This related example comes from PolitiFact Wisconsin, checking on a claim from Senate candidate Russ Feingold that his Republican opponent does not believe humans contribute to climate change.
PolitiFact Wisconsin's approach to the fact check resembles the incompetent methods used by other iterations of the PolitiFact family. A Zebra Fact Check critique of PolitiFact's past fact check foreshadows the problems with PolitiFact Wisconsin's fact check of Feingold:
First, interpret an unclear statement according to a more clear statement by the same source. Second, in judging what a person thinks in the present place greater weight on more recent statements.PolitiFact Wisconsin does not apply these commonsense principles.
PolitiFact Wisconsin's evidences, in chronological order2010
Johnson: "I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change. It’s not proven by any stretch of the imagination."
"There are other forces that cause climate to change," Johnson told Here and Now’s Robin Young. "So climate does change and I don’t deny that man has some effect on that. It certainly has a great deal of effect on spoiling our environment in many different ways."2015
But Johnson softened his view as soon as the next sentence: "I’ve got a very open mind, but I don’t have the arrogance that man can really do much to affect climate."
Johnson votes against a proposed amendment to a bill touching the Keystone Pipeline. The amendment would have described the sense of the Senate on the issue of anthropogenic climate change, including the ideas that humans "significantly" affect the climate and that climate change increases the severity of extreme weather events (such as hurricanes).
"Man-made global warming remains unsettled science. World-renowned climate experts have raised serious objections to the theories behind these claims. I believe it is a bad idea to impose a policy that will raise taxes on every American, will balloon energy prices and will hurt our economic competiveness (sic) – especially on such uncertain predictions."2016
"Listen, man can affect the environment; no doubt about it," he said. "The climate has always changed, it always will. … The question is, how much does man cause changes in our environment, changes in our climate, and what we could possibly even do about it?"
Assessing PolitiFact Wisconsin's evidencesFollowing the principles mentioned above, Johnson's clearest statements on humans having some role in climate change comes from the 2014 and 2016 quotations. In 2014, Johnson said he does not deny humans have a role in climate change. In 2016, Johnson said humans "clearly" have a role in changing the climate. Johnson's clearest statements on the subject directly contradict Feingold's claim.
Our principles also guide us toward giving a preference to more recent statements. Therefore, we consider the 2015 climate change amendment for some sign that Johnson denied a human role in climate change.
Is there a worse proof of a legislator's specific views on a topic than their willingness to vote in favor of a "sense of the Senate" amendment? Particularly when that amendment does not feature language narrowly tailored to suit the question?
Would Johnson have voted in favor of the amendment if he believed there was good evidence that undefined "climate change" causes an increase in severe weather events? Who knows? We don't. But if you're PolitiFact Wisconsin you can simply assume the answer is "no" and call it fact-checking.
Johnson did not support a Senate amendment to acknowledge a man-made role in climate change and expressed skepticism each of the few times he acknowledged humans might contribute. He has acknowledged at times that humans can play a role but downplayed how significant that role might be.
For a statement that is accurate but needs additional clarification, our rating is Mostly True.
PolitiFact's conclusion consists of spin.
The Senate amendment was not simply about "a man-made role in climate change." It stipulated a significant role as well as a worsening effect on severe weather.
When Johnson said humans play a role in climate change he did not express skepticism about whether humans play a role. He expressed skepticism about the extent of that role. They're not the same thing, and skepticism about the latter does not contradict Johnson's recognition that humans play some role in affecting the climate. PolitiFact says Johnson says humans "can" play a role. But that's just more spin. Johnson did not simply say humans "can" play a role. He said humans do play a role, and he said he does not deny humans play a role.
If Johnson says humans play some role in causing climate change, that statement cannot support Feingold's claim that Johnson does not believe humans play any role in climate change.
Johnson's statement cannot reasonably justify the "Mostly True" rating with which PolitiFact Wisconsin gifted Feingold. The statements could reasonably justify "False" or "Mostly False" ratings if PolitiFact's definitions for its ratings meant something.
PolitiFact's continued inability to apply simple logic in the course of its fact checks continues to boggle our minds. At the same time, we're not surprised. This is the type of error that results when left-leaning journalists rate the truth of political statements on a subjective scale.