Mostly False: Politifact Blows It On Al Gore, Trump, And The Paris Climate Accord

Politifact says researchers should give people coal-industry talking points before polling their views on climate policy.
06/14/2017 11:42 am ET Updated Jun 14, 2017
Yuri Gripas / Reuters

Yesterday I saw that “al gore on trump climate change” was trending on Google, so I checked it out. It turns out Politifact recently gave Al Gore a “Mostly False” rating for stating, reasonably, that “a majority of President Trump’s supporters and voters wanted us [the U.S.] to stay in” the Paris climate accord. Since that was over a week ago and I didn’t hear about it, I assume Google’s data is a window on the right-wing epistemic bubble.

Politifact really blew this one, making silly critiques of Gore’s statement and presenting fossil-fuel talking points as if they’re facts. No wonder it’s getting passed around on just one side of the political divide.

Wordplay. Politifact’s first point is that the poll Gore relied on (conducted by researchers at Yale and George Mason University) was only 47–28. As in, 47 percent of Trump supporters thought the U.S. should stay in the Paris agreement, and 28 percent favored backing out (25 percent said they didn’t know). Aha! says Politifact, “majority” means “more than half.” Forty-seven percent is technically a “plurality.”

This is silly. In common speech, people often use “majority” to mean just the largest number. In fact, if you type “majority definition” into Google, the first definition that comes up is “the greater number.” You can also think of “majority” as shorthand for “simple majority,” which is the same as a “plurality.”

Is 47 a “greater number” than 28? Is it larger than all the other numbers in the poll? Indeed, it’s a 19-point spread — a veritable walloping in the world of polling and voting. It’s what we often refer to as “most” or “the majority.” If only Gore had known he was in political science class, not appearing on This Week with George Stephanopoulos.

Common sense says his statement rates at least “mostly true.” But we can do better. Politifact frames its own task as deciding whether Gore was right to “ma[ke] it sound like [Trump’s] decision was out of step with his supporters.” With 47 percent opposed and 28 percent in favor, “out of step” is more than fair. So why the fuss?

In its defense, Politifact admits that its analysis “might seem nitpicky.” That’s actually the most insightful statement in its piece.

Motivated reasoning. Politifact also consulted two polling experts. They said the Yale-GMU researchers are reputable and use sound methods, and the poll’s wording was fine. But one mentioned that, since he assumes people don’t know much about the Paris agreement, the responses might be read more as a reflection of “a general attitude toward and belief about climate change.” Politifact seizes on this point to suggest the poll shouldn’t be given much weight. Huh?

Let’s assume most people don’t know much about the climate accord. Is that a reason to discount the poll? Only if we dismiss most polls on policy issues, as the same criticism applies to nearly all of them. If you don’t plan to throw out all policy polling, then you can’t single out the Yale-GMU poll unless you show it was particularly bad. But Politifact’s own experts thought the poll was fine.

Next, let’s say the poll only reflected “a general attitude” on climate. Well, virtually everyone who supports acting to prevent climate change also supports, at a minimum, modest goals like U.S.’s non-binding Paris commitment. So where’s the problem?

One last point here: Imagine Trump voters had a better understanding of “the details.” Is there any doubt that even more would oppose Trump’s wildly self-destructive, fact-free climate policy?

Phony facts. And that brings us to Politifact’s biggest mistake. It treats fossil-fuel-industry falsehoods as “facts” and faults Gore for relying on a poll that didn’t incorporate them.

Politifact says a good poll would ask respondents to consider the “trade-offs” involved in “any meaningful environmental policy,” like whether one is willing to “burden” the economy or “slow job growth” or be “unfair” to the U.S. But Politifact cites no evidence for the notion that these trade-offs exist. That’s because no credible source says so. Trump made those types of claims when he backed out of Paris, and they’ve been widely debunked. In fact, Politifact itself has pieces debunking some of them. Now Politifact says a Yale-GMU poll was flawed because the researchers didn’t lie to people about these very issues before asking their views.

The truth is that fighting climate change will be immensely beneficial to the U.S. Among other things, it will boost employment, make us far healthier, and help prevent massive harm to the economy. Even if it weren’t for climate change, we should transition to 100 percent renewable energy as quickly as possible just for the economic and health benefits. Yes, a tiny fraction of the population could lose out if they don’t turn around their local politicians in time (the politicians trying to prolong the life of the terminally ill coal industry rather than remake their economies into clean-energy powerhouses). But the benefits of renewables are so massive that we can easily make it up to them.

We all know why we aren’t doing these things: Our political system is too broken to deliver sound energy and climate policy without a huge fight. The fossil-fuel industry has outsize power, which means we need a much larger, broader, and more energetic movement to win than we ought to need. The same industry is running a long, expensive, effective misinformation campaign that makes it harder to build the movement we need. Now Politifact, of all sources, is contributing to that campaign. With fact-checkers like these, who needs a fossil-fuel-obsessed liar in the White House?

Politifact: Cut the nitpicking, and base your fact-checks on facts.

Rating: Mostly false.

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