On January 29 of 2015, FactCheck.org – the nonpartisan fact-checking site based at the Annenberg Public Policy Center – launched a new feature called SciCheck. At the time, Eugene Kiely, the director of FactCheck.org, said in a statement that SciCheck “will focus exclusively on false and misleading scientific claims that are made by partisans to influence public policy.”
I was curious about how SciCheck has done in its first year, so reached out to Dave Levitan, who was the primary writer of SciCheck from its launch until November 2015. Levitan is now freelancing and working on a book tied to his SciCheck work, focusing on how politicians (intentionally or otherwise) misrepresent science. More on that below.
I also reached out to Kiely, and will share his responses when I get them.
Communication Breakdown: First off, I’d like to ask a little bit about yourself. SciCheck is part of FactCheck.org, and it’s equal parts science, politics, and journalism. What’s your background? Science? Politics? Journalism? All three?
Dave Levitan: How about science journalism? Quick bio to clarify: English major in college with some work in physics and biology labs as well, worked as a writer for medical trade pubs for a while, then grad school at NYU specifically for science journalism. Since around 2009 I’ve been covering a lot of scientific topics, especially energy, climate, and a decent amount of science/environmental policy as well.
CB: When did you first hear about the idea for SciCheck? Or was it your idea in the first place?
Levitan: Definitely not my idea! I heard about it when the job was posted, probably December 2014.
CB: What were the goals for SciCheck? Was the idea to encourage politicians to stick to the facts, to change the way reporters cover the claims of politicians, or simply to help the public stay informed?
Levitan: You’re probably better off asking the founders and leaders of FactCheck this one, since the goals for SciCheck were largely the same just specifically related to science. I would say that the primary goal is to hold politicians accountable for their public statements; science has become increasingly central and important in politics in recent years, so focusing in on those claims just let FactCheck expand its coverage into an important realm.
CB: Was there a lag time between you being hired to write SciCheck and when you started posting? Or did you hit the ground running?
Levitan: There wasn’t much of a time lag – I think my first post went up at the end of my first week there.
CB: How did you decide which claims to fact-check, or which politicians to focus on?
Levitan: Well, in an election year, we tended to stick largely—though not exclusively—to presidential candidates. The exceptions were for political leaders not running for president (majority/minority leaders, Obama admin, etc.). As for specific claims, it was just a matter of whether or not the claim was wrong—if it was wrong, and from a reasonably prominent person, we covered it. If the wrongness was egregious enough, it didn’t matter who it was from (say, this one on “manipulated” temperature records).
CB: SciCheck was unveiled in January 2015, and you wrote the section until November of that year. During that time, did you notice any particular trends? For example, where there specific claims or kinds of claims that came up again and again?
Levitan: There were certainly some repetitions of specific claims—the idea of the global warming “hiatus,” say, which we debunked in a few ways in a couple of posts. More generally, the claims fell pretty obviously along party/ideological lines—Republicans questioning the consensus on climate change, say, or offering up totally misleading claims regarding vaccines and parental “choice.” Obviously, one major trend is that my section of the site really lacked material on the Democrat side—this was by no means intentional, as FactCheck is very strictly non-partisan, but it is an unfortunate reality that one party gets science wrong a whole lot more than the other.
CB: During your time at SciCheck, did you know how much traffic SciCheck got compared to other parts of FactCheck.org? Did you feel like it was getting significant public attention?
Levitan: I didn’t really see the traffic numbers, unfortunately; you could ask the director, Eugene Kiely, about that. I know that a few of my stories did very well; one in particular, on the Planned Parenthood videos and fetal tissue research (co-written with managing editor Lori Robertson, for the record), accounted for more than 1.5 million views, an enormous chunk of the site’s overall traffic for a few months. You can see on the page, it has something like 75,000 likes from Facebook, so obviously that was a huge story. But other than that I’m not really sure about traffic; it’s also hard to say exactly, because FactCheck stories are free to republish anywhere and that accounts for a big chunk of other traffic. Places like Huffington Post, USA Today, MSN.com, and others with big traffic numbers routinely published my stories.
CB: Did you ever get feedback from politicians that you fact-checked? Did you ever feel like your work was influencing how a politician talked about an issue?
Levitan: That’s a tough question. I never got direct feedback other than complaints once or twice (a White House spokesperson, for example, didn’t like our analysis in this piece on the ROI of the Human Genome Project), and I certainly never heard a politician correct themselves publicly. Sometimes a talking point seemed to disappear after we wrote about it, but other times they just kept popping up—for example, I think Rand Paul is still telling ridiculous stories about Clean Water Act enforcement.
To be honest, I found it hard to imagine I was having all that much of an effect on politicians. As we’ve seen in this election cycle so far, a lack of facts doesn’t seem to be disqualifying in any sense.
CB: Were there instances where you think SciCheck affected the way a politician’s claims were covered by the press?
Levitan: Well, in some ways FactCheck (and Politifact and the WaPo Fact Checker) isn’t all that special anymore. Along with those three major organizations, many publications now engage in what is essentially fact checking – Vox.com, for example, or Phil Plait’s science debunkings over at Slate. It’s very hard for politicians to say something wrong and not have it be taken apart by multiple outlets now; so in that universe, I don’t think my writing really changed much of how those other places covered the issue. The one exception might be that Planned Parenthood piece, which got cited and mentioned all over the place.
CB: For a long time, it was thought that you could change someone’s mind on an issue by giving that person more information. An example of this “information-deficit model” would be trying to change someone’s stance on childhood vaccination by explaining concepts such as relative risk and herd immunity, or pointing to research on the safety of vaccines. However, a lot of research tells us that this information-deficit approach isn’t really effective at changing people’s minds. What do you think about that? And, if the information-deficit model doesn’t work, do you think there’s still real value in project’s like SciCheck?
Levitan: This is interesting, as FactCheck is housed in the Annenberg Public Policy Center at UPenn, where a bunch of very smart communications people are researching that very question. How do you convince people? What methods might have the best chance of actually changing minds? And so on. Honestly, I don’t have a great answer. If we’re all siloed away, hearing what we want to hear, and facts and information won’t change minds… well, it starts to feel a bit hopeless, right?
Though I have no particular research to back this up, my only thought is just that maybe saturation will start to have an impact: again, with many outlets now doing some version of fact checking, perhaps the stubborn holdouts will start to crack. If just I tell you that you’re wrong about something and here’s why, maybe you scoff and ignore me; but if I and a few thousand of my friends tell you the same thing, it might get harder to maintain those false views. This is sort of the brute force approach, I suppose. And again, I don’t know if that will really help.
CB: Why did you leave SciCheck in November 2015?
Levitan: I left primarily to work on a book, very closely related to the work I did with SciCheck. It will be titled “Not A Scientist: How politicians mistake, misrepresent, and utterly mangle science,” and it will be released by WW Norton. I’m also just back to freelancing, as I did for a decade before SciCheck; it suits me, I think. Pajamas all day, and that sort of thing.
CB: When do you hope to get the book out, and what do you hope the book will accomplish?
Levitan: I don’t have a release date yet, unfortunately! “Not A Scientist” is intended to be a sort of playbook for how politicians get science wrong. It is organized around the types of rhetorical error or technique, with specific examples containing explanations of the science behind them. The idea is that a reader will start to hear how politicians consistently screw up scientific topics, whether intentionally or not; though the book discusses a lot of currently relevant science—climate change, vaccines, pollution, public health, basic science research—the techniques themselves could be applicable to whatever science becomes relevant in the future as well. Hopefully, readers will learn how to cut through the BS when it comes science, because there’s certainly enough of it out there.