Category Archives: Fact Checking

Go Figure?

Visitors to this site will likely know I hold a negative view of modern "fact checkers" as I feel much of what they do cannot reasonably be considered "fact checking." During a publicity thing one such organization, PolitiFact, did, I asked a representative how it goes about addressing problems people raise in things it publishes:

I was told to contact PolitiFact at a particular address with any such concerns. I did. Nothing happened. I got an automated response acknowledging the receipt of my e-mail, but I didn't hear anything else after that. I didn't hear anything when I followed up on the e-mail either. None of the articles I discussed in my e-mail to PolitiFact were changed either.

Naturally, I was disheartened. Continue reading

E-mail to Politifact

Readers of this site will likely know I am critical of the rise in "fact checking" as I feel what these "fact checkers" do is often more akin to punditry than fact checking. One such organization, Politifact, did a Q&A session on Twitter today where I happened to see it say:

In response to claims it is liberally biased. I felt this tweet exaggerates the impartiality of Politifact due to seeing a number of articles it published which seemed biased against conservative or toward liberal views. As such, I asked:

The answer I got directed me to e-mail Politifact with any specific concerns. I did so. I initially planned to give a sampling of issues in a number of "fact checks," but in the process of finely parsing one article I selected, I discovered so many problems there was little space. Indeed, there were enough problems with that article I couldn't even discuss them all in my e-mail.

I don't know what to expect from Politifact regarding this e-mail, but since I went through the trouble of writing it, I figured I might as well post it online for people to see. Perhaps it will give some insight as to why I don't hold much respect for "fact checkers." The e-mail discusses only a tiny fraction of the issues I've seen in Politifact's fact checking, and even so, it runs over a 1,000 words. Oh, and yes, I do realize there are a few typos in it. That's what I get for not having an editor. (I count three. How many do you count?)
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Anthony Watts Defends Fake Quotation

Apparently I spoke too soon. In my last post, I wrote:

In any event, I think that resolves this issue. There don't seem to be any facts in dispute anymore. I could write a few paragraphs to condemn dishonest and unethical behavior, mock people for their lack of skepticism or any number of other things, but... eh. I'm tired of worrying about that stuff. Instead, I'd like to point something else out: I was right.

I'm not saying that to gloat (well, maybe just a little). I'm saying it because this was so incredibly obvious to me. A professional newspaper provided two different versions of the same quotation within one article, and somehow, nobody at the newspaper and nobody promoting the story across the internet noticed. That's just crazy.

This, of course, was in reference to the fact the newspaper The Independent ran a story in which a professor named John Wiens was confronted with the hypothetical situation in which he met Donald Trump. When asked what he'd tell Trump in such a situation, The Independent quoted Wiens as saying both, "Kill yourself immediately" and "kill himself immediately."

I thought that peculiar and argued one of these quotations must be fake. My last post discussed how according to Wiens himself, the actual quotation was "kill himself immediately." The result of this is headlines like this one, were inaccurate:

There was more to things as The Independent secretly edited its article some time after I first questioned the quotations, something I find despicable (in response, it has re-edited the piece and hid the fact the changes were initially secret). There may be other aspects as well, but I thought things were finally settled as it seemed there was no longer any dispute over what Wiens had said.

Unfortunately, it appears Anthony Watts, proprietor of a major global warming "skeptic" blog Watts Up With That, has chosen to continue to claim the fake quotation is real. Continue reading

Confirmation Quotation Was Fake

This post is a quick follow-up to my last one. Over the weekend, I observed a strange situation where a story spreading across the internet quoted a man in two different ways. Here is the article and subhead from the post as it was originally run:


Here is text from the body of the article:


The phrase, "Kill yourself immediately" is an internet meme some nnline commenters have co-opted as a joke. Like any meme, it's meaning goes beyond the words themselves. That means the difference between it and"kill himself immediately" is more than grammatical. Even if that weren't true, it is very strange for a newspaper to publish different versions of the same quotation, much less within one article.

Naturally, I concluded (at least) one of these quotations must be fake. I noted this almost immediately upon first seeing the story linked to on Twitter:

Following from this, I spent some time talking to people in various locations about the issue. A while after that, the paper (The Independent) which published the two differing quotations (The Independent) edited the article to remove both versions of the quotations. It did this secretly, without any indication. I criticized it for this as secretly changing published material is dishonest and unethical.

Some time later, The Independent edited the article again to add a note indicating the original change. While I applaud the effort, secretly editing a piece to hide the fact you secretly edited the piece seems... awkward. Moreover, the note The Independent added did nothing to address the fact it had provided contradictory versions of this quotation.

My discussion of these issues led a person to contact the quoted individual. You can read his account of things here. In it, he quotes the person whose remark started all this as saying:

“On Thursday, December 8, I was contacted by Ian Johnston from The Independent, ostensibly to talk about my paper on climate change and extinction that was being published in PLoS Biology (the paper actually received serious reporting by Brandie Wiekle from CBC News and others).

