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Argument-checking the 2016 presidential debates


Politicians aren’t always truthful. Sometimes they lie outright. Even more often, they present the facts in a one-sided and distorted way. As a response to that, numerous fact-checking sites have sprung up. They have grown more and more popular, and there is some evidence that they actually make politicians more truthful.

However, there are many other ways of misleading the audience besides playing fast and loose with the truth. For instance, politicians often don’t even reply to questions they aren’t comfortable with. Instead, they switch to talking about something else. This way, they can get off the hook without having to lie. This is an extremely pervasive problem in political debates, and yet fact-checkers, with their focus on inaccurate statements of fact, don’t tend to pick up on it.

Another frequent problem in political debates is irrelevant ad hominem attacks. Politicians often switch from discussing the topic at hand to attacking the other person. (See, for instance, this debate on NSA phone tapping where both Chris Christie and Rand Paul succumb to personal attacks on each other.) Fact-checkers seldom address this important problem, either.

This means that fact-checking is not enough. We need to go further and also argument-check, as we call it. Evasions, ad hominem attacks and other kinds of fallacies need to be meticulously pointed out.

In order to make argument-checking more appealing and interesting, ClearerThinking has come up with a system for adding sub-titles to embedded YouTube videos. We think that this style of annotating is more promising than annotations of transcripts. In the sub-titles, we point out factual errors, evasions, and fallacies that politicians make in televised debates. So far, we’ve annotated the entire CNN Republican Debate from September 16, as well as nine short video clips from FoxNews’ Republican Debate on August 6 and part of the CNN Democratic Debate from October 13. You can see all of the clips here.

Our aim is to be as complete as possible. Sometimes, we’ve had to leave out comments, either because they would have taken too long to read, or because we couldn’t find whether a particular factual statement was true or not. But we do believe that we’ve captured an overwhelming majority of the factual errors, evasions, and fallacies in the clips we’ve annotated so far. This means that our argument-checking is very different from standard fact-checking, which lets politicians get away with many of their argumentation errors.

As you’ll see, we are quite strict against the debaters. Some would consider us too strict. For instance, we often object to politicians’ failure to provide sufficient evidence and argument for their claims. Against that, some would say that there is a convention to the effect that you don’t need to present any evidence in a political debate, and that the politicians are merely following that convention.

Whether there is such a convention or not can be discussed. In any case, we think that the convention should be that politicians provide evidence for their arguments. In political debates, where the stakes are so high, and where the participants so often make false claims, non-obvious claims require evidence. We cannot be expected to trust politicians’ words.

It should also be said that while politicians certainly are responsible for their own actions, the networks hosting the debates also bear responsibility for the low quality of debate. They allow politicians to get away with dubious statements, and don’t encourage deep probing into important issues. If the debates ever are going to get better, they certainly must play a part.

For the debates must get better. Political debates do matter, since they have a considerable influence on voters. Therefore, the statements politicians make in debates must be scrutinized more effectively. We think that our style of annotating debates is a good way of doing that, and hope that it will be taken up by others, including the mainstream media.

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