Thursday, May 7, 2015

Washington Post calls Rand Paul a liar for underselling his resume

Chapter 5 (or 6, if you count The Daily Beast) in the Rand Paul media bias chronologues returns to the aforementioned mid-February firestorm when the Washington Post’s Fact Checker series evaluated Paul’s statements on his college record. Their text is in blue italics.
Rand Paul’s claim — twice in one day — that he has a biology degree
By Glenn Kessler February 13 at 3:00 AM

“I have a biology degree, okay?” – Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in remarks at the Lincoln Labs “Reboot Congress” conference, Feb. 12, 2015
We first spotted a version of this quote in a Bloomberg column by David Weigel, and then checked the quotes with our colleague Jose DelReal, who had attended the conference.

This is a bit of an odd one, given that Paul does not have a college undergraduate degree.

The Facts
Paul mentioned his alleged degree at the conference not once, but twice. First, in an exchange with TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington, Paul said:

Arrington: “Let’s talk about economics because maybe you can actually explain this to me. I have an econ degree which means I know just enough not to understand any of what our government is [inaudible]”

Paul: “Mine’s in biology and English so this is going to be a great conversation.”

Then, later in the conversation, expounding on what he considered the virtues of Bitcoin, Paul said:
“This is just me. I have a biology degree, okay? But with Bitcoin my concern always was whether or not something has real value. So I could imagine a kind of coin that was exchangeable. This gets back to the whole idea, does money have to be exchangeable for something to be of value?”

The interesting thing about these references is that previously Paul’s staff has blamed the media for misunderstanding his unusual educational background.

Paul attended Baylor University between 1981 and 1984 but never graduated. Yet he was able to attend Duke University Medical School and received a degree there in 1988. At the time, Duke’s medical school did not require students to have a bachelor’s degree, though the policy has since changed, according to a 2010 report in the Lexington Herald-Leader. (Ron Paul, his father and the former member of Congress, does have a biology degree.)

“In the jocular bantering with the host, Dr. Rand Paul mentioned ‘degree,’ but anyone who has read Dr. Paul’s official biography on his Web site can see that he was accepted early into one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country — Duke University School of Medicine,” said Brian Darling, Paul’s senior communications director. “Dr. Paul finished the requirements for medical school in two and one half years. While in college, Dr. Paul did study biology and English. He has no college degree and has a medical degree.”

Update: After this column appeared, Darling e-mailed a supplemental statement making the case that, in effect, a medical degree is a biology degree:

“It is unfair to give Senator Paul 3 Pinocchios because a M.D. Degree is the study of biomedical sciences according to the Duke University School of Medicine. In other words, a M.D. is a biology degree. Merriam-Webster defines biology as ‘a branch of knowledge that deals with living organisms and vital processes.’ Dr. Paul never said he had an undergraduate degree in biology, and it is accurate for him to say that he has a biology degree. You are making inferences from his statement that are unwarranted. It is common knowledge that the study of medicine is the study of human biology, and a MD has a doctorate degree in one area of study of the science of biology.”

The Pinocchio Test
This is the second time in recent weeks we have had to fact check something that Paul’s staff suggested was an off-the-cuff remark not to be taken seriously. We’d be more inclined to brush this off if Paul had not made this assertion twice in one day — or if his staff in the past had not blamed the media for misreporting on his college credentials.

Paul studied biology (and English) at Baylor, but he didn’t earn a degree. There’s no excuse for resume-inflation, even when it’s jocular. We can’t quite say this is worthy of Four Pinocchios, but the senator should be more careful in the future.

Three Pinocchios
Unsurprisingly, the cesspool of rabid nonsense known as Salon.com gleefully picked up this story with the headling “Rand Paul caught lying about his college record,” accusing that he “embellished” his resume. This isn’t the first time the media has given him flack for this. During his Senate campaign in 2010, Paul received critical headlines from the Huffington Post for failing to correct an interviewer who introduced him as “a graduate of Baylor University and the Duke University School of Medicine.”

There are three things wrong with this. The rebuttal supplied by Paul’s staff discussed the first: it’s highly debatable whether a Doctorate in Medicine counts as a form of biology degree. If a job has “biology degree required” listed on it, and he applied, Paul would almost certainly meet that criteria. Practicing medicine requires a masterful knowledge of human biology as a prerequisite, because the medical field interacts with the body in extraordinarily complex ways. Medicine includes the study of other things as well, but it’s reasonable to classify it as a specialized subfield of biology, or vice-versa.

But all of that is beside the point. Darling’s rebuttal missed the main reason the Washington Post’s article is bullshit: if Paul did misrepresent his academic credentials, he did so by understating them – not exaggerating them. It would be one thing if Paul was trying to poof up his ethos as a subject matter expert; had he been discussing healthcare, and said something like “I have a degree in biology, so I know a thing or two about vaccines,” perhaps the debate about whether a medical degree counts as that would be warranted. But in the context of a discussion on Bitcoin, Paul’s retort was clearly designed to demonstrate that he was NOT academically trained in the subject at hand. In response to someone who had announced his training in economics, he said “mine’s in biology” to illustrate only that he had a separate area of expertise than the field presently being discussed. Anyone watching that conversation understood that he referred not so much to his particular diploma as to his general concentration of study, and that he was doing so in a self-deprecatory manner – not a self-aggrandizing one.

