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The science of Pinocchios

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For readers curious about what makes a statement worth One Pinocchio, versus Four, watch the tutorial above that appeared this week on The Fold from The Washington Post.

Indeed, the hardest part of our job is deciding how many Pinocchios a claim gets — and then dealing with the torrent of email from readers who think we are being either too hard or too soft on the subject. It is admittedly subjective, though we do provide a guide to our rating scale.

 Over time, we have developed a bit of a matrix to help us sort through the relative scale of a misstatement. For instance:

 1.  Is this from prepared remarks or just an off the cuff remark? Misstatements in prepared remarks tend to get worse grades.
 2.  How central is this “fact” to the point the politician was trying to make? If a politician keys his or her speech off this errant fact, he or she is going to get graded more harshly.
 3.  Did the politician use weasel words to try to disguise the sleight of hand he or she were performing? If we catch the magician’s tricks, there are more Pinocchios.
 4.  Did the suspect data come from a reputable, neutral source or from a partisan think tank? The politician loses points if they rely on dubious sources.

 We tend to give some credit to people who admit they made a mistake, or at least can provide an explanation for their error. We are always willing to listen. There are some politicians with excellent staffs who quickly respond with the facts and tend not to try to spin us. Some politicians have even called us directly to make their case.

 In some cases, we have been convinced to reduce the number of Pinocchios or even drop the matter. Even if we don’t change our assessment, a cooperative response certainly helps build credibility for the next time we come calling.

(About our rating scale)

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