Sunday, February 05, 2012

Grading PolitiFact (Tennessee): Stacey Campfield and the origin of AIDS

Context matters -- We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.
 --Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Zack McMillin:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor
Tom Chester:  editor


Is this fact check a slam dunk falsehood? Did Tennessee legislator Stacey Campfield claim that AIDS originated when a man had sex with a monkey before subsequently having sex with other men?

Fact checks like this one tend to draw my attention because journalists often display a difficulty in reporting science and because of a widespread journalistic sympathy toward social liberalism.

Of the many controversial claims state Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, made in an interview on satellite radio last week with a gay-rights advocate, none was more sensational than his assertion that AIDS in humans came from "one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men."
Campfield supposedly asserts that AIDS came from "one guy screwing a monkey ... then having sex with men."

What does "assertion" mean?
Something declared or stated positively, often with no support or attempt at proof. (
And "stated positively" means what?
assert, claim:  Careful writers distinguish between these verbs, though they are often used synonymously.  Claim implies having evidence to back up an assertion, while to assert is to state one's position boldly.  Some authorities declare this battle is now over, and those who find claim to be stronger than assert or contend are free to use it.  But the word may imply a lack of foundation, so use it with care.
("The Right Word:  How To Say What You Really Mean" page 37)
PolitiFact, by describing the nature of Campfield's statement with variations of "claims" and "asserts," frames the legislator as though he is attempting to make an authoritative statement about the origin of AIDS.  Unfortunately for PolitiFact, the immediate context of the quotation argues directly against that frame.  Campfield was asked if he knew the origin of AIDS and offered his understanding according to his recollection.  Campfield was not attempting to make any point associated with his proposed legislation apart from the harm caused by homosexual practices.  That is, the spread of AIDS.

In short, PolitiFact is failing to give appropriate weight to the context.

If only that exhausted PolitiFact's blunders in this story.

Here's the pertinent exchange for this fact check:

CAMPFIELD: Most people realize that AIDS came from the homosexual community.

SIGNORILE: No, it did not. Do you know the history of AIDS?

CAMPFIELD: It was one guy screwing a monkey, if I recall correctly, and then having sex with men.

SIGNORILE: No, it was not one guy screwing a monkey. It was somebody in Africa. Do you know the history of AIDS? Because I can tell you in a minute? It was somebody in Africa who actually killed a monkey, because they eat the meat of many animals, as I’m sure you do, I’m sure you eat the meat of animals. And they ate the meat of a monkey and the blood, they chopped it up, and it got in a cut and that’s how AIDS then spread among heterosexuals all through Africa, and it is a pandemic around the world.
Campfield and Signorile trade a number of half-truths in the above exchange.  Campfield is correct that AIDS came from the homosexual community to the extent that its spread to the point of pandemic owes a huge debt to the spread of the disease within homosexual community.  Signorile tried to avoid that point entirely with a focus on Africa.  Signorile is correct about the spread of AIDS in Africa to the extent that the disease apparently traces to chimpanzees.  It isn't known how the disease spread to humans, and it is considered more likely to have spread via blood products roughly as Signorile describes rather than through a human having sex with a chimp (link extremely safe for work).  But science has not ruled out the latter. 

PolitiFact treats Signorile's inaccuracies with kid gloves.  No such luck for Campfield:
(I)n his blog posts, one of which he titled "More fun than a barrel of monkeys," Campfield stuck by his claim of cross-species simian-human sex as the origin of AIDS. He wrote: "The research on sex with a monkey being the first transmitter of AIDS has not been proven nor firmly dis proven (sic). It is one of about 5 theories I was able to find on the source of AIDS."
PolitiFact continues to frame the bestial origin of AIDS as Campfield's "claim" despite the fact that he says it isn't proved.  Campfield "stuck by" his supposed claim to the extent of saying it remains one account of the AIDS origin and it has not been disproved.

Signorile had recently interviewed infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist Dr. Jacques Pepin, author of the recently published book, The Origin of AIDS, and Signorile accurately characterized Pepin’s research.
PolitiFact does not accurately report the facts, here.

Signorile asserted Pepin's hypothesis as established fact.  Signorile used no qualifiers such as "if I remember correctly" or "probably."  He did not refer to Pepin's account of the origin of AIDS as a hypothesis.  He referred to it as though it was factual.

In addition, Signorile misrepresented Pepin's hypothesis about the spread of AIDS in Africa by telling only part of the story.  Pepin did not primarily blame heterosexual activity for the spread of AIDS in Africa but rather the primitive nature of medical treatment:
“If there hadn’t been those medical campaigns, in my opinion, there probably wouldn’t have been an AIDS epidemic.”
As for the "heterosexual" spread of the disease, Pepin cited the creation of urban centers in Africa and a resulting increase in prostitution.  Did Signorile simply assume that the African prostitutes  were spreading AIDS via heterosexual sex?  Anal sex (URL safe for work), whether heterosexual or otherwise, was probably a significant mode of sexual transmission of AIDS, and if Africa's urban centers were home to male prostitutes then they likely played a part in Pepin's scenario for the origin and spread of the disease.

