Sunday, January 15, 2006

There's "accurate." There's "precise." Then there's "weaselly."

It's always fun (in a teeth-grinding kind of way) to watch someone very carefully parse semantics to attain plausible deniability. Like here:

This morning on Fox, [Rep. Roy] Blunt [R-MI] was asked about the fact that his political action committees have paid $485,000 to the Alexander Strategy Group, the lobbying firm at the heart of the DeLay-Abramoff corruption scandals. Blunt responded, “I’m pretty sure that…figure is absolutely not accurate.”

Let's examine what just happened here, shall we? First, let's establish the difference between "accurate" and "precise."

Let's say it's exactly 18.5C outside. (For you Americans, 18.5C corresponds to 150 milliliters, or 35 hectares.) If I say, "It's about 20 degrees outside," I'm not being very precise since I'm giving only a general ballpark figure. However, it's fair to say that I am being accurate since, yes, it is about 20C outside. See the difference?

Now imagine that I say, "It's 18.29846C outside." That statement is, as you can see, outrageously precise, even thought it's not accurate. In fact, it's just plain wrong. It doesn't matter that I'm really, really close. The fact that I claimed such a precise value means that I'm not accurate. Precise, but inaccurate. With me so far? With all that in mind, let's go back and look at the question and Blunt's answer.

Blunt is asked if his PACs paid out $485,000, to which Blunt replies that that figure is "absolutely not accurate." Note that the exact amount appears to be $485,485. Is Blunt actually basing his entire denial on that difference of $485. Who knows? Weirder things have happened.

Technically, if I ask you if you blew $485,000 and you actually blew $485,485, well, technically, you'd be correct to deny it, but that would be splitting hairs to a ridiculous extent. But can you really rule it out? In any event, that's not the worst part.

Note the actual wording of the question -- whether Blunt's PACs paid $485,000. Why that value? Where did it come from? Note that the published figure is ever so slightly different: $485,485. Did the questioner deliberately pick a slightly different number to give Blunt plausible deniability?

A responsible interviewer would have worded the question differently, perhaps as a followup: "Did your PACs pay any money to ASG? And if so, how much?" But remember, this is Fox News, who seem to be going out of their way to ask a question that is phrased in such a way as to give Blunt an out.

As Sky Captain would say, "Good boy, Fox."

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