Three Hours in Bizarro World

Republican presidential debates have made fact-checking obsolete.

In a typical political debate, fact-checkers play the same role that referees do in football: They apply standards and call penalties. And like referees, they depend on the fact that violations are fairly rare. The football-refereeing system works because, even on plays that draw flags, 20 or 21 guys do more or less what they are supposed to do, making the one or two violations stand out. But nobody could referee a game in which all the players ran around the field doing whatever.

In the same way, fact-checking works pretty well when the checkers just need to catch those half-dozen-or-so moments when somebody misquotes a statistic or gets a date wrong. If a debater cherry-picks data to “prove” a point, or oversimplifies a complex situation, a checker can introduce additional information to give readers a more complete picture — as long as it doesn’t happen too often.

But when standards of truthfulness and accuracy vanish as completely as they did in Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate (here’s the video and transcript), fact-checking is out of its league. When the consensus of participants is that they would rather discuss an alternate reality, picking out a handful of “errors” the next morning just doesn’t address the situation.

So, for example, the debate’s most memorable moment, the one that caused a lot of observers to pick Carly Fiorina as the “winner”, was her denunciation of Planned Parenthood. In that short speech, she didn’t simply quote some numbers out of context or use an unjustified pejorative term, she invented an entire scene from the undercover videos attacking Planned Parenthood, described it in graphic detail, and then dared Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton to watch it. [1]

And Fiorina looked most presidential when she rattled off all the things America should be doing to intimidate Putin out of meddling further in Syria — unless you realize that President Obama is pretty much doing all that already.

It’s 9-11. Do you know who your president is?

Or consider the evening’s biggest applause line: when Jeb Bush responded to Donald Trump’s characterization of his brother’s presidency as “a disaster”: “You know what? As it relates to my brother, there’s one thing I know for sure. He kept us safe.”

Well, except for that one time, when (after ignoring warnings in intelligence briefings) President Bush lost far more Americans to terrorism in one day than President Obama has in seven years, and then in response lost thousands more American soldiers attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9-11 — removing a secular government that was keeping Islamic radicals in check and neutralizing Iran’s biggest rival in the region — while letting Osama bin Laden escape and stay hidden until Obama nailed him years later.

If that’s what you mean by “keeping us safe”, then sure, President Bush totally kept us safe. And the audience at the Reagan Library loved it, though what I heard them applauding was not Jeb himself, or even W’s record, but a candidate’s willingness to stand tall and spit in the face of an uncooperative Reality. That’s the quality Republicans seem to be looking for in a president this time around.

As for the Planned Parenthood videos, Ted Cruz had his own fantasies:

On these videos, Planned Parenthood also essentially confesses to multiple felonies. It is a felony with ten years’ jail term to sell the body parts of unborn children for profit. That’s what these videos show Planned Parenthood doing.

In a word: no. Even after being doctored, the videos don’t show that, “essentially” or any other way. If they did, a political smear campaign against the organization wouldn’t be necessary; you could just prosecute them.

Speaking of prosecution, Chris Christie didn’t just repeat his previously debunked lie about being appointed U.S. district attorney on September 10, [2] he spun a crowd-pleasing fantasy about prosecuting Hillary Clinton for the wildly overblown email “scandal”.

The question is, who is going to prosecute Hillary Clinton? The Obama White House seems to have no interest, the Justice Department seems to have no interest. I think it’s time to put a former federal prosecutor on the same stage as Hillary Clinton.


And I will prosecute her during those debates on that stage for the record we’re talking about here. The fact she had a private email server in her basement, using national security secrets running through it, could have been hacked by the Russians, the Chinese, or two 18-year-olds on a toot wanting to have some fun. [3]

Then there was Donald Trump connecting vaccines to autism — a well-studied theory that has been pretty thoroughly debunked. [4] Ben Carson, a doctor who knows better, briefly alluded to that reality, but then acquiesced to Trump’s implication that the currently recommended schedule of vaccines might cause harm, even if the individual vaccines are safe. He did not comment when Trump then told an anecdote about a child whose autism appeared shortly after vaccination. Rand Paul, who has an M.D. from Duke, volunteered his support to Trump: “I’m also a little concerned about how [vaccines are] bunched up.” [5]

No one then protested when Mike Huckabee segued from “controversies about autism” to another topic. Because there are no scientific facts on Bizarro World, there are just “controversies” — like climate change or evolution — that people can believe whatever they want about.

