“TRUE: Mike Pence advocated for ‘conversion therapy'”
—Headline of a PolitiFact California fact check of a statement by California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, July 27, 2016
PolitiFact’s California franchise somehow mistakes no evidence at all for clear evidence, apparently conflating “sexual behavior” with “sexual orientation.”
On July 27 at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom attacked Republican vice-presidential candidate Mike Pence. Newsom called Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence the most anti-LGBT governor in America. Then he said Pence “advocated for diverting taxpayer dollars to so-called ‘conversion therapy.'”
We have an embedded video of the context thanks to CSPAN.
PolitiFact California published a fact check of Newsom’s claim about Pence on July 28, 2016, giving it a “True” rating.
What did Pence say?
PolitiFact used as its evidence part of Pence’s year 2000 campaign website, when Pence was running for a seat in the House of Representatives:
• Congress should support the reauthorization of the Ryan White Care Act only after completion of an audit to ensure that federal dollars were no longer being given to organizations that celebrate and encourage the types of behaviors that facilitate the spreading of the HIV virus. Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.
Our fact check will look at whether PolitiFact California’s rating was justified by PolitiFact’s standards. We will also consider whether some reasonable standard would justify the rating based on the available evidence.
Analyzing the Rhetoric
To explore whether Pence wanted public money used for conversion therapy, we need a working definition of “conversion therapy.” We can then use that definition to see whether Pence aptly described conversion therapy.
PolitiFact California performed this part of the fact check adequately, establishing a definition early in its fact check:
Conversion therapy is a controversial practice that seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation from gay to straight.
PolitiFact’s definition clarifies the key issue for this fact check: If “conversion therapy” seeks to change a person’s sexual orientation, does it count as “conversion therapy” to seek to change a person’s sexual behavior?
On the face of it, PolitiFact’s definition of “conversion therapy” does not at all fit Pence’s statement. Oddly, PolitiFact does not try to justify equating the two. PolitiFact seems to simply take it as given that trying to change one’s sexual behavior is “conversion therapy”:
When asked about the claim, Newsom’s spokesman pointed to Pence’s own words. During his first successful run for Congress in 2000, Pence wrote on his campaign website, under a section called Strengthening the American Family:
“Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
Also on the website, Pence wrote: “Congress should oppose any effort to put gay and lesbian relationships on an equal legal status with heterosexual marriage.” And “Congress should oppose any effort to recognize homosexual’s [sic] as a “discreet and insular minority” entitled to the protection of anti-discrimination laws similar to those extended to women and ethnic minorities.”
Our research found no evidence Pence has walked back his stance on public funding for conversion therapy.
We see PolitiFact’s third paragraph in the quote above as a tangent. PolitiFact goes straight from “change their sexual behavior” to the conclusion that Pence advocated support for organizations that help a person change their sexual orientation. The natural question, after PolitiFact announces that it found no evidence that Pence walked back his stance on public funding from conversion therapy, is “What stance on public funding for conversion therapy?”
PolitiFact makes the same big leap in its conclusion:
California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said Indiana Governor and Republican Vice Presidential candidate Mike Pence “advocated for diverting taxpayer dollars to so-called conversion therapy.”
Pence’s own words on his campaign website from 2000 make his stance, at least at the time, very clear: “Resources should be directed toward those institutions which provide assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior.”
Via Twitter, we asked Pence spokesman Marc Lotter to share the text of his response to PolitiFact California. We will update this item if we receive any response from Lotter.
Applying PolitiFact’s principles
We judge that PolitiFact failed to apply three of its own principles for fact-checking: respecting context, paying attention to the choice of words, and setting the burden of proof on the one making a claim.
The missing context
PolitiFact left out the context from Pence’s campaign website. PolitiFact readers who failed to do research on their own would have no idea that the Pence was talking specifically about funding under the Ryan White Care Act. The Act funds medical care for HIV+ persons. Do any HIV+ care providers also provide conversion therapy services?