“Unfortunately, Mr. Johnston admitted that he had not read my paper, and apparently had little interest in talking about it. It turned out that he only wanted to talk about Donald Trump. I did not. He asked me what I would say to Donald Trump. I said that I really did not think that Donald Trump cared at all what I thought.

“Obviously, I hoped that this would be the end of the topic. He persisted. I did therefore say that Trump should “kill himself immediately” (i.e., his doing this seems about as likely as him following any recommendation from an obscure scientist like myself about stopping climate change). I then made sure that it was clear that it was a joke.”


The man was apparently unhappy with aspects of the story and contacted The Independent about this. That's why it removed the quotations from its articel. That is good to know (and what I suggested had happened), but what I find more interesting is he claims he said "kill himself immediately." That is not the internet meme, "Kill yourself immediately." This would seem to confirm that quotation was in fact fake.

Why did The Independent run a fake quote in the body of its text? I don't know. I also don't know why it was so obvious to me the quotation was fishy while "skeptic" sites like Watts Up With That ran it without question. It seems pretty weird. Perhaps some people who ran the fake quotation will correct the record. I doubt it though. It's too good a story to question.

In any event, I think that resolves this issue. There don't seem to be any facts in dispute anymore. I could write a few paragraphs to condemn dishonest and unethical behavior, mock people for their lack of skepticism or any number of other things, but... eh. I'm tired of worrying about that stuff. Instead, I'd like to point something else out: I was right.

I'm not saying that to gloat (well, maybe just a little). I'm saying it because this was so incredibly obvious to me. A professional newspaper provided two different versions of the same quotation within one article, and somehow, nobody at the newspaper and nobody promoting the story across the internet noticed. That's just crazy.

Oh, and for documentation purposes, here are archived copies of the article in each of its forms: Original, secretly edited, updated to note the alteration<?a>.

Newspaper's Fabricated Quote Suckers "Skeptics"

The internet is full of memes, and if you're new to it, they can seem quite strange. ONE such meme is the intentionally strange, "Kill yourself immediately." The word "immediately" is superfluous as any command given without a timeframe is implicitly meant to be done right away, but that's sort of the point. Memes aren't meant to be serious. They're supposed to be peculiar, odd or otherwise memorable to stick in people's minds.

If someone says, "Kill yourself immediately," odds are they are trying to be humorous (albeit in a twisted way). They are not seriously trying to get you to commit suicide. That is why you might see posts like, "God you're an idiot. Kill yourself immediately." It's supposed to be a funny expression of disdain. I never thought it was funny, but hey, bad humor is still humor.

The reason I bring this up is I recently came across a story because of this tweet:

Which struck me as odd as I wouldn't expect a biologist to use an internet meme in a discussion of the President Elect. I Looked into it, and it appears the quotation may be fake. If it isn't, a different quotation in the same story is. That's not what stood out to me though. What stood out to me is the very news outlets reporting this story all seemed to use different fake quotes. Other differences amongst the stories are strange as well. It seems in an era where media outlets can practically just copy and paste text from other articles to get clicks, people can't even do that right.
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I'm Just Going to Leave This Here

I owe you guys another post on the new Gergis et al paper, but I'm afraid I have to put that off for a bit longer. My power went out a few days ago, and I lost all the code I had written because I foolishly did not prepare for a drunk driver hitting a pole. I know, I should save my work regularly.

Anyway, I came across a recent post at Watts Up With That, and it is... not good. It criticizes the "fact checking" organization Politifact, saying they're biased and dishonest. I'm a critic of modern "fact checking," so that naturally caught my eye. Then I saw it relies upon and heavily promotes work and comments by Richard Tol.

I find it disappointing people continue to embrace Tol, and I wrote a comment saying so. It hasn't appeared yet. I have no idea if or when it will, and rather than worry about it, I thought I'd copy it here. I know I should probably right a fleshed out blog post explaining all the details of what I refer to in the comment, but I feel like if I do, it'll run 10,000+ words. I really don't feel like making this the subject of my next eBook.
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"Fact Checking" says Slaves Built the White House

The last few days, I've been hearing about a somewhat strange story that confuses me. My favorite example is:

I couldn't resist making a joke about the poor wording of this person's tweet, but the topic itself struck me because it seems all sorts of wrong. As a matter of clarity, this tweet was about the Capitol, and most of the recent discussion I've been subjected to has been about the White House, but the two topics are highly related. One example has received the most attention though, this statement by First Lady Michelle Obama during a speech at the Democratic National Convention:

That is the story of this country. The story that has brought me to the stage tonight. The story of generations of people who felt the lash of bondage, the shame of servitude, the sting of segregation, who kept on striving, and hoping, and doing what needed to be done. So that today, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves. And I watch my daughters — two beautiful intelligent black young women — play with the dog on the White House lawn.