So how do you “fact check” that exchange? That’s not just one lineman jumping offside, it’s a rugby scrum breaking out in the middle of a field goal attempt. Throwing a flag just won’t cover it.

With all that going on, who has time for the ordinary job of a fact-checker? Like flagging Scott Walker’s absurd exaggeration that his pamphlet on healthcare is “an actual plan” to repeal and replace ObamaCare, which puts him in a position “on day one” to “send a bill up to Congress”. [6] Or ridiculing Marco Rubio’s non sequitur that “America is not a planet” as an excuse for doing nothing about climate change. Or pointing out Donald Trump’s often-repeated falsehood about birthright citizenship, that

Mexico and almost every other country anywhere in the world doesn’t have that. We’re the only ones dumb enough, stupid enough to have it. [7]

Compiling a list of errors for this debate would be misleading. Such lists imply that the rest was more-or-less correct, like the football plays that don’t draw penalties. But the specific divergences from reality that I have called out are like Jonathan Swift’s fleas: the closer you examine the text, the more you will find, without limit.

So I deny any claim that I have “fact-checked” the Republican debate. I spent three hours in Bizarro World, and while I was there I saw some strange things. But there was much, much more to see.

[1] How, I wonder, are Obama and Clinton supposed to accept Fiorina’s dare, when even the makers of the video can’t produce the scene she has conjured up?

[2] It’s not fair to mention that lie without also busting Carly Fiorina’s ridiculous secretary-to-CEO claim. Fiorina temped as a secretary during summer vacations from Stanford. Paul Krugman comments:

If her life is a story of going from “secretary to C.E.O.,” mine is one of going from mailman to columnist and economist. Sorry, working menial jobs while you’re in school doesn’t make your life a Horatio Alger story.

I picked up a few extra bucks as a busboy one New Year’s Eve, and then just a few years later I had a Ph.D. in mathematics! If that’s a rags-to-riches story, then just about every successful person in America has one.

As the pro-Carly site will tell you, she grew up in “a modest, middle-class family”, i.e., her father, Joseph Tyree Sneed III, was dean of Duke Law School before becoming Deputy Attorney General and then a federal judge.

Let’s not even get into her record as CEO of HP. The WaPo has that covered.

[3] The image of national security being endangered by Hillary’s emails seems to be completely bogus. The heart of the issue has been described by The Wall Street Journal as a “bureaucratic turf war over complicated issues of classification”, i.e., whether information that the State Department considered unclassified at the time should have been reclassified, after input from other departments.

David Ignatius talked to experts whose opinions mirror what I remember from when I had a security clearance:

First, experts say, there’s no legal difference whether Clinton and her aides passed sensitive information using her private server or the official “” account that many now argue should have been used. Neither system is authorized for transmitting classified information. Second, prosecution of such violations is extremely rare. Lax security procedures are taken seriously, but they’re generally seen as administrative matters.

Where I used to work, a security violation — like leaving a secret document overnight in your desk drawer rather than locking it up in an approved safe — could earn you and your boss a very uncomfortable meeting with the security department. Repeated violations like that could probably get you fired, though I didn’t know anybody that happened to. But criminal charges were reserved for intentional espionage, not screw-ups. So the Obama administration and the Justice Department “have no interest” in prosecuting Clinton because there is no reason to do so.

[4] Autism tends to get noticed at about the same age as certain vaccines are administered. That seems to be the whole connection between the two. So there are bound to be a number of children whose autism is discovered shortly after they get vaccinated. If that correlation-in-time happens to your child, I’m sure the evidence against vaccinations seems compelling. But eliminating that kind of illusory causality is why we do scientific studies.

[5] The New York Daily News asked the head of New York City’s health department to comment:

The CDC guidelines aren’t willy-nilly. Infants are at greater risk of complications from these diseases. That’s why we give the vaccinations to infants. There’s no evidence to support the notion that too many shots are being given too quickly. An infant’s immune system can handle it. … What we do know is that when parents delay immunizations, it puts their children at risk of acquiring life-threatening infections.

