Saturday, January 07, 2006

Good Story, Lousy Facts

A good story popped up yesterday. Glenn posted on an Alphecca post entitled "Your Tax Dollars at Work" describing the money wasted as a result the ban on homosexuals in the military since the implementation of Clinton's "Don't ask, Don't tell" policy in 1993. Here's the key 'graph Alphecca constructed and Glenn used:

So let's see, 114 + 191 = $305 million dollars spent ridding the services of linguists who understand arabic, etc., and now having to lure replacements. Your money well spent!
If only we could stir up opposition to every contentious policy, legitimate, questionable, or downright bad, by bringing attention to various of facts and doing an effective analysis. They are certainly a great lead-in to discussion of such policies.

But one of the largest problems the blogosphere has been concerned with this past year has been the palpable effort by many in the MSM to not let facts get in he way of a good story, so much so that there have been calls for a new word for "fake but accurate". As such, it was dismaying to find that the while the intention of highlighting what I think is a bad policy was good, the manner in which it was introduced was "fake but accurate".

It didn't take long for some commenters at both sites to point out that it's not right to add apples and oranges. The $114 Million is ostensibly needed to bulk up our linguistic resources regardless of the what policy is on the military books. The $191 Million alone is a lot of money.

If only you could find that much money and I couldn't. While it may be there, it certainly wasn't there as far as the basis for the story is concerned. Alphecca got the $191 Million from this Joan Ryan story from May 19, 2005 in the San Francisco Chronicle. Ryan attributed this amount to calculations made by the GAO from this (beware; it's the direct dl link to the pdf at the GAO) report. The problem is the GAO didn't calculate this amount. They came up with $95 Million, not $191 Million.

And while there was good discussion of the effects of the policy, including, what inferentially I think is a very good trend -- that the military itself has been trending towards making this policy one those laws on the books but not implemented and the only loophole with regard to that is the loophole that if one wants to get out of the army that person can pull a modern day Klinger by going to tell the brass they are homosexual -- there was still some number crunching to fine tune the $191 Million.

For instance, somebody kept calculating the cost for the 300 odd linguists discharged, first resulting in $20 Million and then $50 Million, apparently unconcerned with the possibility that the GAO report might already have a number. The report didn't but it had enough various stats that if they came out in dribs and drabs that number crunching reader would be fine tuning his ballpark estimate for weeks. For instance, 7% of those with critical occupations were discharged within 6 months and by a 1.5 year milestone it was 36%.

Here's another: of the 322 linguists bounced, 209 attended the Defense Language Institute and 98 completed training and received a proficiency rating. Of those 98, 62 scored at or below midpoint ... aw, hell, there is enough data to mine in the GAO report for a separate post on the $114 Million story and it's carrying me off on a tangent. The smaller point I'm trying to make is that at neither post was there much effort to actually look at the GAO report.

The larger point stands all on it's own: A couple of disparate facts, one insignificantly relevant one and one big wrong one were forged together to instigate a preferred storyline and that hyping was besides the point. So was the actual GAO figures beside the point, which by the way, could be used to discuss some good stuff.

"Fake but accurate" lives; Michael Hiltzik and Kathleen Parker can use it to point out that our pants are down (I love that one, AL); and fact-checking always beats hyping. Here's hoping there are some corrections posted.


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