POLITICS

PolitiFact Goes 1-For-2 In Evaluation Of Obama's Mass Shootings Statement [UPDATED]

06/22/2015 05:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015
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"At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries," said President Barack Obama, in an emotional reaction to the mass shooting that claimed the lives of nine worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, last week. "It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency," he continued. You'll probably guess what happened next: Obama won himself a visit from the fact-checking elves at PolitiFact!

It was a statement well worth some attention from PolitiFact, a collective of truth-sleuthing editors and reporters affiliated with the Tampa Bay Times. But did our fact-checking heroes bring their "A" game as they arrived at their "Mostly False" rating? Alas, no. On Obama's latter statement, regarding the "frequency" of such events, they succumb to innumeracy.

Let's dig into the particulars. To begin with, you have to make a choice about how charitable you want to be about Obama's statement here. I see two assertions here, the first pertaining to these types of mass shootings not happening in other advanced nations, and the second focusing on the frequency of these events. According to PolitiFact, the White House's point of view on this matter is that there is really only one assertion being made, and as PolitiFact relates, the president's spokespeople insist that "the second sentence qualifies the first."

For the sake of argument, however, let's be as uncharitable as we can to the president, and treat each sentence separately. On the matter of the first sentence, "At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries," we can easily demonstrate that this is entirely false, without reservation. It doesn't tax the memory too unduly to recall Anders Breivik's 2011 mass-casualty rampage in Norway, which killed 77 people. The 2014 shootings at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Canada, also loom large in recent memory. And when 2015's mass shooting statistics are added to the ledger, among the most memorable will be the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices that took place in January.

So, let's just agree: These sorts of violent incidents definitely happen in other advanced nations. Swing and a miss, there, Barack. But PolitiFact graded this correctly.

Then we move on to the second sentence: This is where PolitiFact goes all a-wobble.

By contrast, the second part of Obama’s claim -- that "it doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency" -- isn’t entirely off-base.

The best way to compare mass shooting incidents across countries is to calculate the number of victims per capita -- that is, adjusted for the country’s total population size.

Wait. Whaaaaat? No, no, that is not the best way to "compare mass shooting incidents across countries" if what you are solving for is the frequency of mass shooting incidents. "Frequency" refers to "number of incidents," not "number of people based on population."

But this is what PolitiFact runs with here, embarking on a series of calculations that arrive at this conclusion:

Calculating it this way shows the United States in the upper half of the list of 11 countries, ranking higher than Australia, Canada, China, England, France, Germany and Mexico.

Still, the U.S. doesn’t rank No. 1. At 0.15 mass shooting fatalities per 100,000 people, the U.S. had a lower rate than Norway (1.3 per 100,000), Finland (0.34 per 100,000) and Switzerland (1.7 per 100,000).

I don't know how I'd properly term the result of PolitiFact's conclusions -- "Advanced Nations Ranked By Sticktoitiveness Of Mass Casualty Murderer" maybe? -- but I surely wouldn't call this "frequency of mass shooting incidents." Presenting this information and insisting that it reveals "frequency of mass shooting incidents" would have earned you a failing grade from my high school probability and statistics teacher, and she wasn't even that good of a probability and statistics teacher! She was good enough, though, to know innumeracy when she saw it.

Let's take a look at what the data set PolitiFact is using actually shows (N.B. It doesn't show "advanced country" Japan!), in terms of frequency:

As you can see, the only countries getting within a stone's throw of the United States' claim to the throne of mass shootings are a trio of nations, each with populations that number less than 10 million people. The way it stacks up for nations of comparable population (or larger), it favors the "other advanced nations" of which Obama spoke. In fact, just for funsies, let's lump these other 10 nations together, and pit them against the United States.

Basically, mass shooting incidents are not happening with any significant statistical frequency outside the United States, corrupt dictatorships and open war zones.

Based on the available data, Eat The Press rates President Barack Obama as "should probably stick to discussing the frequency of mass shooting events rather than entertaining the idea that these tragedies do not occur elsewhere." We rate PolitiFact as "in need of an 11th grade statistics class." We rate America as "in real desperate need of doing something about mass shootings," but "probably nothing will happen because ¯\_(ツ)_/¯."

UPDATE, 6/23:: Politifact has appended an editor's note to their original piece:

We heard from several of you regarding Obama's use of the word "frequency," and that frequency could refer to the incidents of mass shootings, not deaths as we examined. Looking at Obama's claim by incident, the United States has a higher rate of incidents than Finland, Norway and Switzerland. We agree that there is no preferred comparison and each is valid, and we've changed some language in this article to reflect that.

Well, not all comparisons are equally valid, actually! If you want to measure "frequency," then you have to use the correct data in your long division. I used the correct data to reach a valid conclusion and Politifact didn't, and that's that.

We also agree that China has a larger population than the United States, a fact we weren't initially clear about but have since fixed.

Hey, I hate to break it to you, Politifact, but the population of China is not some subjective thing that we negotiate over and then come to an "agreement" on, it is a matter of objective fact. (How did it come to pass that you weren't "initially clear" about this? Have you sustained a blow to the head?

That said, we are sticking with our rating of Mostly False, in large measure because of Obama's claim that "this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries." That is incorrect. We know some of you will disagree, and we'll be sure to air out some of your objections in our next reader mailbag.

Hey, hey, whatever floats your boat, guys. Obama's claim that "this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries" is wrong and you have him dead to rights on that. Whether you go with "Half False" or "Mostly False" is, I suppose, a matter of taste at this point. You be you, Politifact, just learn to divide the right numbers in the future.

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