How do you solve a problem like Martina?

Pardon the “Sound of Music” pun.

The liberal blogosphere is once again agog at the inadequacy of PolitiFact’s rating system.

Tennis great Martina Navratilova claimed 29 states lack legal protections against job discrimination over sexual orientation.  Specifically, she stated a person could be fired for either being gay or simply because the boss thinks they’re gay.  PolitiFact noted a few exceptions of dubious importance and slapped the “Half True” label on the claim.

Plenty’s been written about the rating already, much of it sillier than the rating itself.  I won’t add to that.  Instead, I’ll contrast PolitiFact’s “Half True” to the way such a claim, assuming the background information PolitiFact published is correct, would rate using our rating system.  It’s the fact checker’s guide as to how to solve a problem like Martina, or how to rate a true claim like Navratilova’s that is likely to leave false impressions.

True Statement Booby Trap FallacyIcon texas sharpshooter

The first icon means the statement is true given a simple commonsense interpretation.

The second icon means the statement, though true, may help serve to lead the audience into a faulty inference.

The last icon is our judgment of the false inference.  Twenty-nine states lack an employment discrimination statute to protect homosexuals?  What does it mean?  What are the implications?  Does it mean that homosexuals are a beleaguered group?  The government offers few protections against discrimination in the workplace.  Brunettes do not have any protection against being fired for their hair color, for example.  An employer could even legally fire a person for merely thinking of going brunette.  But that doesn’t mean that brunettes need protection against discrimination.

In context, Navratilova appears to imply that it is important for the federal or state governments to act to prevent employment discrimination against homosexuals.  Perhaps it is and perhaps it isn’t.  A thorough fact check would attempt to measure the degree to which homosexuals face employment discrimination.  But regardless of how that inquiry shapes up, the mere lack of discrimination protection does not show the need for discrimination protection.

The third icon indicates the nature of the potential false inference that may trap the unwary listener.  Navratilova isn’t committing an overt fallacy.   Maybe she intends for her factoid to fuel the argument for more job protections for homosexuals.  But maybe not.  We leave intent alone unless we have evidence enough for a reasonable judgment.

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