Thursday, February 19, 2015

Fifty shades of "Half True"

PolitiFact's founding editor, Bill Adair, has said the truth is often not black and white, but gray:
Our Truth-O-Meter is based on the concept that the truth in politics is often not black and white, but shades of gray.
With this post we'll look at an example of PolitiFact shading the truth with its middle-ground "Half True" rating.

Justice Roy Moore, conservative: "Half True"

The first example comes from Feb. 13, 2015. Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore said Alabama hadn't changed its mind about gay marriage since passing a law in 2007 defining marriage in heterosexual terms. Moore was answering a claim from CNN host Chris Cuomo that people in Alabama had changed their views on gay marriage. PolitiFact reported the key exchange:
"Times have changed as they did with slavery," Cuomo said Feb. 12 on New Day. "The population no longer feels the same way. And even in your state, people no longer feel the same way."

Moore held firm that marriage was defined as between a man and a woman, and said, "81 percent as recently as 2006 said it was the definition. They haven’t changed their opinion."
PolitiFact framed its fact check in terms of a contest between the statements from Cuomo and Moore. If support for gay marriage had changed in Alabama, then Moore's claim was not plainly true.

PolitiFact flubbed its interpretation of Moore's response. Moore was not arguing that no change had occurred in opinion polls. Moore referred to the percentage of Alabama voters who approved the heterosexual marriage definition in 2006. The voters had not changed their minds in that the people of Alabama had not moved to change the law they overwhelmingly approved. PolitiFact noted that Moore was referring to that vote, but somehow failed to put the pieces of the puzzle together. Moore's Truth-O-Meter rating: "Half True."

Even if PolitiFact's wrong interpretation was correct, Moore would be off by a scant 14 percent. Democrat Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse once received a "Mostly True" rating for a claim that was off by 27 percent.

Rep. Pete DeFazio (D-Ore.): "Half True"

Our second example comes from a PolitiFact fact check published on Feb. 17, 2015. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) blamed genetically modified crops for the impending extinction of the monarch butterfly.

PolitiFact quotes DeFazio:
"We certainly know there is going to be secondary harm to the environment," he said. "In fact, monarch butterflies are becoming extinct because of this sort of dumping, (the) huge increase in pesticides’ use because of these modified organisms."
DeFazio got a thing or two wrong. Monarch butterflies aren't going extinct. The causal connection between the increased use of herbicides and the decreased wintering population of monarch butterflies has not yet been scientifically established. And, though PolitiFact kindly ignored this mistake, DeFazio referred to "pesticides" instead of "herbicides."  Update Aug. 17, 2018: In fact "pesticides" can encompass plant pests as well as animal pests./update The expert PolitiFact cited mentioned the effects of herbicides on the monarch caterpillar's favored food, milkweed. PolitiFact apparently didn't investigate the effect of pesticide dumping on monarch butterfly populations.

So DeFazio got nothing right, but PolitiFact accepted his extinction claim as a mere exaggeration of the declining wintering population of monarch butterflies. The final ruling: "Half True."

It almost takes a masochist to read PolitiFact's fifty shades of gray.

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