Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Newt Gingrich and space mirrors

Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

I thought about doing a comparison piece instead of a "Grading PolitiFact" evaluation of this next item.  I decided to do the normal evaluation, but we'll be doing a comparison to PolitiFact's check of a chain email about the Obama administration's Cass Sunstein.

The issue:

clipped from

For comparison:

clipped from

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson: writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton: editor

Robert Farley and Bill Adair filled the corresponding roles for the Sunstein item.


Before examining the text of PolitiFact's fact check, let's take a moment to look at the initial presentation of the two items we're comparing.

The top portions seem very comparable.  Gingrich is said to have "suggested" something and Sunstein is said to have "advocated" something.

The middle portions differ.  In Brooks' case, the headline material stick with the narrow description of Brooks, claim, paraphrasing "has suggested" with "once proposed."  The nearby "Truth-O-Meter tells readers what to think of Brooks' claim ("True").  PolitiFact handles the chain email differently.  Instead of paraphrasing the material just above, PolitiFact includes its assessment in the statement.  And we get the "Half True" graphic.  The "then thought better of it" part ends up justifying a rating other than "True."

Now let's follow PolitiFact's little tale about Brooks and Gingrich--both conservatives, so there's something for everyone to like on both sides of the partisan divide.

Brooks cites negatively what he considered half-baked ideas by Gingrich. "For example, he has called for ‘a massive new program to build a permanent lunar colony to exploit the moon’s resources.’ He has suggested that ‘a mirror system in space could provide the light equivalent of many full moons so that there would be no need for nighttime lighting of the highways.’"
The space-mirror system seemed so outlandish that we felt compelled to check whether Gingrich really suggested it.
So that's the issue: Did Gingrich suggest the space mirror system Brooks mentions?

In the item we're using for comparison, PolitiFact was checking the claim (quoting PolitiFact) that "President Barack Obama's nominee to be the administration's regulatory czar once advocated a "Fairness Doctrine" of sorts for the Internet, one that would require partisan sites to link to sites with opposing viewpoints."

PolitiFact did not receive a response from Brooks asking for the source of his claim.  PolitiFact surmised the source was Andrew Ferguson in the New York Times magazine.  But Ferguson's account only hints at the notion that the space mirrors were Gingrich's suggestion.  As PolitiFact presented it:
Here’s a portion of what Ferguson wrote:

"Gingrich’s first book, Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future, came out in 1984 and contained the seeds of much of what was to follow. Beneath its cover image — a flag-draped eagle inexplicably threatening the space shuttle— the backbencher Gingrich was identified as chairman of the congressional Space Caucus, a position that inspired a series of ‘space cadet’ jokes that took years to die. Window of Opportunity was co-written by Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, and a science-fiction writer called David Drake.  ...

"In Window of Opportunity, Gingrich introduced himself as a futurist, a role he has played off and on throughout his career. There are problems inherent in futurism, most of them involving the future, which the futurist is obliged to predict (it’s his job) and which seldom cooperates as he would hope. Gingrich has called some and missed some. In 1984, he saw more clearly than most that computers would touch every aspect of commercial and private life, but nobody any longer wants to build ‘a large array of mirrors [that] could affect the earth’s climate,’ warming it up so farmers could extend the growing season."

Because the quotes from Brooks and Ferguson are slightly different, we wanted to look directly at the book ourselves before making our judgment.
It isn't that what Brooks and Ferguson wrote is simply "slightly different."  That's fairly normal with a paraphrase.  The problem that invites deeper investigation is the uncertainty as to whether Gingrich advocated a system of space mirrors.  So it apparently comes down to the book.

In the book, Gingrich proposes (among many other ideas) "five simple steps to a bold future" in space, most unusually a lottery in which randomly selected taxpayers would win a spot on a space shuttle flight. But the floating mirror idea isn’t on this list. Instead, it’s included in Gingrich's recap of a June 1979, NASA-sponsored new concepts symposium in Woods Hole, Mass., "where 30 experts brainstormed a range of pioneering options for NASA worthy of Lewis and Clark."
Just in case the paragraph above obscures PolitiFact's findings, they did not find Gingrich mentioning mirrors when he gave recommendations.  They found the mirrors mentioned when he presented some ideas from a NASA-sponsored brainstorming session. 

Where's the advocacy?

PolitiFact (bold emphasis added):
Here’s how Gingrich summarized the idea:

"The climate group at the Woods Hole conference suggested that a large array of mirrors could affect the earth’s climate by increasing the amount of sunlight received by particular areas, citing recent feasibility studies exploring the possibilities of preventing frosts in Florida or enabling farmers in high altitudes to plant their wheat earlier.

