvenience is some noisy equipment and physical activity during the brief time the well is being drilled."

Criticism

"I am personally libertarian and have little use for either party, but I do not appreciate bias, when presented as fact."

"It's no wonder you people are losing your jobs. You can't research a story and you can't think."

"As a biased premise seems to exist surrounding this supposed unbiased analyzer, it seems clear that there is hidden bias.  I am not an overly active political person but find it quite humorous."

"You guys have repeatedly shown a liberal bias in how you give your ratings."

"Once again, your political agenda has completely discredited your supposed mission. For the umpteenth time, you have rated a statement that is admittedly 100 percent true as less than true, because you do not like the message likely to be inferred."

Kudos

"I like PolitiFact. Keep up  the good work."

"The best part of the Statesman is PolitiFact. I love it!"

"I always enjoy the column — and learn from it!"

Advice

Occasionally, readers will offer us advice on how to improve PolitiFact:

"Your articles do a good job of dissecting and illuminating the statements with which they deal; unfortunately a large number of people look only at the statement and rating, and then only at the words ‘true’ and ‘false,’ disregarding the ‘barely,’ ‘mostly,’ and ‘partly.’ Please come up with a rating system that is logical and not misleading. At the least please attach a legend to the PolitiFact articles that explains each rating. What, for instance, differentiates a statement that is false from one that merits a rating of Pants on Fire."

Rating definitions can be found on the bottom of the PolitiFact homepage. For a more detailed explanation of the principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter, PolitiFact editor Bill Adair’s February recap.