Wednesday, August 3, 2016

PolitiFact's Subtle Smears against Skepticism

In an earlier post we covered PolitiFact California's false conclusion that Mike Pence "denied evolution." We updated that post to note and condemn the fact checkers' downgrading of that rating to "Half True," since having no evidence that Pence denied evolution does not make it half true that Pence denied evolution.

There remains a problematic part of PolitiFact California's fact check that we haven't emphasized, that being the illogical inference that skepticism in other areas of science helps support the inference that Pence rejects evolution.

I had flagged a sentence in PolitiFact California writer Chris Nichols' original rating for commentary, but it's since been scrubbed from the new "Half True" version:

Nichols reasoning is flawed. It is perfectly consistent for a person to be skeptical of the efficacy of efforts to combat climate change while simultaneously accepting the scientific realities of climate change. To the contrary, blindly accepting said measures without skepticism is by definition unscientific.

That line has been deleted in the new version of the article, but it was replaced with an example that is similarly flawed:

Being ambiguous about supporting federal funding for stem cell research is not evidence that one denies the science behind stem cell research. There are moral, political, and philosophical reasons for opposing such things that have nothing to do with science. But for PolitiFact writer Nichols it appears to be axiomatic that funding for these things is something the government should do. It doesn't occur to Nichols that there's reasons for Pence's skepticism beyond being a Bible-thumping yokel.

There is no "have-it-both-ways" about it. Pence's position on federal funding for stem cell research has nothing to do with Pence's position on evolution. The paragraph serves no purpose in the fact check other than to possibly paint Pence as the liberal caricature of a science-hating Jesus freak.

What reporting in Nichols two versions of this fact check qualifies it as an objective fact check as opposed to opinionated commentary? 

Bryan adds:

We can see PolitiFact's zeal for climate change action through its actions in dropping its burden of proof criterion for a 2014 fact check of California Governor Jerry Brown. Brown said virtually no Republican in Congress accepts climate change science. PolitiFact found only a few Republicans who explicitly accepted it and more-or-less assumed that the rest do not accept it. Brown received an absurdly generous "Mostly True" rating.

It's illogical. It's biased. It's typical PolitiFact.

Bryan adds again:

PolitiFact also screwed up the context of the second quotation Jeff used. Pence was not replying to a question about his support for federal funding of stem cell research. Chris Matthews had been asking Pence about evolution and education, then added the issues of climate change and stem cell research. Pence answered how he thought science issues should be taught in school.

PolitiFact California makes Pence look like a dope for not really answering the question about funding stem cell research. If there was any such question it was swallowed by crosstalk as Pence answered Matthews' earlier question of whether he believed in teaching evolution or creationism in schools. PolitiFact California misrepresented the context.

The real story in the exchange is how Matthews doesn't mention that he's talking about embryonic stem cell research. Pence corrects him on that point. PolitiFact repeats Matthews' error by not distinguishing ordinary stem cell research (which Republicans support) with embryonic stem cell research, which many Republicans (and some Democrats) oppose on moral grounds.

Correction Aug. 4, 2016: In the first paragraph of "Bryan adds again," added "and stem cell research to complete the intended sentence and make the plural "issues" correct.

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