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Fact-checking Rubio on philosophers and welders exposes the limits of fact-checking

Why do the media fixate on verifying irrelevant facts about the candidates? Because it's what they're best at.

Ben Carson is right. People are out to get him, and they aren't being fair.

It seems to me completely plausible that Carson was told he'd have a full ride at West Point (everyone does), and that he remembered that the way he tells it in his memoir. And even the media gotchas that are more accurate are often on subjects more entertaining than substantive. Carson is one of the poll leaders, and this kind of scrutiny comes with the territory. But it sure is scrutiny on the most trivial of things.

Unfortunately, that also comes with the territory. In last night's debate, Marco Rubio said: "For the life of me I don't know why we have stigmatized vocational education. Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers." This statement turns out to have a single factual error in it. On average, philosophers make a lot more than welders do. But none of the policy content in that statement depends on who makes more money. You can acknowledge that philosophers earn more and still think we shouldn't stigmatize vocational education. Rubio's answer was in response to a question on the minimum wage. Rubio thinks we should train people for better jobs rather than increase the minimum wage. The relative income of philosophers and welders doesn't really help us understand whether more training solves the problems that a minimum wage is meant to solve.

Why does the media spend more time on these incidental facts than on policy?

It's hard to blame them. The media are in a bit of a box. First, policy details are boring and arcane. The relative earnings of ivory-tower philosophers and hard-working welders are both understandable and confirms some biases. That's why Rubio brought it up, and that's why it's the only part that anyone noticed.

But more importantly, I think, it is harder to seem objective when you talk about policy. Different sides of political debates disagree about the basic facts. In a world where claiming that climate change is real is a partisan thing, it's a lot safer to talk about someone's biography. Journalists are really good at verifying the verifiable. Figuring out the true social mechanisms that underlie public policy issues is harder. That's the job of economists, policy analysts, sociologists, political scientists and other scholars. It's not that there are no right answers there, but evaluating what is right is not as simple as confirming whether your mother loves you.

So the media fall back on what they are good at — getting the facts right. This is unfortunate, but it may also be the best we can hope for. When the media tell us Carson lied about his past, what they are trying to tell you is that Carson isn't as smart he wants you to think he is. They could do that by showing that he doesn't understand how the debt ceiling works, but most voters don't understand how the debt ceiling works either.

In political science jargon, voters rely on cues and heuristics, so the media tries to provide them. In the 1976 primaries, Gerald Ford attended a rally in San Antonio, Texas, where he was served his first ever tamale. Not knowing he needed to take off the husk, he put the whole thing in his mouth. Reporters who emphasized this sent the message that Ford couldn't connect with Hispanics.

The trouble with this kind of heuristic, though, is that we have to trust that the media are trying to send the right message. In Carson's case, they probably are right. He's not qualified to be president, any more than Barack Obama or George W. Bush is qualified to perform brain surgery. Strange views on the pyramids are a good way to signal that. In Rubio's case, his views on vocational education and the minimum wage deserve scrutiny in their own right.