Wednesday, November 26th, 2014

Mailbag: 'You guys are really being finicky'

The mail's here! And much of it (though not all) is chilly about our items.
The mail's here! And much of it (though not all) is chilly about our items.

Come freezing rain, snow or ice, PolitiFact readers are happy to share their opinions with us -- both positive and negative. Here’s a selection of some of the more interesting correspondence we have received this winter.

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Quite a few readers complained that we were too generous in rating a claim by former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., that marijuana today is "genetically modified," with THC levels that "far surpass the marijuana" of the 1970s. We rated that claim Mostly True.

"Wrong," said one reader. "The marijuana consumed in Hawaii in the late 1970s was grown there. Strains such as Maui Wowie -- just as potent as OG Kush or Blue Dream -- were plentiful on Oahu then. I know -- I was there. He was not smokin’ Mexican brick weed."

Another reader found our ruling "profoundly misleading. Certainly if you compare the cheap $10 street weed from the 1960s to today's sophisticated, expensive, hydroponic strains, there will be more THC today. But marijuana has been around for centuries, and the types grown in Thailand, Hawaii, Columbia and many other places have always been far stronger than the domestic, street grade that is sold illegally. Are you suggesting that a hydroponic strain is stronger than a Nepalese temple ball or a genuine Thai stick? (Yes, Obama and I had access to this then). Finally, marijuana is not a mutant plant that is developing into some deadly menace. Saying a higher level of THC is more dangerous is like saying that whiskey is more dangerous than beer. That is absurd. It's the total amount consumed that counts. Shame on you for buying into fear mongering."

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One reader took issue with our analysis of a claim stemming from the George Washington Bridge lane closures that have caused problems for New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. We looked at a claim from a email by David Wildstein, a Christie appointee, that kids stuck on school buses in the traffic jam "are the children of Buono voters," referring to Christie’s 2013 Democratic opponent. We didn’t put the claim to the Truth-O-Meter, but we did find that 55 percent of Fort Lee voters -- a clear majority -- actually supported Christie.

"Your analysis doesn’t take into account that Fort Lee students taking the bridge are almost all private school children," wrote the reader, who lives in nearby Teaneck, N.J. "Public School kids go to local Fort Lee schools and don’t get on the bridge. Some may be sending their children to New York City for special-needs programs that are not available in Fort Lee or other Northern New Jersey towns and cities. But most students going over the bridge are either going to religious schools or to exclusive private schools that cater mostly to the wealthy. Wealthy and religious parents are overwhelmingly Christie voters."

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A reader took issue with our Mostly True rating for a claim by Rep. Steve Southerland, R-Fla., that "if you have a job in this country, (there's a) 97 percent chance that you're not going to be in poverty."

"If, as you claim, ‘you include both full-time jobs and part-time jobs, then the percentage drops slightly, to 93 percent,’ then his assertion is nowhere close to being true, let alone Mostly True.’ That’s a drop of 4 percentage points, or about 4 million people. That alone should be sufficient to rate the statement as intentionally deceptive."

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One reader wasn’t happy with our rating of a claim by Obama that "unemployment insurance kept more than 620,000 children out of poverty in 2012." We rated it Half True, noting that this analysis used an unofficial poverty measure. If the official measure had been used, it would have been 427,914.

"You guys are really being finicky. Saving 427,000 children from poverty is huge. However big or small the number, it has helped many people and in some cases saved lives."

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Several readers complained about our check of a claim by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that marriage "decreases the probability of child poverty by 82 percent," which we rated Mostly True.

Rubio is wrong, wrote Philip N. Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, "because the observed difference in poverty rates between single-parent and married-parent does not imply that marriage ‘decreases the probability' of poverty. That is a causal statement, which is completely unsupported. If we made a law that only rich people could get married, you would find the same result in the Census data. Would you still say "marriage decreases the probability" of poverty? No. Anyway, thanks for addressing the issue. But you're completely wrong. In my opinion."

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Several readers critiqued our fact-check of a claim by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., that "the minimum wage is mostly an entry-level wage for young people." We rated it Mostly True, with the claim’s main failing its use of the phrase "entry-level." For most young people, we found, these are part-time jobs in the food or retail businesses or similar industries with little hope for career advancement.

One pizza parlor owner wrote, "McConnell is right. Minimum-wage jobs are entry-level because these are the jobs that teach one how to work hard, to work with other people, to develop a work ethic, and, perhaps, to discover that a career working in a pizza parlor or being stuck at minimum wage isn't desirable, and therefore one should continue one’s education and develop skills to pursue a career. Anyone getting minimum wage after 10 years in the workforce has serious personal issues and is not a victim of their employer. In our pizza store, there isn't room for advancement. There are workers and there are owners, and we labor side-by-side. The minimum-wage increase will kill the few jobs we have to offer a high school or college student, simply because we can no longer afford them."

Another reader also disagreed with our characterization of the term "entry level":

"An entry-level job can be one that affords one's first entree into the workforce in general.  This is especially true for young people who are trying to establish a work history of promptness, reliability, diligence, and competence. These are crucial factors, along with employer recommendations, when applying for positions at other companies, possibly completely unrelated to actual entry-level work they may have done previously. McConnell's statement merits a True rating."

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Several readers took issue with our check of a claim from Obama’s State of the Union address, that "over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth." We gave this a Half True rating, noting that Obama was measuring by the total amount of emission reductions, which doesn’t put nations on an equal footing. Several other advanced industrialized countries made steeper cuts than the United States did when measured on a percentage basis.

One reader wrote that Obama’s way of looking at it was preferable. "Even if the United Kingdom, Greece, and other countries had reduced carbon by twice as much as they did, the gross savings from cuts by the United States would be massively larger."

Another reader wrote, "I can't help but notice that your ‘winner’ on a percentage basis is Greece, which is possibly the world's biggest economic disaster over the same time period. Spain is another notorious economic straggler over the same period. Shutting down industry is certainly one way to stop burning fossil fuels, but it hardly qualifies as an economic achievement. To get a meaningful measure of success in reducing carbon emissions, wouldn't it be appropriate to adjust these numbers for changes in economic production?"

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One reader questioned our Half True rating for a claim by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., that "last month, more Americans stopped looking for a job than found one." We noted that she was arguably right for the most recent month, but we added that such a result was almost the only such case when you look at the previous 12 months. We downgraded her for cherry-picking her statistic.

A reader, however, noted that she had "used the latest month for which statistics were available. I would hardly call that cherry-picking. You call this Half True, but it seems very true to me."

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A reader critiqued our analysis of the claim by Labor Secretary Thomas Perez that "if you have a union job, you're making on average $950 a week. If you have a non-union job, you're making $750 a week." We rated that Mostly True, noting that the most common understanding of the term "average" is to find the mean, rather than the median; the median was the method used in the data that Perez cited.

"The mean, median, and mode are all types of averages," the reader wrote. "Of course, it's best practice to specify, when you say ‘average,’ whether you're referring to the mean or median (since mode is rarely used). Still, you would be correct to describe the median as an ‘average.’"

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Finally, one reader thanked us for what we do.

"I think you, PolitiFact and its diligent people, might be one of the last places to find fact and rationality in our current 24-hour news reality. Thank you. Thank you. A million times, thank you. You provide an invaluable service that I think no individual human could possibly duplicate on their own time. I wish I could send you cupcakes and cookies and have it not be creepy."