Given Signorile's imprecision, one wonders about the exclusive focus on Campfield.

Pepin gave PolitiFact Tennessee an even more precise account. Pepin’s research, which relies on meticulous peer-reviewed studies that include DNA evidence going back decades, concludes that HIV in humans originated in Central Africa, likely sometime in 1921, from a hunter who was exposed to contaminated blood from an ape -- perhaps a chimpanzee -- that was killed for food.
One also wonders about the text of the interview PolitiFact Tennessee conducted with Pepin.  Pepin specifically identifies one subspecies of chimpanzee as the likely source from which hunters contracted the virus.
Based upon a meticulous scientific analysis, Pepin concludes that a viral strain called SIVcpz, which infects large numbers of Pan troglodytes troglodytes chimpanzees living in central Africa, was the central source of HIV-1.
Pepin agrees with Campfield on one point: that its spread in North America accelerated through infections transmitted in unprotected sex among gay men.
That point of agreement buttresses Campfield's point.  We'll see that it garners no consideration at all when PolitiFact gets around to rating Campfield on its "Truth-O-Meter."

It gets worse.

Apes, not monkeys

We also talked to Beatrice Hahn, a former longtime University of Alabama-Birmingham professor of medicine and microbiology now at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of a 2010 research paper, "Origin of HIV and AIDS Pandemic." She clued us into a key distinction -- a monkey is not an ape and an ape is not a monkey. But they are both simians, the animal classification for what are known as "higher primates."
This is beyond silly.  While it's true and in some ways an important distinction to note that chimpanzees are not monkeys in precise taxonomic terms, it is not a relevant point with respect to Campfield's statement.  Why not?  Because "monkey" has a broader definition than the one used in taxonomy (colored highlights added with browser tools prior to clipping the image below):

(click image to enlarge; clipped from
Journalists following AP style go by the Webster's New World College Dictionary, of course.
1 a) any of several families of Old and New World primates usually having a flat, hairless face and a long tail  b) loosely, any of other, similar primates, as a gibbon or a chimpanzee.
Why assume that Campfield was not using the latter definition?  PolitiFact's interpretation, as it so often does, appears to run counter to the principle of charitable interpretation.

The comedy of errors naturally leads toward a harsh rating of Campfield:
Our ruling

Campfield is unable to provide any convincing evidence to back up his claim and we could find none. The overwhelming scientific research shows Campfield is wrong. Experts believe HIV entered the human population through so-called "bushmeat" hunting, and, furthermore, that the predominant HIV-1 form has never been shown to be transmitted directly from monkeys to humans.

Hahn emphasized, too, that there is zero evidence to support the cross-species sex Campfield proposes: "It surely wasn’t transmitted through sexual activity (with simians)."

We rate the claim Pants on Fire.
Here we go again.

1)  Campfield doesn't need any evidence to back up his "claim."  It's beside his point.  Who cares, other than PolitiFact and a mob of indignant progressives in feeding-frenzy mode?  Campfield was correct in his subsequent statement that the view he mentioned during the interview remains a possibility.

2)  "The overwhelming scientific research shows Campfield is wrong."  That's the type of sentence one often sees from people who do not understand science.  Past history is not directly observable.  There is no falsification of the hypothesis that bestiality involving a man and a chimpanzee led to the spread of AIDS to humans.  Campfield was probably wrong because Pepin's hypothesis is more plausible. But it's worth noting that Pepin partially supported Campfield's point about the role of homosexuality in spreading AIDS.  Yet we end up with the focus on a statement irrelevant to his point.

3)  When Hahn asserts (using the term advisedly) "It surely wasn't transmitted through sexual activity (with simians)" she is not relating a scientific finding.  She is offering an opinion with some scientific evidence behind it.  The fact is that sometimes a less plausible explanation is the correct explanation.  Scientists do well to remember that when speaking or writing as expert sources.  Otherwise they can make it appear that their grasp of the scientific method lacks a little something.  Would that PolitiFact had fact-checked Hahn regarding the foundation for her claim, using PolitiFact's (fallacious) burden of proof criterion.

Campfield's explanation of the origin of AIDS was not ridiculous.  Nor was it necessarily false.  Unlikely?  Yes--but perhaps no less likely than the possibility of a good excuse for the shoddy reporting in this effort from PolitiFact Tennessee.

PolitiFact's mention of the Scopes trial ends up a comment that will live in irony (read a balanced account of the trial and count the misconceptions discarded as a result).

The grades:
Zack McMillin:  F
Bill Adair: F
Tom Chester: F

This story twists the truth over its entire length, resulting in a corkscrew of partial truth.  One may hypothesize that the story represents an attempt to sustain the narrative of conservative ignorance about science.  That's ironic, if true.  One line buried in the text of the story touches on the point Campfield was making.


PolitiFact Tennessee continues its journalistic malpractice today with an expanded treatment of the Signorile-Campfield interview.

1 comment:

  1. This is the first I have seen of this. You are dead on. The "Fact check" wasn't much of one. You did a better job checking the facts then they did.


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