“Are bureaucrats, high taxation and trial lawyers keeping America from tackling Alzheimer’s disease? Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said they are during a speech to CPAC, the annual conservative conference.”
—PolitiFact, March 20, 2013
PolitiFact sets a straw man ablaze.
Rep. Michele Bachmann drew PolitiFact’s attention with her March 16 speech at an annual gathering sponsored by the Conservative Political Action Committee.
We have another disease, though, that’s hurting us today. It’s called Alzheimer’s.
Five million Americans suffer from Alzheimer’s. And we’re learning that number’s expected to triple in the next 40 years. The cost to deal with Alzheimer’s today is about $172 billion. The cost in 40 years, cumulatively, to take care of Alzheimer’s is projected to be $20 trillion. That’s a figure that’s greater than our entire national debt today. And by the way, there is no known treatment for Alzheimer’s on the horizon. So, all of that $20 trillion will be spent on care. Because it’s a humanitarian necessity. We must take care of people.
But a much smarter strategy would be to develop a cure. That’s caring. Scientists tell us that we could have a cure in ten years for Alheimer’s if we’d only put our mind to it. So why aren’t we seeking to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s? Or diabetes, juvenile diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease? How did we possibly get to this point of political malpractice? Because our government, proclaiming to care so much, has created a cadre of overzealous regulators, excessive taxation and greedy litigators. That’s not caring. It’s time we care.
PolitiFact’s response to Bachmann:
We wondered if it was accurate for Bachmann to say that “scientists tell us that we could have a cure in 10 years for Alzheimer’s” were it not for “overzealous regulators, excessive taxation and greedy litigators.”
PolitiFact eventually determines that scientists do not agree that “overzealous regulators, excessive taxation and greedy litigators” represent a major obstacle to obtaining a cure for Alzheimer’s, and awards Bachmann a “Pants on Fire” rating.
Analyzing the Rhetoric
PolitiFact commits a core blunder in its fact check analysis. PolitiFact fails to pay basic attention to Bachmann’s statement and severely misrepresents it in the fact check.
Bachmann starts with a statement that might have warranted its own fact check, that scientists say dedication to the task could produce a cure within 10 years. She does not follow by giving reasons why that cure will not occur, however. Instead, she charges that the government does not focus on supporting the search for a cure. She then asks rhetorically how the government reached a state where it fails to support attempts to cure a whole set of diseases. Again, her premise perhaps deserves a fact check of its own. She answers her question with what seems to be a list of unproductive things the government has produced instead of disease cures.
It’s no use reproducing context if one proceeds to ignore it. PolitiFact quoted Bachmann’s transition question (bold emphasis added):
So why aren’t we seeking to cure diseases like Alzheimer’s, or diabetes, juvenile diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Parkinson’s disease? How did we possibly get to this point of political malpractice? Because our government, proclaiming to care so much, has created a cadre of overzealous regulators, excessive taxation and greedy litigators.
Regulators, taxation and litigators do not represent a direct obstacle to Alzheimer’s research according to Bachmann. They represent the government path to underfunding scientific research for medical cures.
Bachmann emphasizes a caring approach to governance throughout her speech. Emphasizing ways the government can use a caring approach toward policy fits with that theme, and it likewise fits for Bachmann to contrast what she sees as the wise approach with some of government’s compassionless achievements.
By analogy, if a mother spends her time making herself look beautiful, her salon treatments and clothing purchases do not directly lead to her children suffering malnourishment. One may pursue personal beauty and still feed healthy meals to kids. But if the kids are malnourished and the mother spends much time and money on her looks, then obviously her priorities probably affect her children’s nourishment.
PolitiFact’s expert sources gave some support to Bachmann’s point, though we have no evidence that PolitiFact noticed:
“The only thing keeping us from developing successful treatments for Alzheimer’s disease is the lack of adequate funding for research from NIH and other federal agencies,” said Robert A. Stern, a neurologist and neurosurgeon, as well as a director of the Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the Boston University School of Medicine.
PolitiFact might have asked Stern why he thought the federal agencies aren’t providing funding sufficient to explore the avenues to an Alzheimer’s cure. That might have addressed Bachmann’s point.
By shunning the obvious context of Rep. Bachmann’s statement, PolitiFact ended up with a severely weakened and nearly unrecognizable version of her argument. This type of result is known as a straw man fallacy. PolitiFact uses the statements of scientists to discredit the distorted version of Bachmann’s argument and reach its “Pants-on-Fire” verdict:
Bachmann said that “scientists tell us that we could have a cure in 10 years for Alzheimer’s” were it not for “overzealous regulators, excessive taxation and greedy litigators.” The 10-year goal may or may not be plausible, but if it’s not, there’s wide agreement that the three factors Bachmann mentioned are not the primary obstacles.
“Bachmann said that ‘scientists tell us that we could have a cure in 10 years for Alzheimer’s’ were it not for ‘overzealous regulators, excessive taxation and greedy litigators.'”
PolitiFact takes accurately quoted segments and splices them together via an inaccurate interpolation to achieve a misleading result: a straw man version of Bachmann’s statement. The context of the fact check (“primary obstacles”) forbids acceptance of any alternative charitable interpretation of PolitiFact’s version of Bachmann’s statement.
Jacobson, Louis. “Michele Bachmann Says Alzheimer’s Disease Could Be Cured If Not for Government Regulation, Taxes and Lawyers.” PolitiFact. Tampa Bay Times, 20 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Mar. 2013.
Bachmann, Michele. “CPAC 2013 – U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann (R-MN).” Speech. CPAC. Gaylord National Hotel, National Harbor. YouTube. The American Conservative Union, 16 Mar. 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2013.
Brindley, Madeleine. “Alzheimer’s Cure Could Be Available within 10 Years.” WalesOnline.co.uk. Media Wales Ltd., 25 Jan. 2012. Web. 29 Mar. 2013.