Snopes’ ‘Mixture’ ruling on Mike Pence and ‘conversion therapy’

snopes-400x400“Mike Pence once supported the use of federal funding to treat people ‘seeking to change their sexual behavior.'”

—Snopes.com, from a fact check published on Oct. 27, 2016

 

Overview

Snopes’ fact check does too much to leave legs on a legless claim about Pence supporting the use of federal funds for gay “conversion therapy.”

 

Background Facts

Republican vice presidential candidate Mike Pence has supposedly advocated government funding for gay “conversion therapy.” The therapy is “designed to change one’s sexual orientation to heterosexual,” as GoodTherapy.org puts it.

Did Pence propose using federal funds on conversion therapy services? Snopes needs but three paragraphs to explore the question:

The allegation dates back to 2000, when Pence was running for Congress. His campaign web site at the time touted his call to add a stipulation to the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency (CARE) Act, a 1990 law providing funding for HIV/AIDS treatment for patients living with the disease lacking either the income or the necessary insurance to pay for it on their own:

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.

Although he didn’t say so outright, the position has been widely interpreted as signaling Pence’s support for “gay conversion” therapy, which seeks to “cure” patients of being attracted to members of the same sex.

 

Zebra Fact Check evaluated a PolitiFact California version of Pence and the “conversion therapy” issue back on July 29, 2016.  Like Snopes, we found that a statement on Pence’s old campaign website had led to the charge though Pence did not mention conversion therapy.

Despite the absence of “conversion therapy” from Pence’s statement, Snopes found it true that Pence supporting using federal money for programs designed to change sexual behavior, and thus issued a “Mixture” ruling on Pence supporting federal funding of conversion therapy.

In the next section, we will explain how and why our finding differs from the one Snopes reached, along with why our conclusion better follows the evidence.

Analyzing the Rhetoric

When Pence spoke of directing resources toward institutions offering assistance to those seeking to change their sexual behavior, what sexual behavior was he talking about?

We fault Snopes, as we did PolitiFact California, for ignoring the basic fact-finding procedure fact checkers use for figuring out the meaning of a statement: Look at the context.

While both Snopes and PolitiFact California provided the immediate context in their fact checks, neither wasted a word applying the context to the meaning of Pence’s statement. The first part of Pence’s statement, as quoted by Snopes, provides the strongest clue to Pence’s meaning (bold emphasis added):

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.

 

What types of behaviors facilitate the spread of HIV? Promiscuous and unprotected sex both help the spread of HIV. Research from the 1990s, before Pence was seeking office in 2000, showed that HIV+ patients often continued to engage in risky sex. Moreover, heterosexuals as well as homosexuals suffer HIV infections while continuing to practice risky sexual behavior.

The context strongly suggests Pence was talking about changing sexual behaviors to cut down on such things as unprotected and promiscuous sex. See the list of reference materials at the end of the article for information on HIV+ patients engaging in risky sexual behaviors. This tendency was known when Pence ran for Congress in 2000.

Parsing the words

Snopes calls it true that “Mike Pence once supported the use of federal funding to treat people ‘seeking to change their sexual behavior.'” The sentence from Snopes almost counts as a word-for-word paraphrase of what Pence published on his website. But Snopes makes a logical leap when it says Pence supported treatment for those seeking to change their sexual behavior. Snopes misleads by implying that the treatment is intended to change sexual behavior, not provide care to HIV+ patients.

The original context, as noted above, suggests Pence was saying federal funding for care of HIV+ patients through the Ryan White Care Act ought to flow to care groups that encourage patients to curtail risky sexual behavior.

Evaluating Snopes’ evidence

Snopes barely tops PolitiFact California in providing evidence that “change their sexual behavior” refers to conversion therapy. PolitiFact California offered no evidence at all. Snopes at least took the trouble to appeal to a logical fallacy (bold emphasis added):

Although he didn’t say so outright, the position has been widely interpreted as signaling Pence’s support for “gay conversion” therapy, which seeks to “cure” patients of being attracted to members of the same sex.

