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  • Reported Facebook fact-checking partner The Weekly Standard pushes Sarah Palin’s death panel lie

    Facebook fact-checker PolitiFact had designated the death panel myth 2009’s “lie of the year”

    Blog ››› ››› ALEX KAPLAN

    The Weekly Standard published a column pushing the debunked lie that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) includes “death panels” just days after a report surfaced that Facebook plans to enlist the conservative outlet as a fact-checker to fight fake news.

    On October 7, Quartz reported that Facebook was in talks with The Weekly Standard to become a fact-checker, helping to oversee pieces shared on the social media platform that have been flagged as possible fake news. If a deal is finalized, The Weekly Standard would join fact-checkers such as Snopes and PolitiFact, which joined when Facebook announced the initiative last December.

    For its upcoming October 23 magazine issue, The Weekly Standard published a piece by frequent contributor Wesley J. Smith of the right-wing Discovery Institute headlined “Death Panels: Sarah Palin Was Right.” The headline refers to a lie fabricated in 2009 by serial misinformer Betsy McCaughey and amplified by former Republoican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin that the Independent Payment Advisory Board (IPAB) system set up by the ACA would determine whether seniors and people with disabilities were worthy of care. The false claim was so notorious that PolitiFact, which is a partner on Facebook’s fake news initiative, deemed it its 2009 “Lie of the Year.” The Standard column claims without proof that the IPAB “could, one day, be weaponized to implement invidious medical discrimination mandates—e.g., health-care rationing.” The column also cites a 2012 New York Times op-ed from Steve Rattner, a former adviser to former President Barack Obama, as evidence that the IPAB could demand medical rationing. But in the actual op-ed, Rattner simply discussed forms of health care rationing he would prefer and laments that the ACA “regrettably includes severe restrictions” on rationing.

    This is not the first time the Standard and its writers have pushed misinformation. In February, the outlet appeared to fall victim to smears from fake news purveyors when it falsely accused a former National Security Council staffer of being a political Obama appointee. The Standard promoted the lie that Healthcare.gov stripped insurance customers of their right to privacy and mischaracterized comments made by proponents of health care reform. Its editor-in-chief, Stephen Hayes, wrote a book falsely claiming that Al Qaeda collaborated with Saddam Hussein, and its founder, William Kristol, was a major booster of the Iraq War and claimed that “we'll be vindicated when we discover the weapons of mass destruction and when we liberate the people of Iraq.” Kristol also played a major role in Palin’s selection as the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee. The magazine has also previously attacked PolitiFact's credibility; one of its writers attacked Facebook over its fact-checking program, labeling the fact-checkers as “a panel of censors” and complaining that they “cannot be trusted to be fair to conservatives.”

    Facebook’s attempt to bring in conservatives to help fight fake news is not objectionable in and of itself; indeed, researchers and experts have called on conservatives to help fight fake news, and the social media giant could certainly use help. But it is imperative that those partners be good-faith actors that do not push misinformation themselves. That The Weekly Standard would publish such a misleading column about something as thoroughly discredited as death panels is not an encouraging sign that it will help improve the accuracy of information shared on Facebook.

  • The Unscientific Model: "Academic Freedom's" Creationist Pedigree

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    Creation of AdamTo listen to the Discovery Institute, Tennessee's "academic freedom" law, which is based on Discovery Institute model legislation, has nothing to do with creationism or religion. "The bill includes a clear statement that it only applies to teaching science and does not protect teaching religion," wrote Casey Luskin, research coordinator at the institute's Center for Science and Culture, on March 20. "Don't expect that to satisfy critics, who will predictably ignore the actual language of the bill and falsely claim it would introduce religion in the classroom."

    It's difficult to take these denials seriously, though, given that the language of the model bill and its stated intention of promoting "academic freedom" trace their pedigrees through a series of court battles spanning several decades of creationist efforts to inject religion into public school science classes. The model bill is designed to obviate the legal hurdles raised by previous successful challenges to creationism in the classroom.

    The Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture promotes research into "intelligent design" (ID), which it defines as the theory that "certain features of the universe and of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause, not an undirected process such as natural selection." While they are careful to not use explicitly religious language when discussing ID, it is impossible to see the phrase "intelligent cause" and not think "God," or "Creationism." The teaching of creationism in public schools has been banned ever since Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in 1987. Intelligent design is essentially an attempt to dress up the core tenets of creationism as science in order to sneak it back into the classroom.

    That, at least, was the position of Judge John E. Jones of the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania when he issued his December 20, 2005, ruling in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, in which parents of public school children in Dover, Pennsylvania sued the school board for requiring that ID be taught alongside Darwinian evolution in science classes. In that ruling, Jones methodically dismantled that case for teaching ID as science, writing: "The overwhelming evidence at trial established that ID is a religious view, a mere re-labeling of creationism, and not a scientific theory."

  • The Unscientific Model

    Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY

    This past Tuesday, Tennessee governor Bill Haslam let become law a controversial "academic freedom" bill that protects teachers who want to "help[] students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught within the curriculum framework." The bill singles out "biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning" as examples of the scientific theories whose "weaknesses" are deserving of review.

    The inclusion of "biological evolution" should clue you in to what's going on here. The bill's supporters were primarily conservative Christian groups who prefer school children be taught explanations for human development that are less science-y and more Bible-friendly. Faced with daunting legal precedents that ban creationism and its mutant offspring from public schools, they're turning to slickly crafted proposals, like the new Tennessee law, to create an environment in which faith-based critiques of settled evolutionary science can safely creep into the classroom.

    One fact that was largely overlooked in the media coverage of the controversy over the Tennessee "academic freedom" bill was that it was based on model legislation crafted by the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that espouses the crypto-creationist theory of "intelligent design."