This statement has received a great deal of attention, and many people were quick to chime in. This includes the "fact checkers" of our age. Unfortunately, the modern age of "fact checking" leaves a lot to be desired.
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What Fact Checking Isn't

Something I find troubling about recent times is the rise in "fact checking" where a special class of people get to decide which politicians and other notable people say things that are and are not true. It's becoming more and more popular, and it often has next to nothing to do with actually checking facts.

I wrote a post last year showing how in one case a "fact checker" completely misread/misheard what a former president of the United States said in an interview, and as a result, wrote an article based upon contradictions he simply imagined out of nothing. Somehow his wild imaginations got published and referenced by hundreds of people, and to this day, have never been corrected.

That story was written by one of the most popular "fact checkers" around, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post. I've pointed out other obvious errors in things he's written before, always to no avail. I've had the same result with other "fact checkers." But that's not what I want to look at today. The fact "fact checkers" can apparently make things up with there being no recourse for the people they smear is bad, but what's more interesting to me is how "fact checkers" often don't even pretend to be checking facts.
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Do Fact Checkers Know What Facts Are?

I recently saw a bunch of tweets in my Twitter feed saying things like:

I agree that's a ridiculous claim. Climate change is not a hoax. Only a fool would say it is. Naturally, I was curious which fools would say it. According to the Politifact article:

But what stuck with readers were the claims that flat-out denied climate change science. The statement "Climate change is a hoax" won PolitiFact’s annual Readers' Poll for Lie of the Year with 31.8 percent of the vote.

That claim was the title of a five-minute video released by congressional hopeful Lenar Whitney, a Republican from Louisiana. Several climate scientists told PolitiFact that Whitney’s claim was "laughable," "deeply misguided," "uninformed," "disgusting" and "absurd." We called it Pants on Fire. Whitney, meanwhile, didn’t even make the run-off.

One person, in a primary for a Louisiana seat in the United States House of Representatives with four other people (where she came in dead last), said it. That's a pretty weird person to look to for your "Lie of the Year." A lot of crazy things have been said in House of Representative primaries. They usually don't get called lies. That's because crazy people genuinely believe crazy things.
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When Fact Checkers Aren't

I am sometimes troubled by the growing popularity of "fact checkers." I think fact checking is great. The problem is the fact checkers becoming more and more popular don't seem to be checking facts. For instance, Washington Post's Glenn Kessler recently published an article "fact checking" statements by former president George W. Bush, including this one:

The man, Saddam Hussein, would have a lot of revenue as a result of high prices of oil. And even though there wasn’t, you know, a – we found a dirty bomb, for example – he had the capacity to make chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. And so there’s – you know, it’s all very hypothetical. But yeah, I could argue that we’re much safer without Saddam. And I would argue that the people of Iraq have a better shot at living in a peaceful – a peaceful state.

The article begins on a troubling note:

The Fact Checker was puzzled by Bush’s reference to finding a dirty bomb in Iraq. It certainly sounded like he said that such a weapon was found in Iraq. But after listening to the tape a few times, we concluded that the former president, in an offhand manner, was giving that as an example of something that was not found after the United States invaded Iraq.

I find it puzzling anyone would think Bush's statement was meant to indicate the United States found a dirty bomb. Taking out a few superfluous words in the sentence gives us the obvious meaning, "And even though there wasn't a dirty bomb, for example, he had the capacity to make chemical, biological and nuclear weapons."

The meaning is clear. I don't know why someone would have to listen to a tape multiple times to realize the words "you know, a - we found" were little more than verbal ticks. It's obviously nothing more than someone saying, "Uh, you know" to fill some space while they're trying to think of how to express their idea.

It gets worse though. The next paragraph of this "fact check" says:

Who knew that the United States invaded Iraq because of a potential dirty-bomb threat? That’s certainly not what the administration suggested before the war.

This is incredibly misleading. The transcript shows Bush was asked a specific question:

You talk about the current situation in Iraq and the growth of ISIS. And you look at that country today, there are atrocities. There's violence. There's chaos. Can you argue today that that country is a safer place and a better place than it was when Saddam Hussein was in power?

This question clearly asks if Iraq is a safer and better place due to the invasion. That has nothing to do with the stated reasons for the invasion. Those reasons could have been wrong, false or even intentionally dishonest. That still wouldn't tell us whether or not Iraq is a safer and better place.

Bush answered the question he was asked. Kessler's "fact check" calls Bush's answer misleading because if he had given it in response to an entirely different question, it'd be misleading. That's ridiculous. You can't strip a statement of all context in order to pretend it was given in response to an entirely different question then call it misleading like Kessler does when he says:

the former president misleadingly twists the initial rationale behind the invasion

The former president did not discuss "the initial rationale behind the invasion" in this interview. A "fact checker" simply made that up. I have no idea how that is supposed to be "fact checking."