 

If the people widely interpreting “change their sexual behavior” as “conversion therapy” offered some reason to back their conclusion so that Snopes could share that rationale with its readers, we might take this justification seriously. But without any specific rationale justifying the popular conclusion, the reasoning simply counts as the fallacy of argumentum ad populum, also known as the bandwagon fallacy.

We should also question how widely the conclusion was accepted. We found no mainstream news source, not counting PolitiFact California, suggesting that conclusion. A Google search restricted to the years before 2015 turned up nothing, suggesting that connecting Pence to “conversion therapy” has an origin much more recent than the public statement that supposedly justifies the charge.

Fact checkers should support their conclusions with better evidence than the bandwagon fallacy.

Reckless deck

We particularly object to the deck material Snopes elected to place under the attention-grabbing headline of its fact check:

snopes-converstion-therapy-deckThe “Shock Treatment” title refers, as Snopes points out in the article, to conversion therapy methods from decades past. The deck below the title suggests it is true that Pence called for funding “‘institutions’ working to enable people to ‘change their sexual behavior.'” The scare quotes around “institutions” help pull Pence’s statement out of context. The “institutions” in question were those receiving funding through the Ryan White Care Act to provide services for HIV+ patients.

Without the context of the Ryan White Care Act, Snopes’ deck material serves to mislead its audience about Pence’s proposal.

Conclusion

The Snopes fact check fails to materially add to the evidence PolitiFact California adduced in support of its conclusion that Mike Pence advocated using public funds to pay for conversion therapy treatments. Neither fact checker supplies any argument remotely supporting that conclusion.

“Mike Pence once supported the use of federal funding to treat people ‘seeking to change their sexual behavior.'”

False statement icon FallacyIcon Ambiguity icon Out of Context

In the context of Snopes’ “conversion therapy” fact check, we find it clear that Snopes implies Pence supported federal funding for treatment geared toward changing people’s sexual behavior. That finding has no reasonable support in the evidence and ignores context supporting a different interpretation.

Snopes’ brief fact check relies on and encourages fallacies of ambiguity. It trades treatment of HIV for treatment of “sexual behavior” and hints that “change their sexual behavior” may well mean “conversion therapy” in spite of contrary evidence.

Perhaps Mike Pence supports using federal funds to pay for conversion therapy. But the evidence Snopes used to address the question offers no reasonable support for that conclusion.

 

Reference Materials

Garcia, Arturo. “Mike Pence Supported ‘Gay Conversion’ Therapy?Snopes. Snopes, 26 Oct. 2016. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Conversion Therapy.” GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog. GoodTherapy.org, 23 Sept. 2016. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

White, Bryan W. “Conversion Therapy, Mike Pence and PolitiFact California.” Zebra Fact Check. Zebra Fact Check, 29 July 2016. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Kevles, Daniel J. “A Culture of Risk.” Nytimes.com. The New York Times, 25 May 1997. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

McGowan, Joseph P., Sanjiv S. Shah, Camelia E. Ganea, Steve Blum, Jerome A. Ernst, Kathleen L. Irwin, and And Noemi Olivo. “Risk Behavior for Transmission of Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) among HIV-Seropositive Individuals in an Urban Setting.” Clinical Infectious Diseases. Oxford University Press, Feb. 2001. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Ciesla, Jeffrey A., John E. Roberts, and Ross G. Hewitt. “Adult Attachment and High-Risk Sexual Behavior Among HIV-Positive Patients.” Wiley Online Library. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Jan. 2004. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Prevention for Positives: Case 1: Discussion.” HIV Web Study. University of Washington, n.d. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Flickinger, Tabor E., Stephen Berry, P. Todd Korthuis, Somnath Saha, M. Barton Laws, Victoria Sharp, Richard D. Moore, and Mary Catherine Beach. “Counseling to Reduce High-Risk Sexual Behavior in HIV Care: A Multi-Center, Direct Observation Study.” AIDS Patient Care and STDs. Mary Ann Liebert, Inc., July 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

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