Most people, when confronted with facts that question belief, modify belief to conform to facts.
Not so for some Republicans, especially those on the far right. For these extremists, when facts question belief, it’s the facts that must be modified.
The penchant to question fact can be seen among those who deny evolution — despite incontrovertible scientific proof — and those who deny climate change — against overwhelming evidence.
Georgia Governor Nathan Deal, a Republican, recently provided another window into the conflict between fact and belief when he asserted that federal bureaucrats at the Bureau of Labor Statistics are fiddling with the unemployment rate to make red-state governors look bad. “It’s ironic that in a year in which Republican governors are leading some of the states that are making the most progress, that they almost, without exception, are classified as having a bump in their unemployment rates,” Deal said. “Whereas states that are under Democrat governors’ control, they are all showing that their unemployment rate has dropped. And I don’t know how you account for that. Maybe there is some influence here that we don’t know about.”
Notice the logic. Deal assumes as a given that Republican governors lead states that “are making the most progress” — though he doesn’t explain what he means by “progress.” Deal then makes a leap in asserting that facts contradicting his assumption (belief) must be wrong because he refuses to question the original assumption.
So, if Georgia and other red states have “a bump in their unemployment rates,” it’s not because of bad policies by Republican governors but because of bad facts. In this case the facts are bad because the books are being cooked by the Obama administration or, in his words, “Maybe there is some influence here we don’t know about.”
This is not a new claim. In 2012, “B.L.S. truthers” asserted that the Bureau of Labor Statistics was manipulating the figures to help President Obama’s re-election campaign. Jack Welch, former chairman of General Electric, first tweeted, “Unbelievable jobs numbers..these Chicago guys will do anything..can’t debate so change the numbers.” The right-wing media machine, led by Fox News, quickly trumpeted this new conspiracy. Elizabeth MacDonald, a Fox business reporter, flatly stated, “There is statistical manipulation in the unemployment rate,” and Shannon Bream, a network host, asked, “Is it possible that — the politics play into the numbers?”
For Fox to have accepted the validity of B.L.S. statistics would have meant an implicit realization that the president’s economic policies were working, an unthinkable admission among Obama-haters. The “true” figures would show, so the reasoning goes among those rooting for the president to fail, the economy still ailing. Any indication to the contrary means the government is playing with the statistics to help the president.
Conspiracy theories regarding the B.L.S. actually go back at least as far as Richard Nixon’s presidency, when the chief executive mixed political paranoia with anti-Semitism, as Ken Hughes shows in his fine new book, Chasing Shadows. On tape, Nixon asks Charles Colson, an aide, “Are they all Jews over there [at the B.L.S.]?” Colson replies, “Every one of them. Well, a couple of exceptions. Oh, Jesus.” Nixon: “See my point?” On another occasion Nixon says “the government is full of Jews… and most Jews are disloyal.”
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, chief economist on President George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers, said at the height of the 2012 controversy, “I’ve never been one of those who felt that the numbers get doctored. These are professionals. They do this as a career.”
The monthly unemployment report comes from two surveys: One asks a random sample of employers about the number of workers on their payroll; the other randomly samples households asking who is working or looking for work. The data arrives at the B.L.S. on the Wednesday of the week before the report is released (which is the first Friday of the month). It takes eight days to assemble the report; the B.L.S. team uses encrypted computers and locks the information in a safe when not in use.
As for the specifics of the accusation of data manipulation by Governor Deal, who is in a tight re-election race, Georgia is indeed dead last in the nation, with an unemployment rate of 8.1 percent. (So much for Georgia’s “progress.”) That figure comes from the B.L.S., as does the one that shows Georgia’s rate dropping by 0.1 percent in the year ending August 2014, a modest drop, but still a drop.
Those are facts, but facts that contradict the governor’s belief and those of other “B.L.S. truthers.”