Considering the context of Pence’s position on the Ryan White Care Act suggests he was looking to reduce behavior likely to spread AIDS. Perhaps he had in mind abstinence, as suggested by Timothy P. Carney. But perhaps the aim was merely to discourage risky sex, since celibacy barely qualifies as a sexual behavior. Without more information nobody other than Pence, including PolitiFact California, knows what he had in mind. We failed to find earlier comments from Pence to clarify his intent.
The choice of words
If “Words Matter” as PolitiFact’s principles proclaim, we should have expected this fact check to distinguish between “sexual orientation” and “sexual behavior.” PolitiFact California failed to spend a single word on the difference between the two terms. Words did not matter.
Burden of Proof
PolitiFact expects the one making a claim to give evidence in support. While that expectation counts as reasonable, basing a rating on the lack of evidence results in a logical fallacy. PolitiFact’s failure to find evidence backing Gavin Newsom’s claim ought to have resulted in a low rating under the burden of proof principle.
“Truth-O-Meter” aside, was Newsom’s claim true?
We are aware of no solid evidence that would support Newsom’s claim.
We considered using a more expansive definition of “conversion therapy” that included changing one’s sexual “expression.” However, a definition that wide breaks down when we consider that Pence’s comments applied to the Ryan White Care Act. Persons with HIV may have very good reasons for changing their sexual behaviors.
The lack of evidence does not make Newsom’s claim false, but what evidence we have suggests he made a false claim.
All our evidence comes from Pence’s campaign website, with no words calling for government spending to alter sexual orientation. The website only mentions changing “sexual behavior,” and then only when it was what the person wanted. We see no reasonable way to judge Newsom’s claim true.
While we will not issue a truth rating for PolitiFact California’s claim, we judge with high confidence that it failed to reasonably justify its conclusion. We will simply use our menu of icons to summarize some of the errors in PolitiFact’s reasoning. We could probably add to this list if PolitiFact had offered more detail in justifying its reasoning.
PolitiFact California omitted relevant context about the Ryan White Care Act. It committed a fallacy of ambiguity by somehow managing to equivocate between “sexual behavior” and “sexual orientation.”
Unless more evidence comes to light, we recommend concluding Mike Pence did not recommend conversion therapy under the Ryan White Care Act. The weight of the evidence supports that conclusion over Gavin Newsom’s alternative.
PolitiFact California fact checked poorly. Democrat Gavin Newsom benefited from PolitiFact’s poor work. Republican Mike Pence received unfair harm.
Nichols, Chris. “TRUE: Mike Pence Advocated for ‘conversion Therapy’“PolitiFact.com. Tampa Bay Times, 28 July 2016. Web. 29 July 2016.
“Mike Pence for Congress.” Mike Pence for Congress. The Mike Pence Committee, n.d. Web. 29 July 2016.
Carney, Timothy P. “Newsom Is Wrong, Pence Never Advocated Subsidizing Gay Conversion Therapy.” Washington Examiner. MediaDC, 28 July 2016. Web. 29 July 2016.
Adair, Bill, and Angie Drobnic Holan. “The Principles of PolitiFact, PunditFact, and the Truth-O-Meter.” PolitiFact. Tampa Bay Times, 01 Nov. 2013. Web. 29 July 2016.
“Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program Legislation.” HRSA.gov. Health Resources and Services Administration, n.d. Web. 29 July 2016.
“The Lies and Dangers of “Conversion Therapy”.”Human Rights Campaign. The Human Rights Campaign, n.d. Web. 29 July 2016.
“Conversion Therapy.” Southern Poverty Law Center. The Southern Poverty Law Center, n.d. Web. 29 July 2016.
Hey, been researching this today. This is a really good article. I was surprised at the politifact mistake, as I thought they were more thorough than that. Thanks for your levelheadedness and rigor.
Thanks, Paul. I’ve been meaning to do some sort of update to this article after finding some research on it at skeptics.stackexchange.com.
Though I haven’t thoroughly verified it, the researcher found evidence that Pence advocated something called the “ABC model” in helping to control the spread of AIDS: “Abstinence, Be faithful, and Consistent and Correct Condom use.”