But conservative “news” site headlined this exchange differently: “Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Rand Paul Foil Jake Tapper Vaccine Ambush“. By working together, the candidates saved Bizarro World from a reality-based invasion.

[6] For example, here’s Walker’s complete section on services for long-term illnesses like Alzheimer’s:

One of the greatest threats to middle-class American families is the obligation to pay for long-term services and supports (LTSS) for seniors who develop chronic or disabling medical problems. My plan would reform existing regulations to better protect middle-class families from financial hardship and to prepare for future LTSS. It would also deregulate the current Long-Term Care insurance market to allow the private sector, including health insurers, to offer products that reflect consumer demands for assistance at home. When LTSS and acute care services are coordinated, the cost of each can be lowered.
Does that sound like it’s ready to be passed into law “on day one”?
[7] In reality, it’s a New World vs. Old World thing. European countries by and large don’t have birthright citizenship, but most countries in the Western Hemisphere do, including Mexico and Canada. This has been pointed out often enough that Trump either doesn’t want to know it, or does know it and lies about it anyway.
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  • Old and apparently misled and confused...  On September 21, 2015 at 8:24 am

    Trump’s comment to Bush that got him all puffy with pride was something to the effect that it was GE’s actions during the last 3 months of gphos Presidency that got Obama elected. No one was talking about 9/11 except Jeb. Who cares what the topic is? Turn it around to something you like.

  • Old and apparently misled and confused...  On September 21, 2015 at 8:26 am

    Please follow cause spell correct. Was attempting to say it was GW’s actions during the last 3 months of his Presidency that got Obama elected….

  • Carol Wheeler  On September 21, 2015 at 8:50 am

    In fact, I have a friend who was granted citizenship in Mexico because her GRANDFATHER was a citizen.

    • Anonymous  On September 21, 2015 at 10:27 am

      That’s possible in a bunch of countries, but it isn’t automatic. You have to apply for it.

  • Sunshine  On September 21, 2015 at 11:15 am

    This is excellent. I watched the debate and caught many of the same things. But you have added footnotes and links that are very informative. Congratulations! Sunshine in Austin, TX, a blue island in a red state.

  • coastcontact  On September 21, 2015 at 12:31 pm

    CNN’s objective was to bring as much counter punching as possible to the usually dry presidential debates. They succeeded. First of all these presentations are not debates. They are a group of people spouting their views on everything but what they would do if elected president. Fiorina’s speech on what she would do with the military was outstanding because others would not tell us their plans.

    The lack of substantive statements on their plans if elected president is the take away from this event. Since reality shows are so popular this kind of “debate” format will continue as long as the ratings hold up.

  • Abby Hafer  On September 21, 2015 at 9:14 pm

    Bizarro World is a common phenomenon on the right. In fact, one term for this is the Gish Gallop, named after Creationist Duane Gish. He would state so many wrong things, and ask so many questions that were based on false assumptions, in such quantities and at such a rapid pace, all strung together in one long torrent of gobbldygook, that a scientist debating him had no idea even where to start in correcting him. It is one of the reasons that I generally don’t try to do point-by-point refutations of anti-evolution stuff. I do analyses of entire bodies of work, or just hammer onward with my own fact-based narratives, and hope to make an impression by being entertaining and puncturing bad reasoning with comedy.

    • weeklysift  On September 22, 2015 at 8:13 am

      Abby’s new book, The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not should be coming out sometime soon. I just saw the cover photo.


  • By Scary and Unscary | The Weekly Sift on September 21, 2015 at 11:57 am

    […] This week’s featured post covers Wednesday’s Republican debate: “Three Hours in Bizarro World“. […]

  • By Joining the Dance | The Weekly Sift on November 16, 2015 at 11:23 am

    […] don’t want to repeat myself, so I’ll just say that what I outlined in “Three Hours in Bizarro World” still applies: Listening to a Republican presidential debate is like traveling to an […]

  • […] characterized one Republican debate as “Three Hours in Bizarro World“, but basically all of them have been that way. Fact-checking them has been pointless, […]

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