"A mirror system in space could provide the light equivalent of many full moons so that there would be no need for nighttime lighting of the highways. Ambient light covering entire areas could reduce the current danger of criminals lurking in the darkness. Mirrors could be arranged to light given metropolitan areas only during particular periods, so there would be darkness late at night for sleeping."

Brooks’ portrayal glosses over the fact that Gingrich was primarily reciting proposals made by participants at a NASA-sponsored forum. Still, Gingrich cited them approvingly.
I have Gingrich's book before me as I write.  The relevant passage occurs in Chapter 2:  "Americans and the Greatest Frontier."  PolitiFact's reporting about the book is perfectly accurate and complete, except I can't figure out the justification for the claim "Gingrich cited them approvingly." Clearly Gingrich found the ideas coming out of the brainstorm session exciting.  That's reason enough to put them in a book.  But can we justify an equivalency between that and specific advocacy of the space mirror idea?

Where's the advocacy?  PolitiFact admits that Gingrich was "primarily" citing the proposals of others.  We get no objective evidence of the type of advocacy Brooks suggests.

Still, we didn’t want to stop with a look at whether Brooks framed the issue fairly. We also wanted to know whether this was ever a mainstream idea -- and whether it’s technologically feasible.
These issues are irrelevant to whether Brooks' claim is true.  They are relevant to Brooks' apparent underlying argument that Gingrich's supposed suggestion of putting mirrors in space is crazy.

Of course, that kind of sidesteps the concept of a brainstorming session (come up with ideas regardless of merit) and ignores the prestige, if any, of the participants at NASA's symposium.  Apparently the space mirror idea came from climate scientists.  Some people have suggested space mirrors could help alleviate problems associated with global climate change.

PolitiFact's story acknowledges the global warming connection through the testimony of one science expert, though it concludes with a kicker quotation from another supposedly neutral expert:
Raymond S. Bradley, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts, put it simply: "This is not a mainstream idea. It is one of the dumbest ideas I have heard of."
Bradley doesn't sound like the sort of person who would fit in well at a brainstorming session.

But all this window dressing aside, where's the advocacy?

Our ruling
Gingrich co-wrote his book more than a quarter century ago, and since he doesn’t appear to have reiterated the call for floating mirrors in recent years, we can safely assume the idea is no longer at the top of his policy agenda. But did cite the idea approvingly in his book, so we rate Brooks’ statement True.
Funny.  The gracious snarkmeisters at PolitiFact can assume the idea is "no longer at the top of Gingrich's policy agenda."  This after their story failed to turn up any evidence that the idea had ever been anywhere on Gingrich's policy agenda.

We reach the end of PolitiFact's analysis without any solid evidence that Gingrich ever advocated the idea of placing giant mirrors in space for any reason at all, yet David Brooks warrants a "True" rating?

No, I haven't forgotten the comparison to Cass Sunstein:
Yes, Sunstein acknowledges this was an idea he once threw out there — albeit, in his words, "tentatively." But he now thinks it's a bad idea. So the chain e-mail/article is correct that Sunstein once suggested it. But contrary to the headline, it's a position he no longer holds, as he has since said strongly and repeatedly. Once true. No longer. That leaves us at Half True.
Readers may notice a discordant thread in the above conclusion.  PolitiFact's own headline material does not match in substance the World Net Daily headline associated with the story about Sunstein.  The fact check was of the chain email.  While PolitiFact did not provide a copy of the email, it's at least clear that the claim PolitiFact highlighted in its headline material is a true claim.  The entire justification for dropping the chain email claim apparently comes from the World Net Daily headline.  Applying that standard to PolitiFact, their story fact checking the claim about Sunstein is "Half True."

PolitiFact provided no evidence that Gingrich had advocated a system of space mirrors.

PolitiFact found that Sunstein definitely had advocated a type of fairness doctrine for the Internet.

Gingrich did not write to withdraw his space mirror proposal as Sunstein did with his Internet fairness doctrine, but the most obvious explanation for that comes from the fact that Gingrich didn't advocate putting up space mirrors in the first place.

Yet the claim about Gingrich received a "True" rating ("The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.") while the claim about Sunstein received a rating of "Half True" ("The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.")

It isn't relevant that Gingrich never specifically advocated the idea right through to the present day?


The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

Robert Farley and Bill Adair receive honorary failing grades for the bait-and-switch technique they used to justify the "Half True" rating on the Sunstein claim.  People in glass houses ...

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