Thus, this is yet another negative headline about nothing, which you would only think up if you were searching high and low to make a negative headline in the first place. That exemplifies media bias. To the Post’s credit, they did publish a follow up article three days later in which they announced this Fact Check had been one of their most controversial of all time, and published reader feedback on both sides of the debate. But they never apologized, and never took down the original article, which tells me they stand by their opinion that Paul’s quote was worthy of “Three Pinocchios.” I’ll let some of the comments from that article do the talking for me:

  • Misstating your academic credentials is a serious offense when it’s done for reasons of self-aggrandizement; it cost the CEO of Yahoo his job, for instance. Rand Paul didn’t do that.
    He colloquially understated, not overstated, his academic credentials. And he clearly did so to make the point that he was talking about a subject in which he had no academic training.

    There was absolutely no news here.  Period.

    Reporting this was plainly irresponsible, and pretending to show balance by adding a statement from his spokesperson doesn’t change that fact.  Both you and the editors of The Washington Post have shown exceptionally poor judgment with this article.
  •  I don’t usually give the politicians much slack, and I am by no means a fan of Rand Paul, but I’m inclined to give him considerable slack on claiming a biology degree. Even claiming an English degree doesn’t seem totally out of line, though that would depend on how far he got with it.
    There are many merged degrees that don’t fit the norm, such as the 6-year MD programs that have fallen out of favor. Rand went through college and completed a medical degree. While it may not be 100% accurate, it’s still totally reasonable for him to say that he has a degree in biology.

    I sometimes think that you go too easy on these guys, but in this case, for someone I don’t care for at all, I think you’re going way too hard on him.  The reasonable range in my perspective is 1 to 1.5 Pinochios at most, and only for mentioning the English degree.
  •  I think you are caught up a bit too much in semantics here.  No Rand Paul does not have an undergraduate biology degree. But an MD is a graduate degree in a biological science and would a sufficient credential for any job that requires a BS in biology, in fact leaving you overqualified for anything but graduate school. To contend Paul is “inflating his resume” by saying he’s got a biology degree is ignorant.
    This constant semantic navel gazing that you engage in is not furthering any public understanding of important issues.
  • A medical degree from Duke University so far exceeds some college bachelor’s degree based on a major in biology that it is absurd to be designating “three Pinocchio’s” for Rand Paul’s statements. You may not agree with his politics, but one has to concede that he is sufficiently grounded in biology to make informed statements on the subject. This is “gotcha journalism” carried to its most ridiculous extreme.
  • I neither like nor agree with Senator Paul but in this case I give him a pass. And I’m not inclined to ever give anyone a pass on saying they graduated from somewhere they didn’t. His matriculations are on the unusual and highly creditable side of things and in an exchange like the one described I think explaining it would be pretentious and interruptive to the point at hand. No, he doesn’t have an undergrad or other degree with biology on it but it’s not a stretch to me to equate an MD with “have studied biology extensively” which is connotation of “have a biology degree”.  And he does have a degree – an MD which is a higher and harder to get degree than an undergrad biology degree.  I would have given him maybe One Pinocchio for “Mine’s in biology and English.”

This leads me to the third reason the article is stupid: it’s counterproductive to the entire endeavor of fact checking. Dishonesty in politics is not just a matter of veracity, but of sincerity. If you’re clever enough with words, it’s rather easy to deceive people without uttering any particular sentence that is false. As such, obsessing over the literal factualness of out-of-context statements does not measure, and in fact may jeopardize, an important part of what modern voters yearn for in politicians: straightforwardness.

When Paul mentioned his “degree” in this instance, he did it as a means of humbling himself. Pausing the flow of his conversation to clarify the details of his complex academic history – perhaps saying something along the lines of “well, I actually completed only 3 years of undergrad, because I left early to go to Med School at Duke, which you could do back then but can’t now, so I know at least as much about biology as someone who majored in it as an undergraduate even though I don’t technically have a degree” – would have seemed so snobby and unnecessary to the point at hand as to defeat the intent of the gesture. Expecting a more precise degree of honesty from politicians than normal people use in everyday conversation places an unreasonable burden upon them. It contributes to an atmosphere marked by such intense scrutiny of every word they say that in many ways, it stands to make them less honest in the long run.

When people today fret politicians are not being honest with them, they don’t just doubt the literal truth of their claims; they doubt the authenticity of their message. We’re tired of phony-faced smiles by clean cut white guys with bad hair reciting safe, feel-good clich├ęs in front of a camera: that’s what makes us feel like we’re being deceived. Perversely, a media ready to pounce on every poorly phrased half-sentence all but demands this type of advertising. The ironic result is that politicians fearing of the next critical headline become so scripted they cannot speak freely, and so guarded that they cannot speak honestly.

So, Washington Post, what is the purpose of Fact Checking? Is it to prevent politicians from being two-faced and deceiving citizens to their own benefit? Or to nitpick out-of-context statements with “Well, technically…”-style corrections that are totally besides the point of what the politician was actually saying? The first enhances accountability and aids the public dialogue. The second detracts from it with pointless and potentially dangerous distractions.

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